Originally published in Wave Network online, February 2005
It has never been more obvious than today that the traditional left-right spectrum of political discourse is inapt to describe current controversies. It may be admitted that there are three basic values which seem to represent the cornerstones of this political architecture: ‘Equality’ as the keynote of the left, ‘Order’ as the ideal of the right – with ‘Liberty’ arranged somewhere in between, if mainly for historical reasons. However, the relationship between these ideal values is far from obvious or even lost in obscurity. Things are made more complex by the fact that each political group will typically claim all of these values for itself while giving special emphasis to its ‘core’ belief. Thus followers of the left, for example, will not feel any self-contradiction in supporting equality, liberty and order at the same time, but in cases of conflict they will make equality prevail over the other two principles. All of this means that a classification of political groups according to a left-right dichotomy will only present a rough sketch of the debate – a blurred picture instead of an unequivocal classification.
Yet, habitualized as politics is, this left-right thinking has now been with us since the early 19th century. In one way, one could even argue that it is more relevant than ever as it has become the fertile mother of a variety of political concepts: It is possible to find oneself on the left in environmental policy, in the centre of immigration policy and on the right of economic policy – all for the same person, simultaneously. It is the tragic of such differentiation that liberty has come to be seen as something divisible. To illustrate this with an example: Those who regard themselves as the political left will oppose economic freedom while at the same time opposing restrictions on the individual’s social liberty. However, this game of dividing liberty into ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ liberties is utterly schizophrenic. Imagine a state in which all individuals were free to do whatever they wished except for the freedom to choose their religion. Who would call this a free society? Or imagine a state in which the individuals could do everything except disposing freely of their property. Again, no one would call these individuals free. The right to live one’s life according to one’s own wishes, ideas and desires would be voided by the restriction of their economic activities. The quintessence of the above is simple: Liberty is indivisible.
With this first insight goes a second one: The opposite of liberty is not equality, but coercion. To the so-called left this is far from clear. They tend to believe that individuals must first be made equal (or at least less unequal) in order for them to be materially free. What they do not see is the dilemma that in order to alleviate inequality there has to be a reciprocal sacrifice of other individuals’ freedom. In order to give to some you first have to take from others. A deliberate attempt to achieve equality through redistribution must therefore infringe on their liberties.
But how does ‘order’ relate to this indivisible liberty? By itself, order stands for relatively little as it does not indicate where it originates. Where some followers of the right, who are also supportive of liberty in general terms, tend to believe that it must come from the state, they are committing a serious error not dissimilar to the errors of the left. Yet again, liberty is the indivisible principle which will be lost in the process of order turning into an authoritarian dictate.
To the true conservative, therefore, who is committed to order and liberty, there should be no doubt about the source of order, and that is liberty itself. Classical liberals seem to have understood this lesson far better than most of today’s conservatives. They realize that a free society will not be a chaotic one, but one that is characterized by evolved, stable institutions such as the family, custom, property rights, law and religion. Through their support for these institutions of a free society, classical liberals may in practice appear conservative. But their kind of conservatism cannot be grasped within the traditional left-right scheme because it is a conservatism that is founded in liberty, not order.
The real question in modern politics is thus not one of left or right. Rather, it is the question of free or unfree, of liberty or coercion. It is my contention that true conservatism will only prosper and thrive if conservatives turn to the ideas of classical liberalism. At a point when today’s classical liberals are becoming more and more conservative, it is time that conservatives rediscover their liberal roots and realize the order of indivisible liberty.