Sunday, February 08, 2009

Conservatives, Liberals, Empiricism

Much of political rhetoric these days is gross caricature, but the belief of many conservatives that "liberals" can be reduced definitionally to being blind supporters of a "cradle-to-grave welfare state" has always struck me as particularly outlandish and particularly false. As Jon Chait talks about here, in regard to the stimulus debate, liberals may and often do support bigger government as a means to an end, but never as end in itself. Asked to define themselves, liberals will never start by professing their strong ideological commitment to big government and more welfare. To put it another way, you would never see a Democratic party platform talk about needing to expand government the way Republican platforms since 1980 have talked about shrinking government.

People are self-serving, and political ideologues are especially self-serving. So should liberals be allowed to define what they themselves stand for, knowing these definitions are (necessarily) subjective? I'm not sure I know the answer. But I do know that if conservatives want to be permitted to define their own values (a self-definition of "favoring smaller government" might be alternatively defined by some liberals as "contempt for poor people who benefit from government programs") they should allow liberals to do the same.