I hear a lot of people talk about how there is no real difference between democrats and republicans. I’ve probably said it a few times myself. Most people have some sort of qualifier that tries to explain what they mean, “Sure, they talk very differently while campaigning, but when they get to Washington they do very similar things.” Guilty. On paper there is a good basis for this opinion, but that doesn’t change the fundamental differences between the two philosophies. This is, in fact, the very argument that drove me away from the Republican Party into the awaiting arms of the libertarian philosophy. I’m going to try to explain where the two parties are different and where they are the same and why it barely matters when it comes right down to it.
Before I begin let’s get this out of the way, there is a difference between being a liberal or conservative and being a democrat or republican. Liberalism and conservatism are philosophies, and democrat and republican are political parties. It just so happens that liberalism is currently associated with the Democratic Party, and conservatism is currently associated with the Republican Party. I say this because I may compare the philosophies, but in the end it’s the parties that really run things. So I apologize if I use the terms interchangeably sometimes. In a perfect world the philosophy would dictate the values of the party, but it doesn’t always seem to work out that way.
Political philosophies are a system of values and government that express the idea of the ideal world that the holder of those philosophies would like to live in. In this sense, both liberalism and conservatism have an economic and a social aspect to their way of thinking. Both use the government as a way to enforce those belief systems. Where they differ is in exactly what those beliefs are and in which areas of our lives that the government should be in control of.
In general, liberalism prefers a large central government where individuals have less economic freedom but more social freedom. This means the individual is less important than the collective group as a whole. Less economic freedom means more taxes so more of people money is taken from them so that it can be given to others who are in need. More social freedom means that there are fewer rules regarding personal behavior and people with less are given some of the money collected from others so that they may enjoy their lives a little more.
In general, conservatism prefers a smaller central government where individuals have more economic freedom but less social freedom. This means the individual is more important than the collective group as a whole. More economic freedom means fewer taxes going to the government giving the individual more control over what he or she earns. Less social freedom means that in order to have a well behaved society the behavior of people is regulated based on the moral values of the people elected.
So far this has been mostly academic, how about something a little more descriptive. I’m going to use the analogy of insurance to illustrate a basic difference between the two philosophies, and I apologize in advance that I couldn’t think of a better one, but this one fits so well I can’t help it. In the world of insurance, there are concepts called “all peril” and “named peril” as it relates to coverage. “All peril” means everything is covered unless it is specifically excluded from the policy. “Named peril”, means there is a specific list of things that are covered and everything else is excluded. This analogy relates to political philosophy in that if you take an action but are unsure if it is legal or not, a conservative would ask, “Is this illegal?”, and a liberal would ask, “Is this legal?” It seems like a small difference but it’s not.
Liberalism takes the “named peril” approach to life. This means that every action we take has to be approved by the government or it’s deemed illegal. Everything we buy, sell or do must adhere to guidelines set forth by the federal government. From the time you wake up in the morning on the mattress approved by the government, to your morning pee in your government approved toilet, to your government approved private sector job, to the government approved kitchen that makes your fast food drive-thru meal, to the government approved construction features of your government approved home. In this sense, it is plainly obvious that the greater social freedom you feel with the liberal philosophy is an illusion, because the behavior in question was just added to the approved list, it’s not really freedom at all. A kind dictator is still a dictator. You might be able to tell, but I’m not a fan.
Conservatism, then, takes the “all peril” approach to life. This philosophy opts to list things that are illegal and deems everything else legal. On the surface this seems to be conducive with a truly free society, and I believe it is. This is why I was a republican for most of my adult life. The problem arises when the list of what is illegal things gets longer and longer. For instance, very few people would not put murder on the “illegal” list, but I’m sure less would put buying beer on Sunday there. Having less social freedom means that other people dictate the morals of the individual and society as a whole.
So far I’ve spent a lot of time showing the differences, let’s look at why they are similar. Enter the parties. The Democratic Party is the organizational and enforcement tool for the liberal philosophy. They are there to make sure that everyone adheres to the laws voted on by the people we elect to represent us. The Republican Party does the same thing for the conservatives. What seems to happen when our elected officials get to Washington is that the list of illegal things for the republicans is long enough to match or exceed the list of legal things made by the democrats. For instance, it was the republicans under President Nixon who started OSHA. It was a republican administration under President Bush (43) that raised our national debt by over 5 trillion. These things would be normally thought of as liberal. It was a democratic administration under President Clinton that signed welfare reform into law which is seemingly more a conservative action. The truth is that there are far more examples of republicans acting like democrats than the other way around. It might be less accurate to say that there is no difference between the parties, and more accurate to say that republicans act more like democrats when they are elected.
In contrast to all this, let’s take a look at libertarianism. Libertarianism is strictly a political philosophy and not a social one. This differs from both liberals and conservatives while mirroring parts of both. First, most libertarians agree with the conservative notion of limited government, but to an even greater extent. It’s definitely an “all peril” philosophy. The “greater extent” comes into play because there is no social construct where the government acts as enforcer. This mimics the social freedom that liberals like. The difference is that it is actual freedom in the “all peril” sense. There is no list of legal behavior. This is true freedom. Those social decisions are made by the communities where people have to live and work. Liberals don’t like libertarians because there is no government control over our actions. Conservatives don’t like libertarians because there is no government control over our actions. They can bicker about which actions they hate, but in the end does it really matter? Food for thought.