Modern conservatism and right-wing ideology in the United States in particular and North America in general often defines itself by its devotion to liberty. For many, I imagine, this is meant honestly. But it is wrong, nevertheless.
For a long time, conservatism has not been defined by a devotion to liberty but as a desire for control. When that was limited to control over the self, its parallel to liberalism was inescapable. Control over the self is the flip-side of the coin of freedom, and people who have no control over themselves understandably desire it.
It began with the desire for control over oneself, the twin to freedom from control at their most basal. But as ideology grew from that fundamental core, it grew in twisted ways defined by its starting point. It is the reason modern American conservatives are, at best, playing footsies with fascism and why a movement that talks endlessly about freedom can be so profoundly opposed to it. Modern right-wing ideology is not concerned with liberty, and anyone saying that it is is wrong. It’s about control. Control over one’s life, one’s destiny, onto one’s interaction with government, onto society.
It’s the reason conservatives feel comfortable saying things like protesters should have their right to vote taken away; why ostensibly law-and-order conservatives suddenly have a rabid hatred for law enforcement agencies like the FBI and a love for agencies like ICE; why the president can be a villain when he’s black and a hero when he’s white; why a lawbreaker who acts in defiance of the Constitution can draw praise, rather than scorn, from conservatives; and countless other examples. A man being murdered by the government should’ve been a call to arms for organizations like the NRA. But when George Floyd was killed, it wasn’t. Among suburban conservatives, the main topic to be discussed isn’t police brutality but their displeasure at the riots. Protests against citizens being killed by the government are being met with disgust at the fact that windows are being broken and businesses looted. If there is a more egregious example of people deliberately avoiding the point, I am not aware of one.
It is the definition of freedom through slavery: absolute control. Enslaved to an idealized vision of society grounded only in what is familiar, conservatism must fight constantly against the tide and natural processes to preserve itself in its pristine state.
But modern right-wing ideology is fruit from that poisoned tree, and the modern liberal must be cognizant of that. A philosophy predicated on individual freedom and liberty must have as its most fundamental precept freedom from restraint, not control over oneself per se, and this is why.
What is the difference? It might be mere semantics, you wonder. What is the difference between control over one’s life and freedom from control by others?
It’s small, to be sure. At this neonatal stage of ideological development, the differences are subtle. But they are distinct ideas. And the difference cannot be lost on anyone who believes in liberalism.
At core, asserting control is not necessarily bad. If someone else is attempting to assert control over you, it may even be necessary; black communities have certainly found themselves in that position before. In the presence of a powerful, unpredictable, and dangerous external force (the police), asserting control over their own community and affairs has often been a necessity.
But the fundamental premise of liberalism is the unpredictability of freedom. The liberal takes it as a given that he is arguing not for society to look a particular way but that it be given the freedom to grow as its people see fit. That is to say, the liberal argues for rules that free people. Though that sounds like a contradiction, it isn’t. Just as the Ancient Greeks argued that the rule of law freed people from the arbitrary whims of kings, so too do rules free societies. Generally, if the rules are limited and only say what you can’t do, you are free to do anything else that comes to mind not included. If the rules are prescriptive and invasive, the bounds of your behavior are defined.
This is where the philosophy of control diverges. Fundamentally, the conservative wishes to retain things how they were. That is, by definition, an effort to restrict change. Where it supports liberty, it does so arbitrarily, because liberty was once the norm (while that is unquestionably not the case for everyone in the U.S. or Canada, given the respective histories of slavery and genocide of First Nations respectively, liberty was nevertheless a keyword of the historical American zeitgeist).
Conservatism, meanwhile, is always fighting a losing battle. Pressure builds and builds and builds, and increasing amounts of energy are needed to resist change. Hence the rage, bizarrely disproportionate, to the breaking of windows and looting of stores. Sure, it’s *bad* that people are breaking things. But to threaten people with murder by the military for it, as the president of the United States did, and as certain Senate candidates hoped for? Not merely disturbing, it is genuinely bizarre.
There is another reason for the seemingly disproportionate rage. All entities must place their survival above everything else. That which persists has done so because its survival was given eminence when there was no other choice. It’s the principle that gives energy to evolution. It also gives energy to the cries of protest against the protests. It is the state crying out in defense at what it perceives as a threat to its life. In other words, everyone who is a mouthpiece for it is arguing for the survival of the government against the survival of its citizens. But the citizenry has no reason to do so. We would survive the death of this government.
If you consider yourself a conservative but are uncomfortable or disturbed at why people who ostensibly believe in the security of the person against the state, are vocal supporters of the Second Amendment, or otherwise seem to support the cause of liberty are suddenly oh-so comfortable with calling for government retribution against peaceful protest or support the government murdering its citizens, this is why.
Conversely, if the protests make you angry and feel like the country is spiralling out of control, this is why. You don’t actually want liberty. You want control. Over yourself, your society, what you expect to see when you walk out your door.
Control is the goal: law & order. People who are talking about the looting of stores and not the killing of black Americans or racism in general aren’t making a mistake. They are talking about what they are more concerned about.
But the liberal supports liberty as a first principle. The liberal accepts that the society of the future will be shaped by many more people than just him. He accepts that its shape is unknowable. The only point on which he will not compromise on is the means by which that society is shaped, namely: It must be shaped equitably by its citizens and their individual choices, not by “men of system.”
Though this sounds unselfish (perhaps sentimentally so), it is not. The liberal argues for freedom for all because he also knows that is the only unimpeachable argument for his own freedom. Grant a concession here or there and he puts himself at risk. In this way the philosophy is lent resilience; arguments against one’s own self-interest inevitably become less and less attractive.
Control is reductionistic. It seeks to reduce all options to as few as possible. It narrows the field as much as it can. Fundamentally, liberalism is a guideline to progress and expansion. It looks around at the world and wonders what can be done to improve it. It takes as a given that things can be improved, that the way things are need not be how things always are. It does so with hope and humility, knowing that the shape of things to come cannot always be known.
There have been calls to defund, reduce, or even abolish the police. Minneapolis did just that. Is that the right move? I don’t know. I’m white and Canadian. My experience with the police is profoundly different. But I am a liberal, and I have no sacred cows. I don’t take it as a given that there will always be a police force. I don’t take anything about my society as a given, save only that it should be shaped by those in it. That is my only uncompromising position. Anything else can be assessed on its merits.