Liberals, Conservatives, and ideology

by Russ Roberts on November 11, 2011

in Truth-seeking & ideology

Carl Bogus, a self-avowed liberal read a bunch of conservative books and came to some strange conclusions. (HT: MR)

First, his list of canonical conservative books:

There is, of course, no official list. But I think there is a consensus that at least half a dozen books deserve such a designation. In chronological order, they are: F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944), William F. Buckley Jr., God and Man at Yale (1951), Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952), Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953), Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), and Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism (1962) (sic).

What did he learn?

One striking difference is that the iconic conservative works are about ideology. By contrast, the most influential liberal books of the era are about policy issues. Those works are Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Other America by Michael Harrington (1962), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), and Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965), which helped launch the environmental, anti-poverty, feminist, and consumer movements, respectively. Some prominent liberal books of the time were about ideology — such as The Vital Center by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (1949) and The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith (1958) — but these are exceptions to the rule.

This is a bizarre conclusion. I only know two of the “conservative” books, The Road to Serfdom and Capitalism and Freedom. Neither book is about ideology. They are both about policy. I suspect the rest are ideological because they are iconic conservative books, ergo, they are about being conservative, ergo about ideology. But then Bogus comes up with an even weirder observation:

Conservatives have big appetites for ideology; liberals don’t. There are, of course, taxonomies of conservative schools of thought. People on the right classify themselves as libertarians, neoconservatives, social conservatives, traditional conservatives, and the like, and spill oceans of ink defining, debating, and further subdividing these schools of thought. There is no parallel taxonomy on the left.

Really? Communist vs. socialist? Stalinist vs. Leninist vs. Trotskyite? But by the phrase “on the left” Bogus presumably means “liberals” under current American political usage. So Michael Moore and Paul Krugman and Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben and Bill Clinton all have the same ideology? If that’s true, what is that ideology? Maybe Bogus is saying that all they care about is solving problems and they share an ideology that the best way to solve them is use government. Is there much nuance about that among contemporary American liberals? I don’t know–maybe they don’t name their differences the way conservatives do. Or maybe if you think that many problems are best solved from the top-down there isn’t much room for nuance about how to describe it.



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