The Blegging Bowl 3

by David Frum

Another fundamental objection to my proposed mission statement for conservative reform is that it is not libertarian enough. One reader offered this alternative statement:

Conservatives believe our central purpose is to promote freedom; we do this by promoting individual liberty, supporting the division of powers through Federalism, reducing government to the lowest level necessary, and supporting free markets while keeping taxes low.

No question: conservatives do believe those things. I believe them too, and they are at the core of my draft mission statement. But they cannot be all we believe, or else we end up turning our backs on questions of vital concern to fellow-citizens, from the environment to terrorism.

Two other things need to be considered as well:

1) In a globalizing economy, the free market distributes rewards increasingly unequally. I wrote about this in an article published two summers ago:

Inequality within nations is rising in large part because inequality is declining among nations. A generation ago, even a poor American was still better off than most people in China. Today the lifestyles of middle-class Chinese increasingly approximate those of middle-class Americans, while the lifestyles of upper and lower America increasingly diverge. Less-skilled Americans now face hundreds of millions of new wage competitors, while highly skilled Americans can sell their services in a worldwide market.

Those potential losers from a globalized free market are voters too. If they get the idea that freedom is not delivering for them, then freedom's political basis becomes shaky.

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2) This divide between winners and losers may explain something otherwise baffling about the way conservatives talk about freedom. The United States is a vastly freer country in 2010 than it was a generation ago. Yet when you talk to libertarian-minded people, and with the rare exceptions of a Brink Lindsey or a Virginia Postrel, what you usually hear is a lament for a vanished better past.

You can argue that they are wrong, remind them that we used to have a draft and airline regulations and bans on private ownership of gold. Or you can listen for the truth underneath the mistake - and understand that while people want government limited, they also want society to work. And if they feel their society used to work better, it's cold consolation to tell them that at least the government now does less.