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“Freedom Conservatives” vs. Freedom

Ben Smith’s taxonomy for conservatives is something of a mess:

I propose replacing the messy old terminology with a simple new vocabulary, one that has evolved organically, which has deep and consistent intellectual roots, no pejorative implications, and which political leaders use effortlessly and without reflecting. The division that will define the Republican Party for the next decade is the split between Liberty Conservatives and Freedom Conservatives.

I appreciate the desire to find more neutral labels to describe different groups of conservatives, but these seem to muddle things more than they clarify. After all, in what sense are “freedom conservatives” particularly interested in freedom? They invoke it quite often in their rhetoric, but the same can be said for many kinds of political groups. It would be fair to say that the people Smith refers to this way are big fans of freedom as an abstraction and they like using the word as a rhetorical device, but they regularly favor policies that infringe on and curtail it in practice. Smith seems to acknowledge as much when he says that “Freedom Conservatives back the aggressive security measures and, relatedly, oppose the spending cap.” In other words, the “freedom conservatives” typically favor increased power for the federal government in the name of national security, they are normally resistant to any reductions in the military budget (which is the main reason they dislike sequestration), and they are less alarmed by the accumulation of large amounts of government debt through overspending and unfunded expansions of government liabilities. There are a number of ways to describe this position (some of them used to identify themselves simply as “big-government conservatives”), but what this has to do with freedom is anyone’s guess. At best, they are strong supporters of using force overseas in the name of freedom, but the fate of the countries that have been “liberated” in this way has tended to give freedom a bad name.

It’s not just a matter of bad foreign policy results. Most so-called “freedom conservatives” are hostile to any relaxation of the drug war or reduction in the penalties for drug use. Smith claims that the other group, so-called “liberty conservatives,” are more concerned with “pernicious social trends of the last century,” but this is also far too broad and misleading a generalization. Consider the example of Rick Santorum. According to these definitions, he would be considered a “freedom conservative” of a sort, but there is almost no one more adamantly anti-libertarian on social and cultural issues than he is. These labels don’t help to explain the differences between these conservative groups, and one of them is a name that is entirely undeserved and also happens to be a blatant misrepresentation of what they believe.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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