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Commentary: Conservative or liberal? The tyranny of labels

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2010 - For most of my adult life, I considered myself a conservative, in both politics and economics. Usually those views coincided with the policies espoused by the Republican Party, at least more so than the Democratic Party. Any more, I am not so sure.

The Republicans are enamored with the Tea Party movement. Under the guise of some historical connection, it really amounts to a further swing of the party to its conservative base. Recent election results, especially from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, have been hyped as Tea Party successes, adding further momentum to the Limbaugh-Palin takeover of the party.

But just what is the Tea Party movement all about? The common perception is that the archetypal Tea Partier is against taxes and big government. Nobody likes to pay taxes, so this promotes popular support. And the fact is that really big government is demonstrably inefficient in delivering public goods and services.

But no taxes? No government? That seems a bit extreme. And especially ironic when a fairly substantial segment of the movement directly benefits from the government, whether it is earning a living (Palin was the governor, after all), receiving monthly social welfare checks (aka Social Security) and will enjoy longer, healthier lives due to Medicare.

While I refuse to drink the Tea Party Kool-Aid, what do Democrats offer? They have become the Populist Party reincarnated. The politics and economics from the turn of the last century show many striking similarities. Trust-busting was as popular then as busting up the big banks is today.

Following the financial fiascos of the past few years, the Democrats want "the man" to suffer. During my youth "the man" was government and any big corporation. Today the Democrats merely want to grow the size of government to act as the countervailing power to corporations. Oddly, this position seems somehow shared by Tea Partiers and Democrats alike.

So, Republican or Democrat? Conservative or liberal? My nagging uncertainty led me back to an article written 50 years ago by Frederick A. Hayek. A noted social philosopher and Nobel Prize laureate in economics, the apt title of Hayek's piece is "Why I am not a Conservative."

Hayek argued that conservatives and liberals alike are more concerned with who wields the power of government than with how the power of government should be used. Recent events emboldened supporters for a bigger government. In times of economic and social stress, we tend to look to government for help.

As the economy recovers, our collective suspicion over ceding more power to the government will re-engage. The difficulty is that once government gains power, it is impossible to rein it in. That is something to worry about. A larger government bureaucracy means increased inefficiencies in provision of government services. More important, Hayek viewed it as a inexorable reduction in our freedom to make private choices.

Conservative leaders seem to believe that their values ought to be imposed on others. Hayek rejected this. From reproductive rights to immigration to globalization, today's conservatives have an answer that they wish to impose it on everyone. And while they oppose government intervention, they are only too willing to use the power of government to impose their values.

I am a liberal in the "liberal" tradition of Madison, Locke and Acton, more recently Hayek and Friedman. Government, whether under the control of Democrats or Republications, the New Left or the Tea Party, must not be used to compel one set of beliefs on anyone else. The competition of ideas, not reliance on old canards or those from self-appointed guardians of the truth, is the foundation of freedom.

R.W. Hafer is the distinguished research professor and chair in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a research fellow at the Show-Me Institute.

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute.