Liberal vs. conservative activism

As I have said in this post, I believe that the future of activism depends on bringing various groups together, finding common ground, and making a few compromises along the way.

So, I have been thinking then about finding the common ground between liberal and conservative activists. And to be able to find a common ground I had to first define what separates these two groups. Below is my best guess about the essence of liberal/left-wing and conservative/right-wing activism:

Left-wing activism: Government is the solution. We need better regulations and put in charge the right people to implement them.

Right-wing activism: Government is the problem. We need less regulations because only powerful people have enough means to jump through their hoops, which creates a system rigged against the little guy.

Add to this political corruption and you get even more unfair system, in which people with enough influence and resources can get preferential regulation and treatment from the government.

Anacharsis, a philosopher from the 6th century BC, said something very similar:

“Written laws are like spiders’ webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.”

Left-wing activists want to make spider web stronger, so that bigger flies could also be caught. Conversely, right-wing activists want to make spider web weaker and thus level the playing field.

The above are primarily observations about the outlook on the economic issues; many right-wingers have a different view on government regulation concerning moral and social issues. For example, they may be in favor of free market, but simultaneously support a state ban on marijuana. (Libertarians, though, are more or less consistently against any government regulation).


I can somewhat understand right-wing position, because I believe that having a bad regulation is usually worse than having no regulation at all. However, I still think that a good regulation can in fact be the best option most of the time.

scaleConsider this analogy: if you want to weight two objects it is helpful to have an accurate scale. However, it is incredibly unhelpful if your scale is rigged. Indeed, you would be better off if you had no scale at all – that way you wouldn’t get false figures and you could still weight the objects by hand and roughly tell which is heavier.

So, the catch with government regulation is that it is incredibly difficult to foresee if a particular regulation will have a positive effect or not, and even small details can make a huge difference in the end. As they say, the devil is in the detail.

Since the effects of regulating certain activities are so unpredictable, we have to be prepared to constantly evaluate all regulations and adjust them through trial-and-error. And in some cases we may find that the best option is indeed to have no regulations in that particular field. In other cases we may be able to find a good one. Therefore I subscribe to neither the left-wing nor to right-wing way; I believe that the best option is to decide on a case by case basis.

The success or failure of a particular regulation depends on the nature of incentives and disincentives that are introduced to society with this regulation. And in some cases, or to some extent, the natural incentives of a free market may prove to be better than anything government could come up with.


I don’t know if this can be a common ground for liberals and conservatives – the notion that we generally can’t make a priori assumptions on whether a government regulation will be good or bad. The details of any regulation and its implementation will determine whether it will turn out to be a good or a bad one, but we can hardly predict an outcome, if at all. It is therefore desirable to enact disparate solutions in different jurisdictions, observe the results, and adjust as needed.

Honestly, I doubt that this will convince many people, but I had to express my beliefs. I still hope that some other, more practical common ground between liberal and conservative activism will be found. Personally, I’m out of ideas – the split between them seems insurmountable. However, if you have any helpful suggestions, please leave a comment below.

Posted on March 19, 2014, in Social change and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice article. Thanks.

    Reading it, I just have one concern:

    As you say, people with power are more able to avoid the law.

    If you loosen the laws (state control), people with power gain even more advantage, because they can use all of their power for their interests (while in a state with more stringent laws, they can not use all of their power or have to use part of their power to avoid the law, hide their activities etc.). Their advantage is then, of course, used also to influence governments and remove the competition (this is, people with less power).

    Proof? Statistics show, that in the states with less regulated economy (USA, UK compared to France, Germany, Sweden), bigger share of GDP growth goes to the hands of the most powerful. There is a BBC documentary about that issue:

    Some people argue, that strong governments lead to dictatorships. I believe that is wrong. Dictators are above countries, so dictatorships imply weak countries. Strong country would prevent an individual to gather as much power, to rise above the law.

    I believe the stance that we should “free ourselves from country’s oppresion” is naive. If the state does not seize the power, others will! The stance of freedom if often propagated by the very ones who are already doing exactly that.

    On the other hand, I agree with your reasoning, that we (especially politicians) are not always smart enough to create reasonable regulations. But that doesn’t mean that they should stop trying. After all, sometimes they succeed.

    • Hello, Janez!

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      I agree with you when you say “if the state does not seize the power, others will”. That’s why I’m not an anarchist or even an advocate of a minimal state. I believe that the state has essential functions in a society.

      However, the fact is that many right-wingers (and especially free market libertarians) are deeply frustrated with the government. And they have a good point when they say that the state power is often misused. They believe that any political system is eventually corrupted – hijacked by special interest groups who capture the power of the state for their own benefit. So, naturally, they don’t want the state to have a lot of power, because the more power it has, the greater damage it can then do.

      Here is a quote from a documentary that you linked (at 15:10 mark):

      “…this extraordinary accumulation of wealth at the top, isn’t just about hard work; it’s about wealthy interests using a political system to rig the rules in their favor.”

      That’s the hallmark of a crony capitalism – using a political system to rig the rules in your favor. In that respect, I can understand why libertarians talk about the need of having a free market.

      Personally, I don’t believe that a free market is the answer, though. Government has to regulate activities that cause collective harm (externalities), such as environmental pollution. And I support public education and healthcare, and basic social security.

      But, we should at least try to understand the position of others who have a different opinion. That’s what this article was mainly about: to present both liberal and conservative position and to seek a common ground (which, sadly, I didn’t find much of it).

  2. I completely agree that the government today is stalled because of partisanship, and I also believe that the only way to have a properly functioning government is to bridge the divide between parties. I think there is common ground to be found in the fundamental definitions of left-wing and right-wing, but it seems increasingly that members of Congress and other governmental bodies define their parties by their opposition to the other party, which is very frustrating. The divide between the fundamental platform of a party and that party’s current added-on social values is also one that greatly confuses the issue. Right-wing proponents are against big government and state power, but simultaneously want to pass legislation that controls women’s bodies, access to healthcare, and other aspects of life necessary for a free, functioning state. Lack of legislation can just as easily lead to injustice as the presence of strong legislation, in my opinion.

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective.

      I’m glad you mentioned partisan bickering. I guess it won’t go away as long as voters reward politicians that make their career by demonizing the other party, instead of working together with their political opposition to find pragmatic solutions, that could work in the real world.

      The way out of current situation is to put pragmatism over ideological purity, and that shift has to first be made by the voters. As citizens living in a democratic society we have no one else to blame but ourselves.

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