Thursday, July 03, 2008

Conservatives versus the Nolan Chart

The Nolan Chart defines a conservative as someone who advocates economic liberty but also advocates government regulation of civil matters. Is that definition accurate? Within the context of the chart it is certainly accurate but does a modern American conservative hold the same beliefs?

The problem with the Nolan Chart is that modern American conservatives do not necessarily hold those beliefs. As discussed in Liberalsim, Conservatism, and Libertarianism a there are several factions all sharing the label "conservative", and only one of them is strong on economic liberty. Other schools show general disinterest, and a couple of schools favor government involvement in the economy. Mercantilism is not capitalism, and advocates for mercantilism are not the same as advocates for the free market.

A tangent is necessary here as some will object to the term "mercantilism" as it is used with reference to a school of conservative thought. Mercantilism originally described policies of Great Britain in the 19th century with regards to the gold supply. Some wish to keep the definition so restricted, but if that is the case there is no suitable term for similar policies in other locations or in other times. Mercantilism, some would say corporatism, refers to using the government for the benefit of domestic industries by a variety of methods including but not limited to import quotas or tariffs, subsidies and tax breaks to domestic industries, and government contracts. These are all designed to restrict the amount of competition a domestic company faces or to support a failing domestic industry. Union-unfriendly legislation is also used to increase profits without the necessity of competition.

The problem most people have with thinking about mercantilism as not being an anti-liberty ideology is twofold. First people often think of socialism as being the anti-liberty economic ideology, and mercantilism certainly isn’t socialism except in the most outrageously loose sense of the term. Second, mercantilism doesn’t have an ideological base the way that capitalism and socialism do. It borrows somewhat from capitalism, but the arguments in favor of mercantilism are either purely emotional (appeals to patriotism quite often) or simply lobbying.

Socialists in a truer sense often think mercantilists are not advocates of government intervention in the economy, as shown by Democrat accusations of that nature towards Republicans. The problem isn’t that Republicans don’t advocate intervention, it is that Republicans advocate the wrong interventions. If an analogy could be made between religion and politics, liberals are theists because they believe in government while libertarians are atheists because they do not believe in government. Conservatives, under that analogy, are heretics. They do believe, they have the wrong beliefs, and because they have beliefs (however wrong) they are not atheists. When a liberal accuses a conservative of being anti-government, the accusation is based on the inability (due to intellectual laziness) to tell the difference between atheism and heresy.

Unfortunately there is no spot on the Nolan chart for a real world conservative. What would be needed is a third dimension to show this different means of economic interventionism. An attempt has been made here but the labels need further adjustment to more closely fit the model to the real world.

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