Self-government.org's website defines "liberals" this way: 'Left-Liberals prefer self-government in personal matters and central decision-making on economics. They want government to serve the disadvantaged in the name of fairness. Leftists tolerate social diversity, but work for economic equality.'
The same website defines conservatives this way: 'Right-conservatives prefer self-government on economic issues, but want official standards in personal matters. They want the government to defend the community from threats to its moral fiber.'
These definitions are based on the 'World's Smallest Political Quiz' (the Nolan Chart). From the chart you can also find definitions of other common terms such as 'centrist,' 'libertarian' and 'authoritarian.' This article will focus entirely on "liberalism" and "conservatism."
A lot of 'L'ibertarians (as opposed to the mere lower-case variety) probably place a great deal of stock in the Nolan Chart. But I think the chart, based on the quiz is flawed. The descriptions of "liberal" and "conservative" are flawed as well. It has been said that the terms "left" and "right," as well as "liberal" and "conservative" have become meaningless, but I see that as a separate issue.
First, refer back to the definitions of "liberal" and "conservative." I think they give the two factions credit where it isn't due. This is not to indict every single liberal or conservative as wanna-be totalitarians, but to demonstrate that their dedication to liberty, lip-service notwithstanding, leaves a lot to be desired.
The claim that liberals 'prefer self-government in personal matters and central decision-making on economics' is based on a misguided understanding what it is that liberals have been seeking for decades. Liberals are just as guilty as conservatives of advancing government intrusiveness in our personal affairs. For decades "liberals" have been the ones pushing for laws restricting the private ownership and use of firearms. It has been mostly "liberals" who advocated "hate-crimes" legislation. Many of them support the War on Drugs. Who is more beholden to the National Education Association, which is openly hostile towards the burgeoning homeschooling movement? Jerry Falwell? The John Birch Society? Was it Barry Goldwater who led the charge to forcibly integrate public schools by busing kids across town? Many of them weren't very sympathetic towards the plight of the Branch Davidians or Randy Weaver and his family.
Even on issues such as censorship, abortion, and sexual morality, the left has been very illiberal at times. If abortion rights activists merely stood in opposition to laws restricting or criminalizing abortions, I might be inclined to give them credit here, but many of them went much further. They forced all of us who pay taxes to subsidize Planned Parenthood with or without our consent. They passed statutes officially criminalizing dissent of legalized abortion in certain physical locations (bubble laws). As for homosexual rights, they did much more than repeal 'sodomy laws.' They have pushed for public schools indoctrinating children into accepting the 'correct' attitude on the subject. In other countries they are more aggressive. I read somewhere that in Sweden a pastor was actually sent to jail for preaching from the pulpit that homosexuality is a sin. More importantly, it is very dangerous to openly oppose some of them when they hold power. Right-wing talk-radio hosts oppose tax increases a little too vociferously, and liberal Democrats scream for the return of the Fairness Doctrine. The Clinton Administration's use of the IRS to harass political opponents also comes to mind.
I also believe it to be misguided to state that conservatives 'prefer self-government on economic issues, but want official standards in personal matters.' In their case one will hear a lot of rhetoric about free enterprise, low taxes and limited government, but they exert very little energy in actually attempting to make those ideas become reality. How many "conservatives" actively oppose occupational licensure laws? How many of them, other than maybe Ron Paul, actually push for the abolition of the federal Education Department? HHS Department? Agriculture Department? And, the Drug War, supported by most conservatives, involves restrictions on a lot of economic activity as well as personal behavior. Quite possibly some of them in their heart of hearts oppose civil-rights laws but refuse to act on that opposition, finding such activity politically suicidal.
Plus, among liberals and conservatives alike one can find people who support an interventionist foreign policy, albeit for different reasons.
Another reason I believe the Nolan Chart and the definitions that stem from it to be flawed is they create the false dichotomy between economic affairs and personal affairs. It's as if human interactions that involve exchanges of material goods and services are mutually exclusive from human interactions that don't. Does one's purchases and financial investments have nothing to do with one's 'personal' life?
Another reason I believe "conservatives" and "liberals" are given too much credit is that just about every last one of them uses the State to advance their notions of an ideal society, rather than letting the free market let the chips fall where they may. Again, this is not to indict all of them as openly hostile to individual liberty. Liberal columnist Nat Hentoff has been equally critical of Presidents Clinton and Bush for their cavalier attitudes towards individual freedom. Likewise, there are more than a few self-identified conservatives who are leery of the Patriot Act. But, I find just about every one of them to be inconsistent when it comes to defending human liberty.
In describing "liberals" and "conservatives," a paraphrase of a part of the Old Testament comes to mind: THEIR RIGHTEOUSNESS IS LIKE FILTHY RAGS (Isaiah 64:6).