Analysis of Conservative, Socialist and Liberal Paradigms [28 May 2004]

Analysis of Conservative, Socialist and Liberal Paradigms Dr. Werner Hoyer MP, President of the ELDR at the Conference of Asian Liberals and Democrat in Sri Lnaka

When the organizer of this high-level conference asked me to compare and analyse socialist, conservative and liberal “paradigms”, I asked myself why the should do so. After all I’m not an academic and I don’t pretend to be a political philosopher. I’m a politician and my métier is “practical politics”. But I began to think a little further and began to realize that it was not such a bed idea after all. Why?

The importance of identifying and belonging

First, the terms “conservative”, “liberal” and “socialist are used in political debate. They are labels indicating sets of ideas and convictions. A kind of shorthand, as it was. The label identifies you or your political opponents as part of a community of like-minded people. The label is likely to trigger emotions. An interesting point in this respect: one of the labels most likely to elicit a negative response and negative emotion today is the label “neo-liberal.”
Second, and perhaps more important, the label has a content. I consider myself to be a liberal and belong to a liberal party. When I say I’m a liberal, I have an idea of what it means to be a liberal. I subscribe to certain values that that are important to me. I strive for certain objectives in accordance with these values.
Friends and colleagues of mine do likewise and many belong to other parties. There are important reasons for identifying oneself with a political family. Sometimes the reason is environment – family, friends, social conditions you experienced as a child or young person. Often it is an elemental or pivotal experience – something that affects everything you do. A political prisoner, for instance, is likely to value “liberty” much more highly than a civil servant working for an autocratic regime. Sometimes – I would say more purely – it is the result of debate and intellectual persuasions. You are not likely to become a socialist just because you have read and discussed The Communist Manifesto or Eduard Bernstein’s book, Evolutionary Socialism.
Why is a friend of mine a socialist or conservative rather than a liberal? The reason must be important ones and there must be considerable differences between things that are important form my conservative and socialist friends and things that are important for me.
The history of conflicts in Europe has had a profound influence on my thinking. Wars and violence as a method of resolving political disputes are plainly unacceptable. If there are differences, conflicts or disputes, between countries or within countries, there are humane and civilized ways of dealing with them: accept differences, don’t exaggerate their importance, listen, discuss, find if there are interests you share, try to come up with working solutions which everyone involved can identify. It is a difficult process, but a very worthwhile one.

What is needed if this is the perspective you are striving for?
1) Acceptance that individuals are different and have different interests
2) Mutual respect
3) A belief that individuals are capable of solving their problems, given the right conditions
4) Commitment to peace and conflict resolution through peaceful means and
5) Tolerance (or, to use John Locke’s term, toleration)

Because these things are so important for me, I consider myself to be a liberal. And if you look at the liberal value system, you will find “diversity”, “belief in the individual” and “tolerance” occupy central places therein. We probably all have thing we feel very strongly about and these will affect the fundamental choices we make in politics.
Of course, I accept that there are other purely utilitarian reasons for choosing to belong to a political party. Expediency is one of them. You can join in sharing the spoils of power. It might be the wish to exert influence come what may. You join the Conservatives because they happen to be to most powerful political force in a country. But even in such cases, you cannot do without the labels or ignore the motives other people have when they are involved in politics.

A promise to try to be fair

You will have discovered by now that I considered myself to be a committed liberal. How on earth can I talk dispassionately and fairly about conservatism and socialism?
Just to put your minds at rest, the organizers have invited a panel made up of distinguished persons representing different political mainstreams to discuss my introductory speech – and some of the issues raised therein. The discussion gives us ample opportunity to put things right in case I fall in my task.
I promise to try to be fair – and, in fact, this promise is a challenge for me as a liberal. One for the preconditions for fruitful discussion or fruitful negotiation is to listen carefully and try to avoid misrepresentation of the view of others. Having said this, I would like to apologize for any misrepresentations I might make during the next forty minutes.

A comparison of fundamental values

For purposes of clarity I think we should begin with stressing the big differences between liberalism, conservatism and socialism. Things, in reality, are not as clear and straightforward, as I will show later on. When people identify themselves with a political family (or political mainstream, to use a more technical term), they do so because they share basic values and priorities with the family they chose. All three have a distinct value system. This value system is what it is because of certain central values. For the liberal, the central value is “freedom of the individual” – which explains why choice, tolerance, rule of law, civil and political rights, property and entrepreneurship are so important for liberals. Without them freedom of the individual would be meaningless. The linkages between these values or matters of importance are manifold: Tolerance, for instance, is a precondition for commitment to human rights. Protection of human rights means protection of freedom because freedom may be understood as “the sum total of rights an individual enjoys.”
For conservatives a central value is order. We just have to look at many trouble spots in this world and the plethora of states with potentially explosive social, ethnic and religious tensions, to see why such a value might be deemed so important. Authority, discipline, a sense of duty and tradition – something that nation - builders always like to emphasize – are important instrument in trying to achieve and maintain order. In recent years law-and-order and zero tolerance campaigns in order to tackle what is perceived to be increasing crime latch onto conservative values.
Conservatives also tent to focus on issues such as “the nation”, “the family” and “morality”. Perceived threats to their integrity stem, so conservatives claim, from disregard for order. At the same time, however, nation, family and a strong sense of right and wrong help to reinforce order.
For socialist I would suggest equality as the central value. In their own self-definition, many socialist would perhaps prefer the nation of “social justice”, but I think if you analyse the content of this term, it will basically boil down to “equality”. In order to decide what is socially just, you need a view of “the common good”, and that tends to imply a vision of greater material equality and a sense of solidarity. If you are serious about promoting social justice, you must be prepared to redistribute wealth and to give up certain privileges.
Rights to liberty – more specifically: economic liberty – and private property are restricted because, seen from a socialist standpoint, they tend to generate or perpetuate difference and inequality. “Collective ownership” and “collective decision-making” are the best safeguards against an unequal and unjust society.
One of the things we see throughout the world is that despite different political histories, we have a common understanding of the basic values of each of these political mainstreams. Few would disagree that the respective values mentioned above are inextricably linked to the mainstreams we are talking about.
Which leaves us with four important questions:
1) Are these value systems mutually exclusive?
2) Are these value systems specifically “western” in nature or are the universal?
3) Do they adequately reflect the realities of political parties and their policies in the “real world” of today – and what about parties with roots in religion or environmentalism? And, finally,
4) Do these values help us politicians solve the most important problems facing us today?

Mutually exclusive value system?

Let’s take the first of these questions. Are these value systems mutually exclusive? Yes and no.
In order to enjoy freedom, there has to be some order and freedom depends to a certain extent on quality. It’s difficult to imagine the freedom to elect and be elected if there is no legally defined and sanctioned electoral procedure. This means: in order to enjoy such rights there has to be some order to the process of election that is enforced. Likewise, freedom, to be real, requires a high degree of equality of opportunity.
Experience has taught socialist in China and social democrats in Europe that social justice can only be achieved if there is something to achieve it with, if there is substance on which to build: wealth. Markets, free markets, produce wealth. The experience with command economies is that, after a certain point, the no longer perform and go into demise. That is: markets are a precondition for creating a cake. You need a cake before you can cut any slices.
The Senior Minister of Singapore, Lee Khuan Yew, makes another link between order and freedom, but a specifically conservative one when he says that:
“The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society. In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms.”
Which brings us to an important point: for the conservative, it is order that comes first. This doesn’t mean that a conservative doesn’t value freedom. The commitment is different.
Similarly, a liberal values self - improvement or, as it is often called, “help for self-help” more, believing that the individual knows what is best for him/her and, given the opportunity, can do more to improve his/her condition than any administration can.
The concept of justice – justice pure and simple, without any additional qualification – is perhaps best suited to explain what liberals and socialists agree upon and where they differ. Any notion of justice, they would agree, contains some element equality, equal treatment, as it were. But if your guiding value is freedom, you will insist that the equal treatment must lie in the rules that governs the competition among conflicting interests (for instance, the competition for a fair share in a society’s wealth). If the rules are just (which implies a level playing field as far as starting conditions are concerned), and if they are abided by, the outcome will be just, because the differences in outcome will redirect differences in performance, differently.
Not so, the socialists will say: the outcome of competition, even under fair rules, is likely to involve differences which must be corrected. Only an outcome that produces a high degree of equality can be accepted as just. Lack of such “justice of outcome” therefore justifies interfering with rules.
And there you are: if you put equality first, your notion of justice will be a “justice of outcome” (or “results’); if you give priority to freedom, you will insist on “justice of the rules”. Quite a difference!
What remains true is that value systems are not mutually exclusive. But priorities and emphases of each value system are certainly different – and this is what matters. If I were forced to choose what would I choose? This is the point at which the differences become very clear.
The outcomes are very different as well. Throughout the world the path we have taken in countering terrorism after September 11 is conservative one. The conservative would say “yes, we have taken this path in order to protect liberty.” The liberal response to this would be “at what cost?” The cost has been: the massive invasion of citizens’ right to privacy, increasing disregard for a central principle of rule of law that crimes have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, interrogation of suspects without proper access of suspects to legal counsel. Socialists would emphasize a completely different aspect of terrorism: the roots and the importance of dealing with the causes.
These differences, I think you will agree, ladies and gentlemen are of a fundamental kind.
Political parties cannot afford to ignore basic values without antagonizing their most committed members. We see this in Germany where a social democrat - led government is trying to restructure the welfare state. Many party members find the proposals unpalatable and contrary to fundamental principles of “social justice”. They have revolted as a result.

Western or universal values?

Are these values western or universal? Liberalism and socialism, in particular, have been export articles. These mainstreams are identified with thinkers from the West, John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Lenin. The names ring a bell throughout the world. We can go further. Whe n we talk about the “social welfare state” we talk about a European invention of the mid-twentieth century. However, I believe we shouldn’t jump to any premature conclusions. An idea shouldn’t be rejected because of its purported origin. It should be rejected because it’s bad.
Conservatism by its very nature tends to be a more homegrown affair and some would argue that, as a result, it is more authentic for traditional cultures.
There’s tendency today to reject things because of their origin or purported origin. The standards set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and elaborated in the two Covenants that followed, are often said to reflect Western values. Liberal values, yes, but Western values? A well-known Indian author, today the head of UN Department of Public Information, Sashi Tharoor, asked, at a conference organized by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation many years ago, I quote
“What exactly are these human rights that it is so unreasonable to promote?” [because of cultural differences] “If one picks up the more contentious Covenant – on Civil and Political Rights – and looks through the list, what can one find that someone in a developing country can easily do without? Not the right to life, I hope. Freedom drom torture? The right not to be enslaved, to be physically assaulted, to arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned or executed?”
Tharoor, incidentally, also makes the point that the international bill of rights, i.e., the Universal Declaration and the two Covenants, the developing world at the time actually made the decisive contribution.
I’m sure that my socialist and conservative colleagues would agree with me that political concepts and ideas exist that are universal in nature and universally applicable. Both social justice and equality are words that strike a chord in the Islamic world just as they do in my part of the world. Law and order and personal security are universal concerns. After all, wy wouldn,t have Interpol if this were not the case.
Yes, there is a Western tradition in that today’s families or mainstreams can trace their origins back to the French Revolution, liberals and socialists to the values of the revolution and conservatives to the opposition the revolution as such. If we look at the value systems, and forget the historical baggage, I think would have a mote balanced view. For me, Lee Kuan Yew is definitely a conservative, Zulfikar Ali Bhuto of Pakistan was definitely a socialist (it was he who coined the term “Islamic Socialism”) and Kim Dae Jung, former President of the Republic of Korea, was and remains, in substance, a liberal.
Finally, let us not forget the enormous influence that Mao Zedong, Mahatma Gandhi and, more recently, Nelson Mandela have had on political activist in my part of the world. The influences are not one-way.

Value systems and today’s realities

Do liberal, socialist and conservative value systems adequately reflect the realities of political parties today?
There’s a nice quotation attributed to a conservative film star who become one of the last century’s most respected Presidents of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan:
“The government’s view of the economy can be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
I think this is a nice and somewhat pertinent description of the reality of political power all political parties go through if the have a chance to form a government.
It is a challenge for socialists, conservatives and liberals alike. Elections are won by making promises and many, if not most, promises cost money. We have to deal with powerful lobbies with incessant demands – formers, unions, pensioners, environmentalists, former servicemen , business federations. We have to listen to our party members – sometimes very vocal in their demands. Last, but not least, we think of re-election and of winning votes. Isn’t it fair to say, that once in power, most of us tend to do the same thing irrespective of our political convictions?
Many observers talk about convergence in politics. Most European conservatives have begun to embrace minority interest and not reject them out of hand. George W. Bush set the tone of his campaign for the US presidency using the term “compassionate conservatism/” Among socialist we have attempts to reform the milder version of socialism, social democracy, into something milder still. Witness the policy paper Europe: The Third Way presented by Tony Blair, British Labour Party Prime Minister, and Gerhard Schroeder, German Social Democrat Chancellor in 1999. Read the following, taken the document, for a statement of modern social democracy.
“The promotion of social justice was sometimes confused with the imposition of equality of outcome. The result was a neglect of the importance of rewarding effort and responsibility, and the association of social democracy with conformity and mediocrity rather than the celebration of creativity, diversity and excellence…”
Socialist, liberal, conservative? I leave it for you, dear friends, to decide!
These examples are the tip of an iceberg. In Poland we have a president, who, formerly a staunch member of the Communist Party, is now a staunch supporter of membership of European Union. There is nothing socialist about the policies of another former socialist stalwart, the current Prime Minister of Hungary. China and Vietnam, communist countries, have market policies in place that would make European liberal blush.
I think we have to be very careful here. Parties are adjusting to economic realities and one of these realities is that countries with liberal economic policies have better performance records as far as economic growth is concerned than other countries. Regular surveys comparing more than 120 countries, and published by the Canadian Fraser Institute in cooperation with 55 other liberal think tanks worldwide, show that, I quote,
“More economic freedom is strongly related with higher levels of income” and “is negatively correlated with poverty.”
Furthermore, there are strong positive correlations between economic freedom and “longevity, knowledge, and a decent standard of living.”
I would put it to you that agreement on some basic principles in economic policy may be rational, sensible and desirable. But even so, there are considerable differences. Socialists would emphasize employees’ rights. Socialist would still tend to emphasize consumers’ rights. Socialist would still tend to emphasize targets and the necessity of intervention in economic process. Liberals would be wary of formulating economic goals on behalf of others and would tend to rely on enlightened self - interest and self-regulation.
I believe we should not judge things to hastily. I, for one, would be reluctant to put myself in the same boat as my conservative and socialist colleagues in parliament and claim that we see eye to eye. The differences are enormous and the provide one of the main subjects of controversy in our debates.
A very recent example of a profound difference between our view as Free Democrats in Germany and Liberal Democrats in the UK and those of many European and all American conservatives concerns the war against Iraq. We believe that the avenues of diplomacy were not exhausted and we fear that the long-term consequences were not though through properly. The big differences between European liberals and American conservatives are very clear on this particular issue. The idea of a “clash of civilizations” is inherently a conservative one. The violent solution of the problem of Iraq gives credence to the conservative viewpoint that civilizations will and must clash. The idea that conflict and potential conflict must and can be quelled by exerting authority and, if necessary, by using force is also something we tend to find among conservatives. It is idea that rejects the very premises of liberalism. As liberals, and I believe I am speaking for all liberals, we fear that the Gulf War has ignited a process that will make a liberal vision of a “dialogue between the civilizations” and a peaceful solution to the many problems of the Middle East more difficult.
Although there are plenty of examples f convergences as politicians try to tackle economic and social problems, there are definite limits. Fundamental beliefs define those limits.
The methods used to solve problems and achieve objectives have always been subject to change within a political mainstream. Revolution or reform? Big bang or gradual change? Big government or small government? This is one of the reasons why mainstreams are themselves heterogeneous. Among socialists we have a family that spans the area between orthodox Marxism on the one hand and New Labour on the other. Each member of the family represents a specific response to challenges and realities. It is important to note, however, that the underlying value systems are less susceptible to change. No modern socialist would have a problem with the following quotation from the Blair/Schroeder document I have already mentioned:
“Our aim is to modernize the welfare state, not dismantle it: to embark on new ways of expressing solidarity and responsibility to others without basing the motivation for economic activity on pure undiluted self – interest.”
We liberals are a motley lot – classical liberals, new or social liberals, libertarians, to mention only a few. Social liberals and social democrats are often difficult to keep apart. Despite the many differences, however, all liberals share a common denominator: they believe in putting freedom and the individuals first. Another distinguishing feature of liberalism is that is distrust decisions made on behalf of collective entities, whether these entities are nations, classes, [e.g., the “working class], castes, religious groups [Christians, Moslems, Hindis] , or whatever. All such decisions tend towards arbitrariness in that they ignore differences within such an entity, overlook individual needs and create new injustices.
This is very different to the socialist approach. Socialist will counter that ordinary people cannot defend that ordinary people cannot defend themselves adequately against the vicissitudes of modern global economic and social processes. The scale of the solutions required make economic management by government and social engineering an absolute must. A typical statement most socialists would agree with, and conservatives might agree with as well, is Michael Walzer’s observation, I quote:
“Consider… the case of public health. No communal provision is possible here without the constraint of a wide range of activities profitable to individual members of the community but threatening to some larger number. Even something so simple, for example, as the provision of uncontaminated milk to large urban populations requires extensive public control.”
Walzer is a well-known communitarian thinker. Liberals, by way of contrast, would question the thrust of this observation and would counter that enlightened self – interest will usually ensure that my activities do not cause harm to fellow citizens. But let’s leave the debate to later.
So what about Christian Democrats or green parties, which we have in Europe? To a certain extent, all modern political parties are hybrid in terms of their ideological baggage. The bigger the party, the more hybrid it will tend to be. In most cases, however, the main thrust will be identifiable: the Social Democrats of Germany definitely share a reformist social tradition. The British Conservatives are, by and large, conservative.
With Christian Democrats and Greens, the situation is a little different. The Greens were initially very much a one issue affair. They were able to recruit conservatives, liberals and socialist with strong environmental concerns. Problems started to arise when Greens started to address other political issues. Christian Democrats tend either to be socialist or conservative in orientation – or a mixture of both with an addition of liberalism as in the case of Germany. In order to find the reasons for this, one has to look at their respective religious roots. In some countries the idea of “Christian socialism” was an important formative force. In other countries Church was traditionally closely linked with a Catholic conservative elite. The existence of such hybrid parties, however, doesn’t mean that conservatism, socialism or liberalism as political forces or as value systems are on the wane.
There is one last point I would like to make before proceeding to the last part of my speech.
Why is it that liberal parties are not as strong as they should be? Perhaps they are the victims of their own success? Liberals may be seen as “winners” in the practical sphere of standards and achievements. Various international human rights instruments, starting with the Universal Declaration, are definitely liberal in content. The aims of the WTO – restraining and eliminating protectionism and its negative effects on development – are liberal: The aim of achieving “international rule of law” is as well – as is the general acceptance of the idea that good governance is a precondition for development. Socialism and, in particular, social democracy are perhaps the winners of the hearts and minds” of ordinary citizens. It is easier to win elections with socialist slogans and promises than liberal ones. The claim that socialism is closer to the people’s day-today needs appears credible to many voters. Where there is instability and insecurity, people tend, perhaps more than ever before to opt for conservative solutions. Why should this be the case? Perhaps it is because conservatives have effectively and credibly disassociated themselves from authoritarian baggage, privilege and class-consciousness [...]

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