Liberals, conservatives, and free expression

Eugene Volokh responds to my earlier claim that liberals are better than conservatives about standing up for the free expression of those with whom they disagree.

Some of his points are valid. Liberals aren’t perfectly, or even adequately, consistent. But I still think there’s a basic difference.

A liberal who stands up for the rights of people on the right will be regarded by mainstream liberals as expressing liberal values, even if some of them think he’s going too far in some particular case. A conservative who stands up for the rights of people on the left will be regarded by other conservatives as not really a conservative: a libertarian, perhaps, or even (shudder) a moderate.

Note that the standard rhetoric reflects this division. When some group on the left deviates from free-expression orthodoxy (over “hate speech,” for example), the standard charge from the right is that of hypocrisy, because someone on the left ought to be liberal. No one charges a conservative who wants to suppress free expression with hypocrisy; the charge wouldn’t make any sense.

The reverse is true of free-market principles; when a liberal Democratic Senate passes a disgustingly, obscenely extravagant farm bill, that’s just business as usual; when a conservative Republican House of Representatives passes the same bill (well, the same bill with a little more for agribusiness, a little less environmental protection, and a little less for non-millionaire farmers) and a conservative Republican President signs the resulting compromise, that’s hypocrisy, because the Republicans are supposed to be for free markets and against wasteful government spending.


John Rosenberg at Discriminations has a long, interesting post reflecting on a somewhat parallel question: racial profiling and affirmative action, which he sees as posing a difficult problem for conservatives, such as himself, who dislike the second but need to justify the first in the current security context.

In an aside, though, he says:

I’ve been struck by the inconsistency of liberals who oppose racial profiling when done by police but applaud it when done by admissions officers or employers. This is not so surprising for a movement whose intellectuals tend to reject principles on principle…

This seems to me a fundamental mistake, confusing political liberalism with intellectual post-modernism. Liberal politicans are just as moralistic in their way as conservatives, and I think we would do better politically if we were prepared to defend that moralism where it is appropriate rather than concealing it as benefit/cost analysis. The claim, for example, that every child deserves something like an equal start in life is a moral claim, and its policy implications are profound, since the relative disadvantage of the children of poor parents grows both with the extent of income inequality and the extent to which markets, rather than public choices, are allowed to allocate resources.

On the other hand, I would assert that modern political liberals tend to make too many things matters of principle that ought instead to be discussed in terms of outcomes. Nuclear power, toxic waste cleanup, “tracking” in schools, and the corporate income tax are all issues on which the standard “liberal” position can, I think, be convincingly criticized as serving neither liberal values, nor the interests of the dispossessed groups with whose interests liberals identify, nor the broader public interest. Fetishizing positions into principles is almost always a bad move. And refusing to do so isn’t the same as having no principles at all.


John Rosenberg responds.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: