Liberalism and the role of government

I spent a good part of yesterday just trying to wrap my head around everything that’s occurring in the financial world. I haven’t finished that yet, but I hope to tease out some conclusions on what this says for liberalism vs. conservatism.

The conservative part is easy. “Free” markets? Ain’t no such thing, or at least there shouldn’t be completely free markets. Not even stalwart conservatives just want to let all of these chips fall where they may. Perhaps a few free market radicals or fundamentalists want to, but do we really need to take them seriously at an economic moment like this one? If we have the tools to reduce some of the suffering – via the government that’s so often maligned by conservative ideologues – then we should use them.

But on what basis does this government intervention fit into the liberal worldview? And how do we express what this liberal alternative is?

Let’s start with the language.

“Fair markets” is the phrase often used is liberal circles, but I don’t think “fair” captures what’s going on right now. We’re talking simple survival. (As this shakes out, I think we need to ensure that the geniuses that got us into this mess pay their fair share, but that’s a different topic.)

My first crack at this would be “secure” markets. We could even add on fair.

Liberals and progressives believe in fair and secure markets.


First, it’s our moral responsibility as individuals to look out for one another, otherwise we’d just have a world of selfish savagery. A great deal of suffering has already occurred from this economic collapse, but even more suffering can be averted if we take the necessary steps. We owe it to one another to take the steps that we can to reduce that suffering.

Second, the federal government is the appropriate agent to take these steps. Government is one of the ways we come together to fulfill our individual responsibility to look out for one another, so it’s legitimate. Also, the federal government, in cooperation with governments across the world, has the scale necessary to take on this job. Clearly no private agencies were up to the job. They specifically backed out of helping AIG. If not the government, who?

Third, and somewhat disconnected from the two, let’s thank the tradition of liberalism for pursuing evidence-based technical expertise and knowledge. It’s a good thing that there has been a tradition of empirical inquiry into the field of economics that tells what is likely to work and not work in a situation like this. And let’s be thankful that we have some brilliant – dare I say, elite – people trying to figure out how to resolve this crisis and prevent one in the future. I’d hate to see some untrained, uneducated, faith-based folks trying to pray and “gut” our way out of this one.

Now, back to the language for a second. I have to say that I don’t think “fair and secure” markets has the emotional and historical American resonance of “free.” So, that’s a definite drawback to what I’ve come up with so far. We could add on “free,” of course. Liberals believe in free, fair, and secure markets. Three items always rolls of the tongue better than two, in my opinion. I’ll continue to think about this.

Any ideas?

One thought on “Liberalism and the role of government

  1. Howdy, just wanted to say that sums up my ruminations on the current situation as well. I hate to say it, but I’m just not confident as to where this road will lead.I’ll try to make it back to Drinking Liberally, life has just been busy enough to make me miss out. I certainly miss the good conversation!


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