All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1985

Book Review: Beyond Liberal And Conservative by William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie

(Cato Institute, 224 Second St., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003), 1984 • 197 pages • $18.00 cloth

Years ago, Albert Jay Nock decried “the managed glossary of politics.” It is still with us as terms like “conservative” and “liberal” are used almost exclusively to describe all manner of political attitude and philosophy. Adding a multitude of prefixes—thus inventing new liberals, old conservatives, neo-conservatives, and so forth—has merely added to the confusion. The usual two-term continuum of the political spectrum does not work. They have become what Jeremy Bentham called “impostor-terms.”

Now two political scientists have presented a more complete perspective. Maddox and Lilie use four terms based on a person’s attitude on two issues: government intervention in economic affairs and on the expansion of personal freedom. (The latter dimension is the most unsatisfactory, since the authors don’t make clear whether government involvement expands personal freedom or eliminates it.) In such a matrix, the authors posit, conservatives oppose economic interventionism but support restrictions on personal freedom; liberals support economic interventionism but oppose restrictions on personal freedom; libertarians oppose both economic interventionism and restrictions on personal freedom; and finally, populists support both governmental intervention in the economy and restrictions on personal freedom.

Using this framework, the authors found that the public was made up of 24% liberals; 26% populists; 18% libertarians; and 17% conservatives. The authors are able to explain the apparent contradictions that plague election results and opinion polls: John Anderson’s impressive support from “liberals” and “conservatives” in 1980, and Gary Hart’s perplexing degree of success in 1984. Indeed, the implications of Reagan’s victory are best understood when one views it as an uneasy alliance of libertarians and populists with a minority of conservatives.

The authors analyze a massive amount of public opinion survey data using their four categories. The results are a fascinating reinterpretation of recent political history and of the opinions that Americans hold. The authors show that over the past couple of decades there has been an increasing appreciation for the importance of economic and personal freedom issues. And their comments on the so-called baby-boom generation suggest that these concerns have the potential for becoming much more important in the years ahead. This is heartening news.

More interesting, and much more important, are some of the implications one can derive from the four categories for discussions of political philosophy and values. The “impostor-terms” of the past perpetuate a confusion about the nature and interrelatedness of freedom. Maddox and Lilie go a long way in the direction of clarifying the philosophical and value content of political labels. Because they are limited by the constraints of the survey data they use, they cannot go far enough. Hopefully, surveys in the future will be more philosophically consistent.

If the authors are right that economic issues may become subordinated to issues of personal freedom in the coming years, then it is especially important that the case for the intimate interdependence of economic and personal freedom be clearly articulated. We cannot have one without the other. There is great need to explain further the key distinction between government intervention in economic and personal freedom issues, and a free market social system dedicated to genuine personal freedom and initiative.

Maddox and Lilie have developed a first-rate framework for using political labels and have analyzed as best they could how they apply to American political attitudes. Given the massive changes in attitudes over the last decade, and the prospect that these will continue, the book is an invaluable aid in planning how to present the freedom philosophy to a new and eager generation.

  • Mr. Hamilton is Director of Publications and a Program Officer at Liberty Fund. He is a former editor of The Freeman at FEE.