Mike Kueber's Blog

October 14, 2010

Economic liberty vs. political liberty

A few weeks ago, I picked up several books that were on display in the New Book section at the Cody library.  One of them was titled Obamanos, by Hendrik Hertzberg, a political commentator for The New Yorker magazine.  If I had known the book was merely a collection of the author’s blogs on the 2008 presidential election, I probably would have passed on the book because I had just finished Game Change, which is the definitive book on the same subject.  If I had known Hertzberg was an unabashed liberal who admitted he had supported the Democratic candidate for president in the past 15 elections (while both of his parents consistently voted for the Socialist, Norman Thomas), I would certainly have passed on the book because I have no interest in reading a biased report.  But in the process of gleaning this disqualifying information in the book’s Prologue, I read the Hertzberg’s description of his liberalism:

I value political liberty and political rights (freedom of thought, speech, conscience, and the press, the right to vote, civil equality) more highly than economic liberty and economic rights (property rights, freedom of enterprise, freedom from want, economic equality).  I’m in favor of progressive taxation and generous public provision of education, pensions, and health care.  I think people should have enough to eat and a roof over their heads, even if they haven’t done much to deserve it.  I reject the idea that the market is the singular bedrock of society while everything else is a parasitical growth.  I want government to do something about environmental degradation and gross social and economic inequality.  I’m a secularist and a supporter of equal rights for women and gays.  And when it comes to wanting World Peace, I’m practically a Miss America contestant.  So I’m a liberal.

Hertzberg’s description of liberal values struck me as fundamentally fair.  Conservatives such as me don’t think that people should receive generous education, pensions, and health care when they haven’t done anything to deserve them.  We think generous welfare causes people to become parasites, whereas the free market encourages people to be self-reliant.  We want government to encourage equal opportunity, but we don’t want it to enforce equality by redistributing wealth.  Although conservatives want World Peace, we believe that freedom isn’t free.  And finally, I have to admit that conservatives are less willing to protect the environment and less likely to insist on the separation of church and state.

The aspect of the author’s description that I found most interesting was that liberal’s prefer political liberty while conservatives prefer economic liberty.  Liberals believe in restricting economic liberty to ensure that political liberty can exist and even thrive, whereas conservatives believe that political liberty cannot thrive or even exist without economic liberty.  In 1962, Milton Friedman wrote a book titled Capitalism and Freedom, and in this book he makes the still compelling argument that competitive capitalism serves as both a device for achieving economic freedom and a necessary condition for political freedom 

Where does America rank in economic freedom?  According to the Economic Freedom of the World, the Top 10 countries are Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, Chile, U.S., Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the U.K.  Others are as follows:

27 – Germany

30 – Japan

33 – France

52 – Greece

61 – Italy

68 – Mexico

70 – Philippines

82 – China

83 – Russia

86 – India

105 – Argentina

110 – Pakistan

111 – Brazil

112 – Iran

141 – Zimbabwe



  1. Why do we need to choose? I believe we can have both economic and political liberty. I say we should reduce the size and influence of government and expand & protect individual liberties and free enterprise.

    Comment by John Lee — October 14, 2010 @ 4:29 am | Reply

    • John, I agree. It’s is unfortunate that there aren’t enough of us to control either of the two dominant parties in America.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — October 14, 2010 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  2. Keep at it – I enjoy reading your reports.

    Comment by John Lee — October 15, 2010 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  3. Hertzberg replied to your post:


    I’d like to see your response with respect to estate tax and health insurance.

    Comment by Barbara Blue — October 19, 2010 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

    • Barbara,

      I responded by email to Mr. Hertzberg earlier this morning, and my attached response specifically addressed your points:


      Thank you for your comments in “Values, Liberal and Conservative.” You were correct in inferring that I favor the Death Tax – on May 20, 2010 I wrote an entry on my blog titled, “Why I like the Death Tax.” And I took flak in my recent congressional campaign for supporting universal health care, albeit a stripped-down, safety-net version, not ObamaCare that will tend to socialize medicine and afford Cadillac coverage for all. Like you, I believe that progressive taxation and regulation of “externalities” can be consistent with economic freedom.

      Thanks again,

      Mike Kueber

      Comment by Mike Kueber — October 19, 2010 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  4. Mike, what puzzles me about economic freedom arguments is that it is always government that interferes, but today many corporations are larger than any government was at the time Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom. Adam Smith was adamant that corporations were instruments of market monopolization and control, and so he was opposed to their power in the market. Isn’t it bigness in what ever form that threatens the liberty of all but the biggest?

    Comment by doug carmichael — October 19, 2010 @ 11:00 pm | Reply

    • Doug, that’s an interesting question. I haven’t read The Road to Serfdom, but it is on my list. I have read Atlas Shrugged, and I suspect Ayn Rand would be aghast at the suggestion that bigness is bad. I think I agree.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — October 20, 2010 @ 5:53 pm | Reply

  5. Mike, Hayek was opposed to big government because it was bureucratic and replaced rapid reaction with planning. The trouble is the big corporations do that today, and are bigger than the governments Hayek was critical of. Big government is an instrument of market control, and a supporter of monopoly creating regulations. hence the incredible amount that goes to lobbyists to create those big business leverage points. The left tends to criticize big business and military, the right criticizes big government. but it is the big government responding to big business that is the complete dynamic.

    Hence freedom is constrained for all but mostly benefiting big business.

    Comment by doug carmichael — October 20, 2010 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

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