Liberalism, in the classical sense, is a belief in the virtues of free markets and free minds. This term, however, has kept a swath of ideological movements under its banner, from the pragmatic libertarianism of Friedman and Hayek to the modern American left that claims the word in today’s popular discourse. The Swarthmore Independent was founded to defend the ideas of classical liberalism, on a college campus where the leftist definition is the norm. Our philosophies share a name, but in my four years at this school and two working for this newspaper, I have come to realize that there is more we can share than a label.
I grew up in a home which defied political classification. My mother is a Republican from rural Kansas while my father is a Berkeley grad and self-proclaimed ex-hippie. This meant I did not inherit any one political philosophy, but was encouraged to make up my own mind on the issues. I cannot claim that my upbringing was free of bias—we are all products of our environment, after all—but such a family situation helped me see that I could construct a philosophy with help from both sides, even if I ended up firmly on one.
Upon graduating high school, I was somewhere in the center-right camp. I proudly wore the label “Republican” when I entered Swarthmore as a freshman, though in reality I had not nailed down my views within the general right half of the political spectrum. Some days I felt like Susan Collins, other days like Ron Paul. It was all considered taboo at Swarthmore, anyways.
Revealing my political persuasion to classmates elicited a range of responses. Some said something to the effect of “that’s cool, we can still be friends.” Others immediately tried to engage me in an argument, or accused me of being an accomplice to the Koch-funded, puppy-killing conspiracy to take away everyone’s birth control. One woman simply narrowed her eyes at me and walked away. Very rarely someone would say, “Me too.”
It’s been frustrating to be in a place where ninety-five percent of the population disagrees with you. I’ve had people challenge me on income inequality in Sharples while I’m trying to do the Tuesday crossword. I know every Facebook post or Independent article I write will be scrutinized down to the word. Classmates have unfriended me on Facebook for my views, and, perhaps most cuttingly, told me I have no self-respect for being both gay and conservative.
But these negative experiences have been coupled with positive ones, and it is those that I wish to highlight here. Having my views challenged at every turn means I often have to reevaluate them. Sometimes I see that I have a premise wrong, or that my logic is flawed, or that I have misunderstood the empirical facts. I frequently have to rethink my entire position. And after these four years of discussions, of late-night conversations, of Facebook comment threads, of classroom debates, my philosophy has emerged stronger. I’ve been inspired to read Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Robert Nozick to learn about the intellectual underpinnings of free markets and classical liberalism from the very best. I’ve moved right on some issues and left on others. The result has been a philosophy of conservative-leaning libertarianism, if we must attach a label to it.
For the politically minded among us, myself included, it can be annoying to have to listen to the rock-ribbed conservative or the bleeding-heart liberal. But it is a crucial experience to have and have repeatedly, and one I feel is denied to many Swarthmore liberals who have never experienced a serious challenge from the right—and no, click-bait Huffington Post articles on the latest stupid thing Rush Limbaugh said doesn’t count. I don’t doubt the same vacuity of counterarguments also afflicts overwhelmingly conservative communities. It hurts the intellectual quality of our opinions. But more than just hearing each others’ arguments, conservatives and liberals need each other to advance their own respective worldviews. Both philosophies are incurably flawed without pressure applied from the other side.
Conservatives need liberals to hold their feet to the fire on issues they’d prefer to ignore, such as poverty, mass incarceration, and climate change. I do not mean to suggest that conservatives do not care about these issues, but that they can easily slip from the front of our minds to make room for abortion, taxes, or moral decay (all important issues too). While I firmly believe that conservative solutions to these problems are far superior to liberal ones, our movement requires pressure from the left to bring those solutions out of the think tanks and onto center stage. Otherwise, we allow liberals to dominate the conversation, setting up a false dichotomy between complete inaction and massive state intervention.
Liberals, on the other hand, need conservatives to remind them that the obvious solutions usually aren’t the best ones. Liberals are good at identifying problems, but they jump far too quickly from problems to solutions. Wages too low? Mandate a $15 minimum. Climate change threatening? Divest from fossil fuels. Too much money in politics? Alter the First Amendment to do away with it. These remedies, while sounding good at first glance, come with massive unintended consequences and often don’t solve the initial problem. Just because everyone should make a $15 hourly wage doesn’t mean that everyone can under such a wage floor—the real minimum wage, after all, is unemployment. Liberals require the input of conservatives to see the flaws in these proposals and make them better. Otherwise such ideas will be dismissed as far-left radicalism or, worse yet, be implemented at great cost to society.
Both sides of the debate can help each other remember that it’s better to make consequentialist arguments than moralistic ones. It’s easier to get someone to change their logic than to change their principles. “Taxation hurts our economy” will win you more sympathizers than “taxation is theft.” On the other side, arguing for more progressive taxes to close the deficit or fund needed government programs is a stronger position than “it’s just wrong that some people make so much money!”
Research by psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others shows that intelligent people, of which Swarthmore has plenty, are actually more susceptible to their preexisting biases. This includes political bias—even very smart people will dismiss facts and statistics that do not fit in with their predetermined narrative. We need the other side to call us out when we do so.
I’d like to thank Swarthmore for helping me see around my own bias time after time. I now have a much firmer grip on the issues and a firmer understanding of my own philosophy. Other conservatives at this school have had similar experiences, and most have been positive, even if we don’t realize it at first. I wish that the same challenges may be posed to the ninety-five percent of students here who don’t share our views, so that they may undergo the same sort of philosophical self-scrutiny that I did. This newspaper, which I leave in excellent and capable hands, can help do that.
Preston Cooper was the Editor-in-Chief of the Swarthmore Independent for the 2014-2015 academic year.