Compare and contrast liberalism v. conservatism on both economic and social issues.

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The distinctions between liberals and conservatives on economic and social issues can be stark, and can illuminate hypocrisies on both sides of the political aisle.  Conservatives, by definition, are resistant to social changes and believe in minimal government involvement in the economy.  Liberals, in contrast, are more likely to push for social changes while advocating higher levels of government involvement in economic affairs.  Seeming contradictions emerge, however, when certain, usually highly contentious issues arise, most prominently the subject of reproductive rights.  On the issue of abortion, most conservatives passionately argue for government intervention to prevent or severely restrict a woman’s right to attain an abortion, while liberals, in general, are equally passionate about severely restricting the government’s ability to regulate when and how a woman can have an abortion.  On the issue of gun control or, as many conservatives refer to the subject, 2nd Amendment rights (in reference to the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects the right of individuals to possess firearms, “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state . . .”) most liberals advocate strict government controls on the accessibility of firearms, while conservatives are staunch opponents of measures intended to limit that access.

On economic matters, then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” programs intended to lift the country out of the depths of the Great Depression constituted what for many conservatives remains the penultimate example of government intervention in the economy, with many of the programs established during the 1930s remaining in effect today.  The Social Security Administration, for example, was established during the depression to provide “safety net” for those too old or infirm to continue to earn an income, an approach anathema to many conservatives who decry the government’s practice of deducting income from their paychecks in order to provide for the financial well-being of others. Conservatives tend to argue that individuals should be free to invest or save the income deducted by the government for Social Security in whatever way they deem fit, with families responsible for their own retirement savings rather than paying into mandatory government programs.  Liberals, on the other hand, remain strong supporters of the existing system, and are as resistant to “reforms” of the Social Security Administration, which most individuals agree may become insolvent, as conservatives are resistant to changes in areas like gun control.

Similar to controversy regarding Social Security are divisions between liberals and conservatives on the fundamental issue of taxation.  Especially in the current period of time, with social and economic liberals emphasizing growing income disparities in the United States (the so-called “99%ers,” in reference to the inordinate percentage of the nation’s wealth concentrated in the hands of only one percent of the population), the issue of tax rates remains highly contentious and illuminative of the distinctions between liberals and conservatives.  Conservatives, again, believe in minimal government involvement in the economy, whereas liberals are more prone to support government policies that redistribute wealth more equitably.  Conservative business owners dislike the government telling them how to run their businesses, including with respect to the minimum wage paid to the least experienced and most junior employees, and loathe government regulations that they believe infringe their economic liberty.  Liberals, conversely, believe strongly in government-imposed requirements pertaining to wages and to how business owners operate their companies, particularly manufacturing companies. 

This discussion is specific to the politics of the United States.  In many European and Asian countries, the distinctions can be even more profound, with government involvement in the economy extending to government ownership of the means of production and of sectors of the economy that affect the entire nation’s population, such as utilities.

chrisyhsun | Student

As a general rule-of-thumb, liberals tend to go for bigger government and conservatives for smaller government.

Conservatives generally find themselves on the same side with businesses and corporations, advocating freer market conditions (essentially, letting the forces of capitalism run by themselves with minimal government interference). Liberals, on the other hand tend to stand on the same said as labor unions or just the "small people" who are working for the big businesses. Liberals advocate taxing large corporations and basically having the government at the very least be watchful of the market rather than just letting it run on its own.

In terms of social issues, again liberals tend to take a more hands-on approach. Liberals believe in the government aiding/funding the poor and the old. On the other hand, conservatives tend to hold back in terms of funding for social issues and believe in individualism (such as through fewer gun restrictions) as well as increased funding for national security.