The question is motivated by a facebook meme of all things. I saw this two days ago, and when I saw it again yesterday I decided to comment on my friend's post of it the second time:
My response was simply "how about hands off all of the above?". Curiously, it got a "like" from the person who initially posted it - which was a little confusing to me.
One of the things that I've enjoyed in a weird way about the recent gun control debate is that I've gotten the chance to criticize liberals* again (American liberals - not the ones Keynes was talking about). Liberals have been so sane over the last several years that I've focused a lot of my attention on conservatives and libertarians, but they can get pretty kooky when it comes to gun control. That's not the only issue of course. Although I haven't met many liberals that are rabidly anti-GMO food (sometimes people insist there are hoards of these - I only know a few), that's another area where liberals can support restrictive policy that I'm happy to disagree with them on. You could imagine various anti-corporate measures, perhaps trade protection for a few. Certainly campaign finance. And then there's cultural issues like the Confederate flag where few are proposing prohibitions, but I can still criticize most liberals for being too nosy about it. I can still assert that it's not used for what you think it's being used for in most cases. Liberals are not as bad as conservatives when it comes to personal liberty, but there is plenty to scoff at. And I'll admit - it's been fun to scoff at it during the gun control debate.
But this got me thinking - there's not really a home for this sort of attitude. I think a lot of people think in terms of the Nolan Chart. Liberals are pro-personal freedom, anti-economic freedom; conservatives are anti-social freedom, pro-economic freedom, libertarians are pro-personal freedom, pro-economic freedom, and populists are anti-personal freedom, anti-economic freedom.
I hate that dichotomy to begin with, as you might guess. It makes me want to line up with the libertarians, but that doesn't sound right for obvious reasons. That's a big part of my problem with the Nolan Chart - how it conceptualizes "economic freedom". Also, because of the restrictions listed above, it doesn't necessarily sound right that liberals are "pro-personal freedom", although I'll grant they're better than most conservatives.
I don't feel like I have a truly comfortable home because I would say that the distinguishing features of my politics are pro-personal freedom and pro-economic freedom, but more importantly a sense that:
1. There is a lot of good that the government can do because there are things we do better collectively than individually, and
2. There are not a lot of individual things that the government is good at telling us to do or directing us on.The problem with the Nolan Chart is that it completely ignores collective action arguments for government. It only thinks of government action as freedom-limiting action, so it pin points you based on whether you (allegedly) want to limit freedom in the economic sphere, the personal sphere, or both. There's no discussion at all of collective provision of goods and services.
For an economist this way of thinking about government in the Nolan Chart (and in most of our society) is very jarring. There are a lot of ways we think about government, but there are two really big ways: (1.) as something that interferes in choice - which is usually considered bad, and (2.) as something that deals with externalities - which is usually considered good. My assessment of government along these dimensions is pretty standard for an economist. You can even think about more ambiguous things like regulation along these dimensions - I support regulation that provides a public good insofar as it establishes sensible rules of the game and protects people from injustices associated with negative externalities, but I don't support regulation insofar as it goes beyond that and restricts personal freedom to trade and create. When you look at things like an economist like this, common libertarian exercises like counting the pages of regulations doesn't make much sense as a way of assessing whether we've got good regulation or bad regulation.
This brings me back to Keynes's essay. As soon as I figured out the two political dimensions that I think are the more important ones, it reminded me of Am I a Liberal? (1925). In the essay he chastizes Labour for going beyond the valuable sorts of economic policy that government can do and flirting with socialism and nationalization. He talks about how the Conservatives are often steered by their "Die-Hards" and Labour is often steered by its "Catastrophists". He also notes that there are good people in both parties, and that establishing his own political identity is often an exercise in choosing between "the best type" in each party: specifically, the "Conservative Free-Traders" and the "Socialistic Reformers" from Labour.
He then goes on to talk about five issues he thinks will be of growing importance: (1.) Peace Questions, (2.) Questions of Government, (3.) Sex Questions, (4.) Drug Questions, and (5.) Economic Questions. If I were to force his answers into the two-dimensional rubric I lay out above, I'd say that Keynes comes out roughly where I do. He thinks there's a lot of good that free people can do when they act collectively through government, but he does not think there's a lot of good that the government can do in telling us how to live our lives. He settles on the Liberal Party and outlines a platform of what he thinks the Liberal Party should support. I don't know all that much about British politics, but I know enough to know that being a Liberal means that you're a bit out in the cold and not exactly at home in any one movement. That's how I often feel. I used to use the word "moderate" a lot. I use that less now because "moderate" implies a lukewarmness that doesn't exactly describe me. I now use "center left" more often (because there's no denying what rough side of center I sit on, and it's less pretentious than "centrist"). But this still implicitly uses Nolan Chart type dimensional thinking, which isn't entirely satisfying. Another thing to say is simply that I'm a classical liberal, because all of this thinking on my part originates with that. But a lot of people unfortunately take that to be synonymous with liberatarianism.
So there are no answers to the problem really, but I thought those two dimensions might be useful to highlight for readers.
* - Of course some people think that because I'm willing to let the government research it and do minor regulation like background checks that means I'm for gun control. If that's what you want to call "gun control" (and to a certain extent it is), then I suppose I am - but I mean wanting to limit what you can actually own or carry, as well as the general disposition that guns are only for hunting animals (not for potentially killing people that need to be killed), or the view that the 2nd amendment is useless, etc..