Saturday, April 2, 2011

Individual rights and the meaningless liberal-conservative dichotomy

When I was in college, I thought the liberal-conservative dichotomy meant something.  Back then, it was George H. W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis, and you pretty much knew where they stood—on everything.  But, eventually, along came Bill Clinton—a democrat and supposed liberal—who took us through eight years of shrinking government, annual budget surpluses, and a declining national debt.  To me, as a person with only a passing interest (if that) in government and politics, this whole liberal-conservative distinction didn’t really make much sense—at least with regard to fiscal matters.  And today, as a criminal defense lawyer, I find this artificial distinction to be completely useless, particularly with regard to the topic that matters most: individual constitutional rights. 

When asked recently about my opinion on the Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, my answer was clear: I don’t care and I’m not wasting my time by going to the polls.  (Before you think me un-American, read this article by a John Bates Clark Medal-winning economist explaining that it’s actually rational to abstain from voting.)  Quite frankly, any hope I had that a so-called liberal—especially one that is also a career government agent and former prosecutor—would protect our individual rights has long since gone out the window.  My fellow-criminal defense lawyer Terry W. Rose explained it this way: Both liberals and conservatives will steamroll you, but the so-called liberals will yammer on and on, "attempting to make the deprivation of rights more palatable.”

And sometimes, it even goes the other direction.  Every once in a while we’ll see a conservative, free-market type actually get fed-up with governmental overreaching.  Consider this recent example: Now that President Obama is done berating Bush, Jr. for being anti-individual rights, he’s busy stripping away our Fifth Amendment rights in the event that we happen to be accused of “terrorism”—an incredibly broadly defined activity.  Conversely, nearby at the United States Supreme Court, the hyper-conservative Justice Scalia is lambasting the liberal, Obama appointee Justice Sotomayor for her shameless destruction our Sixth Amendment rights.  He wrote that her nonsensical opinion in Michigan v. Bryant “distorts our Confrontation Clause jurisprudence and leaves it in a shambles,” turning it into a “hollow constitutional guarantee.” 

Liberal versus conservative?  Things have gotten a lot more complicated since George H. W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis.


  1. Michael, Michael, Michael, . . . so cynical.
    However, we must not give in to the cynicism
    which I share, lest we allow a tragedy of the
    commons (Hardin, 1968) to ensue. The little
    girl picking flowers was wrong.

  2. Very nice expression of a feeling brewing inside me for a long time. Well done.