When I tell people I am conservative, or favor laissez-faire policies, the most common reaction is to assume that the listener now knows everything about my beliefs. And it is often the most absurd and extreme caricature one could imagine. Without fail, it is assumed that I am in favor of any policy they imagine favors "big business", that I want workers to toil for a pittance, that I think only the rich should have health care and education and luxuries, that I endorse discrimination against women and minorities*, and that I believe the state should always act as big business wishes.
In one way, this is the fault of a quite partisan media. Serving at many times as a mouthpiece of the left, the media has reinforced the belief that the right is made up of Snidely Whiplash characters, and that only those who endorse liberalism cares about anyone earning less than seven figures.
However, that caricature is not the whole of the story, there are also the mistaken beliefs that support it. First, the idea that the government must be "for" some particular class or group. This is at the root of the claims by so many politicians to "support the middle class". They know the public and cannot claim to be for equality, they must claim some group they intend to become the patron of, and so, they choose the protean "middle class", to avoid claims of being too far left or right. (Cf "The Oh So Useful Middle Class".) Similarly, this belief is in evidence when one says he opposes affirmative action and is damned for being "for whites". You see, in the mind of many, you need to choose sides, so if you dislike discrimination in favor of blacks, you must favor discrimination for whites. Equal treatment is simply unthinkable.
There is also the second problem, the belief in the omnipotence of government, and, more than that, the belief it not only can solve any problem, but that it is right and proper it do so. In other words, the belief that the government must involve itself in every issue, that every problem must be given a government solution. This belief tends to reinforce the one previously mentioned, as the government's omnipresence means it also must continually choose sides, and thus, in the end, the government is nothing but a perpetual tug of war between competing pressure groups.
This is what, in the long run, leads to the mistaken beliefs I described above. When a conservative opposes government action, suggests a particular problem is not one the state should solve, it is not taken as an honest sentiment, but rather a declaration of one's allegiance, and thus one must oppose those who nominally benefit from the government intrusion.
However, this is a terrible mistake, the outcome of what I call the "Swiss Army Knife theory of government". This is the belief the state can solve every problem, and not just solve, but provide the best possible solution, making government intrusion not only proper, not just right, but necessary. This theory lies at the root of many of our contemporary issues**, but for the moment let us limit ourselves to the one with which I opened. And, to illustrate why it is such a mistaken belief, allow me to put forth a hypothetical situation.
Let us suppose you want to end cancer, or at least reduce the incidence. Having been given unlimited power over the state, you decide the best solution is the bring the massive power and wealth of the state to bear on the problem. Obviously you can fund health care and research and medical schools and so on***, but you want something with more immediate results. Even with all the best medicine available and best care, people still fail to take care of themselves and often do not take advantage of treatments. Your first thought is to arrest those who develop cancer, as a means to both encourage people to take preventative measures, and to ensure proper treatment, but you decide that may be a bit too radical. (But you do keep it as Plan B.) Instead, you decide to mandate treatment for those diagnosed. You pass laws mandating that those who have cancer must follow the directions of their physician or face fines and coerced treatment. It still seems harsh, but you think it is the only way to ensure people really listen to medical advice.
Now, if this were really the case, and I were to tell you I thought your plan wrongheaded, that the state is the wrong tool to use to fight cancer, and even as far as state solutions go, using the police powers is even worse than other answers, what would that say about me? Would it prove I love cancer and want to see it spread? Or would it simply mean I disagree over the means with which we should solve these problems? In fact, though we disagree about a specific solution, is it not likely we both have the same end goals in mind?
So, why is it when I suggest the elimination of public schooling that people tell me I must want only the rich to go to school? Even when I point out the huge cost of public schools, the tremendous inefficiency, the fact that, were that money left in parents' hands it would likely fund most education, no one seems to understand? Even when I argue there is nothing preventing private charity, or that such charity exists even today with many private schools giving full or part tuition to poor students, no one sees how the poor could afford school? Why, despite pointing out that many nominally poor people find money for cars, televisions, computers, new clothes, phones, other consumer electronics, vacations and other luxuries, they still think the poor are naked, starving destitute serfs from medieval Europe and not the "relatively poor" of the modern era, who would be middle class or better in many other nations. And so, no matter how much I explain these facts, point out that I believe eliminating public schools will in no way prevent widespread, even universal, education,I am still accused of wanting the poor to remain ignorant.
In other words, in these cases, even should I say I share the same goals, but differ over means, no one will listen. The assumption is that only the liberal, or big government, solution will work, and any opposition must mean one opposes the goal. (Cf "Of Wheat and Doctors".)
As I said elsewhere, it is not anything new. Those who opposed the grain dole in ancient Rome were thought to want the poor to starve, as no one could conceive of a non-government answer, even though historical experience (and the example of countless other cities even in the Roman era) showed it was quite possible. And the same is true here. The state solution, even though only a century old or less in many cases, is seen as the only possibility. The fact that there was a past where such solutions did not exist is dismissed as a "different time"**** and the assumption is made to oppose the present answer is to oppose the beneficiaries.
Which does explain, in part at least, why conservatives are so often seen in such absurd caricature. If we oppose welfare, it is not because we think it harmful, but because we want people to be destitute. If we oppose government funded health care, it is not because we think private charity a better remedy, but because we want the old and poor dying in the streets. If we oppose any of the countless government solutions, it is not a disagreement over means, but a sign of villainy.(cf "Most Absurd Debate Since ... ")
So, what is the answer? Honestly, I am not sure. Obviously, any answer is going to be slow, and rough, going. People have been sold on the Swiss Army Knife of Government for a long time, and have bought into it quite heartily. But that is precisely what we must destroy. Of course, no one wants to hear when a problems trikes that the state should not do anything, that you are on your own, so I suppose it is best to make our case, not when debating specific issues, as then it may seem that we truly are the villains of the piece, even if our arguments are correct. Instead, when things are good, and no problems loom, we must repeat, time and again, the argument that the state is not the solution to every ill, it is no panacea, and often can make things worse, not better. It will be a hard sell, it will take a lot of patience and a long time, but if we keep making our case, if we offer examples, and find those cases that prove our point, eventually we may begin to win over some new believers, and, with a little more work, maybe even change a few policies here and there, giving us more cases to which we can point to prove our point.
It will not be easy, or quick, it will be quiet, anonymous, tedious work, but, as I said elsewhere, the goal is the most noble, and so, though we likely will never be acclaimed as heroes for our efforts, is it not still worthwhile to spend our lives in such a cause?
* Sadly, due to Trump's seizure of the GOP, part of which involved the party largely replacing small government, federalist conservatives with Trump's nationalist, protectionist and even racist followers, many among the general public who confuse "Republican" with "conservative" have accepted the claims by racists and nationalists that they are "real conservatives" and the image of conservatism has been terribly tainted. See "The Problem With the Big Tent", "Trump, Obama, Cults and Authoritarianism", "What Does Not Kill You..." and "The Trouble With Tough Talk".
** See "Social Issues and the Role of Government", "Caution, Not Fear", "There Are Other Solutions", "The Free Market Solution", "Skewed Perspective , or, How Big Government Becomes Inevitable", "Why I Reject Compassionate Conservatism", "Every Kid Likes Hotdogs", "The Myths and Realities of Strict Construction" and "The State of Nature and Man's Rights".
*** I am not saying these are good ideas, or harmless, but being what is currently done, they are familiar solutions, so likely to be enacted by anyone. I would argue they are not good ideas, but proving as much is too time consuming for this essay. See "The Case for Small Government" for a general argument.
**** One of the most common arguments of this form is that against the gold standard. It is often dismissed, despite all evidence, as an "anachronism". I can point out that, despite being sold as ending depressions, the Federal Reserve presided over our worst collapse, and what appears to be a continually accelerating cycle of boom and bust, and yet the only reply will be "it won't work today", offered without proof, as a self-evident truth. See "Stupid Quote of the Day (January 7, 2012)", "Bad Economics Part 19", "Why Gold?", "The Gold Question, Not "Why?" But "When?"", "Fiscal Discipline" and "In A Nutshell".