The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

10 October 2002

Thinking liberally

It's not hard to imagine someone surfing over to Dean's World, reading the blurb ("Defending the liberal tradition in history, politics, science and philosophy"), reading the bloggage, and then wondering out loud: "This guy calls himself a liberal?"

The explanation, of course, is that when American leftists aren't chafing under the term "liberal", they're trying their best to redefine it. Michael at Two Blowhards explains the concept:

One of the tricky things about "liberal" is that it's just such a damned attractive word. It's nice to think of yourself as being a liberal person. "I donít care if my neighborís gay" equals "Thus Iím a liberal." Sure, why not? But there's a tendency to extrapolate from that, and that's where the trouble begins: being a liberal person, you want to root for the team that calls itself the liberals. And you get sucked in, because "liberal," in current American practice, means "Democrat." And there you are, back in the world of racial quotas, love of bureaucracy and regulations, warring ideals, and dictated and policed outcomes.

The "liberal tradition", as understood by Dean Esmay and others, has little or nothing to do with today's putative "liberals". Michael again:

What the word originally meant was favoring freer rather than more restricted markets. This is in fact what "liberal" still means in much of the world — Adam Smith, free trade, freedom of thought and expression, separation of church and state, etc. A French "liberal," for instance, is anything but a leftist or a Marxist. In this sense, a liberal is someone whose attitude boils down to: Let people go about their own business in their own way as much as possible. Political scientists with a historical cast of mind now label that viewpoint "libertarian" or "classical liberal."

"Libertarian", of course, carries its own baggage these days, hung on it by defenders of the Big Huge State who mock the very idea of smaller government. Political language is nothing if not mutable. Back to Michael:

In America, somehow the meaning of "liberal" changed. How and why, I'm not sure. Whatever the case, circa 1900, the meaning of the word shifted in a huge way. Instead of "free trade, personal freedom, etc.," it came instead to mean "leftyism-that-isn't-too-very-Marxist"...[B]y the 1930s and '40s, "liberal" in America had come to mean "favoring lots of government intervention in the name of such ideals as equality." These days in America, political scientists label this viewpoint "welfare liberalism" or "social liberalism."

These days in America, bloggers label this viewpoint "idiotarianism". And Michael cuts it no slack:

Personally, I find it helpful to see the contempo American left as a kind of redemptive religion. Get on board, subscribe to its tenets, believe in them real hard, demonize nonbelievers (in practice, normal people who can settle for something less than perfection), and heaven on earth — a flawless environment, wonderful art, and endless wealth equally shared — will arrive. It's a kind of intolerant fundamentalism that represents a yearning for unity and theocracy, a return to a tribal state — all of which, I think, helps explain why the left can be so sympathetic to such looniness as, for example, Islamic fundamentalism.

The left, curiously, is unsympathetic to Christian fundamentalism; I am inclined to believe that this is because Christian fundamentalism is primarily an American phenomenon, and the American left reflexively opposes anything that reminds them of the United States. Jerry Falwell is denounced, not so much because he comes up with the occasional weird pronouncement, but because he comes from the same culture that gave us Mickey Mouse and McDonald's; if Falwell's pulpit were in Luxembourg rather than Lynchburg, I suspect he'd catch a lot less flak.

I am, I tend to argue, a centrist, not so much because my beliefs tend to cluster around the center of the political spectrum, but because I really don't want to encourage the edges. The left might embrace me for being something of a First Amendment absolutist, but they would certainly spurn me for being just as adamant about the Second. And while on economic issues I tend to the Republican side, I'm not particularly inclined to throw in my lot with the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. Lacking a more appropriate term, I have settled on "centrist", and given it, well, a liberal sort of definition — in the classical sense, to be sure.

Posted at 7:38 AM to Political Science Fiction


I like to amaze my staunch conservative friends with my views on the 4th Amendment and my distaste for police officers, at least the ones that lie and plant evidence and invent probable cause. And, oh yeah, traffic cops are the worst offenders.

Posted by: Chris at 11:20 AM on 10 October 2002

Labels can be troublesome can't they. Since I started blogging a lot of people have somehow gotten the crazy idea that I'm a conservative. :-)

Posted by: Lynn at 2:41 PM on 10 October 2002

Labels are a whole lot more convenient than actually paying attention, which is why they're so popular.

I think I've shifted slightly rightward in the past few years, but not that much.

Posted by: CGHill at 8:36 PM on 10 October 2002

Allow me to refer to an old (Aug. 8) post of mine that deals a glancing blow to the question of the nature of liberalism. This post is concerned mainly with turncoats and apostates, those who followed a trajectory -- sometimes flaming -- across the political spectrum from left to right. But along the way I think, or at least hope, it addresses some of the questions in this fine post about the nature of liberalism. Mine can be found (if new archives, transferred from Blogger, are working) at:
http://www.discriminations.us/archives/000089.html

Posted by: John Rosenberg at 9:26 PM on 10 October 2002

I'll make a point of checking that out.

(Duplicates along the way were deleted.)

Posted by: CGHill at 6:32 AM on 11 October 2002

I had an article I wrote earlier this year that examines these questions myself. I take minor exception to some of what Michael wrote but we seem pretty close in our estimations of the situation. Here's my old article (it's in my "Best of" archive):

Are You A Liberal?

Many people will probably be surprised to hear that their answer is "yes." In the strict sense of the word, a liberal can be a member of any political party, really. In its purest definition, it's about open-mindedness, tolerance, etc.

But Americans have changed how they use it. The dictionaries haven't caught up. Who's right? It's an interesting argument.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at 11:41 PM on 12 October 2002