The Ron Paul Un-Revolution

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A mere ten years back, if I told Americans and Canadians that I held libertarian views, many responded — recognizing that I was not a native English speaker — that “libertarian” was not a word. They thought I wanted to say “liberal.”

Today, “Don’t tread on me” flags, Ron Paul posters, and other advertisements for libertarian ideas grace houses and yards, even in remote places of the USA. Libertarianism is no longer an obscure concept. And a huge credit for making libertarianism mainstream goes to Ron Paul.

I am a big fan of Ron. He is, in my view, one of the finest human beings alive, despite the fact that I could never understand how, as a congressman, he could interact on a daily basis with sociopathic politicians and their sepoys. How could he not feel repulsion and frustration, operating in such an environment?

Politics by its very nature establishes a mindset of expediency and political activism, which are always in direct conflict with deeper understanding of principles.

Ron fought for a paradigm shift in the way the US government works. He voted against new laws. He wanted the US military for defense only, wanted removal of American forces from hundreds of bases around the world, and saw no reason why the US should be involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. Quite rightly he saw no reason for the US to be still in Japan, Korea, and Europe, even if the bases there were maintained by invitation. He asked why the US should be supporting the dictatorial regime in Saudi Arabia. He wanted a significant reduction in welfare payments. He wanted to audit and end the Federal Reserve. He wanted an end to the War on Drugs. He wanted the US to be out of the UN and NATO. He fought vehemently against NSA surveillance, and for the right to bear arms. He wanted government to be out of the medical business.

In short, he wanted the government to govern — to provide law and order, and defense — and to get out of virtually everything else. He wanted the US to follow its Constitution.

What Ron said was well-reasoned and extremely well-conveyed in his speeches, with passion and a breath of fresh air for those who had grown tired of the political process. Most libertarian organizations promoted him, and Ron got a massive reception at many university campuses around the US. He set records of sorts for money raised in his canvassing for the US Presidential elections of 2012. Earlier seen, by some, as convocations of old white men, libertarian meetings started getting more people of other races, more young people, and an increased number of women. I cannot remember how many times I have been told by people that they saw the reason and value of liberty after listening to Ron.

Many libertarians saw this as the start of a snowballing of the libertarian movement. After a few beers, the dreamy ones, those with a passion for spreading their message, could imagine an exponential increase in libertarian views. In their opinion, it was only a matter of time before the whole world would accept liberty. “Truth and reason win in the end,” they would say.

Alas, this was not the sign that the movement was gaining speed, but a sign of its sickness. Ron, having chosen a wrong means to spread his message — politics — had implanted a virus among his audience. Ron’s charisma glorified the political process. Unfortunately, politics by its very nature establishes a mindset of expediency and political activism, which are always in direct conflict with deeper understanding of principles.

The golden ring of politics corrupts everyone, slowly and subtly, without their recognizing it, corrupting their souls, ossifying their principles into facades that fall apart at the slightest pressure.

The virus of politicized libertarianism eventually mutated. In libertarian circles, it became very important to increase the number of one’s adherents. Many libertarian organizations got very well-funded. Students were flying around the world, attending conferences, one after another. Free-market organizations were being set up everywhere, all well-financed.

Many of the politicized libertarians ran to the lap of the government, determined to join the fight against the real or imagined enemy. In one strike they had forgotten that war is the health of the state.

Given the financial encouragement, all sorts of people, even if they were not principally libertarian, joined. My guess is that some who in the course of time would have become principled libertarians accepted and repeated libertarian mantras, as beliefs taken on faith, without fully understanding the reasoning behind them. This had to lead to ossification of the mental process.

There was an emphasis on getting more women into the movement. Some, who were market savvy, realized that it was going to be far easier to get attention in a women-deficit environment. It was ignored that the sexual objectification of women was demeaning to them and a huge step back for the libertarian philosophy. There was also an emphasis on ideological inclusiveness. Boundaries should be made a bit fuzzy, to allow a bit of compromise, to make libertarianism more inviting, less radical. One well-known anarchist, in an attempt to be inclusive, started calling the core values of libertarianism “brutalism.” Soon there were left-libertarians, thick-libertarians, thin-libertarians, bleeding-heart-libertarians, etc.

Last year, I went to a speech by a bleeding-heart-libertarian in Delhi and could not hold myself back from asking in what way the things he advocated were any different from radical socialism.

When two small terrorist incidents happened in Ottawa, many of the politicized libertarians ran to the lap of the government, determined to join the fight against the real or imagined enemy. In one strike they had forgotten that war is the health of the state. They suddenly had no problem imposing restrictions on certain people who lived and dressed differently. Uninterested in collateral damage, they had no problems blowing the Middle East out of existence. They had forgotten that the state is a much worse enemy. Islam and all its flaws would have been better controlled in a stateless environment. They lost their sense of balance — better the enemy they knew than the one they didn’t — for they were not moored in principles.

Libertarians of East European heritage — unconsciously driven by indoctrinated hatred for Russia, not by philosophy — wanted the US to embargo Russia. Coming full circle, this mutant movement even opposed Ron Paul, for he opposes US involvement in foreign lands. Meanwhile, drug-peddlers and prostitutes were seen as embodying libertarianism. Many young people were encouraged to look for issues with the police. Going over the speed limit, driving under influence, or jumping red lights were not only condoned but seen as expressions of liberty.

Libertarianism does not try to prevent people from selling their bodies or consuming drugs, but it is a logical fallacy to assume that this means that libertarianism encourages these activities. Even in an anarchist world, to stay civilized, there would still be rules against driving under the influence or jumping red lights.

Politics is a virus that implants in the brain the top-down approach to social change. A real change can only happen from the bottom up.

The meaning of libertarianism was being removed from its principles. Once you lose your moorings, you lose direction. It is an error to think that libertarianism means no rules or system, something that a superficial understanding of the philosophy might make one think.

Politics is a virus that implants in the brain the top-down approach to social change. A real change can only happen from the bottom up. The thinking of the politically minded is not based on principles but on political organization. It is doomed to fail. Did Ron not see this?

Principles are principles and hence unchangeable. Any philosophy must be radically based on principles, if it is not to lose its moorings. Do I foresee a world where there will be no dishonesty or violence? No. But that does not mean I should become more inclusive, to bring in more people by starting to practise partial honesty or partial violence. Just because the state might never cease to exist does not mean that I accept its legitimacy to make my values more inclusive.

Radicalism gives meaning and passion to carry on when the seas are frothy and uncertain. There is something, indeed a lot, behind the Christian concept of the remnant. The remnant stay on their course even in a turbulent world.

Without radicalism, without a solid grasp of principles, the superstructure has nothing to hold itself in place and must fall apart eventually.

But hasn’t the libertarian movement grown by leaps and bounds? Alas, this is a myth of those who hold irrational, romantic opinions, living secluded lives among others with similar ideas. In reality it is statism that is in the ascendant, not only in the West but even more in the non-Western countries.

Despite the fact that Ron made a huge contribution in making “libertarianism” known to the mainstream, by being in politics — which might at surface look like a small issue — he made a major compromise with his principles. He politicized libertarianism. This seemingly simple compromise will end as his legacy and possibly as a permanent confusion of the concept of libertarianism, not unlike the way in which the meaning of “liberal” mutated in North America.

You cannot make someone a libertarian. It cannot be a result of groupthink or politics. The change can only happen through self-reflection, meditation, contemplation, reason, and a passion for the truth. A libertarian society can emerge only as the end result of character-building, mostly through working on the self, from the bottom up.




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The Kinda-Coolness of Liberty

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There’s a lot of confusion, these days, about who is, and who is not, a libertarian. It has actually become fashionable to apply the term to oneself, sometimes on the most tenuous of bases.

Many conservatives (and some liberals) think that liberty is kinda cool. Because they believe in the kinda-coolness of liberty, and recognize that, especially these days, they don’t have enough of it, they consider themselves libertarians. They don’t realize there’s more to the definition than that.

Most of those who use the libertarian label, based on its hip cachet and kinda-coolness, are conservatives. Liberals who worship at the shrine of statism love to point at them and cry, “See? All libertarians are really big old rightwingers!” Albeit, perhaps, rightwingers who smoke pot or like gays.

When my liberal friends identify libertarian-leaning conservatives as “typical libertarians,” it brings out the English major in me. I diagram the term for them. “Conservative” is a noun, and “libertarian-leaning” its modifying adjective. Therefore libertarian-leaning conservatives are still conservatives. I always hope this helps, though it usually doesn’t.

I understand why, to liberals who find libertarianism threatening, the temptation to confuse us with conservatives is so compelling. It’s a lump in which they may tidily dispose of us. They’ve got an argument they deem satisfactory against every conservative idea, and they don’t want to have to scrounge up a whole set of new ones to contend with us.

Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them.

Some of the things “libertarian” conservatives say, I must admit, can be rather troubling. I recently invited a friend of mine — a gay conservative blogger — to a meeting of our local chapter of Outright Libertarians. We’re a gay and lesbian group, striving to promote libertarian ideals in what is euphemistically termed “the community.” She got into a flame-war, on our website, with some Outright members, and emailed me in an awful funk. Why, they actually committed the heresy of opposing America’s glorious War on Terror!

Her argument against our point of view boiled down to this: “My brother is over in Afghanistan, fighting for your freedom of speech. So shut the hell up!”

What was I to do? As gently as I knew how, I told her she probably wouldn’t be a good fit for our group. That she is not, so far as I can see, in any way, shape, or form a libertarian, I suppose I need to let her figure out for herself. Modern-liberal statists determined to toss all dissenters into the same, convenient dumpster have no incentive to figure it out.

On a blog where I regularly comment, I was told — by a “progressive” who dislikes libertarians — that he was wise to the despicableness of my convictions. His proof? Some college kids, who identified as libertarians, told him they didn’t care if the poor starved. Or something like that.

Why is it that “progressives” can’t believe anything said by those on the right of the political center, on any subject — from global climate change to whether it’s going to rain next Thursday — yet find so credible the name they choose to bear? At least, as long as it’s this particular “L” word. They can be taken at face value about absolutely nothing else, but when they call themselves libertarians, their word is gold.

I think we know the answer to that question. Liberals are scared of us. Conservatives don’t necessarily like us much, but they’ll cozy up to us when it suits them. And if they want to survive the next generation, they’d better do it a lot.

I have learned something rather interesting, however, about liberals. Once I’m able to speak to them, one by one, they’re less hostile to libertarian ideas than I was told they’d be. Rightwingers warn that liberals will never listen to us when they cozy up to our kinda-coolness. But once they find out that many of our beliefs are actually quite similar to theirs, my leftist friends and relatives begin to open their minds.

One special surprise has been that even deep in the woods of Obama’s rule, far more liberals express concern about government overreach and the erosion of our freedoms than I remember conservatives displaying when Bush II was in power. We can, perhaps, tell more about people’s affinity for liberty when their “side” holds the upper hand than we can when they are out in the cold. Outright Libertarians, I know, are attracting far more interest from those to the left of us than we are from conservatives such as my snarling friend with the brother in Afghanistan.

Maybe that’s why dedicated leftwing statists are so afraid of libertarians. The field may be riper for poaching than we realized. That is a very interesting discovery. And for this former progressive Democrat, it is a heartening one.




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Seventh Grade Revisited

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Junior high was fun. I was not one of the beautiful people — I was a nerd. But I enjoyed being a nerd, liked my geeky friends, and relished the self-discovery of figuring out where I fitted in. And the relief of accepting where I didn’t.

Perhaps that’s a stage we mustn’t miss, however painful it can be. If we don’t go all the way through it, maybe we sort of get stuck there. And if we aren’t willing to accept what we learn about ourselves as teenagers, we may spend the rest of our lives snubbing the icky kids and angling for a seat with the cool kids in the cafeteria.

It’s also possible that nobody makes it entirely through that phase in adolescence. I must admit there were certain aspects of it I had to revisit when I was mature enough to process them as an adult. Coming out as a lesbian was something I couldn’t bring myself to do in the Anita Bryant years, while I was still in school. Coming out of yet another closet — as a libertarian — happened even later.

Libertarian philosophy is enjoying an upsurge these days. Government has become so oppressive, so menacing to nearly every aspect of our lives, that everybody not totally under the spell of statist witchery is giving it a look. That also means it is under attack from those who are under the statist spell. Now that I’m an out-and-proud libertarian, I find myself under attack from many more quarters than I ever was for being gay — especially because I refuse to stay obediently on the gay-leftist reservation.

“Eeeewww,”I often hear, “how can you associate with those libertarians? They don't care about the poor. And they don’t care about morality, either." The latter charge, of course, comes not so much from the Left as from the social Right. Both sides agree that I’ve got cooties; they merely disagree about the sort of cooties I have.

Am I a grumpy Scrooge who doesn’t care if the poor suffer? Or am I a get-naked-and-go-crazy libertine, who thinks people should copulate like bunnies under every bush? I’m not sure how I could possibly be both, as the two don’t necessarily go together according to any logical scheme. But then again, those who desperately lob every bomb they can throw at libertarians don’t seem to need no stinkin’ logic.

There are some libertarians with whom I disagree. I may think they are callous toward those less fortunate, or that they don’t care as much as they should about morality. The hostility some seem to have toward religion grates on this particular devout Episcopalian. But I don’t regard political affiliation as a social clique.

Where did so many people get the notion that they can’t associate — ever — with those with whom they sometimes disagree? That’s the way kids think, but I was under the impression that grownups eventually learned to rise above it. Who said life had to be pleasant every minute of every day, or that we’d never need to work with those we wouldn’t care to play with? I wouldn’t want to sit in the cafeteria with everybody I know. But if I share their convictions on matters of importance to us all, I am willing to work with them to make the world a better place.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. Or, as the Founder of my faith said, “Those who are not against us are for us."

Those of us who have truly graduated from junior high school understand that we can’t simply go with the flow, that however we were made, and however we got here, we do not exist merely to conform. We have voices so they can be heard. I appreciate that as a libertarian, my voice is being heard. And I appreciate all who will listen — even when they disagree.

Perhaps that’s when it matters most.




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Reclaiming the Word “Liberal”

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I propose that we call left-liberals just that, not “liberals” without qualification. Doing so would help reclaim the original name of an honorable old political tradition. It would resist the purloining and perversion of the word “liberal” as used in the United States. It would avoid ambiguity by bringing American usage into line with usage in much or most of the world outside the United States, where the word “liberal” retains its classical meaning, as I shall try to show. Left-liberals contrast sharply with classical liberals; they incline to interventionist and redistributionary policies extending into ever more aspects of life.

John Kekes’ Against Liberalism (1997), although a generally meritorious work, illustrates the ambiguous use of words. From a self-styled conservative, I expected an attack on his doctrine’s classical rival. But no: Kekes muddles classical and left-liberalism together, making his attack less incisive than it might have been.

Beyond inviting misunderstanding, controversialists put themselves at a disadvantage when they let their opponents define the terms of debate. When classical liberals and conservatives let “liberal” be purloined and even use it themselves (as a term of abuse), they concede too much to their opponents.

Words and Policy

The word “liberal” derives from the Latin for “free.” Classical liberals do not all share the same detailed understanding of their values; but to minimize repetition in what follows, it is convenient to list typical characteristics. Classical liberals typically believe in the importance of individual responsibility; in the freedom to live one’s own life, to travel, to change residence, and to choose one’s own occupation; in freedom of speech and press; in tolerance of the opinions and lifestyles of dissenting minorities; in capitalist enterprise with secure property rights and free markets for domestic and international trade; in freely and honestly elected representative government of defined and limited powers that protects human rights; in the rule of law, equality before the law, independent administration of law and justice, and separation of church and state.

Left-liberals share many of these values, of course; the chief difference concerns the character and scope of government, which affect the degree of respect that left-liberals have for others among those values.

Liberalism, if not yet so called, became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment. It rejected hereditary status, the divine right of kings, absolute monarchy, and established religoin. Leaders of the American and French Revolutions used liberal philosophy, including insistence on consent of the governed, to justify overthrowing tyrannical rule. The 19th century brought more or less liberal governments to countries in Europe and the Americas.

When classical liberals and conservatives let “liberal” be purloined and even use it themselves (as a term of abuse), they concede too much to their opponents.

An early political use of the term “liberal” dates from the Cortes of Cádiz, which adopted the Spanish constitution of 1812. There the conservatives derided their majority opponents as “liberals.” The liberals wanted to carry on the Enlightenment philosophy of Charles III, adding several ideals of the French Revolution. They fought for civil liberties and against absolute monarchy. Even though the constitution of 1812 remained in effect only for brief intervals, it served as a model for liberal constitutions of Latin countries in the nineteenth century. (These facts are found partly by Googling for “liberals” and “liberals Cadiz” and in the Wikipedia entry on “Constitución española de 1812." Club Liberal Español is also useful.)

Elsewhere also, and perhaps especially in Great Britain and its colonies, liberal aspirations included removing various restraints on residence, occupation or employment, and property ownership; increasing the flexibility of land inheritance; modernizing onerous old legal structures and practices; removing various legal discriminations; extending the franchise and (in Britain) remedying the over-representation of rotten boroughs in Parliament. Workers eventually gained the right to form unions.

How, then, did the word “liberal” acquire its changed meaning? Well, the early liberals worked for freedom from burdensome and oppressive old laws and regulations. Liberalism meant action. The ideal of change toward increased freedom and modernity drifted into accepting change almost for its own sake — or so I conjecture. Many conditions in the world plausibly seemed open to improvement — even in the liberal direction — by changing or adding some laws and regulations.

The case for a typical one of these interventions, taken by itself, may indeed be strong; yet a great accumulation of individually plausible interventions may become oppressive and make the task of monitoring government all the more difficult. Overlooking this point commits the fallacy of composition, the fallacy of supposing that what is true of the individual case is therefore true of such cases taken together. (The standard example compares one spectator standing up to see a parade better, and all standing up to see the parade.)

Even so, advocates of each particular intervention tend to focus on it, not perceiving or worrying about the fallacy. Some interventions may have unintended side effects that seem to require still others as correctives (as Ludwig von Mises explained). Ongoing growth of government activity motivates special interests to seek more interventions on their own behalf or in self-defense against privileges given to others. The political expediency of a “moderate,” middle-of-the-road position — the Hotelling effect, so called following Harold Hotelling’s article in the Economic Journal (1929) — allows the more active side of the road to drag along what is considered the respectable middle, thus reinforcing the drift. Many or most participants in an interventionist drift may well be high-minded people; but the drift does offer opportunities to control freaks, who may relish the prospect of power for their own purposes in a semi-socialist state.

The original term “liberal” persists, in the United States, anyway, even for an orientation that has metamorphosed into almost its opposite. The process illustrates the Hegel-Marx notion of a change of quantity into quality, of degree into kind (as rising temperature changes ice into fluid water and then into steam). An itch to change things has taken hold, with politicians and special interests constantly imagining what further government interventions into what further aspects of life might do some good.

Participants in the Drift of Meaning

John Stuart Mill illustrates a stage in the slide toward left-liberalism. Mill was a genuine classical liberal, concerned with removing interferences with individual freedom. He was an early feminist, urging that women should have fully as much control as men over their own persons and property. His On Liberty is a classic defense of the individual’s right to act as he wishes, even mistakenly, provided only that he does not infringe on the rights of others. He championed freedom of speech and controversy and freedom even from pressures to conform to general opinion; he valued eccentricity. On Liberty urged the benefits of private enterprise and the spirit of innovation.

In the last chapter of his Principles of Political Economy, a chapter entitled “Of the Grounds and Limits of the Laisser-faire or Non-Interference Principle,” Mill reviews the various arguments against extending the scope of government. Still, he considers how government intervention might enhance freedom. He distinguishes between two types. One is “authoritative interference” — requiring or forbidding private actions. A second type, alternative to commands and penalties, includes giving information and advice. But the scope for intervention, as imagined by Mill, is much wider.

Liberalism meant action. The ideal of change toward increased freedom and modernity drifted into accepting change almost for its own sake.

Mill wants to free individuals from finding their future selves bound by very long-term contracts. He would accept intervention when the consumer has inadequate knowledge of the market or is unable to judge the desirability or quality of some good or service, education perhaps being an example. Intervention might be justified when some persons exercise power over others, as over children and animals. The government might intervene to remedy defects of delegated decisions or management, as by giving shareholders more power over the companies they own. Intervention might help give effect to the desires of the persons concerned, as when, for example, workers might want shorter hours but could hardly demand them individually rather than collectively. Mill sees a case for public alongside private charity. Government might properly regulate or own such natural monopolies as gas and water. It might pursue any object of general interest in default of private action — roads, docks, harbors, canals, irrigation, hospitals, schools and colleges, a national bank, a manufactory, a postal service, an established church. (He even mentions printing presses!) Private alternatives would not be banned; private and public education might exist alongside each other. Government should regulate the colonization of new lands (e.g., Australia). In general, government might undertake any beneficial activities that private agencies would find unprofitable; it could support what are now called positive externalities. Mill’s example was voyages of geographical or scientific exploration; nowadays we might think of the space program.

Earlier in his Principles (Book II, Chapter I), Mill expressed some interest in and even sympathy for socialism in some sense or other. The decision between it and the present system of private property “will probably depend mainly on one consideration, viz. which of the two systems is consistent with the greatest amount of human liberty and spontaneity” (Ashley edition, 1929, p. 210). “It is for experience to determine how far or how soon any one or more of the possible systems of community property will be fitted to substitute itself for the ‘organization of industry’ based on private ownership of land and capital. . . . [However,] the object to be principally aimed at, in the present stage of human improvement, is not the subversion of the system of individual property, but the improvement of it, and the full participation of every member of the community in its benefits” (pp. 216–217). Thus, even Mill’s interest in (though not commitment to) socialism reflected his concern for individuality and personal freedom and opportunity.

I get the impression from his Principles that Mill’s acceptance of intervention and his interest in socialism were rather reluctant. He wanted to serve and enhance the autonomy and effectiveness of the individual; personal freedom was his touchstone, but he thought that wise government guidance could enhance it. He wanted to give a fair shake to doctrines or practices that he himself may have contemplated only reluctantly or tentatively.

Like Mill, Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882) exemplifies the drift (especially in his lecture on “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract”; see also the Wikipedia entries on Green and on “Social Liberalism”). He was a philosopher, adherent of the Liberal Party, political radical, temperance campaigner, and prominent figure among those, also including L.T. Hobhouse and John A. Hobson, who became known as the New Liberals. These men used the classical language of liberalism in support of state intervention in economic, social, and cultural life. Green favored factory legislation for safety and health, restrictions on child and women’s labor, public schools, reform of inheritance of land, protection of tenant farmers against arbitrary landlords, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. He defended such interventions against the objection that they impair freedom of contract.

In distinguishing between negative freedom and positive freedom, Green made a now notorious play on words. He called the latter “true freedom,” charitably interpreted to mean individuals’ efficacy in pursuing their own interests and in political participation. Sir Isaiah Berlin made the same distinction in his “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), but he did so to warn against the equivocation involved.

Even Mill’s interest in (though not commitment to) socialism reflected his concern for individuality and personal freedom and opportunity.

John Maynard Keynes, member of the Liberal Party in Britain, was arguably a figure in the leftward drift. At least two schools of interpretation of his General Theory demonstrate the ambiguity of his position. One school stresses his evident appreciation of private property and a market economy; he had no particular quarrel with how the price system allocates resources. Writing during the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, he did worry about a persistent tendency toward lack of enough total demand to maintain prosperity with full employment. That defect could be remedied rather straightforwardly by monetary policy and especially by government fiscal policy, both without detailed control over the allocation of labor and other resources. On this interpretation, Keynes remained basically a classical liberal. The rival interpretation sees him as a meddlesome interventionist, or worse. It takes literally some of his stray remarks, such as his comment about the “socialization of investment,” as if he meant more than policy to stimulate enough investment to absorb otherwise excess saving — as if he did envision widespread government ownership of the means of production — in a word, socialism. Actually, he did not go that far.

The Oxford Liberal Manifesto of 1947/1948, written by Salvador de Madariaga and adopted by delegates from 19 countries, also illustrates how classical liberalism became stretched. Unsurprisingly, it urges protecting the standard freedoms and enhancing the several components of political liberty. But it goes further. Its concern for the freedom and wellbeing of persons extends to education; security from the hazards of sickness, unemployment, disability, and old age; and continuous betterment of conditions of employment and housing. Economic freedom must be protected from monopolies and cartels. “The welfare of the community must prevail and must be safeguarded from the abuse of power by sectional interests” (Wikipedia entry and text of the Manifesto).

So the Manifesto almost welcomes myriad detailed interventions. It allows politicians opportunities to perceive or invent ills that their legislation and regulation might remedy. In H.L. Mencken’s much quoted exaggeration, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” As if to illustrate Mencken’s point, a recent call-in session on C-SPAN recognizes appropriate federal government concern about . . . bedbugs.

The word “liberal” in the sense of left-liberal is (or was until quite recently) accepted gladly, and even as a self-congratulatory term, by American adherents of that political persuasion; and most do so use it still. However, many conservative politicians and commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, have come to use it as a pejorative. Thus even conservatives join in perverting the unmodified word to mean incessant leftward change.

International Usage

This drift toward perverting the word has not occurred, however, in all writings and all countries. In some English-speaking countries outside the United States (Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom), usage of the term “liberal” seems to be complicated by their having thus-named Liberal (or Liberal Democratic) political parties. But in the UK, anyway, the classical usage still seems to prevail. The London Economist does routinely and unambiguously so use the word. For example, its issue of 16–22 October 2010 hails Mario Vargas Llosa, winnner of the Nobel Prize for literature, as “A Latin American Liberal”: “His liberalism is universal, inspired by such thinkers as Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin.” In most other countries and languages, also, “liberal” means classical advocacy of a free-market economy; personal rights, liberties, and responsibilities; equality before the law; and a democratic element in limited government.

Liberal policies could plausibly drift into left-liberal interventionism, as I have argued, without any sharp break point bringing a change in terminology. But why did the change of meaning occur mainly in the United States while “liberal” retains its classical meaning in so many foreign countries? Well, in some developing countries where free markets and democratic politics have not yet fully emerged, classical free-market liberalism may still be only an aspiration of an intellectual minority and not yet an actuality subject to being democratically corrupted by organized interests; the process described by Mancur Olsen in his Rise and Decline of Nations (1982) has not yet taken hold. But this mere conjecture leaves unsolved the puzzle of why “liberal” or “liberalism” does indeed retain its classical meaning in many countries outside the United States.

As if to illustrate Mencken’s point, a recent call-in session on C-SPAN recognizes appropriate federal government concern about bedbugs.

But it does. Evidence follows. The Atlas Foundation, founded by Sir Antony Fisher and now headquartered in the United States, is an umbrella organization for classical-liberal programs and thinktanks around the world. Atlas lists many dozens of them that it supports or that cooperate with it. I tried to find all of these web sites (and also found a few others). Unsurprisingly, most by far of the American thinktanks use “liberal” or “liberalism,” if at all, in the American leftist sense. In other countries, also, by no means do all or even most of the free-market thin tanks explicitly label themselves “liberal” either by their names or in their homepage self-descriptions. That is understandable. They may not want to risk frightening away potential supporters by one explicit label. They do, however, express sympathy with the tenets of classical liberalism, which they review.

Yet some do explicitly name themselves. Examples include Club Liberal (Spain), Unión Liberal Cubana (located in Spain), Instituto Liberal (Brazil), Instytut Liberalno-Konserwtywny (Poland), Liberaljnaja Missija (Russia), Association for Liberal Thinking (Turkey), Center for Liberal-Democratic Studies (Serbia), Centre for Liberal Strategies (Bulgaria), Liberal Group (India), Liberal Network Europe (Bulgaria), Liberales Institut (Switzerland), Libertarni Klub (Slovenia), Eurolibnetwork (France), Liberal Youth Forum (India), and Red [Network] Liberal de América Latina (16 countries).

Tanks describing though not actually naming themselves as liberal include Free Market Center (Serbia), Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa (South Africa), Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (Spain), Institut Constant de Rebecque (Switzerland), Institut Turgot (France), Institute for Development and Social Initiatives “Viitorul” (Moldova), Institute for Economic Studies Europe (France), Instituto de Ciencia Política (Colombia), Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (Brazil), Instituto Liberdade (Brazil, formerly named Instituto Liberal do Rio Grande do Sul), Istituto Acton (Italy), Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy), Liberté Chérie (France), Mont Pelerin Society (international), Prague Security Studies Institute (Czech Republic), Center for Political Studies (Denmark), Centre for Independent Studies (Australia). The Centre for Civil Society (India) straightforwardly calls itself “liberal,” as in announcing a “Colloquium on the Indian Liberal Tradition” and issuing invitations to the 2011 regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, whose theme would be “India as a Global Power: Practicing Liberal Values at Home and Abroad.”

In addition, many of the tanks not explicitly so naming their philosophy do present articles or other content using the word “liberal” (or “liberalism”) in the classical sense. Examples include Andes Libres Asociación Civil (Peru), Center for Free Enterprise (Korea), Center for Institutional Development (Romania), Centro de Investigación y Estudios Legales (Peru), Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (Argentina), Education Forum (New Zealand), Eudoxa AB (Sweden), F.A. Hayek Foundation (Slovakia), Free Market Center (Serbia), Fundación Pensar (Argentina), Imani Center for Policy and Education (Ghana), Instituto de Libre Empresa (Peru), Free Market Center (Serbia and Montenegro).

Why did the change of meaning occur mainly in the United States while “liberal” retains its classical meaning in so many foreign countries?

Many institutions indicate their orientation by naming themselves after classical liberals. A list, partially overlapping the preceding ones, includes: John Locke Foundation (US), Locke Institute (US), James Madison Institute (US) Henry Hazlitt Foundation (US, now dissolved), Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (US), Bastiat Institute (US), Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation (US), Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy), Adam Smith Institute (UK), Adam Smith Society (Italy), Adam Smith Centre (Poland), David Hume Institute (UK), Institut Turgot (France), Institut Constant de Rebecque (Switzerland), Fundación José Ortega y Gasset (Spain), many named after F.A. Hayek (Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, Canada), and many named after Ludwig von Mises (US, Belarus, Belgium, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Brazil, Romania, El Salvador, Czech Republic, Slovakia).

Conclusion

It is understandable how change in the liberalizing direction might have gained momentum and drifted into change valued almost as itself. But where should an originally admirable drift stop? It is odd that continual change through legislation and bureaucratic regulation, however democratically adopted, should be made a philosophical ideal. Political philosophy might better present a stable vision of the good society, one in which individuals can successfully pursue their own goals in life in peaceful and productive cooperation with others through trade and otherwise.

A stable society does not mean stagnation. A stable political framework does not obstruct — it fosters — an environment of progress in science, technology, and culture, a rising standard of living, and a widening of people’s opportunities.

Reclaiming the word “liberal” in its classical and international sense will help clarify discussion of such issues. Instead of outright and confusingly reversing how the word “liberal” is commonly used in the United States, qualifying it as “left” serves clarity.“Left” is not an abusive term employed instead of argument; it describes but does not in itself evaluate. Conceivably left-liberals are correct about the issues that concern them. Furthermore, they typically regard being politically somewhat to the left of center as the moral, humane, compassionate, and progressive position. In the many parliaments where the seating pattern distinguishes between left and right, delegates seated on the left are not ashamed of sitting there.

Two alternatives to the terminological rescue that I suggest come to mind. The left-liberals might be renamed “progressives.” Some of them call themselves that already; and some conservatives, such as Glenn Beck, even use “progressive” as a term of abuse. However, the word already names a specific policy stance in early 20th-century America. Furthermore, it concedes an undeserved terminological advantage to the “progressives,” as if they were for progress and their opponents were against it.

Or classical liberals might give up, concede the unqualified term “liberal” to their opponents, and call themselves “libertarians.” But one might plausibly distinguish between libertarians and classical liberals. I sometimes say, only half in jest, that libertarianism is classical liberalism for children, while classical liberalism is libertarianism for adults.

Most briefly, explicitly distinguishing between left and classical liberalism will promote clarity in discussion, particularly when international usage is taken into account.




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Well, at Least That's Over

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Happy New Year! It gives me pleasure to report that we survived 2010 with fewer devastating hits to the language than we’ve seen in recent years.

If you’re inclined to whine about 2010, please remember “the audacity of hope” and its sad but well-merited fate in the year just past. Of course, there is usually an easy passage from pomposity to farce, but the passage of “audacity of hope” was particularly easy, and particularly gratifying to observe. Every friend of the English language shuddered on election day 2008, expecting that Obama’s stilted, painfully self-conscious phrase would be enshrined forever in America’s pantheon of quotations, alongside “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “Fourscore and seven years ago,” and “Th-th-th-th-th! That’s all, folks!” But now it’s merely a subject for sardonic humor.

So much of interest might have been said in 2010, but wasn’t.

I’m sorry, however, that I can’t welcome the new year as ecstatically as Addison DeWitt once greeted the debut of Eve Harrington. I am not available for shouting from the housetops or dancing in the streets. It isn’t simply that a lot of muddy snow remains to be shoveled off America’s pavements; it’s that so much of interest might have been said in 2010, but wasn’t.

In 2010 we experienced comparatively little linguistic terror or catastrophe, but we didn’t experience many linguistic delights, either. Washington — Mordor on the Potomac — was more vulnerable to solemn sneers and glorious jests than it had been for many years, and that’s saying something, but its opponents were seldom equal to the occasion. The most eloquent and resonant sound of opposition was “Don’t touch my junk.” That saying will last, and deserves to last. Its four modest monosyllables combine a trenchant protest against authority with a wry parody of enforced sensitivity: if you nice people won’t let me say “penis” or “testicles,” I’ll just call them “junk”; now how do you like that?

But try to think of some equally generous gift to the language, received from 2010. Tell me if you do. I’ll be interested.

The year did afford its share of linguistic monstrosities. It promoted, for example, the further growth of the Great Blob “We.” You know what I mean. Your nurse says, “How are we doing today, Mr. Johnson?” Your boss says, “I think that we [meaning you] had better get that report out right away.” Yesterday a waitperson asked me (I was dining alone), “And how did we like our salad?” I was tempted to reply, “I don’t know; I haven’t had time to poll the rest of us”; but friends have told me that waiters do sometimes spit in your food, so I took refuge in a haughty silence.

All politicians now use “we” to describe themselves. Newt Gingrich was just obeying this professional ethic when, in December, he was interviewed by Fox News about whether he intended to run for president. He replied that “we” were considering it. This makes me wonder how many people may actually be lurking on my ballot, underneath the name of any single candidate that “we” might vote for. It also reminds me irresistibly of those cartoons in which a three-headed monster keeps talking to itself.

But it was Oprah Winfrey who, in 2010, broke all records for “we.” It happened in an interview with Barbara Walters. Barbara asked Oprah about rumors that she was gay, and Oprah responded, “We have said, ‘We are not gay,’ a number of times.” Well, I have never said that, not even once. Have you? But then we weren’t being given the third degree by Barbara Walters.

Nevertheless, “moving forward,” as politicians often said in 2010: the past year not only failed to come up with any colorful new phrases; it was churlish about using old ones that might still have some value. I was astonished by the neglect of a number of venerable expressions that should have seemed perfectly natural, indeed unavoidable, in the context of the year’s political events. These locutions may never have been star players, but their absence from the team made the game a lot less fun to watch.

Who are the war-speakers now? Who claims to be besieged, subverted, held hostage by today’s forces of evil? Why, it’s our pacifist president and his friends, that’s who.

While following the controversy over the tax bill, I was shocked to hear not one satirical reference to the fact that Democrats like to “soak the rich.” And amid the outpouring of sympathy for people who have missed their mortgage payments, I heard not one mention of “giving a hand” to “the deserving poor.” “The poor” no longer exist in our national vocabulary. In this respect, the president is fully representative of leaders left, right, and center: he never talks about “the poor”; he talks exclusively about “the middle class,” or at most about “working families.” (I thought that child labor had been outlawed — except on farms, because farm states have two senators each — but I must have been wrong.) No one ever thinks of po’ folks now.

This is disappointing to me, because I grew up around po’ folks, and a lotta folks I know are still po’. I can’t see why they should be omitted from the glossary, but in 2010 even the professional friends of the working man did exactly that. Obama used the word “folks” with fanatical phoniness, but he didn’t call the poor folks “poor.” I suppose that’s because he and his friends had discovered that really poor people don’t vote, and therefore shouldn’t be noticed, and that relatively poor people always insist that they are middle class.

Relatively rich people do that too. Have you ever met an American who referred to himself as “rich”? There’s no point in debating the question of whether to “soak” the rich. They’re linguistically extinct — except when the Democrats want to increase their taxes. Then, as we discovered in 2010, they become the “super-rich” (i.e., people who make more than $250,000 a year).

That is what the Republicans call “class warfare,” a phrase I am heartily sick of, despite its fair degree of accuracy. The reason I regard it as fairly accurate is that Obama’s leading supporters and administrative fixtures are virtually all super-rich themselves — and I’m not talking about people who make only $250K. I doubt that Obama knows anyone who makes as little as that, or has known anyone who makes as little as that during his own past years of political “service.” But some kind of warfare is going on. The most famous remark that Obama made in 2010 was his crack about Republican congressmen holding “hostages” (i.e., refusing, out of principle, to vote for his legislation). That’s war talk, that is.

If Obama came back, where did he come back from? From his dismally low popularity? From the 9.6% unemployment fostered and protected by his economic policies?

And it’s interesting: starting in the 1960s, “right wing” people were violently attacked by college professors and other kindly, mild-mannered folk for “militarizing” the language — you know, insisting on prosecuting a “cold war” against an “evil empire,” and calling communists “traitors” when they were merely plotting to set up a Stalinist dictatorship. The attack revived after 9/11, when a concerted attempt was made to ban the word “evil” as an aggressive, contemptuous piece of hate speech, reminiscent of . . . er . . . uh . . . Nazis or something. (Gosh, I almost said “radical Islamicists.”) But who are the war-speakers now? Who claims to be besieged, subverted, held hostage by today’s forces of evil? Why, it’s our pacifist president and his friends, that’s who.

The truth is less ideological and more rhetorical. Obama was desperate when he made that statement. He would have said anything if he’d thought it would help. To rescue his political career, he needed to make a deal with the Republicans, but he also needed to conciliate the many members of his party who hate Republicans. He decided that the best way to do it was to show that he, too, hated Republicans. That wasn’t hard, because it was true. He does hate them. So he charged that the Republicans had, in effect, manned up (another ridiculous 2010 expression) and were negotiating with him at the point of a legislative gun. Oh, the humanity! But he had to go along with them, for the sake of the republic.

If you can’t see through this stuff, you’re even more naïve than the New York Times.

But speaking of naïve journalism, this is the time for Word Watch to make its fearless forecast for 2011. Here goes.

During 2011, I envision a more complex linguistic situation than prevailed on 2010. I predict that the nation will be annoyed and harassed, not just by the usual guff, but by three rival political dialects.

1. Conservaspeak

This is a language in which I am well educated, a language that has come pretty naturally to me since I stopped being a leftist several generations ago; but I have to concede that it’s lacking in charm. The Republican leadership, which is not very charming to begin with, will speak continually of “balancing the budget,” “ensuring fiscal responsibility,” “setting the nation’s house in order,” “getting America back to work,” and so on and so on. Sound words, if sincerely spoken — which ordinarily they won’t be. But don’t go to John Boehner or Mitch McConnell for inspiring words. They’re too busy running across the fields, with the Tea Party chasing after them.

2. Progressish

Until 2010, “progressives” were old fogies who believed in everything that appeared in the Socialist Party platform of 1912. They went down to the community center on Friday night and listened to speakers (whom no one but other speakers had ever heard of) explain how Big Oil runs the government and will stop at nothing until it poisons the earth and destroys all its people. Outside of that, they had no life. They all voted enthusiastically for Obama but were then horrified to discover that he wasn’t prepared to outlaw capitalism the very next day. One or two of these advanced thinkers happened to be billionaires and thus managed to get themselves taken semi-seriously, so long as they doled out cash; but that was it.

Then came 2010, and by the time it was over, the most leftward people in the Democratic Party had all declared themselves “progressives” out of frustration with Obama. For one thing, he was a total loser. For another thing, they wouldn’t admit to themselves that the specific reason he had lost the November election was that he had followed their advice and “doubled down” on his least popular policy initiatives. To differentiate their wing of the party from the die-hard Obamaites, they needed their own special word for themselves — and lo! “progressive” was found and seized upon. Suddenly, like some animal species that was thought to be extinct until it blundered into a neighborhood where the garbage wasn’t always picked up on time, “progressives” propagated themselves everywhere. Congress and the old-fashioned media filled up with them, overnight.

The current “progressive” ideology isn’t much worth talking about; it consists largely of the idea that government should always expand exponentially, which it would be doing if the president would only ignore the wishes of nine-tenths of the American populace. The progressish dialect isn’t much fun, either; but it will be very prominent in 2011. Expect to hear much more about “empowerment,” “workers’ rights,” “corporate control,” “masters of war,” “the military-industrial complex,” and other standard shibboleths of the distant Left, as leftists try to hold Obama’s renomination hostage in the temple of their idolatries.

3. Obamablab

This is the worst one.

Obama’s popularity ratings have been in the swamp since mid-2009. His amateurish performance as president resulted in his opponents’ overwhelming victory in the election of 2010. Since that election, his biggest accomplishment has been rounding up enough Democrats to vote for the continuation of the Republican tax cuts he had campaigned against.

Strangely, in response to his questionable achievements a chorus of cheers is now being heard from the loftiest heights of the established media — cheers rendered in a barbaric, virtually untranslatable tongue, full of terms that have no plausible equivalent in normal English. Thus, Obama is complimented for his “thoughtful,” even “deeply intellectual and reflective” leadership, for his “moderation,” his “conciliatory approach,” and his “reaching-across-the-aisle method of government.” He is said to have “emerged victorious” and to have “surprised the pundits” as he “turned the corner” on his “struggle to lead America out of its financial doldrums.” Obama is, in short, “the comeback kid.”

Only an expert on mental illness could comprehend what all this means, but its chief characteristic is clearly its gross dishonesty. If Obama came back, where did he come back from? From his dismally low popularity? From the 9.6% unemployment fostered and protected by his economic policies? From the total disarray of his own party? From any other conditions that were just as evident on November 2 as they are today?

The president is not a kid, and the only way in which he has come back is by means of this hideously contrived and shopworn language. We’ve had a comeback kid before: his name was Bill Clinton. And there has never been a moment when modern liberals were not relabeled, when necessary, as conciliatory “moderates” of a “bipartisan spirit,” “pragmatists” who “govern from the center,” etc. Some years ago, the New York Times declared, in a lead editorial, that Walter Mondale was “a man of principle, who has always had the courage to compromise.”

To conclude. These three dialects are the linguistic survivors of 2010. We’ll have to put up with them. But I can think of a good thing about last year: it appears to have jettisoned one considerable wad of smarm: “transparency.” We used to hear a lot about the cellophane-like “transparency” of the Obama administration. Now it appears, what with the healthcare deals and the taxation deals and the stimulus deals and the immigration deals and the security deals and all the other kinds of deals, that “the era of transparency” was over before it started, banished by the era of obvious lies. And that’s the real come-back kid.




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