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« Been there, done that | Main | A Prospect on Prospect »

October 08, 2002

Definitions -- "Liberal"

Friedrich --

However gloomy I can get about whither-the-modern-world, I sometimes remember what a great time it is too. One up-to-date thing especially worth celebrating is the way many of the old thought-and-idea-monopolies are breaking up.

In honor of this process – and, in my small way, to hasten it along -- I want to kick off a new rubric, “Definitions.” There are words that various elites (many of them leftish) own, among them: art, architecture, environmentalism, feminism, beauty, pleasure. Why let that continue?

For my first installment, I’m taking on the word “liberal.” There’s a lot of confusion around the word, and the Left profits from that confusion.

Liberal, liberal… Many Americans think “liberal” and automatically think “Democratic.” Yet I suspect many of these people get dismayed when they look around the land of the Democrats. What a long list of policies you’re expected to endorse! And how nutty many of them seem – affirmative action, for example. What’s liberal about advocating racial discrimination? And how fervent and exacting the left can be! Sheesh: Fail to go along with their entire program and you find yourself anathematized, thrown out and told that you aren’t really a liberal. Yet you still feel like a liberal person…

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 don’t care if my neighbor’s gay” equals “Thus I’m 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. But lord knows you’re anything but a conservative, heaven forbid…

The mistake here – one I was prone to for years myself – is to scramble the general sense of the word with its specifically political sense. Pry these two meanings apart, and -- ahhh -- the brain gives a big sigh of relief.

What many people – who, bless them, have better things to do with their lives than fuss with this kind of nitpicking research – may not realize is that “liberal” in the contemporary American-politics sense means not just the opposite of what the word means in a dictionary sense, but more or less the opposite of what it initially meant in a political sense. In other words, if you have the impression that many of the Americans who call themselves liberal are mighty intolerant, you’re absolutely right.

A brief examination of the word and its meanings.

The dictionary definition of “liberal” taken in its non-political sense is exactly what most people assume it is: the word basically means broad-minded and generous.

Then there’s the political meaning of “liberal.” And here’s the surprise: 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.”

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.” Perhaps you, Friedrich, or some blog-surfers can help me fill in the story of how and why this change occurred. In any case, by 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.”

Here’s how a few people much more knowledgeable than I am sift and sort these matters.

Roger Scruton somewhere said:
If you mean by liberalism what’s sometimes called 'classical liberalism,' then a liberal is somebody who believes in allowing other people the maximum freedom compatible with social order....That's not what Americans mean by liberal. For Americans, liberals are people who see the state as looking after the interests of society and redistributing property and creating the welfare society -- essentially a kind of institutionalized compassion.

Brendan O’Leary, writing in Kenneth McLeish’s “Key Ideas in Human Thought,” spells out the distinction between “classical liberals” and “social liberals” this way:
Classical liberals put an emphasis on property rights and free commerce; they believe in “maximizing liberty and minimizing government.” Social liberals on the other hand believe that “advanced industrial society requires substantial state intervention in order to offset distortions produced by the free market.”

Brad Miner, in his very helpful “Conservative Encyclopedia,” provides this discussion of “liberalism”:
Its meanings converge upon freedom, but whereas that freedom formerly implied political liberty, ie., universal individual rights (political and economic) and limited givernmental power, it now tends to indicate progressivism, meaning rationalist goals pursued by an intrusive state.

Jeremy Shearmur, in his first-class lecture series for the Teaching Company entitled “Ideas in Politics,” argues -- convincingly, I thought -- that just about all we have in America these days is liberalism. You may think of Democrats as liberal and Republicans as conservatives. Shearmur disagrees. He argues, first, that genuine conservatism is nowadays a very rare thing in America, and that, further, what the two parties we have in America today represent are the two versions of liberalism -- Democrats being the “welfare liberals” and Republicans being the “classical” or “laissez-faire liberals.”

Conclusion? If you think of yourself as being a liberal person yet feel dismay when you look at what America’s self-described political liberals make a case for, you have every reason to feel confused.

My own view is that a real liberal – a liberal in the deepest sense – would declare him/herself free of doctrinaire politics. A real liberal can dislike much of what Republicans stand for, but can just as justifiably dislike most of the Democratic checklist – can in fact be appalled by much of what the American left advocates (hate crime laws, affirmative action, etc). Why? Because much of it is “liberal” only in the inside-out, contempo-American sense.

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. They see, they understand, they sympathize. But that's another rant.

I also find it helpful to refuse to let the American left get away with calling itself liberal. I insist on referring to them as leftists, and to their views as leftism. Why let that crowd of sentimentalists, thought-police and socialists maintain exclusive ownership of a word as beautiful as “liberal”? Doing this helps me keep my head screwed on a little tighter; it also provides me with many satisfying moments of mischief and amusement. But brace yourself: Call them "lefties," and you’ll quickly be reminded (in thundering, admonitory tones) how much the left dislikes having the many meanings of “liberal” pointed out. Why? Because it loosens their grip on the word. And they don't want to let it go.

Mighty illiberal of them, isn't it?



posted by Michael at October 8, 2002


I find this in Webster's:

liberal - adj. favoring progress and reform in social institutions, and the fullest practicable liberty of individual action.

conservative - adj. opposed to change

I agree wholeheartedly with what you've written here, this has been a pet peeve of mine for quite some time. However, according to the definitions above, I'd say we have two conservative parties in the U.S. I'm a Libertarian Party member, but consider myself to absolutely liberal.

Posted by: Walter in Denver on October 9, 2002 1:09 AM

Orwell once famously wrote that (liberals) ''saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.''

Posted by: jozef imrich on October 10, 2002 7:51 AM

"The believing mind reaches its perihelion in the so-called Liberals. They believe in each and every quack who sets up his booth on the fair-grounds, including the Communists. The Communists have some talents too, but they always fall short of believing in the Liberals."

H. L. Mencken wrote that. It's hard to tell, from the attribution in his "Chrestomathy" (1949), but I'm pretty sure that it dates to at least 1920 ("A Book of Burlesques".) It might go as far back as 1912.

Posted by: Billy Beck on October 12, 2002 10:25 AM

I wrote an article on this very same subject some months ago, as follows:

Are You A Liberal?

We are in substantial agreement, you'll find, although some of the followup discussion reveals differences.

For example, as late as 1932, the (broadly) Lassez-Faire minded Herbert Hoover was aghast when he found out that Franklin Roosevelt, his opponent in the upcoming election, was calling himself a liberal. Hoover considered himself a liberal and couldn't believe Roosevelt would hijack that label.

In his early book "Up From Liberalism," the conservative patriarch William F. Buckley Jr. talked at length about how he is himself a liberal, but makes a distinction between the more general term "liberal" and what he termed "Liberal" -- note the upper-case. Buckley spent most of the book crticizing what he called Liberals, and what is most notable is the fact that even though he wrote that book about 50 years ago, he to this day makes this distinction: Jimmy Carter is a Liberal, Teddy Kennedy is a Liberal. He praises liberalism, takes great issue with Liberalism.

One might well argue that it is all the fault of so-called "conservatives," who turned the word into a pejorative--and by the way, today's lefties tend to call themselves "progresives" largely because of the pejorative overtones that "liberal" has taken on. Some still proudly use "liberal," though, assuming that people who agree with them are open-minded and those who don't are not.

But, by the way, for Walter in Denver: as a former Libertarian Party member myself (I joined them after I exited the Democratic Party), I must point out that you're being to selective in your choice of the definition of "conservative."

Look up "conservative" and you will find such praiseworthy things in the definition as "opposed to radicalism" and "moderate" and "respecting tradition."

In other words, it's no more a bad word than "liberal" is.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on October 13, 2002 1:28 AM

With much confused consideration about leftist motivation and behavior and why
they seem to be so out of touch with reality, I believe that much of it stems from a
self centered perception of the world. They assume that all humanity must surely
view reality as they do, or should.

They are blind in ignorance to the reality of our humanity and can't understand
that their ideals and notions of how things should be - their comfortable
perceptions of human existence based upon the belief that normal for them must
surely be normal for all - is a mistaken fantasy by not recognizing the fact that
we are human beings before all else. All of our civilizations, cultures, religions,
governments, etc. are simply implements we have learned to use for survival and
co existance. They are pacts, rules, outlines, agreements, etc., but the need for the
implementation of these guidelines is rooted firmly in recognition of the fact that
we are human beings before all else, with the inherent negative / destructive
potential as such.

I fear the threat of those who would see us destroyed as much as I fear fellow
citizens who are blind and ignorant to our destructive human potential.


Posted by: Russell Dahlquist on November 8, 2002 10:26 PM

I am writing a paper in which I need to differentiate the difference between liberal and leftist. Also, I need to support or disclaim the idea that the American media does in fact have a liberal or "leftist" bias. I have done a lot of reseach, but nothing really essential comes up...

Any ideas??

Posted by: Martha Santiago on December 11, 2002 3:19 AM

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