Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Being Liberal-minded

When I went to France as a student in the 1970s, there were things that surprised or confused me. For example, why was the coffee so much stronger and why did that make it taste so much better?

One particular thing that confused me was the way the French and English languages could have words that were exactly the same but which meant totally different things. Like the way in English the verb derange meant to cause someone to go insane but in French it meant to merely bother someone.

Another word that had profoundly different meanings was liberal. In my own experience, it described someone who always thought that taxes and government spending were too low. When I took a class in France that touched on economic topics, it became clear that it had a totally different meaning in Europe. It described someone who thought that the government should stay out of the economy as much as possible.

So how did the Latin word liberalis (meaning courteous, generous, gentlemanly and which was based on the word liber, which meant free) evolve to be spelled the same in English and French (and other contemporary languages) and yet be understood so differently from one to the other? Or, for that matter, how has the word come to be understood so differently from one English-speaking person to another? It’s all very confusing. Let’s see if we can figure it out.

Liberalism can be first identified as a distinct philosophical or political movement in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, i.e. the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a rejection of hereditary privilege, state religion and the divine right of kings. John Locke, oft cited as the founder of the movement, argued that governments should not violate human rights, which he identified as life, liberty and property. These were the ideas that fueled the American and French revolutions and led to monarchical governments in Europe and America being replaced by republican ones.

Linguistically, the word liberal started getting massaged in the late 19th century. In the context of the Industrial Age a group of British thinkers, who came to be called New Liberals, argued that liberty was of little use unless governments could provide favorable social and economic conditions. Depending on your point of view, New Liberals either took liberalism to the next logical step or they weren’t liberals at all but rather proponents of a kind of socialism. In America, New Liberalism was manifested in the labor union movement and the New Deal. Concurrent with that was what has come to be called Modern Liberalism, which incorporated the economic ideas of John Maynard Keynes and aspires to economic equality in society, i.e. the welfare state.

Over time in the U.S., the word “liberal,” as a political label, seems to have defaulted to Modern Liberals. Americans seem to universally understand the word to refer to the political legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Over time the term has also incorporated other causes like civil rights and environmentalism. In other words, this meaning of liberalism can be considered to be pretty much the opposite of its original meaning of limited government.

This change in language is also reflected in the use of the word “right” (as in human right). The original liberal philosophers understood rights to be restrictions on government. For example, the thrust of the U.S. Bill of Rights is pretty much summed up by the beginning words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law…” Modern liberals have a different understanding of the word “right,” asserting that benefits like minimum income and health should be considered rights.

A funny thing happened in the late 20th century. Around the time of the conservative ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, the word “liberal” came to be seen as a pejorative. Conservatives were surprisingly successful at defining the term rhetorically to mean someone who is not a “real American,” who is soft on defense and who wastes public money. Even more surprisingly, many liberal politicians began to back away from the label. Some elected to describe themselves as “moderates” or—harking back to a reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that variously took in such politicians William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt—“progressives.” The word liberal has recovered somewhat since the Reagan days, but “progressive” has persisted as a synonym or more populist variant of “liberal.”

So “liberal” in America today generally means Modern Liberal, which is very different than a Classical Liberal, which was the original understanding of the word. Then what are we to make of the word “conservative” in today’s political context, since it originally referred to someone who supported traditional institutions like monarchy and a state church?

I think the most timeless—and best—definitions of these terms was provided in 1911 by the very witty Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary:

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

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