|Funny that this topic came up... did you all read the following leader in the recent Economist?|
There's a word for that
Nov 4th 2004
From The Economist print edition
And we want it back
ALL through this election campaign, George Bush has flung the vilest term of abuse he knows at John Kerry. You name the policy—Mr Kerry's support for punitive taxes and reckless public spending, as Mr Bush put it; his preference for stifling government and overweening bureaucracy; his failure to stand up for, oh, expensive new weapons systems, microscopic embryos and the sanctity of marriage—and the president's verdict in each case was the same. “There's a word for that,” he said, again and again. “It's called liberalism.”
What more need one say? And Mr Kerry was not just any sort of liberal: he had actually been the most liberal member of the Senate. When told this, appalled Republicans jeered more loudly than if Mr Bush had accused his challenger of eating babies. (That man dared to run for president! Did he think he would not be found out?) Understandably, Mr Kerry was sometimes wrong-footed by this egregious defamation. Occasionally, smiling nervously, he said he was not ashamed to be liberal. (Audacious, but perhaps unwise.) At other times he tried to deny it. (You see, he protests too much.) In America, that kind of accusation cannot easily be shrugged off.
“Liberal” is a term of contempt in much of Europe as well—even though, strangely enough, it usually denotes the opposite tendency. Rather than being keen on taxes and public spending, European liberals are often derided (notably in France) for seeking minimal government—in fact, for denying that government has any useful role at all, aside from pruning vital regulation and subverting the norms of decency that impede the poor from being ground down. Thus, in continental Europe, as in the United States, liberalism is also regarded as a perversion, a pathology: there is consistency in that respect, even though the sickness takes such different forms. And again, in its most extreme expression, it tests the boundaries of tolerance. Worse than ordinary liberals are Europe's neoliberals: market-worshipping, nihilistic sociopaths to a man. Many are said to believe that “there is no such thing as society.”
Yet there ought to be a word—not to mention, here and there, a political party—to stand for what liberalism used to mean. The idea, with its roots in English and Scottish political philosophy of the 18th century, speaks up for individual rights and freedoms, and challenges over-mighty government and other forms of power. In that sense, traditional English liberalism favoured small government—but, crucially, it viewed a government's efforts to legislate religion and personal morality as sceptically as it regarded the attempt to regulate trade (the favoured economic intervention of the age). This, in our view, remains a very appealing, as well as internally consistent, kind of scepticism.
Parted in error
Sadly, modern politics has divorced the two strands, with the left emphasising individual rights in social and civil matters but not in economic life, and the right saying the converse. That separation explains how it can be that the same term is now used in different places to say opposite things. What is harder to explain is why “liberal” has become such a term of abuse. When you understand that the tradition it springs from has changed the world so much for the better in the past two and a half centuries, you might have expected all sides to be claiming the label for their own exclusive use.
However, we are certainly not encouraging that. We do not want Republicans and Democrats, socialists and conservatives all demanding to be recognised as liberals (even though they should want to be). That would be too confusing. Better to hand “liberal” back to its original owner. For the use of the right, we therefore recommend the following insults: leftist, statist, collectivist, socialist. For the use of the left: conservative, neoconservative, far-right extremist and apologist for capitalism. That will free “liberal” to be used exclusively from now on in its proper sense, as we shall continue to use it regardless. All we need now is the political party.