I Am NOT a Conservative

Or: “Language Manipulation” is a Very Old Tool

Since the last couple of major posts have been, at least partially, about the comment threads here at TSM, I want to make what I feel is an important point that is glossed over by the modern vernacular. As I noted previously, when I find someone who says something better than I can, I let them, so the majority of this post will be other people’s words – but they’re important words.

The first is a quote from the introduction to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America:

We Americans are a bundle of paradoxes. We are mixed in our origins, and yet we are one people. Nearly all of us support our Republican system, but we argue passionately (sometimes violently) among ourselves about its meaning. Most of us subscribe to what Gunnar Myrdal called the American Creed, but that idea is a paradox in political theory. As Myrdal observed in 1942, America is “conservative in fundamental principles . . . but the principles conserved are liberal, and some, indeed, are radical.”

I think Myrdal was on to something there.

The second quote will be a long one. It is from the introduction to Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, first published in 1962. Note the date of the quote contained within this excerpt:

It is extremely convenient to have a label for the political and economic viewpoint elaborated in this book. The rightful and proper label is liberalism. Unfortunately, “As a surprise, if unintended compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label” (Joseph Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis New York: Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 394), so that liberalism has, in the United States, come to have a very different meaning than it did in the nineteenth century, or does today over much of Continental Europe.

As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world together peacefully and democratically. In political matters, it supported the development of representative government and of parliamentary institutions, reduction in the arbitrary power of the state, and protection of the civil freedoms of individuals.

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis, particularly in economic policy. It came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as desirable. The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom. The nineteenth-century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which the classical liberal fought. In the very act of turning the clock back to seventeenth-century mercantilism, he is fond of castigating true liberals as reactionary!

The change in the meaning attached to the term liberalism is more striking in economic matters than in political. The twentieth-century liberal, like the nineteenth-century liberal, favors parliamentary institutions, representative government, civil rights, and so on. Yet even in political matters, there is a notable difference. Jealous of liberty, and hence fearful of centralized power, whether in governmental or private hands, the nineteenth-century liberal favored political decentralization. Committed to action and confident of the beneficence of power so long as it is in the hands of a government ostensibly controlled by the electorate, the twentieth-century liberal favors centralized government. He will resolve any doubt about where power should be located in favor of the state instead of the city, of the federal government instead of the state, and of a world organization instead of a national government.

Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are often labeled conservatism. But this is not a satisfactory alternative. The nineteenth-century liberal was a radical, both in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter, and in the political sense of favoring major changes in social institutions. So too must be his modern heir. We do not wish to conserve the state interventions that have interfered so greatly with our freedom, though, of course, we do wish to conserve those that have promoted it. Moreover, in practice, the term conservatism has come to cover so wide a range of views, and views so incompatible with one another, that we shall no doubt see the growth of hyphenated designations, such as libertarian-conservative and aristocratic-conservative.

Partly because of my reluctance to surrender the term to proponents of measures that would destroy liberty, partly because I cannot find a better alternative, I shall resolve these difficulties by using the word liberalism in its original sense – as the doctrines pertaining to a free man.

Friedman doesn’t come out and say it, but what he described was the co-opting of a term by the forces of socialism. This co-option was described by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom in 1944, Orwell in his 1984 in 1949, and Eric Hoffer in The True Believer in 1951. But the point of this post is that Friedman was right. “Conservatism” isn’t a satisfactory alternative. I am against the War on (Some) Drugsā„¢, against the criminalization of abortion, in favor of gay marriage (but less sanguine about adoption into such pairings). I am unconcerned about what two (or more) consenting adults do sexually in the privacy of their own homes, and even less concerned about any devices those adults may use to stimulate their sexual organs, but I think pedophiles should be shot and their bodies disposed of in the nearest dumpster. I think far too many “environmentalists” in actuality hate humanity, and are disillusioned socialists looking for another attractive mass movement to attach themselves to. So too for far too many animal “rights” activists.

I am NOT a conservative. And “liberals” are NOT liberal. Nor are they “progressive,” except as the term pertains to income tax rates.

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