Liberalism

[from Tracy Harms (990207.2330)

Martin Taylor 990204 09:20

[...]
A related question. Ken (sorry to pick on Ken again, because he is only an
exemplar, even if a rather prototypical one) uses the word "liberal" as
if it were pejorative. A lot of people do, in the USA, and I am wondering
what objectionable characteristics they ascribe to "liberals." [...]

If these six meanings (of which the sixth is I think rare in the US) cover
the characteristics that make "liberals" so bad, I wonder which of them
is the one that so disturbs the people who use the word as an epithet?

On this topic I especially recommend the essay "Liberalism" by F. A. Hayek,
written forthe _Enciclopedia del Novicento_ and published (in its original
English, not the Italian translation) in _New Studies in Philosophy,
Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas_, 1978, University of Chicago
Press. In it Hayek spends a good deal of time discussing the differences
between two branches of liberalism, one primarily developed in Britain, the
other prominently among Continental Europeans. He includes this
interesting paragraph regarding the United States:

     "It should be mentioned here tha the USA never developed a liberal
movement comparable to that which affected most of Europe during the
nineteenth century, competing in Europe with the younger movements of
nationalism and socialism and reaching the height of its influence in the
1870s and thereafter slowly decling bu still determining the climate of
public life until 1914. The reason for the absence of a similar movement
in the USA is mainly that the chief aspirations of European liberalism were
largely embodied in the institutions of the United States since its
foundation, and partly that the development of political parties there was
unfavourable to the growth of parties based on ideologies. Indeed, what in
Europe is or used to be called 'liberal' is in the USA today with some
justification called 'conservative'; while in recent times the term
'liberal' has been used there to describe what in Europe would be called
socialism. But of Europe it is equally true that none of the political
parties which use the designation 'liberal' now adhere to the liberal
principles of the nineteenth century."

A variety of other sources give more details on the change in application
of the word 'liberal' in the American political context, but I'll not
attempt to give any list tonight.

Tracy Harms
Bend, Oregon

[From Mike Acree (990209.1650 PST)]

Martin Taylor (990204.0920)--

I had started a reply on Friday morning, then my computer went down for
4 days. In the meantime Tracy (990207.2330) has made, much more
effectively, the same point I was making in my first paragraph.

On this topic I especially recommend the essay "Liberalism" by F. A.

Hayek,

written forthe _Enciclopedia del Novicento_ and published (in its

original

English, not the Italian translation) in _New Studies in Philosophy,
Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas_, 1978, University of

Chicago

Press. In it Hayek spends a good deal of time discussing the

differences

between two branches of liberalism, one primarily developed in

Britain, the

other prominently among Continental Europeans. He includes this
interesting paragraph regarding the United States:

". . .Indeed, what in
Europe is or used to be called 'liberal' is in the USA today with some
justification called 'conservative'; while in recent times the term
'liberal' has been used there to describe what in Europe would be

called

socialism. . . ."

I don't know how long ago Hayek's essay was originally written, but I
would match the European sense of the term with "libertarian" rather
than "conservative." It was indeed just because neither modern American
liberals nor conservatives were advocates of freedom (the root meaning
retained in the Continental usage) that a new label had to be found.
Although for at least most of the last century liberals in this country
have stood for strong government regulation of the economy, for a time
they could still claim to be defenders of freedom in the area of civil
liberties; but with both Clinton and Gore pushing the War on Drugs and
censorship of the internet, that claim no longer has any credibility.
Thus liberalism now stands for statism across the board, very much the
opposite of its original meaning. One can guess the political
orientation of lexicographers, who are otherwise eager to report the
latest variations in usage. That gives us a clue also that they may
find the present-day American meaning somewhat more pejorative than the
etymological, European meaning they still list as though it were the
only one.

Martin (990204.0920):

All of [the dictionary definitions] suggest that the [liberal] is open

to external influences that

might change the way they perceive the world.

As for liberals' vaunted openness to new ideas, I haven't found them
notably open to the idea of freedom, of all things.

I assume, however, that even those American liberals who don't dispute
the accuracy of this political characterization will nevertheless feel
that something about it isn't quite right, namely the implication that
they are into suppressing freedom. My take is that oppression is rather
a side consequence--one that thay are however far too willing to
tolerate--and that what liberals--like conservatives--are really
controlling for is the public and private perception of themselves as
moral. The difference between liberals and conservatives lies in where
the threat to morality comes from: in one case, the ever-present
temptation to sexual license and other personal indulgence; in the
other, the ever-present contrast between their "comfortable" lifestyle
("comfortable," to my liberal friends, means a sports car and an SUV, a
nice home in the Berkeley hills, and either private-school tuition or a
condo in Aspen) and what they know many others make do with. The
obvious solution in either case would be either a sensual or material
asceticism. But that creates impossible problems of resentment--moral
credits being rather paltry compensation for forgoing the pleasures of
indulgence. But you'd be willing to give these things up if everybody
else had to, too: hence the press for universal oppression.

There are some minor tests of this conjecture. Does anything cause
greater outrage than those who do not feel ashamed of their wealth, or
of their indulgence? Is it more important that the supposed social ills
be eliminated--or that everyone, including you, perceive that you have a
strong commitment to ending them? In the former case, one would expect
liberals to be very sensitive to indications that the minimum wage or
government welfare weren't working or were counterproductive;
correspondingly for conservatives with respect to the war on sex and
drugs. Instead it looks to me as though, regardless of what the
evidence suggests, the clamor is always for more regulation and more
expenditure, so that a perception of self, rather than a perception of
the world, is what is really being controlled.

Mike