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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thomas Sowell: Misleading Political Labels

Thomas Sowell has an interesting essay about the terms "liberal" and "conservative." Check it out.

From Sowell:

"Among the many words that don’t mean what they say, but which too many of us accept as if they did, are those staples of political discussion, 'liberals' and 'conservatives.'

"Most liberals are not liberal and most conservatives are not conservative. We might be better off just calling them X and Y, instead of imagining that we are really describing their philosophies. Moreover, like most confusion, it has consequences.

"The late liberal professor Tony Judt of New York University gave this definition of liberals: 'A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behavior.'

"According to Professor Judt, liberals favor 'keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose.'


"Communities that have had overwhelmingly liberal elected officials for decades abound in nanny-state regulations, micromanaging everything from home-building to garbage collection. San Francisco is a classic example. Among its innumerable micromanaging laws is one recently passed requiring that gas stations remove the little levers that allow motorists to pump gas into their cars without having to hold the nozzle.

"Liberals are usually willing to let people violate the traditional standards of the larger society but crack down on those who dare to violate liberals’ own notions and fetishes.


"As for conservatism, it has no specific political meaning, because everything depends on what you are trying to conserve. In the last days of the Soviet Union, those who were trying to maintain the Communist system were widely-- and correctly-- described as "conservatives," though they had nothing in common with such conservatives as William F. Buckley or Milton Friedman.

"Professor Friedman for years fought a losing battle against being labeled a conservative. He considered himself a liberal in the original sense of the word and wrote a book titled 'The Tyranny of the Status Quo.' Friedman proposed radical changes in things ranging from the public schools to the Federal Reserve System.

"But he is remembered today as one of the great conservatives of our time. Great, yes. But conservative? It depends on what you mean by conservative.

"Conservatism, in its original meaning, would require preserving the welfare state and widespread government intervention in the economy. Neither Milton Friedman nor most of the other people designated as conservatives today want that."

Sowell is quite right about confusion having consequences. I've had many arguments with people over political labels, and very often people bring up conservatives in other countries as being somehow equivalent to conservatives in the US. My favorite is a person brought up old school conservative Soviets as being equivalent to American conservatives (a confusion Sowell directly mentions). Additionally one of my undergraduate Poli Sci professors had an entire Marxist world history based solely on the battle between conservatives and progressives. He was thus was able to equate Ronald Reagan with Oliver Cromwell. Of course that comparison is foolish on every level, but even held to the prof.'s own standards this was nonsense. Cromwell was actively attacking Charles I and set up the short-lived Commonwealth of England-- truly the acts of someone devoted to the status quo.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I've noted this, too, especially when talking to Brits (who seem to feel the need to explain to me that their conservatives today are not Thatcher conservatives, d'oh!), but honestly, in this day of renaming and rebranding and obfuscation, I could give a crap less what the world thinks or how they define their political ideologies. What I am most interested in is how we use labels. I've made the switch from referring to progressives as liberals, they're not that.

    I don't know, it seems to me that the main problem with these labels in America is that the groups themselves have changed but the labels have remained even as they no longer accurately reflect the values associated with that label. The prime example of this is the democratic label and the voters of Massachusetts as I experienced their dated understanding of "democrat." They believe that the democratic party is still that of JFK, a pro-American, anti-communist, fiscally-responsible party. OMG, we so know this isn't true, we so know that dems could give a crap less about "the working stiff" (as MA voters tend to describe themselves if they are blue collar). That's one reason to be clear when distinguishing between progs and dems and liberals and leftists.

    Ditto the right. There are progs there, too, but people don't seem to "get" that. Again, I don't think the labels are the problem, I think it's the misinformation and deceit about true motives (on both sides of the aisle) that is significant. Damn language! The progs use it so well, manipulate meaning and signs and signifiers like little game pieces on a giant game board. We need to get with the program.