Mulholland: Political labeling
Forty or fifty years ago the definitions of liberal and conservative were different than seems to be the current usage. A friend put it this way: “left and right, or liberal and conservative were adjectives that related to the acceptance of change. A liberal accepted change without hesitation. A conservative accepted change only after analyzing the consequence (intended and unintended) of that change and determining that the effect was positive.”
Liberals were people who accepted, even embraced, change, especially in politics and government. They were forward-looking, and labelled themselves progressive. Conservatives, then, were people who not only did not like change, they might even be reactionary, wanting to return to an obsolete form of government from the 18th century. Political activists tend to use labels like liberal/conservative in a derogatory fashion against their opponents. It is reflected today in Barack Obama’s description of Tea Party activists as people who like to cling to their guns and Bibles, i.e., adhere to the 1st and 2nd Amendments.
Labeling groups of people is convenient in communicating ideas, but when one group labels an opposing group, it is usually derogatory and inaccurate. Labels that people or groups give themselves are usually accurate descriptors. Labeling others tends to mute, or even stifle, free speech. In the extreme, it has become “politically correct” speech, which hampers the free communication of ideas.
Before the 19th century, monarchism and feudalism were common in European countries, driven by a scarcity of land. Armed conflict was used to acquire and control as much as possible. Reformers wanted a change, imagining new systems that we now classify as collectivism and individualism. Magna Carta and the ideas of John Locke underlay the American Revolution. The socialist ideas of Karl Marx were put into practice in the Russian and German revolutions. Free market ideas were being developed by economists from Austria, who called themselves liberals because they sought to change the old European economic systems.
Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, had new ideas to change and improve how our government worked, and after a split from his party formed the Progressive Party in 1912. Woodrow Wilson (D) formalized those ideas, perhaps influenced by the collectivist movement in Europe, and Herbert Hoover (R) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) applied them in the 1930’s and 1940’s in an effort to reverse the Great Depression. Ever since, Democrats have been the liberal party. Republicans, with more individualist leanings, were now the conservative party.
Interestingly, Marx wanted to eliminate the State, but in practice collectivist systems require very tight government control to keep functioning. Because monarchy and feudalism also depended on tyrannical control, maintained by force or threat of force, progressives became the reactionaries.
The Founders, who stood for individualism and liberty, designed a very limited government (a republic) with multiple checks and balances to try to insure it never became a tyranny of the majority, i.e., a pure democracy. They recognized that free-market, or laissez-faire, capitalism was the only economic system compatible with government based on individual liberty. Regretfully, the Constitution included a few loopholes that allowed politicians a toehold to alter it over the ensuing centuries. In many important respects, Americans are no longer a free people, nor is ours a truly a free-market capitalist economy. Austrian economists, no longer able to call themselves liberals (because the term now means Leftism), renamed themselves libertarians, or those who believe in individual liberty rather than government control.
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