Thursday, June 19, 2008

Today's Quote: Mapping the terminological landscape

From The Buggy Professor we have a couple of overlapping quotes on the terms "conservative" and "liberal". Terminology matters and it has become one of the main themes of my thinking. It is especially important if you are engaged in some kind of persuasion operation such as a political movement. You need to put a lot of thought into your labels, names, slogans etc. so that your terms can work as an adequate vehicle for your ideas. Understanding the history of those terms and how they are understood at home and abroad is essential to winning a competition of ideas. Knowing the history of these terms it's hard to understand why anyone would think that attempting to champion truly liberal ideas under the label "conservative" was a good idea. The first quote is from a Buggy Professor comment posted at Econlog:

Terminological problems, at any rate for non-Americans. Outside the US, "liberal" has a different meaning than here. It retains the 18th and 19th century meaning of limited government and free markets. Hence the related term, used pejoratively: "neo-liberalism" to refer to Reagan's and Thatcher's de-regulatory policies (actually started here in the otherwise disastrous Carter-administration) and the Washington Consensus on development.
The reasons for the difference here and in, say, Europe?

European conservatism is rooted in pre-democratic, pre-industrial societies, going back to the late Middle-Age and early modern period. It is rooted in a hierarchical view of society, paternalism, a stress on state-security, and a powerful animus against industrial capitalism, free-markets, and the rapidly growing new middle classes in the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. On the European continent, such conservatism easily adapted to the extensive welfare-state regulatory systems after 1945 . . . embodied, say, in Christian Democracy (Austria, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and even for a time in France --- until Gaullism overtook it in the late 1950s and 1960s). Even in the more flexible British Conservative party, there's the old Tory wing of patrician aristocrats and others rooted in the 17th century party system on one side and on the other, going back to the switch of Robert Peel (a Liberal leader) to the Conservatives in the middle of the 19th century once the Conservative Party adopted free trade.

For this reason, say, Milton Friedman --- when he was interviewed in the early 1990s by Der Spiegel, the bible of politically correct anti-Americanism, anti-Israeli sentiment, anti-"neo-liberalism", and semi-covert German nationalism --- described himself as not a conservative (in the Christian Democratic sense, he said), but as a liberal.

The US, by contrast, never had such a pre-democratic, pre-industrial, aristocratic elite rooted in agrarian land-holding outside the slave-holding South, with its power shattered in our civil war. (Nor, oppositely, have we had a socialist tradition either --- rooted in the huge class-struggles and struggles for democracy and trade-union recognition (and anti-clericalism in Catholic countries) --- that marked most of European political life in the 19th and first few decades of the 20th cetury.)
Specifically, American visitors to this buggy site need to remember that "liberal" still retains its 19th century meaning in West Europe: support for free-markets, free-trade, limited government, and individual freedom and responsibility.  Liberal political parties don't even exist except in three or four European polities, and they are small, and if ever in power, only as a tiny centrist member of either left-wing socialist dominated coalitions or of moderate conservative (statist) coalitions.  In the United States, for complex historical reasons --- not least, the almost total absence of a socialist tradition and at the other pole the similar absence of statist conservatism rooted in pre-industrial, pre-democratic traditions --- the US political spectrum divides into moderate  "left-wing liberalism" (with vocal semi-socialist and populist radicals in its activist ranks) and moderate "right-wing conservatism") that is traditionally libertarian in the 19th century sense, with different factions of it comprising the Republican Party today . . . including, oddly, moral majority conservatives who balk at non-judgmental individual free choice and, almost as oddly, neo-conservative intellectuals who favor an active if fairly small welfare state and a vigorous use of American power to advance the cause of democracy and human rights abroad.


Cannoneer No. 4 said...

What we have come to call “conservative” or the Right is a group of principles whose definitional names have been invented by those who hate those principles.

I refuse to self-identify with the "Right." That's the enemy's terminology.

To each according to his ability, from each according to his conscience.

Federal taxes should be low, and only collected for the purpose of national defense and other nationwide programs beyond the capability of individual States.

The United States ARE
Not the United States IS

Americans must be schooled on the 2nd, 9th and 10th Amendments. There is already enough jaw-flapping about the 1st and 4th, and too many taking the 5th.

Intelligent, ambitious, enterprising, hardworking citizens should be rewarded with the fruits of their labors.

Stupid, lackadaisical, untalented, lazy citizens should not be rewarded with the fruits of other's labors.

I'm a Dog Soldier of the Amriki tribe, bitterly clinging to my guns and what's left of my civic religion, an American Exceptionalist trying to prove myself worthy of the sacrifices made for me.

Got a snazzy two or three-syllable term that describe all that?

Cannoneer No. 4 said...

How 'bout Logical-Rationalists in lieu of "conservative?"

phil said...

Yeah, I'm not on the right either, nor am I a conservative. We definitely need to come up with some new names. It doesn't have to be just one. After all we're not all going to agree on everything. I've been making lists of possible names but nothing so far has really captured my imagination. But I do think it is an important part of the war of ideas. We certainly can't continue using the current terms.