'Tis a Far, Far Liberal Thing That I Do Now

Several months ago, I wrote a column in this space drawing out what I thought were libertarian themes in the terrific HBO series The Sopranos (search). In it, however, I suggested that the writers of the show instilled plotlines that both ridiculed the excesses of government, but that also reinforced the "classical liberal" traits of rugged individualism and personal responsibility. That phrase -- "classical liberal" -- ignited a firestorm of angry email. "Rugged individualism" and "personal responsibility" are...liberal?

"Liberalism," you see, wasn't always a dirty word. In fact, most all of the political thinkers who laid the foundation for the American experiment were, in their day, proud liberals. The thinkers who influenced the founders -- Adam Smith, John Locke, John Stuart Mill -- and the founders themselves -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington -- all bore the liberal label with honor.

In fact, in most of the world, "liberalism" still connotes the values and principles all of those men espoused. In Europe, Latin America and Asia, "liberalism" still means belief in political pluralism, freedom of expression, property rights, the rule of law -- basically all of the ideas and principles free thinkers here in America hold dear.

So what happened? Why is "liberal" such a bad word here in America that even the liberals don't want it? Why, today, do political economists offer two definitions of liberalism, one for the likes of Locke and Jefferson, and another for our more modern impression of the word -- people like Hillary and Kennedy?

As the Cato Institute's (search) David Boaz writes in his book Libertarianism: A Primer, "around 1900 the term liberal underwent a change. People who supported big government and wanted to limit and control the free market started calling themselves liberals. The economist Joseph Schumpeter noted, "As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label."

So what Smith and Mill called "liberalism" we today call "classical liberalism" or "libertarianism." Conservatives too sometimes lay claim to old-school liberalism, though I think that in doing so, they underestimate just how much distrust the original liberals had for the state. There are lots of policy proposals put up by conservatives today that would have made the original liberals cringe.

"Conservatism" also implies a reluctance to change, no matter what it is that change is changing from, which is why hard-line communists in the former Soviet Union, religious zealots in Iran and apartheid proponents in South Africa have all been called "conservatives," and their opponents, generally, "liberals." In the strictest sense of each word's meaning, a conservative wants things to stay the same, no matter how things are in their current form, while a liberal advocates liberty, regardless of who's in charge.

The problem is that "liberal" has been so defiled here in America, true liberals may never be able to reclaim it. In America, "liberalism" has been attached to such miserable public debacles as the welfare system, ever-expanding (and ever-failing) government and Michael Dukakis (search). Dukakis, you might remember, wore the "liberal" label George H.W. Bush tagged him with proudly -- and was promptly trounced in the 1988 election.

It was after that election, in fact, that "liberal" became so tainted; the leftists who stole the word no longer wanted it. They've been running from it ever since. Rare (and dumb) is the modern politician who allows his own position to be labeled the "liberal" one.

"Liberal" today sits alone in the pantheon of political ideologies -- used, abused and soiled.

Modern leftists still hold the same positions, mind you -- massive, socially benevolent government, mistrust of markets, etc. -- but they today prefer the term "progressive," a label every bit as loaded as "liberal."

I guess the aim here is to associate themselves with the early 20th century progressives, who are often credited with such admirable accomplishments as winning the women's vote and ending the practice of child labor. But the analogy isn't perfect. The early progressives were evangelists, and drew inspiration for their public policy goals from faith -- not a practice modern leftists look fondly upon. Early progressives were also far from social libertines -- most were pro-life, for example, and the movement has largely been credited/blamed for prohibition.

It's easy to see why the left likes "progressive." "Progressive," of course, connotes "progress," and by calling themselves "progressive," leftists can then point to their opponents as "regressive" or "opponents of progress."

But if your measure of "progress" is similar to most people's -- rising standards of living, longer lives, a happier citizenry, general prosperity -- the policies embraced by self-described "progressives" haven't done much to push us in that direction. The welfare state has wrought mass poverty, perverse incentives and a generation of fatherless children. Big government and excessive regulation have put unnecessary restraints on economic growth, innovation and the free market. And there are a growing number of environmentalists who now take the position that "progress" actually means moving backward, that we've put too much emphasis on human welfare at the expense of what was here before us.

As someone who subscribes to the limited government, laissez-faire capitalist, live-and-let-live philosophy of Locke, Jefferson and Smith, I say it's time to pick "liberal" up off the ground, dust her off and reclaim her as our own. It'll take a while, I realize. But it's the only word that works, the only word that fits.

I suppose the first step in that process is to stop flattering the modern left with the label. Ralph Nader is not a liberal. He never was. He's a leftist. Or a collectivist. Even an egalitarian. But he isn't a liberal. And neither was Michael Dukakis.

So I encourage my fellow free marketers, libertarians and even some of you conservatives to join me in my crusade. Yes, it'll definitely sting the first few times. But you'll get used to it. And we owe it to our philosophical forbears.

Say it with me now:

"I'm a liberal."

Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, VA. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.

Respond to the Writer