Ditching \"Liberal\"

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." [Ambrose Bierce, "Devil's Dictionary," 1911]

A week or two after the election this past fall I was perusing my church's chat list (yup I'm an atheist that goes to church...) when I came across the following statement by a fellow church-goer and acquaintance of mine: "I hate having to qualify the word "Christian" with the word "liberal." My thought in response to this was: "I hate having to qualify the word "Liberal" with the word "Classical."

It seems the term liberal is used in the political sphere to mean everything from communist to libertarian, and quite a bit in-between. Just as the word "Democrat" once actually referred to an advocate of democracy but now refers to a coalition of people and ideas that has little or nothing to do with their namesake, so the term "liberal" has become a catch all label for anyone and everyone who is uncomfortable with the political label "conservative."

This has gotten me to thinking, perhaps its time to ditch the word "liberal" all together. It always was a rather broad, unspecific term, and thus carries little meaning politically beyond the connotations we infuse it with. The left has certainly won the connotations game. Most Americans have a specific idea of what is and is not a liberal and right now that idea is not an advocate of free minds and free markets, nor does it equate to "classical liberalism" in any sense of the term.

Time and time again I have found myself saying (or thinking as the case may be): "How can you say that and still call yourself a liberal?" "How can you support the drug war and consider yourself liberal?" "How can you be so damn intolerant and proclaim yourself liberal?" How is it that you can call yourself liberal and fight against change harder than any self-described conservative I've ever met?"

I imagine the answer of most Catallarchy readers, and perhaps some of my fellow catallarchists to be something along the lines of: "You do know what a Liberal is don't you?!?"

I used to have fairly broad definitions of both the terms. For me a "liberal" was someone who recognized that the universe was a changing place and embraced change (though not necessarily all changes) as an inherent part of reality. This was in distinction from a "conservative" which was someone who fought against change and thus against reality itself. The dichotomy was between stasis (which led to the encroachment of entropy, decay, and death) and growth. (There is an obvious bias in the fact that I defined the word "conservative" to mean stasis for the sake of stasis but did not define "liberal" to mean change for the sake of change which can be just as detrimental, but thats another story.)

I still think "conservative" in its broadest sense is someone fighting against change. This could be some change that they believe will make our world a worse place to be in, or it could be the cliched attempt to get back to the "good 'ol days" etc. Using these definitions however I quickly realized that the left was just as conservative as the right (and often even more dogmatic). The fight is and perhaps always have been over who's values are better, and ultimately who's values get to be conserved at the expense of the taxpayer.

My definition of "liberal" changed as I began to better understand the history and origins of the term. It was one who believed individual people could govern themselves and did not need a ruler appointed by God to dictate law from above. It was someone, not too long ago, that believed that all adult humans should be equal before the law, having equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless of their skin color, background, religion etc. (obviously criminal activity changes this status to a debatable degree). It was someone who believed that the activity and beliefs of others regardless of how one might feel personally about that activity, should not be grounds for persecution if that activity was causing no harm to the person or property of others. A liberal was someone tolerant of different religions, ethnicities, sexualities, cultures, beliefs, ideas, and eccentricities of others. They have respect for all human beings, practice tolerance, compassion, and aspire to create a world of peace and justice for all...


The guillotine suddenly seemed strangely appropriate. Obviously there are few (if any) individuals in history that we can point to that lived up to all these ideals. Rather its more of a loose collection of rhetoric and perhaps wishful thinking I picked up over the years from the histories of some would-be and a few actual liberals.

I was encouraged however when reading Virginia Postrel's introduction to "The Future and It's Enemies." In it she draws a very familiar comparison between stasists and dynamists:

How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis—a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism—a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition? Do we value stability and control, or evolution and learning? Do we declare with Appelo that "we're scared of the future" and join Adams in decrying technology as "a killing thing"? Or do we see technology as an expression of human creativity and the future as inviting? Do we think that progress requires a central blueprint, or do we see it as a decentralized, evolutionary process? Do we consider mistakes permanent disasters, or the correctable by-products of experimentation? Do we crave predictability, or relish surprise? These two poles, stasis and dynamism, increasingly define our political, intellectual, and cultural landscape. The central question of our time is what to do about the future. And that question creates a deep divide.

Perhaps I have been attaching myself to the wrong term all along. It was after all not the term "liberal" that made classical liberalism great but rather its openness. Its advocacy of justice and governance being opened to all people instead of an elite class, of markets being opened to all nations and peoples of the world, and its advocacy of the open mind willing to explore a strange and unknown yet knowable universe. "Dynamism" touches all these things and has yet to be subjected to the semantic chopping block of political machinery.

Perhaps it is at least time to let go of the term "liberal" and let the left have their vague if illusory connection to great rhetorics of past. We'll throw it in the refuse bin of overused meaningless political terminology and other propaganda fodder. It fits in nicely with the equally meaningless terms "democrat" and "progressive."

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Thanks for a thoughtful

Thanks for a thoughtful posting. Bringing in :kiss: Virginia Postrel was a very nice touch. I was a "liberal" in my late teens and early twenties. From there to libertarian and finally political agnostic. I admire your effort to clarify a murky subject.

Words are shape-shifters. They change to fit the neural landscape of the listener (even if the listener is also the speaker). The word "liberal" will mean one thing to :beatnik: , and another thing to :twisted: . :dunce: will go along with whatever the rest of you think.

Speaking as an editor :no: , I might suggest that you review the difference between "who's" and "whose." Some people get hung up on "it's" and "its." That possessive "apostrophe 's' " rule can sometimes jump in and override words that were meant exclusively as possessives.