By Mark Skousen
A rose is a rose is a rose. But a conservative is a libertarian is a liberal. When labels confuse rather than clarify, they should be dropped.
RESOLVED: That we use political labels as little as possible when describing
people’s ideologies. When somebody asks me, “Are you a liberal? Conservative? Libertarian? I answer, “What’s the issue?” Categorizing someone’s ideas as either “liberal” or “conservative” is often used to avoid real thinking about actual issues.
I refrain from referring to political positions as either “left” and “right” in my writing. I generally use the word “liberal” to describe a person’s spending habits, as in the case of a “liberal” spender–one who is generous or possibly overly lavish. I also occasionally refer to a person who is open-minded and tolerant of other people’s views as being “liberal” minded. “Conservative” on the other hand, seems best used in the context of investing–I call a person who is prudent and moderate in his choice of investments a “conservative investor” (as opposed to “speculative”)–though it also seems reasonable to describe one who wants to conserve time-honored values as a “conservative.” Not surprisingly, I like to be called “liberal” or “conservative” depending on the issue, the action or the mind-set. I dislike being called either if it is a method for throwing me into a convenient ideological box.
The three main reasons why labels are best avoided in political discussions are: (1) Labels are often an inaccurate description of a person’s or group’s views. (2) Labels often become pejorative terms used in character assassination (3) Labels put people into political boxes and keep them there, preventing individuals from objectively considering alternative opinions and changing their minds.
Obsolescence, Left and Right
The terms “left” and “right” came into use after the French revolution. In the French National Assembly, the “liberals” sat to the left of the president’s chair, the “moderates” in the center, and the “conservatives” to the right. Those on the left were designated “liberals” and “radicals” because they wanted to make major reforms in politics and the economy. Their opponents on the right became “conservatives” and “reactionaries” because they were aristocratic nationalists who wanted to return to the status quo of the ancien regime. Those in the center were the “moderates” who were looking for a compromise. This political spectrum has often been used in describing the signers of our Declaration of Independence. Still, though Thomas Jefferson has often been called a classical liberal, calling him a left-winger seems out of place.
This dichotomy may have made sense during the American and the French revolutions. But once the principles of freedom and constitutional law were established (in America, at least), the “liberals” gradually became “conservatives” by defending the new status quo of liberty and limited government. Turnabout being fair play, in the 20th century the collectivists who pushed to eliminate economic freedom and expand the role of the state became the “liberals” or “progressives.” Having adopted the favorable titles of “progressive,” “modern” and “advanced,” they scorned the opposition as “right-wing” and “reactionary.” Thus, in the twisted world of political labeling; what the 19th century liberals supported–free enterprise capitalism and laissez faire government–the 20th-century liberals opposed by pushing for big government and interventionism in the marketplace.
Label confusion has reigned ever since, and the political spectrum has become a rhetorical version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” routine. The 19th century liberal ideals became the policies of some (but by no means all) 20th century conservatives.
Marxists, Communists and other international collectivists became the “radical left,” while the Fascists of the 1930s in Italy and Nazi Germany were designated “right wingers” simply because they opposed the “Reds.” But the only difference in their politics was nationalism vs. internationalism. The fascists were every bit as collectivist as Stalin.
Believers in economic and political liberty had a hard time dealing with label stereotypes in the 1950s. They opposed the New Deal and wanted a return to laissez faire, so they were dubbed “reactionary conservatives.” Because they were ardent “anti-Communists,” they were linked closely with the Fascists and Nazi-era “rightists.” Many conservatives responded by saying they were “old fashioned liberals,” but this didn’t mean anything to anyone in the torrent of nebulous labels.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I resented these and other pejorative labels. It was nearly impossible to convince anyone of the virtues of free enterprise capitalism, laissez faire government, and opposition to communism if my views were always called “reactionary,” “old fashioned’ and “Neanderthal.” The conservatives responded in kind by calling the New Deal liberals “radicals,” “pseudo progressives’ and “communist sympathizers.” Only the “moderates” sounded “responsible,” and depending on their position on an issue, they usually got hit by traffic going both ways. There was a lot of bad blood, and very little sharing of ideas. Conservatives refused to read John Kenneth Galbraith and The Washington Post, and liberals eschewed Milton Friedman and National Review.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the labels became more complex and less enlightening as the political stereotypes began to crack. We now witness dictatorships of the left and the right, market economies of the left and right, revolutions of the left and right, and totalitarianisms of the left and right. We have socialist left-wing parties privatizing public services, and conservative rightwing governments imposing tariffs and higher taxes. We have extreme liberal Democrats supporting deregulation of the airlines and decontrol of natural gas. We have the nation’s most liberal newspaper, The New York Times, coming out against the minimum wage. We have a right-wing anarchocapitalist endorsing radical left-wing land reform in Latin America and legalization of drugs in the United States.
In the Middle East we have right-wing Christians killing left-wing terrorists. Soviet opponents of perestroika and glasnost are called “conservatives” by the American press, as are South African racists. Political analysts are having a devil of a time labeling an old “liberal” publication, The New Republic, because its views are no longer predictable. Politicians are now starting to run as individuals and not as members of a political party. And what’s this about conservative lobbyists joining hands with liberal lobbyists to fight IMF funding? None of this makes sense if we insist on dividing the world into the standard left-right divisions.
But, alas, instead of scrapping the entire phony nomenclature, everyone seems to be making up more labels. There’s the New Right and the Old Right, the Southern Conservative Democrats and the Northern Liberal Democrats, the Neo-Conservatives and the Paleo-Libertarians, the Post-Keynesians, the Neo-Marxists, and the Neo-Liberals. The list goes on and on, growing like topsy and confusing everyone except the most stalwart who spend all day reading everything from every point on the political compass.
Fortunately, some editors and publishers have recently recognized the misleading and counterproductive nature of labeling and have largely discarded it. Reason magazine is one example. Eschewing ad hominem political tags, Reason analyzes issues on their own merits, not based on who espouses them.
For the Scrap-Heap of History
It’s time to make a change in our political lexicon. The national press and the political analysts need to stop using the outdated and misleading leftwing liberal/right-wing conservative dichotomy. When someone’s philosophy is labeled and compartmentalized, thinking stops and name-calling begins. Once an economist is labeled a Marxist, only the Marxists listen. When a political analyst writes a column called “On the Right,” no one except the “right-wing” faithful reads it. Dividing ideology into camps on two sides of the political spectrum tends to elevate both sides to an equal status, as if both policies hold equal sway and are equally justifiable. Then the moderates whisper, “Perhaps we should compromise!” We are left with the erroneous impression that “the extreme left is just as bad as the extreme right.” Categorizing philosophies leads toward political nihilism and away from the desire to find the truth.
In short, it is high time that political pundits and the national media put away their cold-war mentality and endorse a new standard where each person stands on individual merit and not in some political box. Left and right, liberal and conservative, radical and reactionary–all are words of the past that divide people. I say scrap them. When adjectives are absolutely necessary, let’s at least try to be more specific. Use adjectives and nouns that are meaningful, accurate and unbiased. If we don’t, the war of political ideas will be decided on the basis of an axiom of my colleague, Larry Abraham: “Those who control the adjectives win.”