Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Don’t call them liberals, but don’t call them progressives either

Guest post by Brian Micklethewait

I strongly agree with Americans Dan Klein and Kevin Frei that “liberal” and “liberalism” are words that should never be relinquished to those who don’t believe in liberty. They have started something called Liberalism Unrelinquished. Good for them.

We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.

Way back in 2010, I did a posting at the UK site Samizdata entitled ‘They are not liberals and they are not progressives,’ so I strongly agree about the “liberal” bit of what Klein and Frei are saying.

The Adam Smith Institute’s Sam Bowman recently talked with Klein (Bowman’s posting being how I heard about Liberalism Unrelinquished), and Klein also had this to say:

The left gains enormously by getting away with calling itself “liberal,” so getting them to give up the goods is not even a prayer. Partly, I just want to self-declare, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam.” An Adam Smith liberal; a lovely little subculture. Next, I’d love to see the centre-left, in the US, the Democratic Party people, be called by others something other than “liberal” simpliciter.

An important distinction. We can’t change how they talk, but we can change how we talk. But then comes this:

Progressive, Democratic, social democratic, leftist, or left-liberal – all good.

No, not “all good”. “Progressive”?!  Here’s what I said about that in 2010:

… the word “progressive” is just as wrong as the word “liberal”. The statists who argue for the destruction of the dollar and for bank bail-outs (again) and for nationalised derangement of medical care and for green-inspired economic sabotage aren’t “liberals”. They do not believe in liberty; they believe in curtailing liberty. But neither do they believe in anything which it makes sense to anybody except them to call “progress”. Progress is the exact thing these statists are now trying and have always tried to destroy, and just lately have been doing a pretty damn good job of destroying. Progress means things getting better. These self styled “progressives” are only making things worse.

My piece got linked to by Instapundit, and I like to think it may have set some brain cells in motion on the American side of the Atlantic. Perhaps it even contributed in a tiny way to the founding of Liberalism Unrelinquished. If so, it’s a pity that Klein didn’t register the Progressive bit of my argument. I hope he registers it now.

Klein’s answer might be that when campaigning, you do one thing at a time. Quite so. Klein and Frei are right to concentrate on “liberalism.” This word deserves all the focus that they will be bestowing upon it.

But, if they succeed in stopping us opponents of these anti-liberal but self-declared “liberals” from calling them Liberals, it won’t be nearly such a victory if instead these anti-progressive self-declared “progressives” are merely described by us, their truly progressive opponents, as Progressives.

This is no mere quibble. If we say that “liberals” aren’t liberals but are “progressives”, we are conceding to these … whatever-we-call-these-people, a horrible falsehood as being a truth, namely the falsehood that human liberty and human progress are antithetical ideas and that the only way to accomplish human progress is to diminish human freedom. This is a disastrously wrong idea. What these people unleash upon the world is not progress. It is sterility, stagnation, and often far, far worse.

I, and Klein and Frei, are all liberals, and we are all progressives by any sane meaning of the word “progress.”

So, to quote Instapundit: What do we call them?

The Klein/Frei Liberalism Unrelinquished project is positive. They want to keep that word for their side, and mine. Good.

This posting of mine is mostly negative, just as my 2010 posting was mostly negative. Both are about how not to use certain words. Don’t call them liberals, and don’t call them progressives. But two positives are implied. We are liberals. And yes, although I am not for one moment suggesting that Liberalism Unrelinquished should be given a more unwieldy and less focussed name, we are progressives.

I think there may be clue to what we should call them in the first quote above, in which the Liberalism Unrelinquished Statement talks about “governmentalization.” This surely gets to the heart of what we are objecting to here.

“Governmentalism” or “governmentalist” has the advantage of getting past any Anglo-American spats about whether to say “governmentalization” or (my English preference) “governmentalisation.” (Strangely, nobody would ever write “governmentalizm” (or for that matter “liberalizm”). So don’t anyone tell me that when you encounter a zzz noise, you always put a z. (And let’s forget about whether a z is a zee or a zed, shall we?))

Such z/s conundra aside, I do like “governmentalist” and “governmentalism,” not least because the inclusion of “-mental-” in these words imparts more than a hint of mental malfunction, as is entirely appropriate.

However, “governmentalist” or “governmentalism” are a bit of a mouthful. They contain just too many syllables. I would like my bet to be on our the words “statism” and “statist” emerging, not least because a lot of verbal spade-work has already been done to make those words mean what we say they mean. But my bet does not go there, because “statist” could just mean thinking that American people ought to be screwed around by their various state governments rather than by their federal government. So, the Instapundit question stands.

The winning word or words will be self-explanatory, and will have us all going: Yes! Don’t hold your breath.

Just one final thought, which I first found myself emitting in the comments on that 2010 posting, in my reply (comment number 2) to Guy Herbert (comment number 1):

You say: “I don’t think the linguistic battle is the same, or even overlapping, on either side of the Atlantic.”
But this is one of the big things that is now changing, now that the media are joining up with each other.
I wrote this posting mostly for American readers, in connection with an American article, urging Americans to use some words differently to how they do now. Before the www, I could not have done this. Now such things are routine. Which means that there is now pressure to regularise language, throughout each language-sphere.
Time was when my grumbles about the way Americans use these words would have counted for nothing, because I could not have expressed them to the desired target. Now, they count for something, because I can flash my grumbles all around America, if I am eloquent enough about it and if I get lucky with linkage. They can do the same to us with their opinions, including their opinions about how we use words in ways that they may not like, either because they just don’t, or because how we use a word is different to the way they use it, and want to go on using it.
So now, whatever may have been the story in the past, it is the same battle, on both sides of the Atlantic. [And down here in Enzed – Ed.]
If we don’t resist it, the American way with these words will spread to here. In fact, I think it already is spreading, especially “liberal”, despite liberal having in the past meant something quite different here to what they now mean by it.

This is something that the Liberalism Unrelinquished guys thoroughly understand.

When not being the UK Libertarian Alliance's Editorial Director and appearing for the Libertarian Alliance on the radio and TV, Brian Micklethwait is a self-employed desktop publisher.
This post first appeared at the Samizdata blog.

1 comment:

  1. I like statist.

    (More and more I interchange that with swine, but statist is best.)


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