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“Liberal”—Step One: A Reply to John Zmirak and Charles C.W. Cooke

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The following is the final entry in a symposium initiated by the publication of Daniel B. Klein’s essay “A Plea Regarding ‘Liberal,'” which appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Modern Age, on sale now. You can subscribe to Modern Age here.


I am grateful to ISI for the opportunity to publish, and to John Zmirak and Charles C.W. Cooke for engaging, my plea not to call leftists “liberals.”

In his piece “You Can’t Wash the Taint Off ‘Liberalism,’" John says that heeding my plea would be letting them off the hook for the failures of leftist policies. But, John, even if your intent is, as you suggest, to see them “squirm,” why is it that they squirm more when called “liberals” than when called “leftists”? The taint on “leftist” is stunning, and likely will become even more so in the future.

John writes, “maybe you can save a word from the trash bin—but it takes a lot of forgetting.” However, we should embrace words and ways of using them, not from the convenience of forgetting, or the ease with which we wash off taints, but from a depth of knowledge about their worthiness, despite their troubling moments and connotations. Our semantics should not be based on scrubbing away impurities and imperfections, but on knowing and remembering, and judging wisely how things, one compared to another, stack up on the whole.

After saying that you can save a word, John asks: “In the case of liberal, why should we try?” My article answers that question, but John doesn’t treat any of the answers given. To him, it seems, the taint is enough to settle the matter. John says that the word liberal “reminds people of shivering Jimmy Carter and bloated Teddy Kennedy, of crime-ridden cities like David Dinkins’s New York, and the smoking rubble of Detroit.” Some people. Meanwhile, I explained that the word liberal reminds some other people of some other things, things that make one willing to say “No!” to the semantic traps described in my article.

Any philosophical outlook that comes to any prominence or power—political, cultural, or religious—will then come with plenty of taint. Such prominence and power must entail deep societal conflicts between the parts of the whole, and deep hatreds. Prominence and power must entail grievous errors prosecuted in its name. Prominence and power must also provoke heavy tainting by its opponents and detractors.

John relates that he is a Christian. Has there not been taint associated with that identification? If one decides to embrace Christianity, to call oneself “Christian,” shouldn’t one do so with a responsible knowledge of all that it means, over two thousand years, including the taints, and a responsible comparison to the alternatives to such an embracing?

I recently read Larry Siedentop’s book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (2014), arguing that Christianity made liberalism possible, for the liberal individualism that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries presupposed and was patterned after a set of ethical ideas that by the seventeenth century had finally emerged as central to Christianity. I found the book persuasive. The biggest challenge to the thesis is that it took so darned long. There were lots of centuries during which, from most post-1800 viewpoints, Christianity had an awful lot of taint to redeem itself for. Fortunately, all the taint did not cause everyone to lose sight of Christianity’s merits and potentialities.

In the matter of the original arc of liberalism, its merits and potentialities, and whether to call leftists “liberals,” my article tries to give a fuller knowledge and fuller comparison. As John said, maybe you can save a word from the trash bin. When it comes to the word liberal, there is no need to prejudge the outcome in a possible future. My plea is only one step, to refrain from calling leftists “liberals.”

As for Charles C.W. Cooke’s piece: Charles and I are very much in sync; I appreciate his kind words, as well as his reflections on the word conservative. Charles makes one point that I should treat.

Charles say: Yes, let’s not call leftists “liberals,” but let’s really take liberal back for ourselves, by calling ourselves “liberal.” Thus, Charles proposes a step in addition to the one that I proposed.

Think of three options:

Option A: Taking zero steps

Option B: Taking the one step (not calling leftists “liberals”)

Option C: Taking both steps (also, calling ourselves “liberal”)

Now, I agree with Charles that Option C is highly attractive, and for many of us even preferable to Option B. So, again, Charles and I are in sync.

But the attractiveness of Option C is not what is paramount. I say to all of those, like John, who decidedly reject Option C: OK, reject Option C. But, please, please, please, think hard about and discuss whether Option B is not in fact preferable to Option A. Charles rightly says that, when burgled, we want our goods back. But what I want John, Sean Hannity, and others to consider is whether by calling leftists “liberals” they are assisting the ongoing burglarization of our own belongings.

Taking the one step, not calling leftists “liberals,” would really work to get leftists to take pause and search their souls—

“Is part of me, what Jonathan Haidt would call my ‘elephant,’ attracted to and jealous for a cultural centricity advanced and symbolized by the governmentalization of social affairs?”

Such a psycho-sentimental elephant is, I believe, an animus that has always underlay Rousseauism, Marxism, socialism, and progressivism. As seen in the writings of Rousseau, such an elephant is hostile to nothing more than to true liberalism. The greed of the left is their allowing an irresponsible sway to such an elephant. It is an elephant insufficiently tamed by the just demands of liberal civilization.

Not calling leftists “liberals” would upset many of the left’s semantic stratagems. Also, it would conduce to the greater effectiveness of the coalition of people who favor liberty and oppose the governmentalization of social affairs. In other words, even if we take only the one step, it is a big improvement over the practice of John, Sean Hannity, and others, of calling leftists “liberals.”

Daniel B. Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith’s political economy.

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