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On Not Stealing Linguistic Scraps

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The following is a response to Daniel B. Klein’s essay “A Plea Regarding ‘Liberal,'” which appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Modern Age, on sale now. John Zmirak has already offered his response, which you can read here. You can subscribe to Modern Age here.


For a good many years now, I have steadfastly refused to use the word liberal when describing the more egregious character within the American left. In an essay that appeared recently in these pages, George Mason’s Daniel Klein explains brilliantly why. The champions of big government and intrusive regulation, Klein records convincingly, are not in fact “liberals” in any traditional sense of that word, and that they have managed to provoke their opponents into portraying them as such represents an act of great political genius. This matter, Klein proposes, is not merely one of cosmetics: because words “have deep-seated cognates and connotations,” he writes, their use can be fraught with political danger. “Relinquishing the term liberal to the left,” he concludes, “is a gift that keeps on giving.” Should the friends of individual liberty wish to win the future, they will have to be smarter than this.

Such as it is, my primary objection to Klein’s submission is that he does not in fact go far enough with his crusade. To his initial contention—that conservatives and libertarians should decline to call their illiberal opponents “liberals”—I have no objections at all. But I do wonder this: if language is indeed so important, what are we to make of our continuing to describe ourselves with words that don’t quite fit? In his proposal, Klein recommends “only a single step,” noting that he is happy for those of us on the right to keep using the word conservative. Why? It is certainly the case that altering our national political vocabulary will be a serious and time-consuming undertaking, and that any progress in this area will be gradual and hard-won. But I would suggest that we should agree to engage in a war on two fronts, rather than just one. Acknowledging that to deny something to one’s enemy is not necessarily to gain that thing for one’s self, the champions of Liberty should be aiming not merely to take the word liberal away from the left but to reclaim it for ourselves. As a genuine liberal myself, I feel as might a man whose home has been burgled: it's not enough to catch and identify the culprit; I want my stuff back, too.

In theory, there is nothing at all wrong with our using conservative to describe ourselves. Because America is at root a propositional nation—and because its animating conceits are liberal in nature—conservative necessarily means something different here than in most other countries. Just as the man who wishes to conserve his marriage will remain married, so the man who wishes to conserve liberalism will remain a liberal. The day after the revolution, the most radical of the rabble-rousers necessarily becomes the most conservative. Has he ceased to be a radical because his radicalism has been ossified? Of course not. Rather, he has become protective of the radical order. This, I’d venture, is where American “conservatives” typically find themselves today.

But, reasonable as it may be, this argument is a touch too nuanced and abstract for everyday politics. Upon considered reflection, those reading this response may well agree with me. But what about the casual observer? Is this how the word conservative is reflexively heard by him? Alas, I think not. In quotidian debate, those “deep-seated cognates and connotations” kick in and do their best to confuse the issue.

As far as I can tell, there are two key problems that arise from classical liberals electing to describe themselves as “conservatives.” The first is that the word carries baseline implications that are simply false with the American context. In most countries, to be a “conservative” is essentially to be a reactionary—that is, to be distrustful of the sweeping social and technological changes that the free market necessarily yields, to remain attached to the ancient hierarchies that the Enlightenment so effectively threatened, and to fear that human beings left to their own devices will inevitably make the “wrong” choices. In the United States, self-described conservatives believe pretty much none of these things. And yet, because the word is easily twisted, their critics have a field day playing cheap semantic games. In 2013, the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky offered up a perfect example. “Do you support the American Revolution?” Tomasky asked. “I should hope so. You would not have, however, had you been a conservative in 1785.” Other ideas that Tomasky had “conservatives” opposing were the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of women, and the eradication of segregation. Evidently, this was an extremely silly line of attack; in order to score a point, Tomasky willfully conflated American conservatism as an ideology, with more general conservatism as a disposition, thereby casting what is in truth a complex set of ideals and values into little more than the philosophy of “hell no.” And yet, because the word conservative is indeed used elsewhere as a synonym for “obstinate,” he got away with it.

The second problem: because conservative has more than one meaning even in American life, its casual deployment can act as a serious impediment to clarity. Most human beings are not raving ideologues who hew perfectly to a set of abstract principles, but complex actors whose worldviews are formed by some combination of philosophical idealism, reflexive instinct, and personal experience. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I were a) deeply attached to the principles of the American Revolution, and b) a great friend to the free market, but that c) I believed gay marriage to be a mistake. How exactly should my philosophy be characterized? On the first two points, I could be reasonably cast as a champion of liberalism; on the other, I could be fairly represented as a friend of the status quo and a defender of the tried and tested. Under our present linguistic regime, however, all of these positions would be cast as “conservative.” This makes little sense.

Klein is absolutely correct when he determines that to relinquish the term liberal to the left would be a gift that keeps on giving. By extension, he has hit on a parallel truth: that for the genuine liberals among us to refuse to reclaim their salutary moniker is to miss a vital opportunity. Should we so wish, we can throw “progressive,” “leftist,” and “social democrat” at the advocates of untrammeled power, and we can do so until the cows come home. Perhaps, after a while, we will succeed in damaging their brand. But for as long as we are subjugating Smith and Jefferson and Friedman and Schumpeter under an inaccurate set of lemmas, we will in effect be acknowledging that their moral and rhetorical force is to be limited. If I may be permitted to butcher Shakespeare, I would note for the record that we liberals have been afforded the opportunity to dine at a great feast of languages and ideas. We have the greatest inheritance there ever has been; we must not be content with stealing the scraps.

Charles C. W. Cooke is a writer at National Review and a graduate of the University of Oxford, at which he studied modern history and politics. He is the co-host of the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" podcast, and has broadcast for HBO (Real Time with Bill Maher), the BBC, MSNBC, Fox News, The Blaze, CNBC, CTV, ABC, Sun News, and CBS. He is the author of The Conservatarian Manifesto: Libertarians, Conservatives, and the Fight for the Right's Future.

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