Monday, 22 November 2004

Reclaiming Liberalism

Throughout the anglosphere the word “liberal” has been used scornfully for the past few decades and, interestingly, it’s used the same way in Europe, though for a different reason. We all know that it’s used as a proxy term for socialist, panty-waist, etc. in the U.S. However, in the rest of the world the left uses it in its original meaning as a term of scorn; globalization (capitalism) is known as neoliberalism and has been known to spark riots from time to time.

The Economist ($) proposes that we reclaim the term to describe proponents of freedom. I concur:
“Liberal” is a term of contempt in much of Europe as well—even though, strangely enough, it usually denotes the opposite tendency. Rather than being keen on taxes and public spending, European liberals are often derided (notably in France) for seeking minimal government—in fact, for denying that government has any useful role at all, aside from pruning vital regulation and subverting the norms of decency that impede the poor from being ground down. Thus, in continental Europe, as in the United States, liberalism is also regarded as a perversion, a pathology: there is consistency in that respect, even though the sickness takes such different forms. And again, in its most extreme expression, it tests the boundaries of tolerance. Worse than ordinary liberals are Europe's neoliberals: market-worshipping, nihilistic sociopaths to a man. Many are said to believe that “there is no such thing as society.”

Yet there ought to be a word—not to mention, here and there, a political party—to stand for what liberalism used to mean. The idea, with its roots in English and Scottish political philosophy of the 18th century, speaks up for individual rights and freedoms, and challenges over-mighty government and other forms of power. In that sense, traditional English liberalism favoured small government—but, crucially, it viewed a government’s efforts to legislate religion and personal morality as sceptically as it regarded the attempt to regulate trade (the favoured economic intervention of the age). This, in our view, remains a very appealing, as well as internally consistent, kind of scepticism.

Indeed. The Europeans are using the word correctly and they despise it nonetheless(it makes sense, since they despise political, and especially, economic freedom). Since the U.S. is the current exemplar of capitalism and is despised anyway, we might as well get our terminology straight. Liberalism, anyone?


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
[Permalink] 1. mungowitz wrote @ Mon, 22 Nov 2004, 8:21 pm CST:


Damn, boy.

You married?

You wanna be? I can get a divorce, in a heartbeat.

[Permalink] 2. PatrickH wrote @ Mon, 22 Nov 2004, 8:23 pm CST:

I remember a history professor from freshman year of college who described himself to our class as a “classical liberal”. Some people walked out confused murmering, “So why is he a Republican?”

You married? You wanna be? I can get a divorce, in a heartbeat.

Well, mungowitz, I’m not sure if you’re a chick or not, but if you’re turned on by that I have to wonder. Picking up a woman with that phrase seems unlikely, to say the least.

(I’m single, in no small part due to phrases exactly like that one.)


Something like Dean Esmay has taken on. “Defending the liberal tradition, etc etc.” Count me in.


Not to nitpick, but isn’t the term “pansy-waist”?

Not to nitpick, but isn’t the term “pansy-waist”?

FWIW, I’ve seen “panty-waist” numerous times. Your comment is the first time I’ve ever seen “pansy-waist” in 40-something years of reading.

[Permalink] 7. Mitchus wrote @ Tue, 23 Nov 2004, 8:50 am CST:
[Europeans] despise political, and especially, economic freedom

I would like to disagree on a few points with you here (guess where I'm from :). First, Europe should be used mainly as a geographical descriptor these days, because within Europe there are about as wide differences in political opinion as you will find anywhere in the world. To be convinced of this, just have a look at the proceedings of some discussions of the EU.
Secondly, much like you've clarified the ambiguity of the word "liberal", I think it is appropriate here to pause on your use of the word freedom. How would you define economic freedom? Is it the right to choose your own trade and practise it without too many restrictions? Or is it the right to engage in any activity beneficial to you, regardless of whether you're (pardon my french) fucking over the rest of society? If it is the latter, I would have to agree on the economic freedom issue.
As far as the political freedom is concerned, I am from Switzerland, the only country I know of with direct democracy. We don't merely elect officials, but any law must be accepted by popular vote. Any citizen may engage in any form of political activity, as long as the separation of powers (characteristic of any healthy democracy) is respected. Pretty free if you ask me.
Best regards, Mitchus


Have to go with Len on this one: the only way it would be pansy-waist is if you were referring to a Roman house boy from centuries ago. It’s panty-waist.


I probably went overboard on the description of Europe and political freedom, but not too much. We apply too much to the term democracy and liberals should agree that tyranny of the majority is potentially as dangerous as other forms of, well, illiberalism. That’s why we have Constitutions and also why the U.S. has a bicameral legislature, states with shared sovereignty and other checks and balances. Government—even at its most benevolent—is dangerous.

As for economic freedom, it means capitalism and the right to do business largely unimpeded from goivernment interference. Yes, I realize there are degrees, but Europe has gone way overboard with rigid labor markets and regulations.


Here’s an etymology of the term “pantywaist.”

This pantywaist was an undergarment consisting of short pants and a shirt that buttoned together at the waist. By metonymy, this children's garment was applied disparagingly to an older male who would never normally wear one.

I must admit I’ve always misheard the term as “pantywaste,” which evokes a rather unpleasant mental image.

[Permalink] 10. Tim Worstall wrote @ Wed, 24 Nov 2004, 4:58 am CST:

Can we reclaim a few other words? Not just “Manchester Liberal“but “Progressive” and “radical”? Like Cobden for example?

[Permalink] 11. Mitchus wrote @ Wed, 24 Nov 2004, 9:24 am CST:
Europe has gone way overboard with rigid labor markets and regulations.

Again, even though it may seem that way, "Europe" is not a country or anything close to a cohesive or uniform structure. If you can't be any more specific I'm afraid I'll have to dismiss your argument as insubstancial.

I'm not sure what you mean by the tyranny of majority. Redefining terms seems to be all the rage these days, but last I checked tyranny involved a central decision body (often a single person). Now, the majority is the logical opposite of a tyran, because if a majority must agree (i.e. only a minority can disagree), you've got the most decentralised decision process I can think of. One might imagine an omnilateral process, where everyone must agree on a decision, but this will invariably result in a static system (in fact it is sort of a "negative tyranny" because any one individual can veto any decision). Majority is the driving force behind democracy.
It is generally recognised that many people are less likely to be wrong than a single person, moreso a majority, which goes to suggest that democracy is the safest form of government one can come up with.
That said, you seem to suggest that absence of government would be even safer. Absence of government (anarchy) implies that individuals are only bounded in their actions by peer pressure, and safety therefore requires the majority's decency! Either way you put it, majority seems to be an unescapable requirement.
If you have counter-arguments, I would of course be interested in hearing them.


It’s common in this country to refer to the tyranny of the majority. That’s why we have a constitution. Majorities get to choose the leaders and they can legislate, and so forth, but not on everything. Some rights are unassailable (sp?), even by a majority, and it’s tyranny to allow them to trample your rights.

That’s what I was getting at. You keep fawning over “democracy”, which is just majority rule, and I was apparently not doing a very good job of explaining my opposition. If you had said liberal democracy, or even better constitutional republic, I wouldn’t have had a problem. I’m just not all that impressed by letting majorities decide things. When they do it needs to be checked by a constitution or their power to decide it needs to be confined within a single state—it doesn’t apply nationally—thereby giving those that oppose it a means of escape if they find it onerous enough.

That is more like freedom and it’s more like what I’m interested in, not the wishes of the majority.

[Permalink] 13. mitchus wrote @ Mon, 6 Dec 2004, 8:41 am CST:


ok point taken, but the trouble is, who decides on the constitution? Is it handed down by gods? Written in stone?



The Constitution would have to be decided by the people. It seems to me that the simple process of explaining why a Constitution is needed will get people thinking properly. Well, hopefully, at least. Since a Constitution is designed to limit government, hopefully it would have them thinking along those lines.

In our case, we happen to have gotten one from a number of men whose concerns were based in the Enlightenment, so we did well. We’ve had to amend it, substantially, but it’s proven to be quite a good document.

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