You Can Take the Word Liberal From Me When You Pry It From My Cold, Dead Mouth
I was having a nice discussion with the man behind the counter at the firing range. He was surrounded by semi-automatic weapons, and hundreds of handguns in the case that separated us. I used the opportunity to tap into his expertise, mostly because I don’t keep up with the gun issue enough.
He explained to me the absurdity of the ban on automatic weapons, how and why it is that there is really no such thing as an “assault rifle,” a bit about size of allowable magazine sizes. He pointed out, in particular, Clinton’s support of an assault rifle ban had a sunset clause that caused it to go away in 2004.
This is where the conversation became interesting.
I asked: “So the law has been liberalized since Clinton?”
He raised his eyebrow and there was a long pause. Finally he said (with a deep Southern drawl): “I don’t know about no liberalism. I don’t like liberals.”
Ok, I said, that’s not what I mean. “I mean liberalized in the sense of more liberal, like more freely available.”
That didn’t help. He once said, “I’m just saying that I don’t like much about what liberals are saying or doing.”
So I tried again. “Well, more precisely, what I mean by liberalization is that American citizens are now more free than they once were to import certain kinds of weapons. We are more liberated to choose than we were before.”
Still, he stood there in silence, staring. And suspicious.
Finally a co-worker walked by and said “he means liberal like in the old way, a different way than you mean the term.”
I piped in and said, “yes, just the English world liberal meaning less government control over what we do.”
Even then, this nice man couldn’t understand what the heck I was talking about. The word liberal to him was the embodiment of evil. He somehow thought I was standing there promoting evil. Nothing I said would overcome his sense that I was somehow on the other side, that I was his enemy.
Wow, are we really this far down the path? Has our political terminology become so confused that we can’t even use regular English words in a way that we can be understood?
Maybe this is an extreme case. Maybe it is not this bad all over, but I do wonder.
For years, right-wing radio commentators have been using the word liberal as a swear term, the worst thing you could ever say about someone, someone who wants to destroy your life. They have contrasted the malice of “liberals” with the greatness of “conservatives,” who favor God, country, free enterprise, and war. And book after book appears within this space that uses the term liberal to identify the worst conceivable values.
To be sure, this is not new. It has gone on since after World War Two when Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind appeared and was promoted on the cover of Time Magazine. This tendency has mightily contributed to the demonization of one of the great words in the English language.
Now, you might point out, rightly, that the “liberals” started it. About a century ago, everyone knew what a liberal was. A liberal favored free speech, freedom of action, a free economic order, and religious freedom. A liberal opposed war. A liberal favored the ever increasing liberation of the world from oppression, poverty, suffering.
That began to change in the Progressive Era but especially at the New Deal. Liberals had to make a decision about the free economy as versus the fascist model of the New Deal. They chose wrongly. But they kept using the name liberal. Ten years later, it had begun to stick.
So when William F. Buckley set out to resist the onslaught, he needed a new name. The name was conservative. But the fit wasn’t perfect because his conservatism was different from the old liberalism. It now favored war and social control. It favored cops and resisted civil liberties. It actually wasn’t liberal at all.
It was probably appropriate, then, to coin a new term. But what about the status of liberalism itself? Already distorted, the conservative acquiescence to the left on terminology made a bad situation worse. And it grew worse over the decades, to the point that the right word liberal (meaning free like speech) has become practically unusable.
And yet this is mostly just in the United States. In most places in the world, the word liberal still means what it is supposed to mean. More substantially, it is the right word. It has a beautiful tradition. And I agree with Mises who said there is no suitable replacement.
Despite the gruff gun salesman behind the counter, I won’t give up the term liberal. You can take it from me when you pry it from my cold dead mouth.
The Economics of Life Itself : Beautiful Anarchy is the writing platform of Jeffrey Tucker, in which he covers economics, art, popular culture, and politics from a pro-liberty, anti-state point of view.