Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's in a Label (part 2)

You know, [liberal] is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century. I prefer the word "progressive," which has a real American meaning, going back to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. -- Hillary Clinton (CNN/YouTube Debate July 23, 2007)
I've seen, on numerous occasions, people on the left complaining that the right is so much better at creating labels than the left. This is nonsense. The vast majority of terms used in current politics come from the French Revolution, which wasn't exactly a hotbed of Burkean conservatism. Even the terms "left" and "right" address where people sat in the French National Assembly of 1789.

One term that doesn't come from the French Revolution is "liberal". Clinton is correct that "liberal" originally referred (derogatorily) to those in favor of individual liberty. It was somewhat similar to how we would use "libertine" referring to, principally French, criminality and lawlessness. It came to refer to most Enlightenment thinkers (both Scottish and French) and was then taken up in the mid-nineteenth century by those who wished to be free from attachment to current policies and institutions (the opposite of conservative). I will note that in the United States this necessarily means a desire to be free from the constraints the Constitution places on government.

Clinton's preferred label, "progressive", has always meant this final meaning of "liberal". Specifically the origin of the term is with those who wish to free the government in order to lead "progress" towards a more perfect humanity. Contrary to Clinton, however, this has always meant delegating more power to the government in order to allow it to force the people forward. As early as Teddy Roosevelt (and certainly as early as Wilson) Progressives have known that they know how to move forward and if only they could escape the dated bounds of the Constitution they could enact laws forcing us forward.

On to the labels that NoLabels decries, we have Socialist and Capitalist, both coined by Socialists. With the rise of Socialism the socialist wished to distinguish their policies, which looked out for social good and the good of the populace, with those which looked out only for Capital assets and those who held them. You might claim that Socialist whatever Socialism was originally intended to denote, it has come to mean something vile and unpopular and its origin should have no bearing on whether or not it's polite to use it. That might be fair, but it does have meaning. I would assert that most people understand it to mean something pretty close to how Merriam-Websters defines it:
any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
If that's the case then the question is not, as NoLabels would have it, suppressing the label of Socialist but determining if somebody who nationalizes the auto industry, parts of the financial industry (with the hope of regulations allowing the further nationalization as it becomes needed), regulates the health care industry to the point that providers are still ostensibly private but must do exactly as the government tells them, and rides roughshod over the capital rights of bondholders in bankruptcy holdings is actually a socialist. I think it's pretty obvious where I stand on this, but I wouldn't want to upset David Frum by labelling anyone so I'll stick with just describing policies.

The other label I've seen which No Labels thinks we shouldn't use is "racist". Racist was created as part of Nazi race theory to describe the fact that we should look out for the master race. Like Socialist, I think its meaning in popular culture is largely unchanged and reflects about what modern dictionaries describe it as (again from Merriam-Webster):
a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
Again I think the question we should ask is not if the label "racist" should be banned from public discussion, but whether those labelled racist actually are. For this I have two questions to ask:
  1. Is someone who thinks people from all races should be judged in all ways without regard to their race, and who disagrees with the policies of the current (black) president just as they disagree with similar policies undertaken by Carter, Wilson, or FDR a racist?
  2. What about someone who believes that certain minorities can't make it without government handouts and therefore need preferential treatment from the government in farming, business, college admission and various other endeavors?

What's in a Label (Part 1)

I haven't jumped on the anti-NoLabels bandwagon mainly because I don't think NoLabels is actually attracting enough followers to be worth anyone's attention. But, because everybody else is doing it, I guess I'll chime in.

I pretty much ignore their Statement of Purpose and Declaration because they're statements that all Americans want certain things that are obvious. Yes, all Americans want a government that works and is driven by "common sense and shared purpose". And as soon as Bernie Sanders agrees with me that the way to do that is by paring back the size of the central government to the limits outlined in the text of the Constitution I'll be happy to support him. Until then, his theory on what works is radically different than mine. They appear to have removed most of the actual discussion about labels from their website, but at one time they were saying that we should stop using terms like "racist" and "socialist" in conversation about politics and politicians. Before we stop using them, can we figure out what they mean, where they came from, and why someone would want to stop using them?

In the late 1990s First Union bank was getting rather famous for nickle-and-diming their customers. They actually had a fee for talking to a teller instead of using the ATM. As someone with an IQ above room temperature should be able to quickly figure out, this was causing their customers to flee to other banks. Their management decided to change their policies to be more customer friendly, but they were worried that they had done so much damage to the brand that people would never come back to a bank named "First Union" so they bought a regional bank named "Wachovia" and adopted the "Wachovia" name for all of their branches.

On the other hand we could go to any reference on racial slurs and find a host of not-fit-to-put-in-my-blog labels with pejorative meanings that paint a group of people with a broad brush in an offensive manner.

I can see why those labelled with either of these types of terms would want to stop seeing labels, but First Union poisoned their own brand and they well deserved the disdain they got. So which type is "socialist" or "racist"?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

State Debt

I recently read a post by Yuval Levin about the dilemma that's about to face Congress on what to do about our bankrupt state governments. As a federalist, pretty much nothing is more offensive to me than forcing the taxpayers of Georgia or Alaska to fund the bad spending decisions of California and Massachusetts or the bad investment decisions of those who funded their bankruptcy. Yuval is correct that it would be extremely costly not to bail states out, but from my perspective it's even more costly to bail them out. The most recent "stimulus" contained billions in funding to perpetuate the failed policies of bankrupt states and prevent them from having to make the difficult decisions about which of their unaffordable services to cancel. What this means is that if California decides that everybody needs a car and starts handing them out with welfare then when they don't have the money to pay back bondholders who financed their boneheaded moves the citizens of Ohio (who don't have a free car) can pay the loans. Worse, there currently isn't any reason to believe the fed will force California to stop handing out cars. And if Greece is any model for how a US state might behave, telling California we'll bail them out only if they stop handing out cars won't work out either.

So this raises the question, if (as I argue) it's completely unfair and unsustainable to bail states out and (as Yuval argues, and I agree) it's going to destroy the bond market to not bail states out, what do you do? I don't know, but it's a discussion we better start having soon.