Thursday, September 21, 2006

Do our current political labels fit anymore?

What is a liberal? What is a conservative? And just what the heck is a moderate or centrist? I started thinking about this after reading an article on Iran's president telling students they should be asking that liberal professors be fired. I today noticed that Pajamas Media is addressing the issue of what to call those who don't want to be called centrist or moderate.Let's look at the word liberal first;
–adjective
1.favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.

2.(often initial capital letter) noting or pertaining to a political party advocating measures of progressive political reform.
3.of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism.
4.favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.
5.favoring or permitting freedom of action, esp. with respect to matters of personal belief or expression: a liberal policy toward dissident artists and writers.
6.of or pertaining to representational forms of government rather than aristocracies and monarchies.
7.free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant: a liberal attitude toward foreigners.
8.open-minded or tolerant, esp. free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.
9.characterized by generosity and willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal donor.
10.given freely or abundantly; generous: a liberal donation.
11.not strict or rigorous; free; not literal: a liberal interpretation of a rule.
12.of, pertaining to, or based on the liberal arts.
13.of, pertaining to, or befitting a freeman.
–noun
14.a person of liberal principles or views, esp. in politics or religion. 15.(often initial capital letter) a member of a liberal party in politics, esp. of the Liberal party in Great Britain.

There are many things about progress (#1 and #2) that “liberals” are completely against. For example; nuclear power, the global economy, GM crops, new drugs or chemicals, nano-technology, etc.

How does #4 match up with restricting people’s property rights in order to prevent sprawl or promote mass transit (through building high density neighborhoods required to support transit stations)? How does it match up with restricting people’s access to tobacco products, fatty foods, or energy (in an effort to reduce “global warming”)?

How does #5 match up with restricting people’s expression of religion? I have never understood how restricting someone from saying a prayer (as opposed to mandating it) restricts anyone else’s freedom of religious expression.

However #4 and #5 are the principle definitions used in non-democratic countries like Iran. Thus it pays to know in what context the word is meant, either in a western democracy like the U.S. or Australia or in a despotic country like Iran or Libya.

I really don’t see how the current political correctness attitudes show any tolerance as called for with #8.

You can really one use #9 or #10 if you count generosity with other people’s money as the money they generally want to spend is from taxes or lawsuits, not from their own pockets for the most part.

We better take a look at another often used label for the left (one that I think they prefer as it has not become a dirty name, at least so far).

Progressive;
–adjective
1. favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are, esp. in political matters: a progressive mayor.
2. making progress toward better conditions; employing or advocating more enlightened or liberal ideas, new or experimental methods, etc.: a progressive community.
3. characterized by such progress, or by continuous improvement.
4. (initial capital letter) of or pertaining to any of the Progressive parties in politics.
5. going forward or onward; passing successively from one member of a series to the next; proceeding step by step.
6. noting or pertaining to a form of taxation in which the rate increases with certain increases in taxable income.
7. of or pertaining to progressive education: progressive schools.
8. Grammar. noting a verb aspect or other verb category that indicates action or state going on at a temporal point of reference.
9. Medicine/Medical. continuously increasing in extent or severity, as a disease.
–noun
10. a person who is progressive or who favors progress or reform, esp. in political matters.
11. (initial capital letter) a member of a Progressive party.

I already addressed #1 under liberal, but #2 represents a challenge because it is so broad. Better conditions and more enlightened are very subjective that almost anyone can claim that their view represents. Much of what the left wants today is not very new or experimental, though it was 60+ years ago when the term was much more popular with the party.

Now #6 is of course very popular with the left and while the subject of #7 is close to the heart of the left I don’t think they can show that education has progressed as in improved.

Ok, now let’s look at the other side.

Conservative;
–adjective
1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
2. cautiously moderate or purposefully low: a conservative estimate.
3. traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness: conservative suit.
4. (often initial capital letter) of or pertaining to the Conservative party.
5. (initial capital letter) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Conservative Jews or Conservative Judaism.
6. having the power or tendency to conserve; preservative.
7. Mathematics. (of a vector or vector function) having curl equal to zero; irrotational; lamellar.
–noun
8. a person who is conservative in principles, actions, habits, etc.
9. a supporter of conservative political policies.
10. (initial capital letter) a member of a conservative political party, esp. the Conservative party in Great Britain.
11. a preservative.


While this one is a better fit for those on the right than liberal is for the left there are still some inconsistencies. For instance #1, the conservatives have come up with some rather fresh ideas about government that are not what I think of as traditional and are also not existing conditions. The “Contract with America” of the Gingrich era is good example. Also #2 doesn’t cover much of what they have come up with, why else would the left call them radicals?

But much of what the right does or represents is close to #3, so 1 out of 3 is better than what liberal scores as a representation of the left.

How about the so called middle of the political spectrum?

Moderate;
–adjective
1. kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense: a moderate price.
2. of medium quantity, extent, or amount: a moderate income.
3. mediocre or fair: moderate talent.
4. calm or mild, as of the weather.
5. of or pertaining to moderates, as in politics or religion.
–noun
6. a person who is moderate in opinion or opposed to extreme views and actions, esp. in politics or religion.
7. (usually initial capital letter) a member of a political party advocating moderate reform.
–verb (used with object)
8. to reduce the excessiveness of; make less violent, severe, intense, or rigorous: to moderate the sharpness of one's words.
9. to preside over or at (a public forum, meeting, discussion, etc.).
–verb (used without object)
10. to become less violent, severe, intense, or rigorous.
11. to act as moderator; preside.

Well these are certainly more subjective descriptions than those that apply to liberal or conservative. Still I have heard some pretty extreme views and positions from so called moderates, the only difference is they seem to share some views with both sides. The problem is the number of combination of views that can be shared with both sides presents a very, very broad spectrum. This represents a collection of views far too large to be identified as a single group.

Centrist;
–noun
1. (esp. in continental Europe) a member of a political party of the Center; moderate.
–adjective
2. of or pertaining to centrists or to their political views; middle-of-the-road.

This may be a better term for the middle as it doesn’t really imply that they all share the same view, only that it is between the two sides. The problem again is it doesn’t tell you anything about their views, it is just a convenient label. One that many, particularly the press, likes to use and act as if those who share the label also share a common viewpoint.

One of the points that seems to have lead to confusion is a couple of words that get used quite often, but their definitions don’t seem to stretch as far as intended.

Before we can really address the word liberty we need to be clear on one of the words used;
Arbitrary;
1. subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one's discretion: an arbitrary decision. 2. decided by a judge or arbiter rather than by a law or statute. 3. having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government. 4. capricious; unreasonable; unsupported: an arbitrary demand for payment. 5. Mathematics. undetermined; not assigned a specific value: an arbitrary constant.

You would think that #1 has been covered as we are a country ruled by law and not by men. However when the law can’t easily fit in a eighteen wheel truck trailer it looses a lot of meaning. The power goes to those who can read the law, and by that I don’t mean literally, I mean the lawyers and politicians who are able to apply the written law to their own purposes while the rest of us or left to capricious interpretations or selective applications of the law.

Now obviously when speaking about the power of a government #2 and #3 take on special meaning. And given how many things happen today due to judicial rulings that you can’t just point to the words in our law you might argue that are laws are becoming more arbitrary rather than less.

Given the ever expanding breadth of the law there seems to be very little that is unrestricted or uncontrolled. Consider just how many things require a license to do now days. Not only actions, like marriage or driving, but also professions like barber or tattooist.

Ok, on to the word liberty.

Liberty;
–noun, plural -ties.
1. freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.
2. freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.
3. freedom from control, interference, obligation, restriction, hampering conditions, etc.; power or right of doing, thinking, speaking, etc., according to choice.
4. freedom from captivity, confinement, or physical restraint: The prisoner soon regained his liberty.
5. permission granted to a sailor, esp. in the navy, to go ashore.
6. freedom or right to frequent or use a place: The visitors were given the liberty of the city.
7. unwarranted or impertinent freedom in action or speech, or a form or instance of it: to take liberties.
8. a female figure personifying freedom from despotism.
—Idiom
9. at liberty,
a. free from captivity or restraint.
b. unemployed; out of work.
c. free to do or be as specified: You are at liberty to leave at any time during the meeting.

You must admit that #3 has taken a pretty big hit with a lot of words being verboten as they can be considered actionable, either as sexual harassment or a hate crime.

It would also be hard to argue that #4 has taken a pretty major hit given just how many people are in prison. What ever you think about drugs you might want to consider whether it really is a good thing that so many people are in prison for no other reason than drugs.

So now that we know how the labels match-up or fail to match-up with the people they are meant to describe, I would like to suggest some replacements.

First for those not familiar with the Nolan quiz, also known as the world’s shortest political test, take a moment to check it out. I think that this two-dimensional view of the political world is much more accurate and just as easy to understand as the current left-right view. Much of the current Left would actually fall into the bottom of the diamond under the label Statist due to the firm belief in Big Government. I think the remaining set will mainly fall into Centrist or Libertarian as I seldom hear anything from anyone who believes in the more classical Liberal viewpoint, that is personal liberty but economic controls.



The current Right will mainly fall into the Conservative camp and as I have discussed this label is not too inaccurate a view of most. Many though who have begun to focus on personal liberties as those liberties have eroded will find that they fit better in the Centrist or Libertarian camps. Some (particularly Capital Hill Republicans and many Alaskan Republicans) will fit quite nicely in the Statist territory.

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