Thursday, July 22, 2010

What's in an -ism?

As I glanced through the NYTimes this morning before work, I noticed an essay by James McWhorter titled "The Dreaded P-Word". It is referring to the term progressive, which some Democrats/liberals back away from and some Republicans/conservative embrace. In fact, McWhorter says, labels like liberal, conservative, radical and reactionary have changed or mutated over the years. I definitely agree. It's a shame when (political) fashion dictates what terms mean, and labels like racist and bleeding heart are perhaps the most precise.

McWhorter describes him self as a "black conservative", which he further defines as "a lack of interest in stressing racism as an obstacle to success" (I'm not sure why he omits the "black" part, maybe he thinks it is self evident). McWhorter (confusingly) notes that Louis Farrakhan advocates "black self reliance" and "propounds traditional codes of behavior", but since Farrakhan also says white people are racists, he couldn't be a black conservative. Hunh?

Which is why (partly) I was interested in what McWhorter says a liberal might be. Apparently the defining characteristic is an "espousal" of big government and "of possibly envelope-pushing social values". Which pisses me off, but to explain why I need to step back in the explanation.

Conservatives and particularly that branch of conservatism that calls itself libertarians (I see them as a subset, they may see themselves as distinct) want minimal government control over their lives and minimal government taxation. Because they don't want the government to spend much, it naturally follows that they want a smaller government. Fair enough.

But I don't think it follows that liberals, being somewhat in opposition to conservatives/libertarians, actually necessarily advocate big government. I think a liberal, such as myself, can look at politics through a different lens than the libertarian. I use economic theory to say that there are issues the free market does not handle well, and need some form of government intervention. The traditional example is pollution, which the free market does not handle well because no one owns the air (or the water, perhaps from the ocean) but we all use it. Government intervention can be as extensive as mandating a particular technology (say, electrostatic air scrubbers) or as (relatively) limited as a tax on pollution, where the polluting companies show their technology works and their tax is reduced accordingly (and perhaps they can buy and sell "pollution" credits from other more or less efficient companies).

The point is, I have goals, such as less racist behavior in society or less pollution, but I don't think the delivery method for achieving those goals is written in stone. In a way, I prefer small government methods of achieving my goals because the small government method uses fewer resources and this is more efficient.

What's in the definition of a label like liberal? A whole agenda, hiding in plain sight.

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