Friday, March 20, 2009

Moving the Goalposts

Alan Wolfe argues that our President is not a socialist. His opening:
The world 'liberal' first used in its modern political sense in 1812, when Spaniards wrote a new constitution liberating themselves from monarchical rule. As it happens, the word 'socialism' originated in roughly the same period; it came into existence to describe the utopian ideas of the British reformer Robert Owen. Such timing suggests two possibilities: Either the fates of liberalism and socialism are so interlinked that one is all but synonymous with the other--or the two are actually competitors developed to meet similar conditions, in which case victory for one marks the defeat of the other.

These days, one could be forgiven for believing that the former conclusion is correct. It was not so long ago that conservatives were equating liberalism with fascism; today, they have executed a 180-degree swing in order to argue that liberalism is actually synonymous with socialism.
This is a very easy argument to make, if you avoid stating the original meaning of liberalism.

I quote from Milton Friedman's introduction to Capitalism and Freedom:
Jealous of liberty, and hence fearful of centralized power, the nineteenth-century liberal favored political decentralization. Committed to action and confident in the beneficence of power so long as it is in the hands of a government ostensibly controlled by the electorate, the twentieth-century liberal favors centralized government. He will resolve any doubt about where power should be located in favor of the state instead of the city, of the federal government instead of the state, and of a world organization instead of a national government.

Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservatism.
In other words, the modern liberal is more properly a socialist.

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