Saturday, March 15, 2008

different kinds of Liberals

The third op-ed from my most recent essay in the Jeff/NA News-Tribune-- on political labeling, and here, in particular, on the different types of liberals. (The first essay was on labeling in general and different types of libertarians. The second essay was about different types of conservatives.)

In two previous submissions, I described how political labels are unclear but still popular. I recommended that we move away from describing politics along a spectrum of left vs. right or liberal vs. conservative-and noted that people have different beliefs about the role of government in the economic and social/personal realms.

That said, the terms liberal and conservative are still useful — as long as they are modified to give them more precision. In my previous submission, I described various types of conservatives. Here, I will describe various types of liberals.

The term liberal was originally connected to those who were free. (Our English word derives from the Latin word liber.) For example, the development of the “liberal arts” was a body of knowledge related to what free people should know in order to exercise their freedom properly as good citizens.

Under John Locke, the term was expanded to encompass “natural” rights or liberties-to life, property, religious beliefs, and so on-as eventually enshrined in our country’s founding documents. The term was expanded further in the 19th and 20th centuries as an extension of freedoms to previously excluded classes-women and ethnic minorities.

Under FDR and his “New Deal,” in the shadow of the Great Depression, the predominant view of government turned from protection of freedoms toward provision of resources. These new policy goals were more economic than political-and they were increasingly seen as “rights.” (FDR described his policies as “a second Bill of Rights.”) In a time of growing faith in the government’s ability, “liberals” increasingly embraced government. (The length and the depth of the Depression are best explained by a set of bone-headed government policies. But that’s a different essay.)

Ironically, people have been “liberal” with the definition of liberal and so it has come to mean very different things. What used to be called “liberal” is now occasionally called “classical liberalism”-an emphasis on freedom, and in particular, freedom from an oppressive state.

But typically, the term means something nearer the other end of the spectrum-the avid use of government solutions as a means to whatever ends. Mostly, the term is avoided by those it would best describe and used by their opponents as an insult. (Often “liberals” prefer to use the term “progressive.”)

As there are different types of conservatives, so there are different types of liberals. Clarity requires more precise language.

Some so-called liberals are members of special interest groups that seek to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Labor unions are the most obvious examples of this. In manufacturing, they pursue a range of labor and product market interventions that lock out potential competitors. In education, teacher unions want to preserve the monopoly power of the government schools. Restricting competition is a common way to make one group better off at the expense of others.

Other groups perceive that they are better off with “liberal” policies-most notably, the elderly and African-Americans. Both groups also feel an historical connection to liberalism-the elderly to the New Deal and African-Americans to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

Many people in all three of these groups-unions, the elderly, and African-Americans-are moderate or even conservative on social or military issues. But their perceived economic (or social) interests trump those issues.

Other liberals are primarily focused on a single issue such as poverty, abortion, the war in Iraq, the environment, “gay rights,” and so on. There is often overlap between these categories, but the primary focus is one issue over the others.

One other distinction is worth making. It’s interesting that some liberals value freedom for the most marginal in society-while others are not comfortable with additional freedoms (because they don’t trust the way that the freedom will be used). The result is that some liberals seek less government intervention and are relatively attracted to markets while others fundamentally distrust the market and want much more government.

The former are more truly liberal or progressive while the latter are better described as elitists or statists. Two examples will help draw the distinction. Elitists don’t like WalMart, but liberals do-for what the company offers in terms of opportunity for workers and especially for consumers. And liberals want the inner city poor to have educational choice through vouchers or charter schools. But such freedom makes statists nervous and so they prefer the status quo-with government’s monopoly provision of schooling services to the poor.

Most “liberals” find a home within the Democratic Party-and so, it is common to equate Democrats with liberals. But a recognition of the various types of liberals makes clear that those within the Party are driven by different issues and different worldviews. In any case, discussions about politics would have more clarity if we chose more precise labels.