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Another Exchange with Anonymous

Anonymous writes, How are you defining ‘economically liberal’ and ‘economically conservative’?

To me economically liberal means in favour of the free market (ie classically liberal), but nowadays ‘economically conservative’ means the same thing, unless you mean paternalistic. But perhaps I misunderstand the US use of the terms?

My reply: Is this the Anonymous Rufus calls “Lady Gadfly”, who teaches philosophy somewhere in England? To whom I should probably defer when it comes to defining terms? Anyway, yeah, I think the mist rising over the Atlantic Ocean must work like a mirror, maybe a funhouse mirror, so that the terms take on a meaning opposite that of whatever is meant on the other side.

I might be mistaken, or grossly oversimplifying, but I think most Americans take “economically conservative” as a descriptor favoring the free market – which you term “liberal”. That’s how I’ve used it here. The problem, as I think you indicate, is that the term, “liberal” is first (or at least earlier) associated with J.S. Mill, and it seems right that British understanding and usage should take precedence over the American version.

I’m not sure that Mill ever considered himself “a liberal”, as he was more concerned with defending and then revising Bentham’s and (his father) James Mill’s ‘Utilitarianism’.

Goldberg is well aware of all this, and as far as I can tell he is using the term “economically liberal” to refer to those favoring a Keynesian approach to the economy.

It gets confusing because no less a Republican (and therefore someone widely recognized as conservative) than Richard Nixon goes on TV and says “I am a Keynesian now”.

I like to think that this is corrected somewhat by the reclamation of the term “conservative” for economists who (roughly speaking here, roughly) follow the Adam Smith-“laissez-faire”-Hayek-Friedman line of thinking.

But even then the comparatively tidy world of philosophy is seriously distorted by very messy politics, what with GHWBush I saying “Read my lips, no new taxes” and then GWBush setting steel tariffs and expanding Medicare drug benefits … it gets fairly difficult to keep the definition of “conservative” straight, never mind who’s “liberal”, and the addition of prefixes like “paleo”, “neo”, “compassionate”, and “crunchy” aren’t all that helpful.

And while I think “liberal” is still a useful term, it doesn’t seem to me that anyone really likes the term applied to his or her self. This side of the Atlantic, at any rate. Hence the appropriation (in my view) of the term “fiscal conservative”.

I wasn’t thinking of “paternalistic” originally, but I think there is certainly room for that in the mix. Perhaps there is something paternalistic in tradtional concepts of liberalism, not to mention conceptual traditions of liberalism and liberal concepts of traditionalism. Bush II is, after all, the son of Bush I, and Barack Obama II dreams of his father’s dream of the problem facing our socialism, and an Arlen Specter is haunting America, the Spectre of Communism that may yet be undone by Groucho Marx … “a likely story, and probably true.”


  1. almostgotit says

    First of all, Anonymous needs to find a more interesting handle. Calling ones’ self “Anonymous” is like being named “John Smith.” Or heck, “Doe.” BO-RING.

    What was the topic here, again? Oh yes. I no longer find the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to be at all helpful. They either confuse people (because, as you say, they are often indistinguishable) or they pigeon-hole people. Anyone satisfied with calling himself/herself “Liberal” or “Conservative” is to me a person with very little brain of his or her own.

    Life is not a package deal that you buy once and then stop thinking about altogether. Life is, rather ((music swells, here)) an ever-changing buffet, and you always have the option of leaving the horrible jello salad on the table…

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