The ‘L’ word

Writing in the Chicago Tribune yesterday, Clarence Page asks, “When did ‘liberal’ become a dirty word?” My quick answer is that it became a dirty word when people who call themselves liberals started putting big government over individual liberties, leaving people like me with the inelegant “libertarian.”

Page sort of agrees with that history, but he wants his fellow supporters of big government to proudly identify with the label. As he correctly notes, both major parties are pretty much on board with the program anyway:

In fact, when it comes to big government, it’s hard to beat Bush. Under his watch, according to a study by the libertarian Cato Institute, the federal government grew more than it did under Johnson and only slightly less than it did under fellow conservative Richard Nixon — and that’s not including Bush’s defense or homeland security spending.

Nixon famously said in 1971 that we are all Keynesians now, referring to the economist John Maynard Keynes, who believed government should play an active economic role. Bush might appropriately quip, “We’re all liberals now.”

Keynesianism was more complex than that. The theory explicitly predicted that a central bank could fight unemployment by increasing the money supply without fear of harmful inflation. The Federal Reserve of the 70s agreed, and the decade’s lousy economic performance culminating in a period of stagflation served as solid empirical evidence that Keynesianism was wrong. Since then the government has been plenty active in the economy, but the Fed has traded in its activist role for a restrained monetarism.

So I hope that Page’s metaphor proves to be apt. If big government liberalism today is to Keynesianism in 1971, it’s just a decade and a few disasters away from thorough repudiation.

Update 8/3/07: Ryan the Liberty Belle says it’s time for classical liberals to reclaim the word. I’m in!


1 thought on “The ‘L’ word”

  1. Thing is, liberalism wasn’t made a dirty word because of big government. As Page points out, conservatives are proudly big-government too, just in a different way – think censorship of TV and books, draconian crime laws, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, etc. Liberalism became a dirty word because Reagan and others were able to associate it with the cultural extremes of the ’60s and ’70s. Reagan was able to associate “liberal” with “bare-breasted pot-smoking God-hating hippie” and then associate “liberal” with big-government economic policy. The negative connotation of “liberal” nowadays comes not from a distaste for big government but from middle America’s fear of cultural change, and from politicians who use that fear to their own ends. How else do you explain opposition to illegal detentions and opposition to draconian crime laws as “liberal?”

    Most people aren’t going to have an emotional response to diatribes about how national health care will take away their individual liberties. But they’ll react if you tell them that the people who support national health care want to kidnap their son and force him to marry another man while burning a flag.

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