All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 2001

Get Rid of the Labels

Lawrence Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

At least when it comes to political matters, Americans are hung up on labels. Everywhere you turn, somebody is calling somebody else some name—shorthand for what the other person’s political philosophy or ideological leanings are perceived to be.

If labels inform, then they can be useful. But when they confuse or distort, they’re worse than useless. Amid the general dumbing down of educational standards in recent years and the resulting degeneration of public debate, I confess to a disillusionment with the commonly used political labels. Most have become excuses for people to stop thinking.

Consider the tired, old dichotomy of “liberal” on the one hand versus “conservative” on the other. “Liberal” was once an honorable word to describe those who put “liberty” first. Over the twentieth century in America, it flip-flopped into a term for those who would gladly trade liberty for a mess of pottage from the state. Even that meaning rarely applies to any one person’s view on every issue.

“Conservative” is sometimes used to describe one who wants to preserve the status quo, and at other times to describe one who wants to restore a limited role for government (at least in most economic matters), which today is hardly the status quo. The confusion only worsens when the labelers go to work on foreigners. When Mikhail Gorbachev was introducing reforms in the old Soviet Union, the American media called him a “liberal” and his old-line Stalinist opponents “conservative.” American conservatives rightly wondered why their label was always attached to the figures the mainstream media could easily demonize, whether foreign communists or homespun, budget-cutting libertarians.

Quite often somebody attaches an adjective to an already-confusing label that rarely clarifies anything. “Compassionate” conservative, for example. I know a lot of very generous, caring, self-described conservatives who routinely give far more of their own resources to worthy causes than the most sanctimonious, guilt-ridden “liberals.” These “conservatives” wonder why any adjective is necessary.

And how about that word “moderate”? That’s been sanctified to describe one who occupies a lofty perch of enlightened and thoughtful objectivity. Look closer and you usually find a person who hasn’t done his homework and can’t make his mind up. And when he finally does come to a conclusion, it’s strikingly inconsistent with other half-baked views he holds.

Maybe we need a new set of labels. Or perhaps we need to recognize that shorthand just won’t do the job when talking about how complex principles apply to current-day issues.

In any event, if we must label people this or that, I suggest we do so in more meaningful ways, with fewer sound bites and single-word monikers. That suggests we not use one-size-fits-all descriptions, but rather that we describe traits and tendencies.

For starters: Why not differentiate between those who are satisfied with rhetoric versus those who demand results?

People who advocate government-financed and government-directed efforts to address problems once widely regarded as personal, private, or “civil society” responsibilities almost always settle for rhetoric alone. Perhaps that’s because their handiwork rarely produces results worth bragging about. To these people, it is usually enough for someone to simply declare his concern for the poor to prove that he really cares. It doesn’t matter that government programs to help the poor have decisively accomplished the very opposite, a painful fact that both experience and economics should have forecast in advance.

People who advocate nongovernmental solutions—changes in attitudes and behavior, strengthening the family, involvement of churches and private associations, for example—are not typically animated by rhetoric. They are focused on results, and they have the incredible story of the American experience to which they can proudly point. It wasn’t rhetoric that carved a great civilization out of wilderness; it wasn’t self-righteous breast-beating or mere professions of concern that fed, clothed, and housed more people at higher levels than any other society ever known in history. It was a combination of strong families, rugged self-reliance, effective volunteer associations, wealth-creating private initiative, and risk-taking entrepreneurship.

Here’s another meaningful way to categorize people’s thinking: Those who are happy with short-term answers versus those who plan for the long run.

Some people think only of the here-and-now, what strikes the eye, the present moment. Others see further ahead and recognize that quick fixes often yield long-term disaster.

In this regard, those who favor government “solutions” are on the short end of the stick. The primary answer they offer to problems such as poverty is to toss the poor a government check. They observe the subject spending the check on groceries and conclude that they have done good. But those who support nongovernment solutions know the meaning of the adage “Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.”

Yet another possible method of drawing distinctions and applying accurate descriptions: Those who exhibit little interest in liberty versus those who understand that without liberty, little else either matters or is possible.

People who push government to “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect” (in the words of FDR brain truster Harry Hopkins) are more than willing to sacrifice a little liberty for the sake of a handout. More appropriately, they are willing to sacrifice the liberties of everyone for the sake of handouts for a few. Those who prefer private, nongovernmental measures to address problems understand (1) that government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody and (2) that government which is big enough to give you everything you want has become big enough to take away everything you’ve got.

Instead of settling for today’s standard and increasingly confusing or irrelevant labels, we should concentrate on explaining that the ideas worth supporting are those that are tested and found worthwhile because they produce results, not rhetoric; that the ideas worth supporting are those that do not mortgage the future for the sake of the present; and finally, that the ideas worth supporting are those that do not treat other people’s liberty as though it were so much scrap paper waiting to be cleared away.

Surely, for reasons I’ve already made apparent, one who values freedom and free markets can readily embrace these new criteria for pegging political/economic tendencies. We’ll probably have a very hard time, however, getting the other side to go along. But that fact says volumes about the merits of their positions and certainly tells us all a lot more than the old mainstream mislabels. If insisting on this approach compels a few to dig a little deeper and learn more than what can fit on a bumper sticker, public debate will to some degree be better informed.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is