I was in the middle of a nice discussion with the man behind the counter at the firing range. He was surrounded by semi-automatic weapons and hundreds of handguns in the display case that separated us. I used the opportunity to tap his expertise, mostly because I don’t keep up with gun issues enough.
He explained to me the absurdity of the ban on automatic weapons, how and why it is that there is really no such thing as an “assault rifle,” and a bit about regulations on magazine size. He informed me that Clinton’s partial ban on assault rifles expired in 2004 due to a sunset clause.
This is where the conversation became interesting.
I asked: “So the law has been liberalized since Clinton?”
He raised his eyebrow and there was a long pause.
Finally he said in a deep Southern drawl, “I don’t know about no liberalism. I don’t like liberals.”
“Ok,” I said, “that’s not what I mean. I mean ‘liberalized’ in the sense of more liberal: like more freely available.”
That didn’t help. He just said, “I’m just saying that I don’t like much about what liberals are saying or doing.”
So I tried again.
“Well, more precisely, what I mean by liberalization is that American citizens are now more free from restriction than they once were to import and use certain kinds of weapons. We are more liberated to choose than we were before.”
Still, he stood there in silence, staring. Finally a co-worker walked by and said to him, “This customer means liberal like in the old way: a different way than you mean the term.”
I piped in and said, “yes, just the English-language ‘liberal’ meaning less government control over what we do.”
Even then, this nice man couldn’t understand what the heck I was talking about. The word “liberal” to him was like the Mark of the Beast. He somehow thought I was standing there promoting evil. Nothing I said would overcome his sense that I was somehow on the enemy side, simply because I was uttering this word.
Are we really so far down the path? Has our political terminology become so confused that we can’t even use regular English words and be understood?
Maybe this was an extreme case. Maybe it is not so bad all over. But I do wonder.
For years, right-wing radio commentators have been using “liberal” as a swear term: the worst epithet you could ever hurl at someone, indicating an individual hell-bent on destroying your life. They have contrasted the malice of “liberals” with the greatness of “conservatives,” who favor God, country, and free enterprise (with a bit of war thrown in). And book after book are published for conservative consumption using the term “liberal” to identify the most depraved values.
To be sure, this is not new. It has gone on since after World War II, when Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind appeared and was promoted on the cover of Time Magazine. This kicked off a long-running demonization of one of the great words in the English language.
Now, you might correctly point out that the “liberals” started it. About a century ago, everyone knew what a liberal was. A liberal favored free speech, freedom of action, a free economic order, and religious freedom. A liberal opposed war. A liberal favored the ever-increasing liberation of the world from oppression, poverty, suffering.
That began to change in the Progressive Era and especially with the New Deal. Liberals had to make a choice between the free economy and the fascist model of the New Deal. They chose poorly. Yet they kept calling themselves liberals. Ten years later, it had begun to stick.
Conservative Is Not What We Are
So when William F. Buckley set out to, as he alleged, “stand athwart history and yell stop,” he needed a different name for his “anti-Left” movement. The name he chose was Kirk’s “conservative.” The new “conservatism” differed from that of the old English Tories in that it had affection for free enterprise.Yet it harkened back to those bygone reactionaries by favoring war, the cops, and social control. The new “conservative movement” co-opted the classical liberal remnant of the time.
Already distorted, the conservative acquiescence to the left on terminology made a bad situation worse. And it has only worsened further over the decades, to the point that today the word liberal has become practically unusable in some corners, in spite of its rich and glorious history.
And yet this is mostly true just in the United States. In most places in the world, the word “liberal” still means what it is supposed to mean. More substantially, it is the right word. It has a beautiful tradition. And I agree with Mises who said there is no suitable replacement.
“This usage is imperative,” he wrote in 1966, “because there is simply no other term available to signify the great political and intellectual movement that substituted free enterprise and the market economy for the precapitalistic methods of production; constitutional representative government for the absolutism of kings or oligarchies; and freedom of all individuals from slavery, serfdom, and other forms of bondage.”
Despite the gruff gun salesman behind the counter, I won’t give up the term “liberal.” The way I feel about that grand word is the same way he feels about his guns. You can take “liberal” from me when you pry it from my cold dead mouth.