Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I think Karl Smith is right on David Brooks and liberals

I read the Brooks article on liberalism earlier today and had much the same reaction that Smith does, particularly this point (although I probably wouldn't put it exactly this way):

"First, the term liberal is heavily associated with the social-sexual mores of the American upper class. Most Americans reject those. And, members of the upper class who are right-of-center on economic issue tend to call themselves fiscal conservatives or libertarians. My baseline sense is because Milton Friedman and his disciples convinced them that this was an acceptable cosmopolitan alternative to the label liberal.

Thus, one has to both embrace upper class social-sexual mores AND be traditionally left-of-center to be comfortable with the term liberal. The term progressive does better precisely because it does not carry that social-sexual baggage."

The main point is, I think it's a labeling issue. For all intents and purposes I'm probably a "liberal". I've certainly been called that by tons of people in the blogosphere. But I've never in my life associated myself with the term. I've at one point or another in my life been happy to label myself a "conservative", a "libertarian", a "centrist", and a "moderate" but I'm not sure I've ever called myself a "liberal". There's just something wishy-washy and unrealistic about the word, and I don't consider myself wishy-washy and I definitely consider myself a realist. I think this association is mostly a PR thing over the past several decades. For better or worse, it's not a label many people embrace but it's a label that others love to use to describe all matter of sins (and perhaps this is why "liberal" is such a toxic term).

So what does that really mean? I think it's pretty unclear. When I'm feeling particularly liberal, I usually say I'm "left of center". Is that a substantive difference? I don't know.

UPDATE: It also probably has to do with my bizarre combination traditionalist/hippie of a brother. Whenever he whips out the hippy-dippy stuff I convulse a little and lose a small piece of any existing desire to associate with the term "liberal".


Speaking of really dumb terminology, I might as well take this opportunity to once again vent about the use of the term "free market economist" to mean "libertarian economist". I don't have a problem if you want to call yourself a "free market economist", but I hate talk about "free market economists vs. Keynesian economists". The very phrase sounds non-sensical to me - or more accurately, it sounds like a category error to my ears. In fact, it sounds so strange to me I have consciously remind myself that people who talk like that probably aren't intending to make the implication that it sounds like they're making (or maybe they are? maybe I'm being too generous). End rant.


  1. While we're on the subject of terminoligy:

    * I'm a progressive, but I call myself a liberal. It really shuts up any foxnews freakshow I'm talking to. It's happened in person with 6 or 7 people now and for each it was the first time anyone has pushed back.

    * Why is 'neoliberal' the economics that dare not speak its name? It has been the economic policy of the first world for twenty years now but you can't get any of the practitioners to admit it.


  2. 1. I'm more than happy to call myself a neoliberal.

    2. The term is too damn broad and it often is wielded by people who have no idea what they're talking about. People who disagree with each other strongly can, in some cases, both fall under the rubric of "neoliberalism".

    3. I don't think it's really how economists think about their outlooks. For example, Greg Mankiw is a "Keynesian" (or New Keynesian) in economics but a "moderate" or "conservative" in politics. Likewise, Krugman is a "Keynesian" in economics, but a "liberal" in politics. Squashing that all into one label is just not how people normally think of the issue.

  3. Maybe it's just me, but I think "progressive" can often have the same social-sexual connotations as "liberal". Would "leftist" be better? The only drawback of that is that it tends to be read as a rather extremist term and probably wouldn't properly identify many American liberals/progressives... but I think it does a better job of avoiding any implied social-sexual mores.

    I will ignore your comments about me.

  4. Well that's why I said I wouldn't say it exactly how Smith said it. I would focus less on "social-sexual" stuff and more just on hippy-dippyness in general. But "hippy-dippy" sounds less professional than "social-sexual".

    re: "I will ignore your comments about me."

    Dude - the whole reason I wrote that was to get you to comment.

  5. I think there's something wishy-washy about running from the term "liberal." On some issues I might take a moderate or neoliberal position, but I see no use in accepting the idea that there's something embarrassing about liberalism.


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