Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Concepts, not Labels


I’m already getting sucked into labels and arguing about what they mean.

Liberal, Progressive, Libertarian, Left Wing, Right Wing, Conservative, etc, etc.

They all are mutable concepts as well as names of movements. Arguing about what “Progressive” does or doesn’t mean is futile: the meanings change over time. Sometimes a the meaning of a term flips completely in an Orwellian manipulation. Freedom is Slavery.

The trap is arguing in favor of or against, or simply about, labels rather than fundamental concepts.

The meanings behind labels change
Take “Conservative”, for instance. Generally it means cautious. Fredrick Hayek, in his essay “Why I am not a Conservative” wrote “Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” Fine. What is “change”? Lenin brought change. So did Hitler. FDR, Reagan, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, summer, winter, sunrise, sunset all bring (or brought) change.

When Boris Yeltsin restructured Soviet governance, the Conservatives included the remaining Bolsheviks. In 1917 the Bolsheviks were revolutionaries. During the 1930s, European and American liberals lionized the Bolsheviks, hoping to make their societies more like Stalin’s Russia. By 1990 the exact same political philosophy was “conservative”, at least in Moscow. Bella Abzug a conservative??? Go figure.

In 1860, the Republican party was the party of change (elimination of slavery) while the Democratic party was the party of conservatism.

Was William F. Buckley conservative in the same way as the Bolsheviks of 1990?

Progressives believe in progress (hence the name) and the benefits of continuous improvement through guided change. The “guided change” is usually based on some value-driven view of an ideal end state, not necessarily empirical pragmatism.

Change isn’t the issue: who is doing the “guiding” and where the guide is headed are what matter.

Labels can become epithets
Reactionary generally means trying to return to the past. President Obama wants to return to the New Deal. Is he a reactionary? Well, no, but only because “reactionary” has been stripped of meaning, becoming an epithet leftists (statists and communitarians) hurl at those they don’t agree with. Since President Obama is a darling of the left, he cannot be a reactionary, no matter how much he wants to turn back the clock.

Labels can become meaningless and tend to become epithets

You can apply a “New and Improved” label to the box of detergent, but if it’s the same old stuff inside the box, the label isn’t just meaningless, it’s a lie.

I want to deal with concepts, ideas, and principles, not labels. But labels can be useful shorthand. These postings will have to be careful about definitions and sticking to them.

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