Liberals versus Serviles: Reclaiming the Supremacy of the Individual
EspañolMore than one reader has disparaged as “rightist politics” my arguments on topics such as minimum wage, government regulations, or the scope of government. The tag showcases the philosophical incongruity of the American political lexicon.
In our confused and inconsistent political affiliations, we often advocate for greater personal freedoms while concurrently supporting a larger government role in our lives. We fail to understand that, by definition, an expanded government requires diminished liberty.
The fundamental question in political philosophy pivots on the proper relationship of the state to individuals. What ought to be the role of government in our lives?
For some, government should play an extensive and active role, using its monopoly of coercive power to bring about a more egalitarian society. In our political taxonomy, this is the “left” (also known as progressives). For others, the role of government should be anchored on the Founding Fathers’ conceptualization of a limited government concerned primarily with protecting our lives, liberty, and property. We have come to label this as the political “right.”
On these caricatures of our political spectrum we carelessly overlay the labels of “liberal” to the left and “conservative” to the right. But these sobriquets are philosophically incoherent.
Liberalism has been historically associated with limited government and the sovereign preeminence of the individual, his freedoms, and his rights. The term originates in the early 1800s in the Cádiz Cortes in Spain, where Liberales introduced reforms replacing feudal privileges with freedom of contract — recognizing the rights of property owners — and other reforms that favored the commercial middle class via the elimination of special provisions for the church and the nobility. Spanish liberalism expressed the political theory of limited government and the term became the moniker for the philosophy of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson.
On the other hand, historical conservatism holds that society is antecedent and superior to the individual. Thus, the conservative view is that power should be vested, not on individuals, but on offices attached to institutions, with the state (or the church) as the highest institution. In the historical usage, conservatism stands for more government, which is needed to complete the flawed individual. In the Spanish Cortes, the advocates of state power were called Serviles (the servile ones) who represented the privileges of the regalists and of King Ferdinand VII, who was determined to rule as an absolute monarch.
In most of the world today, liberalism still stands for the supremacy of the individual and conservatism for the supremacy of the state. Unfortunately, in the American usage, the term liberal has diachronically evolved to mean something almost in direct contradiction to its historical roots. In our usage, liberalism and the left stand for a larger government role, and conservatism and right speak to limited government.
In this political typology, where do we place Republicans who support less government involvement in the economic sphere, but advocate for more governmental controls on social topics? Are they liberal or conservative? Or, in what political cubbyhole do we put Democrats who want the government out of our private lives (as it should be) but then want extensive government regulations on businesses?
What is our party affiliation if we are fiscally conservative and socially liberal? To phrase it differently, how can one be for more personal freedoms and less personal freedoms simultaneously?
It is an axiom of political-speak that controlling the language controls the argument. Totalitarian rulers, such as Vladimir Lenin in Russia, Mao Tse-Tung in China, the Kim family in North Korea, the Castro brothers in Cuba, and others, have all understood that the power to name controls perception. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany, who despised capitalism and Jews, effectively used his constant stereotyping of Jews as materialistic and less than human to facilitate the horror of the Holocaust.
Political labels are shorthand expressions of political views. Historically authentic liberals — those who consistently support individual freedoms, free markets, and limited government — believe that American liberals have stolen their name identity to redefine political-speak on their terms. Frustrated by this name theft, liberals have sought to recapture their identity, in a rearguard retreat, adopting terms like classical liberals, market liberals, or libertarians.
But, a better strategy might be to go on a philosophical offensive and reclaim our historical right to the term liberal, and to mimic the supercilious attitude of American liberals by branding them serviles.