Stop Calling Illiberalism "Liberal"
By Alec Rawls © 1998. (1500 words) Originally published in The Stanford Review 12/1/98.

On every issue, in every district, the Democrats are the party of illiberalism, systematically favoring government power over individual choice and responsibility. How have the Republicans been attacking this menace? By calling the Democrats "too liberal."

Conservatives have become accustomed to this backwards language and manage to communicate with each other in spite of it. We just accept that "liberal" means "illiberal" and follow meaning from there. But reaching conservatives is preaching to the converted. Republicans need to reach the many Democrats who correctly understand liberalism to be an ideal and identify themselves as liberal on that basis. Using "liberal" as a dirty word cuts off communication at the outset. Using the word correctly would chop the Democrats in half and bring the true liberals into the Republican party, leaving only the illiberal dregs behind.

Consider three key issues of this last election: education, gun control and abortion.

Principled liberal Republicans like Gubernatorial loser Dan Lundgren and Senatorial loser Matt Fong have lobbied for relief from the socialist monopoly on education by urging that parents be allowed some choice of where to spend their own tax dollars for education. Because socialist monopoly is the status quo, Democrats can respond that the Republicans are "attacking our schools" and are "anti-child." The Republicans are faced with the more difficult task of speaking up for all those independent schools that would be thriving and competing on the basis of success if parents could choose where to spend their education dollars. That can be a compelling message, but not in a sound bite. The sound bite that cuts hard and deep and true is just to label correctly: not letting parents choose where to spend their own education dollars is ILLIBERAL!!! People get that. Liberals get that. But because the Republicans have adapted to improper English, they can't say it.

The socialists try to make liberal sounding arguments for the public monopoly on education. They urge it as a matter of fairness, correctly accounting liberalism's concern that all have an opportunity to make use of their liberty. But subsidization does not require socialization. Those who can't afford schooling for their children could recieve aid, ideally in the form of loans (to keep the books straight about who owes whom -- nothing is more corrosive than when recipients of aid infer that society owes them).

Democrats also defend the public school monopoly by charging that to let people take their tax dollars to the schools of their choice would funnel tax dollars to religious schools, violating the separation of church and state. But the true violation of church and state is when the government socializes a huge and crucial sphere of private life that has historically been steeped in religion, namely the education of children, and systematically expunges religion from that sphere.

Indeed, the primary reason why the illiberals (the socialist half of the Democratic party) are so protective of socialized education is their antipathy to religion. Here is revealed the core of their distrust of individual judgement. Some parents might try to teach their children that there is a god, and to forestall this abomination, full use of the coercive power of the state is justified. Pure illiberalism. Pure violation of the establishment clause.

The Democrat strategy of hiding illiberalism behind the language of liberalism is easy enough to expose, unless one is trying to charge the Democrats with being liberal, in which case it is impossible. English lesson: to be liberal is to understand the instrumentality of liberty. The great engine of progress in the discovery and pursui of value is liberty, allowing each to make use of his own discoveries and pass his learning on to the rest. The great evil is centralized control, imposing one mind on all, not allowing people to make use of their own understanding.

This nation and its Constitution were created out of widespread understanding o0f the instrum;entality of liberty. We are, in Lincoln's hallowed words, A nation concieved in liberty." How then can we have fallen so far into illiberalism?

By calling it "liberal." That's all it takes. KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid is a necessity given the lilmited resources of attention that an unqualified democracy must make do with. Confucius knew: "When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty." Especially when the words are "liberty" and "liberalism."

Look at gun rights, another big issue in California's elections this year. No issue presents the instrumentality of liberty in simpler terms. Any criminal misuse of a gun, or gun posession by a felon, is already punished with the severest penalties. The only issue is whether the law abiding people should also be disarmed. Will crime fall if we present ourselves as sheep for the wolves, or should we allow people to make use of their own understanding of the dangers around them and prepare themselves accordingly?

All logic and evidence favors liberty. The 32 states (!) that have passed "shall issue" gun permit laws have seen their crime rates drop dramatically compared to the other states, even after controlling for the severity of criminal sentences, demographics and many other possible explanatory variables (see More Guns Less Crime, by University of Chicago economist John Lott, ).

The greatest beneficiaries of gun rights are those who want nothing to do with guns. The criminals don't know who is armed and and so are deterred from attacking anyone. Since liberalizing its gun laws, Texas has seen its crime rate fall so far, leaving the citizenry so much safer, that the rate of gun ownership in Texas has started to fall. To not grasp the triumph of liberty that is going on here, and love to see it, a person would have to be entirely devoid of liberal spirit. This is a substantial wing of the Democrats--including most of the politicians--but most Democratic voters have an instinctive love for the triumphs of liberty. Unlike Republicans, they have not followed this love of liberty, but their liberalism can still be appealed to. They can be turned away from illiberalism, if Republicans will simply articulate it.

The abortion issue may have been the key to recent Republican losses. The illiberalism of the Democrat position on abortion is overlooked because abortion is the one case where the Democrats actually start out with a liberal stance, supporting a woman's right to choose. But a majority of Republicans also support a woman's right to choose and so the debate has moved to a different issue: should the state finance people's abortions, forcing all taxpayers--even those who believe that abortion is literally murder--to pay for other people's abortions. Such state financing of abortions is profoundly illiberal, but when Gray Davis or Barbara Boxer attack their opponents for "voting to deny women abortions," they are actually referring to votes to deny state financing for abortions. Again, the sound bite that cuts deep and true is to speak the "L" word: forcing anyone to pay for other people's abortions is ILLIBERAL! Even Democrat women can appreciate that.

I do not believe that there is a single issue on which Democrats are more liberal than the Republicans. The recent election was particularly ironic. Hamstrung by language from articulating the illiberalism of the Democrats on the issues, Republicans were unable to keep the recent elections from being a referendum on impeachment, which the American people correctly regard as illiberal.

True, Clinton deserves impeachment, because the illiberal rules of discovery in sexual harassment cases that ensnared him in perjury charges are the water he carried for his illiberal feminist backers. Anyone accused of sexual harrassment must effectively take the oath ex officio of Star Chamber infamy. He is subject to questioning about any relationship he ever had while his accuser is immune from most questioning. But however poetic the injustice, the trap Clinton is caught in is illiberal and that is why the American people are against it. That the illiberalism is of Democrat making is out of sight, out of mind. To finally nail the sleaziest President in history the Republicans abandoned their principled opposition to the sexual harassment juggernaut, making themselves look like the illiberal force just in time for the election.

No wonder the Democrats are laughing. The Republican political manual must be sub-titled: "How to take the largest natural majority in American history and flush it down the toilet."

Everyone who has any genuine liberalism in them must help push aside the current perversion of language. If you are a Democrat and think of yourself as liberal, it is time to open your eyes about which party holds the liberal positions on the issues and switch to the Republicans, as I did years ago. If you are a Republican, start speaking proper English. When you see illiberalism, call it illiberalism. Don't call it liberal.

(Alec Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics)


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