In the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine to be her running mate, one of the recurring comments was how unpopular Tim Kaine is with the liberals who supposedly comprise the bulk of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and must somehow be coaxed, cajoled or persuaded to reconcile themselves with Kaine’s supposedly moderate centrist political views.
Here’s a typical description of Kaine’s liberal problem in the Washington Post:
Hillary Clinton has made her selection for vice president: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.
That will come as a disappointment to many liberals. After rallying behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and being teased with Elizabeth Warren as Clinton’s potential running mate — an audition that appeared to go very well — Clinton opted for a more boring, more moderate pick. This despite some liberal groups saying Kaine was unacceptable and even “disastrous.”
First, let’s run through why some liberals don’t love Kaine. Over at Wonkblog, Max Ehrenfruend details three issues on which Kaine could be a particular disappointment to the Warren/Sanders crowd: trade (he’s generally pro-free trade), banking (he has suggested softening some Dodd-Frank regulations) and abortion (he is personally pro-life but votes pro-choice).
So, according to this article, which I think accurately reflects the current understanding of what it now means to be a liberal in America, we have arrived at a state of affairs in which supporting free trade is sufficient justification for casting Tim Kaine out of the liberal fold. Or to make the point in a slightly different way, on international trade at least, Donald Trump’s views are more liberal than those of either Tim Kaine or Hillary Clinton. In this crazy year of 2016, we have witnessed all kinds of farcical events that no one ever dreamed would actually happen. But for protectionism to now be identified as a defining tenet of liberalism surely belongs on any list of the improbable plot twists in the tragicomedy of an election campaign that we have been watching in disbelief in America’s political theater of the absurd.Considered historically, the notion that you can’t be a liberal if you support free trade is nothing short of preposterous, the British Liberal Party having came into existence in the nineteenth century largely as a result of the great political battle over free trade in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.
The Conservative Party was founded in 1834 as a combination of the Tories and a number of Whig followers of William Pitt the Younger. Led by Sir Robert Peel, the Conservatives were committed to protecting the interests of the landed aristocracy from whom the Tories were largely drawn, and were generally solicitous of the royal prerogatives. Although they too were drawn from the landed aristocracy, the Whigs were hostile to the royal prerogatives, seeking to enlarge the powers of Parliament and limit those of the Crown. In opposing royal powers, the Whigs were the natural allies of the Radicals, who represented the interests of the rising industrial and commercial sectors and the growing middle classes.
Reflecting the predominant influence of the Tory landed aristocracy, the Conservatives supported protective tariffs to keep domestic grain prices and land values high. Although the economic interests of the Whig landed aristocracy were also served by protection and high grain prices, the Whigs were prepared to sacrifice their economic interests (perhaps more diversified than the Tories’ interests) and to accept free trade as the price to regain power in concert with the Radicals, whose laissez-faire principles and economic interests strongly inclined them to oppose protection and high grain prices.
As Prime Minister in the 1840s, Peel reversed his previous opposition to free trade, having been persuaded by Richard Cobden, a Radical and the chief Parliamentary advocate of free trade, that allowing foreigners to increase grain exports to Britain would increase foreign demand for British manufactured goods. The famous, possibly legendary, story of Peel’s conversion to free trade has it that, after one of Cobden’s compelling Parliamentary speeches in favor of repealing the Corn Laws restricting grain imports into Britain, Peel, turning to his colleague Sidney Herbert, said: “Sir, you must answer him, for I cannot.” Whatever the motivation for Peel’s conversion to free trade, Peel’s decision split the Conservative party, with most Conservatives still opposing free trade, while about a third of Conservative MPs, including the future Liberal Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone, sided with Peel to form a separate faction.
Eventually, in 1859 the Whigs, Radicals and most of the Peelite Conservatives, joined to create the Liberal Party. So the British Liberal Party was formed as a coalition united by their support of free trade. Although the Conservative Party later came to support free trade, at the beginning of the twentieth century Conservatives turned against free trade, renewing the old conservative-liberal ideological divide.
Given the origins of liberalism as a political movement supporting free trade, it’s disconcerting to watch self-styled liberals transform liberalism into its own antithesis. I’m not trying to suggest that there is such a thing as a true liberalism, or that any departure from the original creed is a kind of heresy. All I’m saying is that leftist critics of Kaine show their own ignorance and ideological illiteracy — not to mention sheer arrogance — when they claim that support for free trade, which for almost two centuries was considered a basic liberal tenet, invalidates Kaine’s standing as a liberal.
I am also not saying that there are no good arguments to be made against free trade, though there are certainly a lot of bad ones, especially those that focus on the trade deficit as a measure of the harm caused by trade. I have actually written previously about the inadequacy of standard economic defenses of free trade, which doesn’t mean that attacks on free trade are right, just that those attacks are not necessarily countered by the standard defenses.
But we are now so disconnected from history that we habitually use terms as labels or as epithets in ways that are completely at odds with the meanings that the terms used to have. President Obama, for example, is routinely described as a socialist and even as a Marxist based, as far as I can tell, on nothing more than that he wants the federal government to reduce the inequality of income and wealth in the US. I have written some posts in the past suggesting why a lot of high income earnings from finance and intellectual property do not increase net social welfare, but I don’t have a well-thought-out position about overall income and wealth inequality. As a starting point, I think Rawls’s difference principle that income inequality is justified only insofar as the inequality redounds to the absolute benefit of the least well-off members of society is a good way to think about how to handle income and wealth inequality in a free and democratic society. But I don’t think that Rawls gets us very far. The problem with the Rawlsian difference principle is that, in practice, it is nearly impossible to make the principle operational. I have no doubt that Ludwig von Mises would have been totally comfortable arguing that laissez-faire capitalism actually satisfies the difference principle. I believe that he actually made such an argument in Human Action.
But the point that I am making here is simply that it is entirely possible for someone to favor non-trivial redistribution of wealth and income from the wealthy to the less wealthy without being either a socialist or a Marxist. And in fact there have been many non-socialists and non-Marxists who have favored some degree of wealth and income redistribution. So the routine smear attacks on Obama for being a socialist or a Marxist as just typical of the degradation of our semantic environment.
Of course, there is nothing to stop anyone from defining “socialist” and “Marxist” so that anyone who supports redistributing income and wealth is both a socialist and a Marxist. But such definitions would be a trivial exercise with no historical basis. The exercise would be self-defeating if it’s artificiality were acknowledged. What “socialism” has meant historically is a political doctrine favoring the state ownership and operation of all or most of the non-human means of production. But as the number of people who believe in government ownership and operation of the means of production has fallen steadily over the last half century or so, the term “socialism” has gradually been transformed into a vague and nearly meaningless catchword.
What makes Bernie Sanders a socialist is not a belief that government should own and operate most industries, but a general ethos that he feels is captured and communicated by the term. “Socialism” is a convenient way to signal hostility to capitalism – though not a desire to replace it with state ownership and control — and support for wealth redistribution. Similarly, those on the right find “socialism” a handy term of abuse with which to vilify their opponents.
I am no expert on Marxism, but my understanding is that it is a belief in a particular theory of the (supposed) historical laws governing the past and future development of society, supposedly leading to the creation of a socialist state. I assume that there are still some Marxists out there, but if you really do believe that Barack Obama is one of them, there is a good chance that you are delusional.
But what strikes me as especially interesting is not just that liberalism, like socialism, no longer means what it used to mean, but that it has come to mean, in the minds of many, the exact opposite of what it used to mean. So I’d like suggest my own linguistic theory of how liberalism in America has come to take on a meaning so very different from what it once meant. What led to the transformation of liberalism in America was, I conjecture, the lack of a successful socialist political movement in the US. In one sense that was a good thing, because socialism is not now and never was a sensible way to organize a society or to promote widespread prosperity. However, the failure of socialism in the US to become a politically viable left-wing alternative meant that “liberal” became one of the two default terms for moderately left-leaning political activists to use for self-description and self-identification, the other being the peculiarly American term “progressive.”For similar reasons, liberalism and progressivism also came to be associated with the political activism of organized labor. In Europe, however, socialism aka “social democracy” became a politically powerful movement, gaining the support of much, if not most, of the labor unions. So the contrast between the middle-class orientation of European liberalism on the one hand and the labor activism and socialist ideology of the left-wing parties on the other was much sharper than the contrast between middle-class liberalism and labor activism in the US.
Similarly, because American political parties were almost totally non-ideological, having developed as loose coalitions of diverse sectional and economic interests, the Democratic and Republican parties, unlike the European parties, developed few systematic political doctrines. The antebellum Democratic Party, for example, purported to espouse the doctrine of states’ rights, but professed adherence to that doctrine did not prevent the Democrats from insisting on a federal fugitive slave law requiring Northern states to cooperate with slaveholders to return runaway slaves to their owners, thereby overriding the laws of those Northern states that recognized runaway slaves as free human beings rather than the property. Until the Civil War, the slavery issue dominated political discourse, making the Democratic Party the pro-slavery, or the slavery-neutral, party. For sectional reasons, the Democratic Party also tended to be the anti-tariff party, while the Republican Party was the high-tariff party, rendering both parties unsuitable homes for liberal doctrines, thereby depriving liberalism of a coherent political voice.
The political failure of socialism in the US compelled reformist political movements to focus on piecemeal rather than comprehensive social and economic changes, e.g., the unsuccessful free-silver movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the whole panoply of Progressive measures enacted in the early twentieth century under the Republican and Democratic administrations of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. With no competing popular doctrine available, liberals and progressives occupied almost all of the left side of the political spectrum. So left-wing political activism in the US was co-opted by the liberal and the progressives instead of socialists or social democrats. In Europe, competing with the socialists to their left, liberals had good reason to emphasize their differences with the socialists as well as their similarities, and there was only limited incentive for liberal parties to try to compete with the left-wing parties by shifting to the left. In the US, however, there was an incentive for liberals to shift to the left to foreclose the entry of a new left-wing party or movement that might drain support from liberals and progressives.
Similarly, insofar as liberals shifted to the left to foreclose a more left-wing alternative, it became easier for moderate or right-leaning liberals to shift their political allegiance to conservatism than it would have been for European liberals to switch their allegiance to conservatism, because many American conservatives more or less shared the liberal values espoused by liberals, as those values were enshrined in the founding documents of the American Republic. European conservatives, unlike most American conservatives, were ideologically hostile to the basic democratic and liberal values that most American conservatives also acknowledged, notwithstanding the hypocrisy of supporting or tolerating legal segregation and other forms of legal racism. Even in Britain, the cradle of liberalism, the Liberal Party, which had governed Britain for most of the second half of the nineteenth century up to and including the First World War, was eventually reduced to insignificance when the rise of a Labour Party to its left drove Liberal voters, fearing a Labour victory, into the Conservative camp.
Thus, liberalism in Europe retained a more distinct character as a middle-class, democratic, secular, non-socialist ideology than American liberalism. American liberalism was drawn steadily to the left, becoming increasingly attuned to the political agenda of organized labor and becoming increasingly identified with left-wing economic ideas that were not necessarily socialist in the traditional sense, but were also not compatible with liberal doctrines like free trade. Many moderate and right-leaning liberals found it preferable to adapt to the political program offered by an American conservatism that seemed to have embraced many of the key elements of classical nineteenth century liberalism, but without totally rejecting the post-war consensus of a limited welfare state providing a social safety net for the less fortunate, than to follow the leftward drift of American liberalism.
So with the transition of many American moderates and liberals into conservatives, American liberalism has evolved into a left-wing ideology that has animated and energized the Sanders political revolution of 2016, thereby creating the impression in America, among both liberals and non-liberals, that liberalism is more or less interchangeable with left-wing or socialist ideas, albeit socialist ideas that have little relationship to socialism in the original sense of the term. This doesn’t mean that all American liberals are leftists. Many, if not most, American liberals w remain politically moderate, but the ideological energy of American liberalism seems now to be headed in a leftward direction. Years of ideological confusion have obliterated the distinction between liberalism and “leftism,” so that liberalism as an economic doctrine no longer stands for anything — in the American context — other than a demand for government intervention to reduce income equality, to raise wages, which is basically all that socialism now signifies. Disconnected from its historical origins and meaning, American liberalism now represents nothing more than a vague term more or less synonymous with an equally vague “socialism” whose meaning is no more definite than the sentimental message of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”