“I cannot be a liberal:” An open letter to Andrew Sullivan

Published 2009-03-12
“I do not have liberalism’s confidence in government activism, I do not share its collectivist instincts, I find its interest groups unappealing.”
— Andrew Sullivan, “Clinging To The Wreckage”

Neither do I, or most of my “liberal” friends. It is only in the last 30 years that “Liberalism” has come to mean this, and it is only because “conservatives” have framed the term in this fashion.

To Enlightenment thinkers, “liberal” was an a priori positive term, denoting principles like free enterprise, learned curiosity, libertarian virtue, and progress. We see vestiges of this meaning in “liberal education” or “market liberalization,” or (my favorite) the description by foreign media of American gun control attitudes as “liberal.”

Whether you cling to the Catholic Church is between you and God. But for Pete’s sake just let go of “conservatism.” It has come to mean exactly nothing other than “I identify with other people who call themselves ‘conservative.’” In the last decade it has acquired the awesome corollary definition of “seeking to alter reality through applied semantics.” That you cling to the label bespeaks the awesome power of such meta-voodoo.

Importantly, liberals never had similar angst at all, even in the very dark period in the wake of the 2004 elections. They spent plenty of time talking about how to regain political power, or the relative merits of individual programs, or the ideological purity of certain attitudes, but they seldom spent time arguing who was most worthy of the label itself, or what it meant.

Speaking for myself: since early teenager-hood I have though of myself as a “liberal,” despite having your inclinations re: government activism, collectivism and interest groups. I came to think of myself this way precisely because identified liberals saw that crocodiles like government activism and collectivism were in need of wrestling. Liberals may wrestle them badly, they may even love wrestling them, but if you just let them those crocs lie there on your patio, sooner or later they’re gonna eat your poodles.

The a-ha moment for me was when I was old enough to think rationally about supply-side economics (around age 14). By loudly and proudly espousing such transparent nonsense, American conservatives were pretty much saying: “the best way to deal with crocodiles is to call them lizards.” Then the croc would eat another poodle and some liberal would say “look, we really need to wrestle those crocodiles.” To which the conservatives would reply with a non-sequitur like “what are you, pro-crocodile? Just ignore those lizards on the patio.”