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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The view outside

Michael Totten has written an interesting article about the difference between ‘liberal’ (in the US sense of the word) and ‘conservative’ views of the world, called Builders and Defenders.

If you want to find a person who knows the history of pre-war Nazi Germany, the Middle East during the Cold War, or the partition of India and Pakistan, you’re better off looking to the right than to the left.

I am astonished and dismayed to discover this. I’m a life-long liberal and I devour history like food. Not until after September 11 did I learn I’m a minority on the left.

But clearly as someone very well read in genuinely foreign history and affairs, Michael is a member of a pretty tiny minority everywhere, not just on the left. Perhaps he would be less of a minority amongst a certain species of neo-conservatives in the USA, but he would still be one. In my experience, Michael would also find the situation amongst American capital-L Libertarians more akin the one he finds on the left.

Which brings me to another point… Michael is certainly a thoughtful commentator but he suffers from that exasperating bipolar disorder common to those on both the statist left and statist right: there is a great deal more to the world than just ‘liberal’ (in the US meaning of democratic regulatory quasi-socialist) and ‘conservative’ (in the US meaning of democratic regulatory quasi-capitalist). That someone with a blog should fall into this meta-contextual trap is all the more grating for a libertarian such as myself, given the sheer number of neither ‘liberal’ nor conservative blogs there are within the ever expanding blogosphere. Even the mightily Sir Glenn of Instant Punditry describes himself as a ‘Whig’ rather than a ‘liberal’ or conservative.

The truth is that what Michael is describing is more of an American phenomenon than a left or right one, and even then it is only slightly less applicable to us ‘more cosmopolitan’ British and Europeans.

There is an old joke, which like so many is all the more amusing because it is essentially true…

The French think the world revolves around Eiffel Tower, the British think they own the world and the Americans think they are the world

10 comments to The view outside

  • I tend to consider myself a liberal, in the sense of free trade, free markets, free speech, and small government. While this is fairly close to the original meaning of the word, it has been hijacked so badly that I wonder why I bother. In America, liberal means “big government social democrat”. In Australia, the “Liberal Party” are conservatives, and the present Prime Minister has purged the party of any actual liberals it might have once contained. In Britain, there is a liberal party, and while this once contained liberals, it is now a fairly uninteresting large government lefty party. “Whig” isn’t bad. I find British libertarians very comfortable people to be around, but I still find the word “libertarian” to be a little harsh.

  • Johan

    Interesting article indeed. And I agree with you Perry on this:

    “Michael is certainly a thoughtful commentator but he suffers from that exasperating bipolar disorder common to those on both the statist left and statist right: there is a great deal more to the world than just ‘liberal’ (in the US meaning of democratic regulatory quasi-socialist) and ‘conservative’ (in the US meaning of democratic regulatory quasi-capitalist).”

    Indeed, with that article, he (Michael) proves his point about liberals (the US version) don’t know or care much about history or the “other side” of the atlantic. Perry is pointing out that Michael has fallen into a “meta-contextual trap”, which is very true indeed. Just read the article.

  • Michael Jennings: that is why I say ‘liberal’ in quotes. I regard myself as a liberal as well, but not the way it is misused in the USA or by the Lib-Dems here in the UK.

  • Brian

    I often think it’s comical-
    Fal, lal, la! Fal, lal, la!
    How Nature always does contrive-
    Fal, lal, la, la!
    That every boy and every gal,
    That’s born into the world alive,
    Is either a little Liberal,
    Or else a little Conservative!
    Fal, lal, la!

    Heh, as Reynolds would say.

  • But when libertarians and conservatives attack welfare statism, educational monopolism, appeasement of totalitarian thugocracies, and institutionalized crushing of dissent in academia, who’s the builder and who’s the defender?

  • Dave Gudeman

    Well, the meaning of the words (liberal and conservative) has changed, and although I can sympathise with your regrets over it, it hardly helps to use the word in a way that no one will understand. I trace the American usage directly to the American two-party system. A liberal is someone who you would expect to be a Democrat, a conservative is someone you expect to be a Republican. Republicans are much more “liberal” in the old sense that Democrats are, and in some ways Democrats are much more “conservative” in the old sense than Republicans are. The names got mixed up when American communists went undercover and took over the Democratic party. Since then the Democrats have been moving further and further towards communist (very illiberal positions) and Republicans have been taking over the ideological terrain left behind. That’s why the Republican party has been growing and the Democratic party shrinking, even in the face of a press and entertainment industry that almost uniformly (until recently) reported that Republicans are evil monsters who want to starve children and old people, and Democrats are the saviors of personkind (or hupersonity).

  • Dave: the trouble is that the meaning of the word has changed, but it has changed differently virtually everywhere the word is used. Even if you attempt to use some current meaning of the word, you are going to be widely misunderstood. (At least, if the conversation contains people who are no Americans you are going to be widely misunderstood).

  • Douglas

    Given that more languages are spoken in Oklahoma than in Europe, that Minneapolis-St Paul probably has the largest community of Hmong anywhere in the world, that an entire Bantu people (12,000) is being airlifted to the US because they were being enslaved in Somalia, that Los Angeles ranks among the largest Armenian, Persian, Mexican, etc etc cities, that Chicago is one of the largest Polish, Lithuanian etc etc cities, that the Irish-descended population in the US is many multiples of the population of Ireland, and that these examples could be multiplied almost arbitrarily then maybe – just maybe – the Americans have a point.

  • Raoul Ortega

    Another aspect is one Totten mentioned briefly– he menitoned tourists in Guatemala, for example, are rarely Republicans. This is true, and part of the problem. Leftists are the ones who go into hysteria when quaint local customs are replaced by Western pop culture. This so-called love of other cultures rarely extends to actually participating in the culture. After all, they can always pack up and leave when they grow tired of it.

    Notice the shallowness of these world travelers. In my experience, rarely do they visit the same place twice. This year it’s Bali, next year it’s Macchu Pichu, and someday Nepal.

    It’s as if they expect the whole world to remain in some sort of Disneyfied stasis so that that they can demonstrate their personal moral superiority. The Leftist believes that a few weeks at a sanitized tourist resort in Havana gives great insight into Cuba. Remember when Bush was denigrated during the campaign for never having traveled beyond North America? It’s part of the same mindset that says you can’t judge someone because you haven’t experienced what they have.

    So while the liberal/Left might be the primary consumers of “world music”, they only do so to further their narrow domestic interests. It’s a fun way to show “concern” without having to do any real work.

  • back40

    Totten’s main blunder is that his thesis is false. He says:

    “Liberals are builders and conservatives are defenders. Liberals want to build a good and just society. Conservatives defend what is already built and established. This is what the left and the right are for. What draws a person to one or the other is more a matter of personality than anything else.”

    No. Conservatives seek to reform the defects of society and leftists seek to destroy/rebuild society to suit their (often shallow) views. Conservatives value society and seek to improve it, leftists do not value society and wish to replace it. When conservatives lose heart they give up on reform and narrow focus to opposing the barbarian leftists. When the barb lose heart they give up on revolution and degenerate into nihilists that are satisfied to destroy whether rebuilding takes place or not…preferably not.

    The failure of leftists to perceive and appreciate the reformist aspects of conservatism is a huge blind spot that inhibits progress toward their own stated goals. Progress is desired by all but revolution most often fails. It is conservative, risk averse, to prefer progress to revolution. Not surprisingly, many conservative principles have become central tenets of the left. The Precautionary Principle and environmental conservation and fundamentally conservative.

    Totten’s dismay at leftist ignorance of history and world events is part of a syndrome, one which he exhibits too; a narrow and short term focus on immediate desires to the exclusion of the interests of others in the world and even themselves in the future. They are narcissists flirting with nihilism. In other words, they are teenagers, halflings with undeveloped frontal lobes, not yet socialized. Time often cures this though maturity and wisdom don’t always come with age.

    Both leftists and conservatives make contributions to society but they are at their best when forced by circumstances to work together. The shallowness and impatience of the left tempered by the deepness and patience of conservatives add up to something that approximates a whole person.