Thomas Sowell

Editors' note: this is part three in a series. Be sure to check out Part I and Part II.

Among the many words that don't mean what they say, but which too many of us accept as if they did, are those staples of political discussion, "liberals" and "conservatives."

Most liberals are not liberal and most conservatives are not conservative. We might be better off just calling them X and Y, instead of imagining that we are really describing their philosophies. Moreover, like most confusion, it has consequences.

The late liberal Professor Tony Judt of New York University gave this definition of liberals: "A liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others: who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behavior."

According to Professor Judt, liberals favor "keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose."

That is certainly in keeping with the dictionary definition of liberalism and with most contemporary liberals' vision of themselves. But, if we follow Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' admonition to "think things, not words" and look beyond the label to the tangible realities of the world, we find almost the exact opposite of what the word "liberal" is supposed to mean.

Most of us would probably regard the current administration in Washington-- both the White House and the Congress-- as "liberal," even though the word "progressive" may be more in vogue.

Does the sweeping legislation empowering federal officials to tell doctors, patients, hospitals, and insurance companies what to do, when it comes to medical care, sound like leaving individuals the maximum space to live their lives as they choose?

Communities that have had overwhelmingly liberal elected officials for decades abound in nanny state regulations, micro-managing everything from home-building to garbage collection. San Francisco is a classic example. Among its innumerable micro-managing laws is one recently passed requiring that gas stations must remove the little levers that allow motorists to pump gas into their cars without having to hold the nozzle.

Liberals are usually willing to let people violate the traditional standards of the larger society but crack down on those who dare to violate liberals' own notions and fetishes.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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