I often say to my classical liberal friends that language matters, partly in recognition of a profound remark that James Buchanan originally made in 1999 about what it will take to save the ‘soul’ of classical liberalism in the twenty‑first century:
classical liberalism, as a coherent set of principles, has not secured, and cannot secure, sufficient public acceptability when its vocal advocates are limited to … [those whose advocacy finds its origins primarily in the results of scientific inquiry and the dictates of enlightened self‑interest.] … Science and self‑interest, especially as combined, do … lend force to any argument. But a vision of an ideal, over and beyond science and self‑interest, is necessary, and those who profess membership in the club of classical liberals have failed, singularly, in their neglect of this requirement.
I think where the role of language fits in framing the Buchananesque ‘vision thing’ for liberalism comprises two general components.
First, classical liberal proponents need to resuscitate the true meaning of elemental phrases such as ‘liberalism,’ ‘laissez‑faire,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘justice,’ ‘equality,’ ‘social,’ ‘law’ and others which have been captured or egregiously misrepresented by the socialistic enemies of freedom of all stripes.
Second, classical liberals must find different, innovative ways to represent their critiques of socialism. For example, wherever practicable, I try to prefix public sector financing and provision of education, health and welfare services with the terms ‘conscript,’ ‘conscripted’ or ‘conscription’ to highlight the fact that governments not only force taxpayers into compulsorily financing such functions, but that end consumers are typically forced to accept a one‑size‑fits‑all standard of service provision as determined by political and bureaucratic diktat.
It must be said that language is not the only game in town in efforts to engender a more acceptable vision of liberalism among the general public. Visual images matter, too.
In this context, I was somewhat bemused earlier this week to read a piece on The Punch website, written by Tory Shepherd (see here), in which it stated the Institute of Public Affairs recently nominated an ‘eyebrow‑raising list’ of 75 suggested policy reforms, such as means‑testing Medicare, repealing the carbon tax, removing Section 18C from the Racial Discrimination Act, and so on (to read the IPA Review piece referred to by Shepherd, see here).
But what bemused me was not Shepherd’s short piece, as such, but the image attached to the piece showing three Daleks with the caption ‘Abolish! Abolish! Abolish!’
Unquestionably, the image is intended to paint an impression in reader’s minds that classical liberals are inherently destructive personalities only seeking to exterminate, as it were, the large governments that socialists have worked tirelessly to build up over generations.
There is no question that ‘abolish, abolish, abolish; repeal, repeal, repeal’ will be necessary to reduce the currently extensive, and indeed excessive, size and scale of government in all of its taxing, spending, employing and regulating dimensions. However, it is my view that evoking an image of classical liberals as wantonly destructive Daleks leaving everything behind in waste misleads, largely because it confuses means and ends as to what public policy applications of classical liberal principles are inherently about. (The Punch Dalek image also betrays a lack of understanding by many journalists, and others, of Frederic Bastiat’s fundamental ‘seen’ versus ‘unseen’ distinction.)
At the risk of speaking for others, classical liberals necessarily see the ‘abolish’ and ‘repeal’ aspects of their government rightsizing agenda as a means to the end of enabling the domain of freedom in all of its dimensions to flourish.
Allow me to explain further by way of two counter-images. The creeping socialism of public sector taxing, spending, employing and regulating since the late nineteenth century resembles something not unlike the festering of toxic weeds in a field, which increasingly crowds out every other form of life.
A public policy reform agenda inspired by classical liberal principles would, admittedly, ‘abolish’ and ‘repeal’ the weeds. However this process is intended to allow the healthy and beneficent flowers of freedom to bloom fully, for the benefit of all. Putting it in another way, classical liberals wish to root out the ugly weeds of government coercion allowing the beautiful, glorious flowers of free enterprise and community cohesion to blossom.
The major fallacy of modern socialistic thinking is that it claims that classical liberals want to have their way to reduce or eliminate governmental involvement in areas such as education, health and welfare, leaving behind an imbecilic, unhealthy and poor population lacking those services that, allegedly, only government can provide.
However the lessons of history in the West, and the lived experience of today in many parts of the developing world, reveal that a rich non‑governmental ecology of services, including in education, health and welfare, arise spontaneously (in a field, say) for as long as there exists inherent community demands for such services and that governments desist from substituting their expensive, low‑quality versions of services (weeds) for those alternatively provided by the not‑for‑profit and for‑profit sectors (flowers).
If there is one thing for certain socialists will continue to misrepresent the intellectual basis and practical aspirations of classical liberalism, to trick or dupe others into subscribing to their agenda of economic and social weed‑sowing. Classical liberals will have to expend intense energies to counter such falsehoods, and so not hesitate to use images and art to help make the case that liberty and freedom ought to flourish throughout every realm of human existence.
Disclaimer: As most Catallaxy readers know, I work for the IPA as a Research Fellow.