A Liberal Complaint

This is the 20th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Erudita, the Goddess of Words, was snoozing up in heaven when she was woken up by a sudden noise. Deep down in the Vocabulosphere, there was turmoil. “I should go and investigate,” she thought.

She zoomed down. There, bang in the middle of the political spectrum, the word Liberal was pacing to and fro. Left to right. Right to left. Left to right.

“What’s the matter, Liberal?” She asked. “You seem agitated. Is everything okay?”

“Everything okay, everything okay?” mocked Liberal. “Everything is not okay. I want to quit.”

“Quit?” said Erudita. “You can’t quit. As long as humans need you, you have a job to do. Just do it quietly, and all shall be well.”

“Humans,” said Liberal, “are the problem here. A century ago I was happy and peaceful, sure of my identity. I knew what I meant. But in the last few decades, I have been brutalized. My original meaning has been wrung out of me, and now I stand for different things to different people. I have become a label, and a cuss word, and a badge to people who don’t even know what I stand for. Aaargh!”

“Whoa, hold on there,” said Erudita. “I thought you were one of the most important words in modern history, for everything that you embodied. What’s gone wrong? Start at the beginning.”

Liberal took a deep breath. “You see, my mum, Liber, meant ‘free’ in Latin. Bless her soul. And when I was born in English in the late 18th century, and started becoming popular, I stood for freedom just like she had. In fact, because of ideas that had been shaped for a few decades before me, I embodied a rich system of beliefs in individual liberties.

“I was everywhere! In spirit, I was shaped by John Locke in England, and soon the ideas that I was to stand for were taken up and developed by the likes of David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Baptiste Say and Frederic Bastiat in France, Immanuel Kant in Germany, and most satisfyingly, by Thomas Paine and America’s early founders.

“Oh, those were the days. When people invoked me in a political context, I stood for something clear and unambiguous. To be ‘liberal’ in that age meant to support individual freedom in all its senses: social, cultural, economic, political. To a liberal person, the government’s chief purpose was to defend and enable these individual freedoms, our rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ as Thomas Jefferson put so well.”

“Yes, those were eventful times,” said Erudita. “And you were one of the most important words in the political domain. And you’re still a word that inspires a lot of passion. So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that I was abducted by the Left! Now I mean completely different things to people across the world, and some of it is the opposite of what I once meant. In the US today, deeply illiberal people call themselves liberal. They support freedom only in a social and cultural sense. When it comes to economic freedom, they want none of it. They believe that two consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they want with each other – unless they’re trading!

“They want a big government that constantly interferes with personal freedom. It takes your money and redistributes it like a big, bumbling Robin Hood. Most dangerously, it put barriers in the way of private enterprise, not realising that people enrich themselves by trading with each other to mutual benefit, and not by depending on charity from above. Indeed, that’s the secret of America’s prosperity.

“It’s worse in India. Free enterprise has long been distrusted there because of the baggage of India’s history – Imperialism marched in with the East India Company, and capitalism is often mistakenly associated with it. True liberals have always been marginal there, and feel wary of calling themselves liberal.

“So-called Indian liberals are even worse than their American counterparts. They oppose the economic freedom that the country desperately needs. Their commitment to freedom is incomplete and hypocritical and, even in the social domain, conditional – consider how they defended the free speech of MF Hussain or Chandramohan against those Hindutva fanatics, but not of the Danish cartoonists or the publisher who was jailed for publishing Sikh jokebook. They are driven by politics, not principle, and it’s no wonder that I have become a cuss-word in India. It’s driving me nuts.”

Erudita went over and put her hand on Liberal’s shoulder. “There there,” she said, “calm down now. It could be much worse. At least some people still care about what you once meant. I can’t say the same for that friend of yours who was once so merry, but no longer is. Remember Gay?”

*  *  *

As regular readers would know, I identify myself most with classical liberalism, which is more or less the same as modern libertarianism. But those terms are misleading in that they end with ‘-ism’, automatically implying that they are ideologies with their own set of dogmas. That is not how I view them.

My worldview begins with and flows from the simple principle of individual freedom. I believe, to quote from Wikipedia, that “all persons are the absolute owners of their own lives, and should be free to do whatever they wish with their persons or property, provided they allow others the same liberty.” This simple principle acted as the lodestar of the great liberals of the 18th and 19th century, though the term ‘liberal’ holds other connotations today. Whichever way one uses it, there is scope for misunderstanding. And, sadly, there is no political party in India that supports the true liberals. Alas.