Monday, April 13, 2009

Political Spectrum 4: Evolution of Labels (Conservative)

If you accept the statements I made here, about the meaning of "liberal" and "conservative", you might want to read my theory about how those words have evolved. So here goes:

Prior to Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, which began in 1933, government (especially at the federal level) was smaller than it is now; taxes were lower; business was less regulated; and government at all levels took little, if any, action intended to protect specific groups perceived as being disadvantaged.

All of those positions fall under one or more of the various definitions of "conservative" that are generally recognized today.

Government in this country has moved away from that conservative stance during the subsequent 76 years. That was a gradual process. The U.S. did not go from laissez-faire on March 3, 1933 (eve of FDR's inauguration) to socialism on March 5, 1933. But I think it's correct to view March 4, 1933, as the beginning of the transformation that did take place.

Of course, there were those who advocated bigger government, more regulation of business, etc., before 1933. During those years they were generally unsuccessful. Taxation and federal spending spiked upward during World War I, but were brought back down during the post-war Harding and Coolidge presidencies.

Those advocates of change derided their opponents as conservative and, of course, they were right in the sense of their opponents' desire to conserve the status quo.

In the years following 1933, those identified as conservative argued, largely in vain, against the growth of government. On economic issues, those arguments mostly came from the Republican Party. (Racial issues were a different story.)

I consider it to be a symptom of linguistic laziness that those Republicans continued to be called conservative. In earlier times, they had come to be so closely identified with that label, that people no longer thought about the literal meaning of the word. Now that big government was the status quo, they were no longer looking to conserve that. But they were still described as though they were.

Some ideas that are labeled "conservative" in present-day political discourse, such as School Choice, are really quite radical, in light of the degree to which they would depart from current and past practice. In future posts, I will attempt to show that the effects of that sort of confusion are not limited to upsetting those of us who are too anal about the language. Use and abuse of words such as "conservative" in political debates have had a substantial impact.

But, in the meantime, the next subject will be a further discourse on the dreaded "L-word", "liberal".

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