Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Big Bad Word.

In France these days, if you ever want to smear a politician, a journalist or anyone for that matter, you just need to call them “libéral” or worse yet “ultralibéral”, and it’s as if you charged them with a crime worse than corruption, or murder. This is THE big bad word in France today, and it’s been largely used by those who support the ‘NO’ to the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty, and there is a lot to say about that.
First, whenever the word is used, it is never defined maybe because of the assumption that everybody knows what it means and that there is a consensus that “libéralisme” is the new evil of our day and age. It has also become the scapegoat for anything going wrong in this country. It has been the new devil even though it is often devoid of ratonal meaning but maybe giving a definition is precisely what we need to do first.

Different definitions:
  • Originally the term “liberal” referred the Enlightenment tradition of limited political power and support of individual rights, so it was a very “progressive” notion in the context of 18th century. Obviously the definition has greatly evolved over the years and now it carries different meanings and connotations in different countries, including within Europe.
  • In France the word “libéralisme” means “free-market economy with laissez-faire policy”, and so “ultralibéralisme”, [a neologism like hyperpuissance some years ago] has been used as a pejorative term initially adopted by a large section of the French left against those they see as having extreme capitalist views. But the confusion between the two words has been entertained by many politicians and journalists who tend to use both indiscriminately.
  • The definition is somewhat different in northern Europe as it carries a more positive connotation associated with individual rights (close to what the Radicals tend to represent in French politics) with the belief that government should act to alleviate poverty and other social problems, but not through radical changes to the structure of society.
  • In the U.S. , the term means almost the exact opposite to what it means in France. After WWII, the term “liberal” was associated to the left-of center new liberalism and in the 50s (in the McCarthy era) former New Dealers and other people left of the center began to be referred to as “liberal”. In the 80s (during a turn to the right with Reagan), the word began to be used as a derogatory term by U.S. conservatives, as form of counter-reaction to the liberal consensus of the 60s. In recent years, the word “liberal” has been hijacked by Conservatives to mean an overly free-spirited, unaccountable, and compromised character or someone in favor of vast and needless government intrusion into people’s lives. As a result “liberals” now prefer to be called “Progressives”.
It is interesting to see that the word “liberal” went from being associated with Enlightenment values at the core of which is the notion of personal freedom to a negatively connoted term. The irony is that it is now used for demagogical rhetoric both in the U.S. and in France.
The commonality here is that in both countries, the word “liberal” has been hijacked by extremes – the Conservative right in the US and the far-left in France and as a result the center (the Socialists or the UMP in France) has to include the term and position itself in accordance. In other words, the center is forced to adopt the language and the mental frame of small minority groups.
The problem right now in France is that the word is often associated with the notion of free-market economy alone or with Capitalism, as if they necessarily implied laissez-faire policy. In the same way, in the US, political rhetoric often uses “freedom” associated with “free-market”. This obviously maintains confusion and manipulates public opinion., and needless to say that economic freedom does not necessarily equal personal freedom (and sometimes quite the opposite) and Capitalism does not necessarily mean laissez-faire policy.
What is usually agreed on is that some government intervention is needed.
Despite what people in Europe may think, the US is not ultra-liberal [the American government subsidizes part of its industry], and contrary to the common rhetoric in France, capitalism is mostly a positive economic model that creates wealth [if nothing else, ask former Communist countries]. So really, the consensus should be that Capitalism and democracy are the best available systems to work with and it is all a question of dosage. And this is the real issue – a discussion on the role of government, and its main function in society.
My view tends to be more Social-Democratic [i.e. regulatory systems over private enterprise in the interests of workers, consumers and small enterprise, some industrial regulation, government-funded health care and educational systems for all citizens, extensive system of social security, environmental protection laws, a progressive taxation system, etc… just to name a few] but I am ready for some discussion resulting in some compromise. Things will have to be global anyway.
And there will be differences between countries but a compromise can be found within Europe at least… and guess what, this compromise is actually exactly what the Constitutional Treaty is all about, and it’ll be up to us Europeans, when we vote, to fill in the frame of the new institutions with better policies, and maybe give the world something to dream about, the European Dream, as Jeremy Rifkin calls it.

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