The Futility of Labels

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I was a Federalist. I believed that the free and independent states
in America were safer together in the bonds of union through the
Articles of Confederation. But when the Articles were scrapped in
favor of a new Constitution, the nationalists who advocated the
latter called themselves "Federalist" and made me an "Anti-federalist."

But nevertheless I became loyal to the Constitution, and saw it
as the final authority in our nation's political affairs. I thought
this is what I should do to become a good Patriot. But precisely
because of my allegiance to the Constitution and my desire to not
see it destroyed by lies and tyrants, I was called a Rebel instead.

that, I saw the corruption at all levels of government, the misery
of the urban poor, and the hardship of our farmers, and saw government
favors to Big Business as the source of much of this evil. So I
became a Progressive working for cleaner government, only to see
fellow progressives agitating for an Income Tax. So I became a Populist,
only to see my brothers support Prohibition.

I became a Liberal, skeptical of the conceits of the Progressives
and the prejudices of the Populists. An opponent of War and escalating
Bureaucracy. An advocate of the old Whig principles that prompted
our War of Independence (long before "Whig" became associated
with Henry Clay and tariffs). A Jeffersonian at heart.

when hard times came, many of my liberal colleagues cheered further
expansion of the national government. To be a Liberal was to be
a Socialist. Seeing the dangers that Socialism posed to our liberties
and character, I, reluctantly, called myself a Conservative. And,
to combat this ever-growing Leviathan, I even became a Republican.
What choice did I have?

there I stayed, decade after decade, patiently working with hawkish
Republicans, looking forward to the demise of the Soviet Union so
that we could finally get on with the project of de-militarizing
the nation and shrinking the government.

then I found out it was too late. Two full generations had grown
up under Leviathan; feeding the federal monster was now the Conservative
thing to do. After all, Conservatives do not support drastic changes
in the status quo. So be it, I rationalized. At least Conservatives
wouldn't go the other way. They might not cut government by much,
but at least they won't expand it either.

then the Conservatives started to support federal control of education.
And sought to make private charities dependent on government "compassion."
And supported war wherever and whenever the President desired. And
the nationalization of airport security. And government snooping
in our personal and financial affairs. And ever-greater budget deficits.

so I became a Libertarian. Shrink government wherever and whenever
possible. Conservatives are not allies in this goal, and have given
up even pretending that they are.

I am a Libertarian today, but far less likely to wholeheartedly
embrace the word than even a few months ago. I have two reasons
for my reluctance. The first is my own breaches of what others would
call libertarian orthodoxy. For example, in cases where there are
two or more competent eyewitnesses to a violent felony, I don't
have a problem with the death penalty. Another is my geo-libertarian
sensibility which places the right to exclusive use of land and
natural resources in a different category, ethically and economically,
from man-made property. If I express an opinion, only for someone
to tell me that if I believe that, I'm not really a Libertarian,
well, then, fine. Whatever.

second reason I don't embrace the label is that I don't trust its
branding, the meanings others associate with the word. No, I'm not
ashamed of the "civil libertarian" side of it; if we are
for drug control, gun control, and censorship, we are useless. And
I'm proud of our non-interventionist foreign policy. And I'm in
agreement with our defense of free markets.

I wonder if many if not most people at all familiar with the word
"libertarian" associate it with the defense of corporations.
And, by extension, that we are to use our military to make the world
safe for crony capitalism and globalization. In other words, perhaps
our longtime affiliation and alliance with Goldwater-Reagan conservatism,
has only served to confuse principle with plunder. Many today now
think of capitalism as a system that favors Big Business. Republican
policy since before Lincoln has always favored Big Business. Libertarians
are said to embrace capitalism. Therefore, Libertarians favor Big

impression, I believe, is misleading. Libertarianism in its economic
sense is really about freeing the small entrepreneur from onerous
taxes and regulations, about liberating impoverished communities
to build markets on their own and for themselves. But that agenda
is more important than its name. I hope it can be called libertarian,
and I hope I can conscientiously call myself a libertarian until
I die. But the definitions of words are fleeting things.

young college graduate drove into the tiny Midwestern village in
1957, to serve as an interim pastor at a small, ethnic, evangelical
church. He found out that his congregation, and that of a nearby
Methodist church, called themselves "fundamentalists."
They assumed that embracing and adhering to the fundamental doctrines
of the Christian faith was what was meant by the word "fundamentalist."
This young pastor told them that that isn't what the word meant,
at least not anymore. It had become associated exclusively with
Baptist and Pentecostal theology and Dispensational interpretations
of the end-times.

pastor ended up marrying one Methodist girl, which inspired no protest
from her parents. After all, though he wasn't Methodist, he did
preach the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Though none of them
were then, or are now, what we would call fundamentalists.

then, what were they? Evangelicals. Conservative Evangelicals. Except,
their politics were liberal. Someone called conservative in their
religion is assumed to be conservative in their politics. Even the
word "Evangelical" though not characterized as far-out
wacky as "fundamentalist," is still far too commonly associated
with conservative politics.

the word that ended up with greatest favor, even among Protestants,
was "orthodoxy." Christian orthodoxy, as far as Protestants
understood it. But even this was misleading. The tenets of the Christian
faith that could be shared by Protestant, Roman, and Eastern churches
alike were, actually, the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Much
of the rest, shared by the Roman and Eastern Churches, were the
real Orthodoxy, which the Protestant heirs of Luther and Calvin
sought to refute.

a perfectly good word to describe the faith shared by all Christians,
fundamentalism, has been relegated to a somewhat large (in America,
at least) but ultimately fringe movement. And the replacement word,
orthodox, covers up the reality that the Roman and Eastern churches
share a lot in common, and that Protestants share much, much less
in common. In a brighter age, what they all would share in common
would be called fundamentalism, and what the Roman and Eastern churches
have in common would be called orthodoxy.

use, misuse, and abuse of labels is not new, nor is it only a political
phenomenon. It is everywhere.

call me Federalist, or Anti-federalist. Patriot or Rebel. Progressive
or Populist. Liberal or Conservative. Libertarian. Call me American
for supporting Jeffersonian principles. Or call me Anti-American
when Jeffersonian principles conflict with the policies of our Glorious
Leader, President Bush. Call me Right-wing because I want taxes
cut. Call me Left-wing because I think everyone deserves a fair

me whatever you like. I don't know if it matters anymore. All I
want is what the Revolutionary leaders wanted, to get our freedoms

22, 2005

Leroy Wilson [send him mail]
lives and works in Chicago and is a columnist for the Partial
. He also has a new blog, “Independent

Leroy Wilson Archives

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