The Futility of Labels

First 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.

After 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.

So, 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.

But 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?

And 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.

But 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.

But 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.

And 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.

And 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.

The 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.

Yet, 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 Business.

That 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.

The 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.

This 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.

Well, 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.

Ironically, 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.

Thus, 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.

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

So, 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 shake.

Call 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 back.

February 22, 2005

James Leroy Wilson Archives