Death of a Lexicon
Taxonomy is crucial to comprehension. The complexity of the universe will overwhelm even the most expansive mind. For this reason we humans break down the endless complexity of the real world into categories that allow us to apprehend the most salient common features of a group of phenomenon. Without taxonomy, we would have to treat every instance of every phenomenon as a distinct entity, making any kind of general understanding impossible.
This is as true for politics as it is for anything else. As much as people like me would enjoy it, most people don’t have the stamina to debate the every single policy proposal on its individual merits. So we classify groups of policy preferences into ideologies or platforms, so we can debate the merits of general approaches instead of bogging down in the details.
This is why we have terms like Conservative and Liberal, Left and Right, Socialist and Libertarian. Not all the people who share one of those terms agree on everything, but they have enough shared beliefs and goals that talking about them as a group is clearer and simpler than having to discuss each aspect of an individual’s political beliefs.
At least, that’s the theory.
The fraught nature of our political lexicon has come up at Ordinary Times on multiple occasions. But the event that led me to write this post happened in meatspace. I was discussing 20th Century economic history with a friend of mine (this happens more often to me than you might think), and I discovered that we had definitions of common political terms like socialism and neoliberalism that were not merely different, but almost diametrically opposed. I consider a planned economy to be a necessary condition of socialism – whether that’s total economic planning like communist countries, or merely direct government ownership or control over major industries (like the NHS or much of UK industry pre-Thatcher). Neoliberalism is then a Post-Socialist approach to the problems of inequality – relying much more on welfare rather than government control. So to me, Socialism looks like Venezuela, Cuba or pre-Thatcher Britain while neoliberalism is Denmark or Sweden.
His definitions were very different – socialism was any economic system that emphasises decreasing inequality. By contrast, neoliberalism was, as he put it “unrestrained capitalism”. To his way of thinking socialism was Sweden and Denmark, and neoliberalism represented the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. When I asked how we should distinguish the likes of Venezuela and Denmark he suggest “market socialism” for the latter. This term makes no sense to me, but then my definitions didn’t impress him either.
This post is not about which definition is better, but rather that this is no way to run a debate. If we can’t agree on what “socialist” or “neoliberal” even mean, what are we supposed to do with someone who identifies as one? And these aren’t the only problematic terms. Capitalism is a socialist term used to describe post-feudal, non-socialist economic systems. Capitalism can be used to describe the neo-mercantilism of Donald Trump, but also the ideas of economists like Bryan Caplan who advocates for something very close to Open Borders. With globalism vs. Nationalism being one of the great controversies of our time, what use is a term that puts such disparate views on the topic on the same side?
People on all sides of our great debates are using the same words to describe very different things. Both single payer and government-run healthcare are referred to as “socialised medicine” by opponents, despite them being quite different policy ideas. Equally, UBI’s minimum wages and a “Green New Deal” all get called socialism, despite some being (by my standards at least) much more socialist than others. After all Milton Friedman advocated for a UBI back in the 1960s, and if we’re calling Friedman a socialist now, I suggest the term has lost all useful meaning.
My contention is that most of our political terms are no longer useful – socialism, capitalism and neoliberalism have too little descriptive power to be useful in the modern political climate. Conservatism and Libertarianism are suspect as well. However, there are some terms that sill have some value. Social liberalism / conservatism and nationalism are still useful, as I still think there’s trans-partisan consensus on what types of ideas they advocates.
Something I think would help a lot is to stop trying to bundle ideas into large, total ideologies. Instead it may be more useful to try and break things down into more focused dichotomies:
- Globalism vs Nationalism
- Social Liberalism vs Social Conservatism
- Market Economics vs Government Economics
- Distributionism vs Anti-Distributionism
So I would classify myself as highly socially liberal, highly globalist , highly market and moderately distributionist.
These terms aren’t going to dispel all of our problems. For one thing, they don’t capture everything; I haven’t covered attitudes to criminal justice reform, and there are probably other things that would need to be added too. Also, each of these groupings is still fairly high-level, so even people who consider themselves pro-market will disagree on specific issues. Similarly you have people who are generally socially liberal but want to ban hate speech who sit awkwardly in this model.
But still, I think this would be a big improvement over our existing approaches, even if the terminology never becomes mainstream, thinking about political disputes this way should at least clarify some of the ways the left and right of the future could end up being constructed.