Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Futility of Labels

That is the name of James Leroy Wilson's new LRC article. It deals with how labels have come to mean different things over the years, and how one who's views may not change over time often feel compelled to change the labels that they apply to themselves. It is definitely an interesting read.

The following is an excerpt from the article that I'd like to briefly comment on:
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 point he makes in that first paragraph is an important one. Too many people who fall under the label of leftist assume that most libertarians are radicalized Republicans on economic issues, idolators of capitalism. While many libertarians may claim to love capitalism, their definition of capitalism differs starkly from the definition of capitalism used by the left (to learn more about this, I recommend two pieces written by BK Marcus on the issue -- one and two).

The claim that "libertarians embrace capitalism" does not apply to me. I don't want to be associated with a system that is considered by many to be the root of all evils in our world, including the current wars our government is fighting that some on the left refer to as being capitalistic in nature. Besides, the term didn't initially belong to capitalists or free market advocates anyways. Although economist David Ricardo apparently first used the term "capitalist", the term "capitalism" was coined by Marxists.

What I embrace are free markets. Free markets are not inherently capitalistic. One need only to become aware of free market anti-capitalists to realize that. Free markets are all about liberty and voluntary associations and transactions, nothing more. When Wilson refers to "liberating impoverished communities to build markets on their own and for themselves", such communities may be capitalistic (in an economic, not a political sense), or they may consist of worker owned and operated cooperatives and other enterprises, mutual banks, and other systems not associated with capitalism.

While Wilson discusses the many misrepresentations and other pitfalls associated with the label "libertarian", he still seems to embrace the term libertarian, as do I. Labels may be somewhat futile and have shifting meanings as time progresses, but they aren't entirely futile. The substance embodied by such labels are what is really important, and people need some way of distinguising ideas, even if the method used isn't perfect.


Anonymous Sunni said...

Very stimulating post, Freeman. I think I'd need at least a blog entry or two of my own to do justice to all my thoughts in response to it ... I'll be brief here.

I consider myself a capitalist, but that term has a specific meaning for me that I try to make clear whenever I use it. "Capital" to me means simply an asset, whether material or not, that one can use to one's profit. Many individuals today seem to think of capitalism as synonymous with consumerism and corporatism; but to my mind, both of these warp capitalism into potentially unsavory things (we're seeing more of that unsavoriness each day).

Eep ... I said I'd be brief, and I'm not, despite only touching on one thing. Guess I'll stop anyway, and save the rest for some other time and place. I appreciate your post, and the links.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous spenwah said...

Wow, somehow I have gone my entire life without stumbling across this blog before. There's great stuff here, I'm adding you to my blogroll.

8:07 PM  

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