LONDON — U.S. President George W. Bush’s favorite accusation in the election campaign is reported to have been that Sen. John Kerry was a “liberal.” The president seems to have used the label as a term of abuse meaning a “leftwing” radical and a supporter of the appeasement of terrorists.
There is nothing in the dictionary to justify this interpretation of the word “liberal.” According to the definition in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “liberal” in the political sense means someone who is “favorable to democratic reform and individual liberty” and “(moderately) progressive.”
Bush is in favor of democratic reform in the Middle East even if his government continues to give backing to autocratic regimes in, for instance, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. The president frequently affirms his belief in democracy.
It is less clear how far the president favors “individual liberty.” Through the USA Patriot Act and the establishment of a prison camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, his government has placed limits on the freedom of individuals who may be deemed a threat to U.S. security.
The basic problem lies in determining who is a potential threat and ensuring not only that justice is done but is seen to be done. Those imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for three years have been denied their basic human rights including the right to a fair trial as set out in the U.S. Constitution. The treatment of prisoners there and at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad is a serious illiberal blot on the U.S.’ international reputation.
The president’s “compassionate conservatism” could be considered as moderately progressive, although Kerry argued that many of the policies of the Republican Party favored the rich at the expense of poorer Americans.
To understand the political meaning of “liberal,” we need to understand a little about the history of the term in British politics. In Britain, the Liberal Party was the successor to the Whigs, whose history goes back to the “glorious revolution” of 1688, when King James II was forced to flee and the important role of Parliament was reaffirmed.
Whigs were the main proponents of parliamentary reform that was opposed by the Tories (later the Conservative Party). The Whigs also led the movement to ban the slave trade, which was supported by the Tories and King George III until 1807. The Whigs who called themselves Liberals initiated efforts in the 19th century to improve conditions of the poor, who had suffered greatly as result of the industrial revolution. They pushed for more progressive taxation and opposed privilege.
The Liberals were the main advocates in Britain of free trade. They regarded Adam Smith as a pioneer and promoted free markets. They opposed Marxism and socialism. They sought small government and opposed unnecessary regulation.
Liberals advocate tolerance both on religious and political issues, and uphold the right to freedom of expression. Liberals believe that individuals should have freedom to do what they want or think right, except where those freedoms impinge on the freedoms of others or are a threat to the well being of others and to society in general. Liberals do not think that other people have an unimpeded right to impose their own ethical code on others, and they consider that laws should be framed so that restrictions on individual liberty are kept to a minimum.
The problem lies in the interpretation of what is meant by “minimum.” The liberal upholds the criminal law and believes strongly in the importance of human rights. He accepts that there have to be rules against behavior that can damage others. Thus murder, theft and other clearly antisocial behavior must be stopped and punished in accordance with established law.
Society must also be protected against selfish and destructive behavior by individuals and groups, such as vandalism, driving under the influence of alcohol or speeding and driving carelessly or selfishly. But the liberal believes that prisons must be humanely run and cruel and inhuman punishments banned. The liberal is accordingly opposed to capital punishment and deplores the treatment of offenders in some American penal institutions.
The liberal is also opposed to restrictions on behavior that does not harm others, such as homosexual acts conducted in private, and, while accepting the sanctity of life, is against intrusive laws such as ones aimed at making stem-cell research illegal.
The British Liberal Democratic Party is an amalgam of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, which split away from the Labour Party. On most issues its policies follow liberal principles, but on social issues it sometimes veers too far toward socialist interference in the market economy. The British Labour Party and the Conservative Party contain elements that are authoritarian and illiberal.
The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party seems to many observers neither liberal in its principles nor democratic in its organization. So its name is misleading. It has favored the spread of regulatory systems and opposed deregulation. In penal issues its stance is generally illiberal.
On trade issues its policies have at least in the past favored protectionism and doubts remain about its commitment to free trade. The Democratic Party of Japan may be more liberal than the LDP, but it is hard to tell, if the party achieved power, whether it would support liberal policies in the area of penal reform or would push for free trade.
Before damning some opponent as a liberal and using the word liberal as a term of abuse, politicians would be wise to think before they speak and study not only the proper meaning of the term but also its history. Bush, if he reflected a little on history, would surely agree that many liberal policies as outlined above accord with his own views as he has expressed them to the American public.
In accusing Kerry of being a “liberal,” he was either deliberately misusing the word (a not unknown phenomenon in what has been called “Bush-speak”) or did not know what he was talking about.