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The Uselessness of Political Terminology: Part 1

At the risk of venturing to far from economic wit, I feel a need to comment on political terminology. Economics is, after all, related to politics, so I’m not venturing too far off base (or at least, I’ve deceived myself into thinking I’m not). Recently, there has been a litany of media reports and diatribes about a significant growth of “extreme” right-wing groups. Liberal economist and New York Times editorialist, Paul Krugman explained it as follows:

“Back in April, there was a huge fuss over an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security warning… [of] an upsurge of right-wing extremism… Conservatives were outraged. The chairman of the Republican National Committee denounced the report as an attempt to “segment out conservatives in this country who have a different philosophy or view from this administration” and label them as terrorists. But with the murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion fanatic, closely followed by a shooting by a white supremacist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the analysis looks prescient…[and this] right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.” (1)

Krugman’s argument is interesting insofar that it is hyperbolic, hypocritical and paints with way too big of a brush, all at the same time. Sure, conservatives have been up in arms over Barack Obama’s policies and have said a multitude of vitriolic things, highlighted by the daily rants of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh types. However, the same thing happened to George Bush during his presidency (most of which, Bush deserved, in my opinion). And Krugman was at the front of the line in that barrage of vitriol.


or something like that...

What this whole mess elucidates is, as far as politics (and subsequently, economic policy) are concerned, actual positions are of little importance. All that matters is that you root for your team, be they Democrats or Republicans. Thus, we see Fox News begin to attack every push for increased state power, while MSNBC defends such policies. Under Bush, it was the opposite. The truth is, political terms can mean just about anything and political parties have shifted their positions radically throughout history. Individual policy positions are important and Krugman certainly has firm beliefs on a myriad of issues. However, in this instance, Krugman is just rooting for his team: the Democrats. Much the way Rush Limbaugh roots for his team: the Republicans.

The key question we have to ask is what are the “extreme” right-wing groups that Krugman and his ilk are referring to? Certainly the murderers Krugman refers to are terrible individuals with terrible ideologies. However, on the larger question, is he referring to fascists, radical free-marketers, religious zealots or the racist, Confederate types? Or is he talking about all of these groups? For its part, the Department of Homeland Security report Krugman mentions, describes right-wing extremism as follows:

“Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.” (2)

This covers an awful lot of ground. Under this definition, every group mentioned above could be considered part of the extreme right, yet they are, in many cases, the polar opposites of each other. Several even have fairly “liberal” beliefs.

Fascists, at least the fascists of the 1930’s, favored a massive welfare state, state control of industry and strict gun laws. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s even launched large campaigns to stop smoking. To list just a few of the Nazi’s 25 campaign points:

13. We demand the nationalization of all trusts.

14. We demand profit-sharing in large industries.

15. We demand a generous increase in old-age pensions.

16. We demand the creation and maintenance of a sound middle-class, the immediate communalization of large stores [think Wal-Mart] which will be rented cheaply to small tradespeople, and the strongest consideration must be given to ensure that small traders shall deliver the supplies needed by the State, the provinces and municipalities.

17. We demand an agrarian reform in accordance with our national requirements, and the enactment of a law to expropriate the owners without compensation of any land needed for the common purpose. The abolition of ground rents, and the prohibition of all speculation in land.

[And my favorite…] 18. We demand that ruthless war be waged against those who work to the injury of the common welfare. Traitors, usurers, profiteers, etc., are to be punished with death, regardless of creed or race. [ Well at least they weren’t racist, oh wait…] (3)

Maybe the “socialist” part in National Socialists actually meant something. After all, even the BNP (British National Party) is usually decried as far right for being racist and anti-immigration. They are also in support protectionism, higher taxes and “[giving] workers a stake in the success and prosperity of the enterprises whose profits their labour creates by encouraging worker shareholder and co-operative schemes.” (4) Hardly right wing.

Extremists, sure, but does right-wing really define them?

Extremists, sure. Stupid, of course. But does right-wing really define them?

Radical free marketers, typically libertarians (who are very much anti-government and pro-local control), on the other hand, tend to favor drug legalization, gay marriage and a very dovish foreign policy; positions usually seen as being on the left. And given that, how can both of these ideologies be on the “extreme” right-wing? Anyone who really thinks fascists and libertarians are even remotely similar should strongly consider visiting their friendly, local neurologist.

The left can be seen in many of the same ways. The best example is that both communists (total state) and anarchists (no state) are seen as movements of the left. It is true that Karl Marx believed the state would magically “wither away” after capital was eliminated (a ridiculous proposition, given that those in power would have to voluntarily give up their power, preceded by an impossible task, since capital is anything of value and can’t be eliminated). Still, to advocate for eliminating the state (as anarchists would do) and having the state take over everything (as communists would do), would require the exact opposite policies. Yet, both groups are on the “extreme” left.

Furthermore, these terms also change over time, or by geographic region, or simply by which group of people you’re hanging out with. Take the term centrist. A centrist is a centrist only by modern and geographical definitions. For example, one of those white, nationalist crackpots who believe slavery was probably bad, but who also believe a “superior” and “inferior” race can’t coexist, would have been a centrist position 200 years ago in the United States, perhaps even progressive (forgive my use of such a vague phrase, to be discussed later). Thomas Jefferson, as enlightened as he was, unfortunately, was of this persuasion. Racism is a relic that comes to us from prehistoric tribalism. Our brains instinctually see different, as dangerous. This mental trait is to our advantage when say, that different thing is a hungry tiger. With race though, to put it mildly, this view is a bit outdated. Yet 200 years ago, it would have been a centrist position.

The same could be said for radicalism. By who’s definition is one a radical? By standard political dogma, of course. To be fair, radical is often used as a compliment: the founders of the United States were radical. Martin Luther King Jr. was radical. However, the term is often used in a derogatory fashion, especially when used in the present tense.

I define radicalism differently. I don’t think a Marxist or an anarcho-capitalist is a radical. They just have a different opinion than me. Radicalism isn’t bad, extremism is. Extremism, in my view, is the belief you are right, with such conviction, that nothing can change your mind and furthermore, that the ends justify the means. Blowing up abortion clinics or medical labs where research on animals is going on is extremist. Aside from being blatantly immoral, it is destructive to your cause. How much of the peace process in Israel has been stymied by terrorism? Even when in response to some justified grievance, it does more harm than good. This is the kind of radicalism that should be condemned, not just being radically outside the mainstream. After all, as Mark Twain said, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.”

While time changes things drastically, geography presents similar problems for political terminology. I believe in the separation of church and state. In the United States, this is a fairly centrist position. Religion is personal; politics is public, and quite dirty for that matter. However, do you think this position is centrist in say, oh I don’t know, Iran?

When time and geography come into play, these things can get real messy. The term “libertarian” is a great example of this. The famous, leftist, intellectual Noam Chomsky considers himself a libertarian socialist. When a student asked him how he could be both, given that it’s a contradiction in terms, he responded as follows:

“You’re right, the terms I’m using are contradictory in the United States, but that’s a sign of the perversity of American culture. Here the term libertarian means the opposite of what it meant to everyone else all through history.” (5)

Professor Chomsky is right. I’ll leave out his diatribe about how “American” libertarians are “extreme advocates of total tyranny” and how the United States is responsible for every evil in the history of the world. However, his main point, that most of the world thinks libertarian is synonymous with anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism, is correct. What Chomsky leaves out is why American libertarians are called what they are (other than our perverse culture). I mean, we have to have a name for these extreme advocates of total tyranny, don’t we?

Since “tyrannyians” would be a poor rallying cry, Americans of this political persuasion were forced to a look for a more appealing term. So how did they come up with libertarian? Well it’s not that complicated, though it requires a quick history lesson. Libertarians advocate a political ideology that is similar to classical liberalism; a philosophy popularized by the likes of John Locke and Adam Smith, and was very prevalent in the 19th century. The popular saying, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” sums it up quite succinctly. In more specific terms, both philosophies advocate free markets, social freedom, and limited government. Libertarians tend to emphasize freedom, whereas classical liberals emphasized utilitarianism; however, they each hold both in high regard. The main reason classical liberals in the United States are now known as libertarians is that the term “liberal” was no longer available.

Why, you ask? Well, politics in the United States started to change around the beginning of the 20th century with the famous progressive movement. Government had been a “necessary evil” in the U.S. for almost its entire history. However, with an industrial revolution and mounting poverty (or at least, more visible poverty), many people thought the government could be used as a tool for social improvement. The idea that “the government which governs least, governs best,” was replaced with an interventionist government appropriated with the tools to help the oppressed and down-on-their-luck types.

In sticking with our current theme, the progressives of the early 20th century bare little resemblance to the progressives of today. Both groups favor an activist government, but progressives of the early 20th century favored prohibition, were often infatuated with eugenics and many of them supported the United States’ entry into World War I. None of this resembles the drug legalizing, racism hating (albeit, identity politics loving), peaceniks of self-described progressives today.

Interestingly enough, this sheds light on what is the opposite of a progressive; labeled and derided as reactionary. Some things are obviously reactionary, say human sacrifice, although other terms, such as “bad,” would work better. However, to label many policies as reactionary, just because they’re old or passe, usually winds up in a contradiction. Take drugs, which progressives tend to want to legalize (a position I support). This is seen as progressive, perhaps because it is “enlightened,” perhaps because it is a better policy, or perhaps because it is new. Unfortunately, for consistency’s sake, legalizing drugs is in fact very old, thus not “progressive.” Not only is this position the opposite of what progressives of the early 20th century favored. After all, many helped pushed through the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, the first major federal drug law, under progressive president Woodrow Wilson. What’s key to note is that the first significant federal drug law came in 1914! Drugs had been legal in the United States for most of its history. Thus, couldn’t drug legalization be seen as a reactionary position? Or do these terms even matter in the first place?

But I digress. Returning to our discussion on libertarianism, during the Great Depression, advocates of the free market, namely classical liberals, became harder and harder to find. Who could support free markets when unemployment was over 20%? It’s certainly difficult to advocate freedom when that freedom is the freedom to starve to death. Thus, the term liberalism shifted from advocates of a free market economy to a mixed economy. When Franklin Roosevelt, implemented the New Deal, the meaning of “liberal” had all but finished its transition. Those who wanted to reduce the size of the welfare state (or eliminate it entirely), took up the role of conservatives. However, conservatives maintained the belief that government had a role in monitoring moral values and have famously laxed on their free market ideology. So while libertarians tend to favor conservatives over liberals, they have significant differences with each.

What’s interesting to note here, is that while a similar cultural shift happened in Europe, the terminology did not follow suit. In Europe, liberal political parties called themselves the labor party or for people further to the left, social democrats. It’s hard to say exactly why the shift in terminology happened here but not across the pond (well, I think it’s hard to say, I really just don’t feel like researching it), but ideologically, liberal Democrats and the labor party are quite similar. So the word “liberal” in Europe still, for the most part, represents what it did in the 19th century: free markets, small government and individual liberty. This, if you remember, is basically what “American” libertarianism stands for.

So to counterpoint Chomsky on this matter, one could say, if Chomsky ever called himself a liberal socialist, that would be a contradiction in terms; it’s only not considered a contradiction because of the perversity of American culture. However good Chomsky’s political arguments are, he’s simply demagoguing here.* There’s no real perversion, or conspiracy, or anything like that. This is just how the world works. Libertarians broke with the traditional right as it became more and more obsessed with fighting the Cold War and decided to use the term “libertarian” primarily because it simply put an “ian” on the word liberty. And if you’ve ever met a libertarian, you know they love the word liberty. Anyways, libertarian sounds a lot less hokey than their second choice: freedomian (tyrannyian came in third).

This muddling of terms is by no means a lone case. These types of political terminology shifts are quite common and can make history lessons even more confusing for socially awkward, self-esteem lacking, unquenchably horny, ADHD-inflicted adolescents to understand. Good thing they gave up trying to understand many years ago.

Just go back to the word liberal. Today, you may hear neo-liberalism tossed around, usually with a negative connotation regarding free trade. Neo-liberalism is often used synonymously with classical liberalism, though not to be confused with regular liberalism, which tends to oppose both. That is unless we are referring to “liberalizing” some part of the economy; say trade, which would reduce trade barriers. Then you can drop the neo/classical and just say “we are liberalizing trade,” despite the fact that most self-described liberals would like to “de-liberalize” trade.

Or how about neo-conservativism, which is neither neo (new) nor conservative. Neo-conservatism is fine with the welfare state (not conservative), dislikes federalism (very not conservative), is fine with policing morality (not particularly conservative, unless we’re talking about the religious right) and has an extraordinarily hawkish foreign policy (not conservative in the “old right” sort of way, at least). Neo-conservative founders, Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss, even drew much of their inspiration from Leon Trotsky (the concept of a world wide “permanent revolution” especially, except they replaced socialism with democracy). So neo-conservatives are not conservative, neo-liberals are not liberal, classical liberals are neo-liberals, but not regular liberals, libertarians are classical liberals in the United States but anarcho-socialists in Europe, reductio ad-absurdum.

Each term itself is filled with many subgroups to make things even more confusing and less relevant. What becomes obvious is that blanket terms such as the “extreme right-wing,” that the likes of Paul Krugman like to throw around, are simply used as cudgels to denigrate multiple groups that are not even remotely associated with each other. The only thing these groups tend to have in common is that they oppose Krugman’s team.

Continued in Part 2.


*On a side note related to this discussion, I should mention that Osama Bin Laden, a radical “right-wing” Islamist, promoted one of Noam Chomsky’s, a leftist, pseudo-cult leader, books in one of his recorded messages to the West. It should also be noted that these “right-wing” Islamic countries have very controlled economies (i.e. not free market economies), as you can see here.

(1) Paul Krugman, “The Big Hate,” New York Times, June 12, 2009,
(2) Department of Homeland Security Report, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, Pg. 3n, April 7, 2009, a copy can be found here:
(3) “The 25 Points of Hitler’s Nazi Party,” The History Place, retrieved June 25, 2009,
(4) See Daniel Hannan, “There’s Nothing Right Wing About the BNP,” The Telegraph, February 22, 2009,
(5) “Noam Chomsky – Libertarian Socialism: Contradicting terms?,” retrieved June 25, 2009,


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