Has Liberalism ‘Jumped the Shark?’

Image from The Lockeroom.

Just like the right-wing would like to force their religion on all Americans ‘for their own good,’ many liberals would like to pass ‘Nanny State’ laws for the good of all Americans.

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / May 17, 2009

The 1950’s was a low point for liberalism in the United States. Due to organizations like the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the John Birch Society, and individuals like Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, liberals were driven underground or out of the country. Being a liberal meant losing the right to work or even being imprisoned. By the end of the 50’s, Liberalism was nearly dead in America.

But in the mid-sixties, it experienced a re-birth. It began at the University of California at Berkley, when Mario Savio and his cohorts started what they called the “Free Speech Movement.” It was originally intended just to give students at that university the right to speak freely about their political views. It accomplished that, but became much more, as it spread across the country — first in the colleges and then in society at large.

Fueled by the “baby boomers” born right after World War II, this new liberalism was different than pre-war liberalism. It was no longer socialist-based, although it pushed many of the same causes like economic justice and civil rights, but was a more general freedom-based movement. It preached equality and the right of the individual to believe what they wanted and to act like they wanted and live like they wanted, as long as they didn’t step on the rights of others to do the same.

No longer was the individual expected to be an automaton — a replica of their parents who said and did what they were told. The individual had rights which must be respected by authority and the highest value was freedom. Frankly, it was exciting to be a part of this movement in the 60’s and 70’s.

But some time in the 80’s and 90’s, liberalism began to go “off the track.” I don’t quite know how it happened, but “free speech” gave way to “political correctness.” While mouthing a belief in free speech, many liberals will be quick to condemn and sometimes even try to outlaw certain forms of speech. They seem to have forgotten that when you outlaw offensive speech, you have outlawed freedom (and the very thing that gave birth to modern liberalism).

Just as bad is the “Nanny State.” Just like the right-wing would like to force their religion on all Americans “for their own good,” many liberals would like to pass “Nanny State” laws for the good of all Americans. They want to force Americans to stop smoking with exorbitant tobacco taxes, or tell them where they can and can’t smoke. They want to pass laws punishing Americans for drinking sodas high in sugar. They want to pass laws to outlaw certain cooking oils in resturants. They would like to force all Americans to recycle their trash.

Maybe all these things are good and would probably improve a person’s life and maybe even prolong it, but I have to wonder what ever happened to freedom — the idea that an American has the right to make his/her own choices? In a truly free country, doesn’t a citizen have the right to make a poor choice?

These days, those of us on the left understand that the right-wing can result in tyranny, but many seem to have forgotton that just like you can have a right-wing tyranny, you can also have a left-wing tyranny. And it’s my opinion that both are equally bad.

If you believe something is good and citizens should do it to make their life better or longer or healthier, then by all means do what you can to educate people about it. But when you pass a law forcing that behavior, you have gone too far.

In a free country, each citizen has the right to make their own choices, even if those in power believe those choices to be bad ones. Liberalism used to mean freedom, but for many these days it means something else. That’s why I no longer call myself a liberal. I am a leftist, a radical, a socialist or a progressive, but I believe liberalism has strayed from its meaning and prefer not to be labeled as such.

That’s what I think. What do you think — especially those of you on the left? Am I wrong? Should government have the right to force people into making better decisions?

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger, an excellent Texas political blog.]

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4 Responses to Has Liberalism ‘Jumped the Shark?’

  1. Janet Gilles says:

    The government should not force changeds in peoples diets. However, the government should stop the massive subsidies of junk foods while giving fruit and vegetable farmers nothing, and then trying to tell everyone to eat what they don’t subsidize and not eat what they do subsidize. The President’s Commission on Cancer went so far as to say the government subsidy of soy and corn were major contributors to our modern epidemic of cancer, as well as diabetes and heart disease.

  2. RogerB says:

    The more people you have and the more they tend to mutually interfere with each other through sheer numbers, the more rules you logically need on every level of government.

    Whether the rules actually make good sense is the important issue. We should be Libertarian when possible, IMO. The problem is that the rules and laws tend to be pro-corporate domination, and pro-special interest.

    Liberalism, as popularly defined, tends to reduce channel investments, limit profits, and thus will be fought by capitalists, even if it helps stabilize capitalism.

    I generally tend to associate liberalism with trying to soften the impact of capitalism on those living within the system,since capitalism is inherently rapacious, aggressive and ultimately lethal in its expansionist impact.

    I think we are at a new stage that moves beyond those liberal versus conservative concepts.

    We’re in a crisis where capitalism demands to keep expanding exponentially, and in doing so threatens global human survival, through global warming, etc. We need something that chains down capitalism and overpowers its aggressive and domineering need to expand. Even partially restrained growth over time is incompatible with a truly sustainable society.

    That is not to say that we should not trade goods in the marketplace, which is historically basic to human society, but that is not the same as capitalism. We cannot allow any expansionist system like capitalism or any expansionist version of socialism to dominate human affairs, and undermine all attempts to expand its disruptive force on a finite planet (which is a threat that Marx did not foresee). Here is my essay on the big picture:


    Below are some details backing up a similar point of view, expressed long ago by MK Hubbert of peak oil fame.


  3. Mariann says:

    Couple of additional points to the thoughtful posts here:

    1. We already have a certain type of “Nanny State”, and are likely to have more, because of classic liberal choices such as subsidizing health care (although at a pathetically low level!) for the indigent. It won’t be very good care, and it won’t do much for those who receive it, but the dying won’t be piling up too deep in the streets. Many of the indigent with cancer, diabetes, congestive heart failure, etc., who will receive final care in subsidized facilities have these diseases because their “free choices” were driven by ignorance, powerful advertising and social messages, preferential pricing (as Janet mentions), and, of course, poverty. Poor people still use tobacco; poor people often make very poor dietary choices (e.g., may not know that the bubbly in soda pop hurts their bones), etc. So this new rash of nanny laws is at least intended, you see, to exert fiscal responsibility in an area where government already has some role and expenses. Tax soda pop to pay for the diabetes treatments that cost the nation millions annually in lost productivity + PUBLIC HEALTH COSTS; restrict public tobacco use (already taxed to the gills) and reduce future public health costs.

    If everyone who chose to smoke tobacco or drink a 6-pack of soda daily or clog their arteries with pig fat would sign an agreement that they would never accept a dime in public health care, hey, THAT would be freedom of choice, right? (Oh, except for the ignorant, poor, ad-driven part.)

    Really, since I represent a group that WANTS to be taxed for our “vice”, not shown to cost the government or public anything in and of itself, rather than have it continue to be illegal, I am sympathetic with the pure libertarian position — it sounds so good on paper, did the first time I read Ayn Rand, anyway… but it was sci fi then, and it’s sci fi now. We live in a society. We have to be able to give each other as much freedom as possible, as Roger says, but also see clearly just where one-man’s after-dinner cigar becomes my airspace.

  4. Steve Russell says:

    You miss the point.

    It ain’t the existence of the “nanny state.” It’s how you get there.

    I’m not forced to recycle but I buy trash tags at two bucks each for the stuff I don’t recycle.

    When the big taxes first hit tobacco, they went directly to mitigate the damage to the health care system.

    I can build a cheaper chainsaw without a dead man switch, making the market “freer,” if I can self-insure or buy insurance for those who will lose limbs for my freedom.

    I’ve got a problem with using the criminal law to create a nanny state. But when you use tax law or tort law to make people pony up closer to the actual costs of their behavior RATHER THAN EXTERNALIZE IT ON THE COMMONS that just smart government rather than stupid government.

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