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The essence of political definitions: what does it mean to be a liberal?
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May 20, 2011
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Ayn Rand once wrote that "Definitions are the guardians of rationality, the first line of defense against the chaos of mental disintegration." Perhaps that's one of the reasons politics always appears so irrational.

When it comes to political ideologies, very few clearly define what their fundamentals are. As a result, trying to determine the essential, distinguishing characteristics of each appears to be difficult.

For some ideologies, this is easier. For example, the essence of the political ideology anarchy, in a pure sense, is to be without government rulers. However, once you integrate an economic system (e.g., socialism, capitalism), the essence of anarchy becomes muddled (e.g., anarcho-capitalist, anarcho-socialist). Similarly, the "non-aggression axiom is the lynchpin of the philosophy of libertarianism." So, to be a libertarian, you must not initiate (or threaten) force against another person or their (legitimately) owned property.

For other ideologies, determining the essence is much more difficult.

Take liberalism. Ayn Rand said that "the liberals had been the representatives of the intellect in America." But she also claimed that the "terms "liberal" and "conservative" are two of the emptiest sounds in today's political vocabulary: they have become rubber words that can be stretched to fit any meaning anyone cares to give them." Let's try to determine if she was correct.

The ethical system of a liberal has been described as "Do things for the good of society as a whole. Liberals place more importance on society as a whole instead of individuals. Helping the less fortunate is also important. Liberals deal with people in groups rather than as individuals."

So what's the difference between being a liberal and being a progressive? According to the Center for American Progress, "progressivism is a non-ideological, pragmatic system of thought grounded in solving problems and maintaining strong values within society." Does that mean that liberals have an ideology while progressives don't? That liberals are idealists instead of pragmatists?

if obama doesnt end the wars in iraq and afghanistan, close guantanamo, and stop bombing pakistan, we swear to fucking god well vote for him with slightly less enthusiasm in 2012
To complicated matters, what does it mean to be a leftist? Socialist Cornell West believed that Obama was a leftist and called Obama his "dear brother." (Obama called him "Brother West" back.) But West later said "I was completely wrong."

Here is West's definition of leftism: "What does it really mean to be a leftist in the early part of the 21st century? What are we really talking about? And I can just be very candid with you. It means to have a certain kind of temperament, to make certain kinds of political and ethical choices, and to exercise certain analytical focuses in targeting on the catastrophic and the monstrous, the scandalous, the traumatic, that are often hidden and concealed in the deodorized and manicured discourses of the mainstream. That's what it means to be a leftist. So let's just be clear about it."

Was that clear? It didn't appear so.

He continues: "So that if you are concerned about structural violence, if you're concerned about exploitation at the workplace, if you're concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, if you're concerned about organized hatred against peoples of color, if you're concerned about a subordination of women, that's not cheap PC chitchat; that is a calling that you're willing to fight against and try to understand the sources of that social misery at the structural and institutional level and at the existential and the personal level. That's what it means, in part, to be a leftist."

Yet, none of those characteristics are differentiating to the left. For example, libertarians believe that "marriage between a man and a woman is just one among other equally permissible relationships." Libertarians are also against structural violence (per the non-aggression principle).

Here is how Merriam-Webster defines various words related to the liberal ideology:

Liberalism: "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class)"

Progressive: "one believing in moderate political change and especially social improvement by governmental action"

Left: "those professing views usually characterized by desire to reform or overthrow the established order especially in politics and usually advocating change in the name of the greater freedom or well-being of the common man"

Socialism: "any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods... a system of society or group living in which there is no private property... a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state"

Communism: "a theory advocating elimination of private property... a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed."

Are the definitions of liberal and its associations not useful because they are not contextually absolute (i.e., because they do not clearly specify the relationships between distinguishing characteristics)? What are the essential, distinguishing characteristics for being a liberal?
A definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept.

It is often said that definitions state the meaning of words. This is true, but it is not exact. A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; a word has no meaning other than that of the concept it symbolizes, and the meaning of a concept consists of its units. It is not words, but concepts that man defines—by specifying their referents.

The purpose of a definition is to distinguish a concept from all other concepts and thus to keep its units differentiated from all other existents.

Since the definition of a concept is formulated in terms of other concepts, it enables man, not only to identify and retain a concept, but also to establish the relationships, the hierarchy, the integration of all his concepts and thus the integration of his knowledge. Definitions preserve, not the chronological order in which a given man may have learned concepts, but the logical order of their hierarchical interdependence.

With certain significant exceptions, every concept can be defined and communicated in terms of other concepts. The exceptions are concepts referring to sensations, and metaphysical axioms.
Definitions (from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand)


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