Timothy Garton Ash: Defending liberalism

[Timothy Garton Ash, a fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford, is the author of “Free World: America, Europe and the Surprising Future of the West.”]

GOVERNMENT and markets both have their place in a decent society, President Obama suggested in his Inaugural Address, but can become a force for ill if they are without restraint. Missing from Mr. Obama’s address was only the proper name of the political philosophy, coded into the constitutional DNA of the United States, that proposes this and other balances: liberalism.

Like many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word. Anyone who knows anything about contemporary political discourse in the United States understands why.

Just over 20 years ago, a group of leading American intellectuals, gathered by the historian Fritz Stern, placed an advertisement in this very paper trying to defend the word “liberalism” against its abuse by Ronald Reagan and others on the American right. It was in vain. Over the last two decades a truly eccentric usage has triumphed in American public debate. Liberalism has become a pejorative term denoting — to put the matter a tad frivolously — some unholy marriage of big government and fornication.

This weird usage leads, at the extreme, to book titles like “Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism.” But it infects the mainstream too. Asked during a primary debate to define “liberal,” and say if she was one, Hillary Clinton replied that a word originally associated with a belief in freedom had unfortunately come to mean favoring big government. So, she concluded, “I prefer the word progressive, which has a real American meaning.” This implies that the meaning of “liberal” must be unreal, un-American, or possibly both.

The United States is not the only place where “liberalism” is fiercely contested. In a recent conference at Oxford, with speakers from the Americas, Europe, India, Japan and China, we explored what we deliberately called “Liberalisms.” Interestingly, what is furiously attacked as “liberalism” in France, and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, is precisely what is most beloved of the libertarian or “fiscal conservative” strand of the American right. When French leftists and Polish populists denounce “liberalism,” they mean Anglo-Saxon-style, unregulated free-market capitalism. (Occasionally the prefix neo- or ultra- is added to make this clear.)...

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