Blogs > Liberty and Power > What's Good for Il Duce... or Can We Get a Little Empathy Now?

Mar 31, 2008 11:57 am

What's Good for Il Duce... or Can We Get a Little Empathy Now?

Over at Cliopatria, Timothy Burke complains that Jonah Goldberg's forthcoming new book abuses the word "fascism" in describing modern US liberals as heirs of the fascist tradition of the earlier 20th century. Putting aside whether Goldberg is right or wrong for the moment (though having seen a draft of one chapter on the economics of fascism, I thought his argument was good enough to require a serious response from the left, rather than the comparisons to Ann Coulter it is drawing in Matt Yglesias's comments), I think it's probably a good thing for those on the left to have to deal with what they perceive to be misleading or inaccurate terminology about their beliefs that is damaging.

After all, libertarians have been dealing with everything from Pinochet to Halliburton described by leftists as "the free market," when neither authoritarianism nor corporatism are what libertarians stand for (the latter is closer to fascism, Italian style, in my view). And let's not forget Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine in which Milton Friedman and capitalism more generally are linked to torture and the intentional destruction of communities for political purposes. Then there's Michael Moore blaming the "free market" for the problems with US health care, an industry in which almost half of the expenditures are made by government. The left has practically made a movement out of blaming every social outcome they don't like on "capitalism" or "the free market" (regardless of the actual institutions and policies in place) and/or calling everything that conservatives or libertarians do that they don't like "fascism." It's hard to drum up a ton of sympathy when the current victims have been guilty of the same sorts of sins.

So now that the worm has turned, and a conservative is seen to be abusing the language in describing the views of the left, perhaps folks on the left will be more circumspect in their own use of language when talking about the positions held by conservatives and libertarians, or in labeling the institutions of the very mixed economy as being "free market" or "capitalist." At the very least, I hope they are more empathetic to libertarians when we complain about such abuses.

Cross-posted at The Austrian Economists

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Steven Horwitz - 12/19/2007

Sorry if you (or Tim) read it as a complaint about Tim personally. It wasn't intended that way. The "goose/gander" claim was not so much schadenfreude or a belief that poetic justice was being served, as it was a more general call for just the sort of careful use of language that you are discussing. And for me to draw the analogy I drew, I'd have to believe that the use of "fascism" by Goldberg was problematic in the same way that I claimed the use of "the free market" or "capitalism" or even "fascism" is problematic coming in the other direction.

As far as Goldberg's book itself is concerned, as I said, I only saw a draft of one chapter, so my "putting it aside" is just a matter of waiting to see what the actual argument of the entire book is. In that chapter, he made the not out of the realm of serious discussion claim that the sorts of public intervention/control over nominally private property that has characterized New Deal and after American liberalism bears striking similarities to the corporatism of the fascists. And he offers primary source evidence to support that claim. Having read a bit on the economics of Italian fascism a few years back, I'm not prepared to dismiss as silly, or an abuse of language, *that piece* of Goldberg's argument.

Of course the problem, and it's been almost a year since I read it, is that he's way too *uncritical* of exactly the same sorts of things done by conservatives. I'll be interested to see whether the final product explores the way the current Administration might well be emulating the same set of ideas. And finding some truth in the chapter on the economy hardly implies that I accept the more general claim that all of modern US liberalism is an heir of fascism (or that modern US conservatism isn't!).

Ralph E. Luker - 12/19/2007

This seems wrongheaded to me, Steve. In the first place, I don't know anyone who's been more consistently fairminded in these kinds of public discussions than Tim has. In the second place, you use the occasion of his grievance only to set it aside and make a goose/gander claim in behalf of libertarianism. I'd expect better than that from you. Are you *seriously* prepared to defend Goldberg's argument for the "fascist" origins of late 20th century liberalism? Or do you care about the integrity of language and fairness in debate?

Aeon J. Skoble - 12/19/2007

Excellent points, Steve, but as to your last paragraph: don't hold your breath.

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