Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Who da Liberal?

Sometime back, a friend of mine writing an article for the ST Mirror commented that I have a passion for "Liberal Economics". Immediately, that label is confusing. After all, economics is just, well, economics. There's the good economics, the bad and the very ugly, adding a political modifier to what is essentially a science can only lead to confusion.

There's perhaps no word in the English language subject to more abuse than the world "Liberal", Americans (mostly) use it to refer to democrats, the kind who thinks that governments should take care of people from cradle to grave. In Europe, the term (which derives from the Latin word Libre meaning free) largely retains it's original meaning of individual freedom manifested in it's political, cultural and economic sense. In places like India and Sri Lanka the label is even more confusing where people claiming to be liberal can come be from all over the political spectrum. My guess is the thinking here, particularly among the Colombo elites (whom I fondly call Colombo Liberals) have been influenced by American political language, which is completely incompatible with the local political landscape and hence, the confusion.

Personally speaking, although I'm often accused of being one, I religiously avoid using the term Liberal to describe my political leanings. When I have to, I use the term Libertarian to describe my politics which is the political philosophy of Classical Liberalism (true liberalism in my opinion).

Coming back to economics, it is true that economists may have certain political goals, therefore the term "liberal economics" may not be a total misnomer. But given the amount of confusion of the term generates and given the fact that no serious economist relies on politics to describe or justify their work, the label is little more than annoying if not completely wrong.

For more on the abuse of the term by the American left see Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism and India Uncut's Amit Varma's take.

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