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Liberals Not of the Left

In Mr Bushmills’ absence I’m redesigning the Sands Institute website this week, adding an archival reference library, incorporating links to many pieces found here on RedState. I also will try to revamp and update the Great American Zeroes site, to extend beyond the sin of lying to include other forms of bureaucratic misconduct.- StG

Originally published at TownHall.com in the fall of 2007. VB thought, in light of the revelations by Glenn Beck and others about progressivism, pushing the socialist clock back another generation or so before FDR, it might be worthwhile to reconsider a less strident form of political liberalism.

A wise course for conservatives would be to drive a wedge between modern liberalism and the classic Liberals (NOL) and sever their unfortunate alliance.

In truth the wedge between classical liberals and their “cubed” cousins (L³) has been a process that’s been going on naturally since the late ‘60s, but it petered out with far too many honest liberals left straddling on the fence. The careless use of the “L” word from such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh has helped cement them there, with a slightly leftward lean toward their modern successors who’ve presumed their name.

What’s NOL? I recall William F Buckley, Jr.’s shaky use of the “L” word on one of his last Firing Line interviews with Malcolm Muggeridge. Few people have been able to reprimand WFB and get away with it, but Muggeridge could speak to Bill as if he were a kid. Buckley made some off-handed comment about liberals, upon which Muggeridge replied, ever so gently, “But Bill, I am a liberal. I am just not of the left.”

It’s not coincidental that the drift from classical liberalism (NOL) past L² (statism) into L³ (statist me-ism) all happened in the space of one generation, mine. I remember the day I decided I was no longer a liberal. It was late into the Ford Administration, possibly the ’76 campaign. I lived in Arizona at the time. I recall a Mary McGrory column re-printed in a Tucson newspaper, in which she stated (I paraphrase here) that liberalism stood for the proposition that all human conduct should be subject to the political process. To the classical liberal and any other constitutionalist this was complete and total anathema. From that moment forward I was no longer a liberal…and handed in my crying towel.

But in looking back, as I did a few years later, I realized that my drift away from the new realities of liberalism had been going on for years. It began when I entered state government as an environmental regulator in 1969, and later, as an Army lawyer. In the 1960s my liberalism was founded on the civil rights movement, a firm belief that men should be free and that no one should be able to impede their march toward freedom. Human freedom was a thing worth fighting for, and those who would impede it should be fought against. (Hold onto that thought.) I also believed, wrongly, that government could make all those things happen.

By the late 1960s environmentalism crept onto the liberal’s wagon as its second leg, and I was first among them, enlisting in government to fight the strip mining wars of Appalachia. What I saw in state government was the rise of a professional state class who saw government not as a means to a public end, but rather a means to a private end. I saw the unending mission of environmental agencies, i.e., the science of finding out stuff, and reporting stuff, taking hind teat to a far more finite mission, that of regulation, where regulators, headed by lawyers, had to justify their existence by coming up with new rules each year…or they were defunct.

We’ll always need people sticking litmus paper into creeks and streams, but we should not always need rule-writers and enforcers. One’s mission is endless, the other is finite. But as I found in the late 70s, after revisiting my old digs at the state capital, I found that my old division had more lawyers than our complete staff (and only one lawyer) just five years earlier. And yes, there was no discernible improvement in water quality, mining or otherwise.

When I went into the army in 1972 a friend asked me how I would be able to stand being around so many Neanderthals. I glibly laughed and said the army would be a much better place because I was in it. Little did I know, even as morale hobbled down in those days, I have never been around more professional people. In other words, all the lies about the military I’d been told in law school had been laid bare.

But most importantly, among my kind, my professional colleagues, I found that what I had thought in the 1960s was a keen love of liberty among my peers, and a keen love of nature among my peers, had for the most part really been little more than a way to distinguish us from the herd. Most of the “liberals” of my generation transcended that classical love of mankind to a not-so-hard to understand love of self. They defined themselves more by who they were not. In a word, they’d all turned French.

I lay this out for the next generation of conservatives, for I see the same sneering condescension among many rising young conservatives. The constitution is all about laying out the game rules in an ages-long contest between two elites, those who would rule other men’s lives, and those who would protect other men to pursue their lives as the see fit. You cannot fight for, nor defend your neighbor, if you also look down your nose at him. Classical liberalism (NOL), but for a few mistaken quirks about the ability of government to do certain things, stood then where conservatism now stands, as a defender of men’s free pursuit of happiness.

So there you have it. By a process of natural self-inquiry, many old classical liberals became conservatives, or at least constitutionalists. But many others lingered back, straddling fences, and most, many of whom I’ve found to be very decent, compassionate people, have held back, for the most part due to peer status, and those nagging names they now hear themselves being called by the likes of Limbaugh who they consider to be a philistine for purely cultural reasons. (Limbaugh has little in common with the old liberals, and is after a different class of fish, so has inadvertently left the true Liberal NOL out to dry. It’s a shame.)

We’ve done little in the last two decades to encourage Liberal NOL’s over to our side.

It’s time to get ‘em.

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