6 December 2016

Merkel, Obama, Trump and ‘liberal’ values

“Angela Merkel has said she will seek a fourth term as German chancellor after Donald Trump’s election left her as the west’s pre-eminent defender of liberal values.”
Financial Times, 20 November 2016

In the above extract from a news alert, Angela Merkel is explicitly, and Barack Obama implicitly, identified with “liberal” values; while Donald Trump is presumed to be relatively non-liberal.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjective liberal when used in a political context means “favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform”.

In terms of the second of these criteria (free trade) it appears that Mr Trump may be less aligned with liberal values than either Chancellor Merkel or President Obama. In terms of the first and third criteria, the basis for the FT’s assertion seems unclear. Both Mr Obama and Mr Trump were elected on agendas that could more readily be described as reformist than that of Mrs Merkel. None of the three has been notably associated with policies either favouring, or disfavouring, liberty.

The word liberal is derived from Latin liberalis = relating to freedom. The concept of reform began to be associated with the word during the nineteenth century, but this largely referred to reforms in the direction of fewer restrictions on behaviour, and less taxation.

The Left, which was originally identified with increases in liberty in at least in some areas, is now predominantly associated with a desire for more state intervention. Despite this, supporters of left-wing politics seem unwilling to lose the “liberal” label, presumably because it has acquired a largely positive image. This provides the motive for a gradual redefinition of the concept, to the point where it verges on becoming an inversion.

The term liberal is now often simply employed to refer to relatively leftist voters and policies; for example in the distinction “liberal versus conservative” used in the US, roughly corresponding to “Democrat versus Republican”.

Given the confusions and distortions present, it seems best to avoid use of the word altogether.