Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New Addition to the Site Page on Political Definitions

I've decided to add a page on how I am using various political terms with contested definitions. I will also be putting in a few more technical definitions for terms which I use with the technical definition in mind rather than the common definition (state and nation come to mind). My first entry is on liberalism and I will be expanding from there. Feel free to suggest any terms that you'd like me to deal with early or critique the definitions I'm posting since I'm trying to give a particular rather than a standard definition.

The new page is on the right side of the screen and labeled A Slightly Irreverent Political Typology and Dictionary.

The first, rather long, entry is reproduced below.


The unifying principle of all liberal thought is that there should not be wide disparities in socially defined personal power between individuals. Disparities in power, whether through birth, political ties, or wealth should be minimized. Competition for power is an essential element of human existence however, so liberals realize that this competition must be limited and channeled. This limitation is achieved by investing power in institutions rather than directly in individuals with individuals exercising power solely through virtue of their role in institutions. Individuals theoretically have equal power in determining the formation of these institutions their later reform. Individual competition is best channeled into the economic realm, which while a potential source of power, can be safely channeled into a non-power based limited competition with strong enough institutional structures. This does not mean that individuals are conceptually equal in all ways or that they will be equal in terms of economic or other types of competition, this equality applies only in reference to power (in the technical definition, to be added later). This theme runs as a constant throughout liberal thought, whether you're discussing early liberals such as Locke, Smith, or Mill, early American liberals such as any of the Founding Fathers, modern institutional liberalism in academia, or self identified liberals in politics.

A major source of misunderstanding liberalism is that it is not sufficiently appreciated how effectively the modern state has channeled the competition for power into solely economic channels. Earlier social institutions failed to achieve this, the modern state however was able to restrict individual competition largely to the economic realm and to a lesser extent into competition for office, which carried carefully specified and time limited opportunities to exercise power. Earlier liberals where primarily concerned with limiting other forms of power which were far more significant in influencing people's daily lives then economic power was. Economic power only became relatively significant and a concern for liberals after other forms of gaining power had been successfully limited.

In addition to the tendency for them to be misunderstood by others, modern liberals, especially in the US, tend to be somewhat muddled in their thinking themselves, even if the basic qualities of liberalism remain identifiable in their thought. This is because thinking about power is currently out of fashion as a major determinant of social actions and problems. Economics is currently the fashionable way of thinking about most developments in society and this is a discipline that gives little theoretical attention to power. Accumulation of wealth does of course have the potential to lead to the exercise of economic power, though this is not an inevitable result of growing wealthy.

This tendency leaves liberals with difficulty forming a clear message. They are very concerned about when wealthy individuals or organizations cross the line from simply acting economically to instead exercising their wealth as power, even when wealth is the source of this power limiting the unequal exercise of power is the essential property of liberalism. However, the distinction between wealth and power is not commonly discussed in modern politics making it difficult to clearly communicate why liberals are concerned with the disparities in power resulting from the actions of economic actors without being opposed to the accumulation of wealth or economic activity itself. This is further complicated by the all too frequent denial that the economic realm is not self limiting and that it can cross from economic competition into the more general competition of power. Since one of the biggest achievement of liberalism was to limit the competition of individuals to economic competition instead of a more general competition for all varieties of power it is extremely important that liberals get their heads straightened out and learn to clearly articulate the difference between power and wealth.

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