Jewish World Review April 6, 2005 /26 Adar II, 5765

Thomas Sowell

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Who is liberal? | Sometimes something trivial gives you a clue about something serious. A tempest in a teapot has been stirred up about the zoning laws and New York's famed Plaza Hotel.

By some fluke, half of the Plaza's ballroom is zoned for commercial use and the other half is zoned for residential use. Now the hotel's owners want to have the whole ballroom zoned for commercial use, so that they can put some more stores there.

Despite the fact that all of this is to go on inside the hotel, outsiders have protested the request for a change in zoning. At one time, the outsiders would have been told to mind their own business. After all, it is not their hotel and they can't even claim that what goes on inside the Plaza somehow blocks their view, creates more noise, pollutes the water or endangers some species. It is not even in their backyard.

What gives the busybodies a legal right to challenge the zoning change is that the Plaza Hotel has been designated a "landmark" and that throws the issue into the jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The irony in all this is that the idea of designating someone else's property as a landmark and therefore making it subject to arbitrary regulation by people who pay none of the costs they create is a typical liberal idea of our time.

It also shows why words like "liberal" and "conservative" have lost all relationship to the original meanings of those terms.

Liberalism at one time referred to liberty, to making people as free as possible from the control of their presumed betters, and especially free of excessive control by the government. More broadly, liberals tended to favor change while conservatives defended the status quo.

All that has been turned upside down.

Liberals today are for preserving not only historic landmarks but also the status quo in the welfare state, obstructing the building of new housing, fighting against letting parental choice be introduced into the school system, and are digging in their heels against letting even a small fraction of Social Security be privatized.

As for freedom from government controls, liberals have pushed ever more regulation of ever more details of people's homes and businesses. In some places where liberals have been politically dominant for years, you don't dare cut down a tree on your own property, even if it is about to fall over and smash your house or smash you.

Whatever the merits or demerits of any of these policies, the liberal label would never fit if the word still meant what it once meant.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, conservatives are pushing all sorts of sweeping changes. Milton Friedman is widely regarded as the epitome of conservatism, yet for 50 years he has been arguing for radical change in our school systems by providing vouchers to let parents choose where they want to send their children to school, whether public schools or private.

Professor Friedman has also for years been advocating sweeping changes in the way the Federal Reserve System operates and in the way the international monetary system works. Nor is such advocacy of change unusual among people who are called "conservative."

It is hard to find a single person who is known as a "black conservative" who is in fact in favor of preserving the status quo, much less going back to the previous status quo.

What do labels like "liberal" and "conservative" mean, when they bear so little relationship to what the people who have those labels actually do? It might cause less confusion if people with different political views were simply called X and Y, to show that there are real differences between them but that those differences have little to do with what words like "liberal" and "conservative" are supposed to mean.

In some other countries a liberal still means someone who wants to reduce government control and a conservative is someone who wants to keep things the way they are. Not here. When we use those terms in the United States, we are really just talking about brand X and brand Y politics.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One." (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment please click here.


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