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Home | Mises Library | The Difference between a Liberal and a Radical

The Difference between a Liberal and a Radical

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Tags Big GovernmentPhilosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

04/18/2008Albert Jay Nock

[This essay was originally published in The Freeman as "In the Vein of Intimacy," 1920 and appears for the first time since then on Mises.org.]

The editors of this paper and its publisher appreciate more than they can say, the unlooked-for cordiality shown by the press to its first two issues. Influential daily newspapers throughout the country have held out the hand of kindly hospitality and have given the paper a most prepossessing editorial introduction to their readers. Very courteously, too, have some of the weekly papers come forward with their greeting; and among these is one whose traditions command the utmost respect of all Americans, and whose specific service during the past two years has been immeasurable. Amid a riot of the lowest passions and the most contemptible prejudices, the Nation walked worthily. For this it deserves, and as time goes on will increasingly be seen to deserve, the lasting gratitude of all citizens whose loyalty is loyalty to their country rather than to its officeholders; and the Nation in its last issue does this paper the honor of generous praise and a cordial welcome into "the field of liberal journalism."

By gratitude, therefore, as well as unusual respect, this paper seems bound to deprecate with all possible delicacy, this recommendation to the Nations readers. The Freeman is not a liberal paper; it has no lot or part with liberalism; it has no place in the field of liberal journalism and cannot pretend to seek one. That field, indeed, is so competently served by the Nation itself and by the New Republic that it would be a superfluity, not to say an impertinence, for the editors of this paper to think of invading it. The Freeman is a radical paper; its place is in the virgin field, or better, the long-neglected and fallow field, of American radicalism; its special constituency, if it ever has any, will be what it can find in that field. Hence, readers of the Nation, if ever they do this paper the honor of picking it up, must not be misled by Mr. Villard's quick and characteristic generosity in bestowing upon it a distinction to which it has no right.

Radicalism and liberalism, unfortunately, are often used as interchangeable terms; so used, indeed, by whole myriads who, if a free public school system is half what it is cracked up to be, ought to know better. Really, one is sometimes reminded of the man who told his little boy that ensilage is a kind of mucilage. For present purposes there is no need of contrasting academic and philosophical definitions of the two terms; the dictionary will do that in half the time, and save trouble all round. Some practical distinctions, however — such, for instance, as differentiate a radical from a liberal paper — are perhaps worth mentioning.

In the philosophy of public affairs, the liberal gets at his working theory of the State by the "high priori road"; that is to say, by pure conjecture. Confronted with the phenomenon of the State, and required to say where it came from and why it is here, the liberal constructs his answer by the a priori method; thus Carey, for example, derived the State from the action of a gang of marauders, Rousseau from a social contract, Sir Robert Filmer from the will of God, and so on. All these solutions of the problem are ingenious and interesting speculations, but nothing more than speculations. The radical gets at his theory of the State by the historical method; by tracing back and examining every appearance of the State, to the most remote examples that history can furnish; segregating the sole invariable factor which he finds to be common throughout, and testing it both positively and negatively as a determining cause.

The result carries the radical to the extreme point of difference from the liberal in his practical attitude towards the State. The liberal believes that the State is essentially social and is all for improving it by political methods so that it may function accordingly to what he believes to be its original intention. Hence, he is interested in politics, takes them seriously, goes at them hopefully, and believes in them as an instrument of social welfare and progress. He is politically minded, with an incurable interest in reform, putting good men in office, independent administrations, and quite frequently in third-party movements. The liberal forces of the country, for instance, rallied quite conspicuously to Mr. Roosevelt in the good old days of the Progressive party. The liberal believes in the reality and power of political leadership; thus, again, he eagerly took Mr. Wilson on his hands at the last two elections.

The radical, on the other hand, believes that the State is fundamentally antisocial and is all for improving it off the face of the earth; not by blowing up officeholders, as Mr. Palmer appears to suppose, but by the historical process of strengthening, consolidating and enlightening economic organization. The radical has no substantial interest in politics, and regards all projects of political reform as visionary. He sees, or thinks he sees, quite clearly that the routine of partisan politics is only a more or less elaborate and expensive byplay indulged in for the sake of diverting notice from the primary object of all politics and political government, namely, the economic exploitation of one class by another; and hence all candidates look about alike to him, and their function looks to him only like that of Dupin's pretended lunatic in "The Purloined Letter."

On the side of economics, the practical difference between the radical and the liberal is quite as spacious. The liberal looks with increasing favor upon the socialization of industry, or as it is sometimes called, the democratization of industry. The radical keeps pointing out that while this is all very well in its way, monopoly values will as inevitably devour socialized industry as they now devour what the liberals call capitalistic industry.

Thus the fundamental differences between the radical and the liberal may be seen, even from this brief sketch, to be considerable; too considerable by far to permit this paper to go under false colors into the hands of any readers of the Nation. It has been very distasteful to make the Nation's courtesy a text for the drawing out of these differences; but the dishonorable acceptance, even for a moment, of an honorable distinction, would be much more distasteful.

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