The Charlotte News



Problem in Definition:

Now, What Is A Liberal?

--Question & Answer by W. J. Cash

Cash's idea of liberalism was not the acceptance of crackpot reform panaceas, not the simplistic personal liberty of John Stuart Mill, not the wide-open laissez-faire "liberalism" identified with Adam Smith, but an open-minded acceptance of whatever useful elements they offered as filtered through an intelligent skepticism.

--Note from W.J. Cash: Southern Prophet by Joseph L. Morrison
(This article appeared in the Reader section of Prophet.)

Site ed.note: This article's title and by-lines, abbreviated for unknown reasons to simply "What Is A Liberal", in its reprinting in Professor's Morrison's book, have been restored above as they appeared originally in The News.

IT seems to me that the good old word, liberal, is in imminent danger of getting to mean nothing at all. For it is being bandied about as an equivalent of "good," and made to mean whatever the speaker or writer wants it to mean.

Thus the President of the United States says it means anybody who is hospitable to new ways of tackling old problems. And under that definition proceeds blithely to apply it to Mr. Sheridan Downey, Democratic candidate for a California seat in the Senate of the Congress of the United States—who got the nomination by campaigning for the "Ham and Eggs" scheme of "$30 every Thursday." But, of course, Mr. Downey is not liberal. He is either a pretty unpleasant sort of demagogue who is playing on the ignorance of the unfortunate or he is a crackpot on his own account.

On the other hand, if you'll listen to Dorothy Thompson and Co., a liberal in our time is still exactly what he was in the nineteenth century—a person who believes in complete civil liberty and the economic and political philosophy of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. But that is nonsense, too. The plain fact is that the economic philosophy of Adam Smith and the governmental philosophy of Mill have not worked out as they themselves confidently predicted they would. We have not got everybody comfortable and well-fed. Competition has not kept down the appearance of aggregations of economic power that are as formidable and as perilous to actual democracy as any aggregations of political power that ever existed or that exist now. Instead, we have got millions of people who haven't bread to eat—and grand dukes of wealth, who are often definitely anti-social in their conduct. And nobody who is in favor of merely letting things stand still or who imagines that our ills can be cured by a few slight "reforms" can rightly be called a liberal.

Yet I do not believe it is impossible to define the word satisfactorily in general terms. Certainly, a liberal is in favor of the rights of free speech, free assembly, etc., which the New Deal shows itself pretty indifferent to sometimes, as in the case of its continuance to play ball with Hague of Jersey City, and as in the case of the Senator from Indiana who wants to gag the newspapers.1 On the other hand, a liberal is just as certainly hospitable to new ways of solving old problems, and does not believe that they can be solved terms of philosophies that have already blown up. Merely, he insists that these new ways of solving the problems shall be such as are compatible with the preservation of civil liberty and with sincerity and intelligence. So far as that goes, the liberal has always had a strong bias in favor of the underdog, and that bias will naturally be stronger these days. But the true liberal has always beep a man intelligent enough to know that the underdog's cause is not to be saved by schemes which are impossible of fulfillment, like the Downey scheme. And he has always been sincere and intelligent enough to insist that any program put forward for the benefit of the underdog shall be capable of adding up logically to that end.

That is the chief criticism of the New Deal. I do not believe any genuine liberal can fail to be wholeheartedly for its announced objectives. I do not believe, either, that it can be denied that it has gone a long way toward the realization of those objectives in many respects. Nevertheless, some of its schemes are obviously at odds with other of its schemes, and often it is manifestly both insincere and unintelligent. Under those circumstances, the true liberal will certainly be the man who remembers that skepticism is, after all, the very essence of the spirit of the liberal tradition.

Ah, well, perhaps I do not define it, after all. And even if I do, perhaps the liberal is only a quixotic soul who is doomed in the modern world. Maybe there is no way out which really faces and attempts to solve modern problems, and which at the same time can be reconciled with the liberties whose names at least we have so long revered. But it is what we have to hope and strive for--or make up our minds to surrender to totalitarianism.

1 Cash referred to Senator Sherman Minton (Indiana Democrat) who was to end his public career on the U. S. Supreme Court. In 1938 Senator Minton introduced a bill making it a felony punishable by two years in jail and a fine of $1,000 to $10,000 to publish a "known untruth." The guilty publication would be suspended from the mails for six months. After taking vigorous editorial condemnation for sponsoring such a bill, Minton dropped it.

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