The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Fightin’ Word (If You Choose)

Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, speaks at a forum in Beijing, May 17, 2005. (Alfred Cheng Jin / Reuters)

For your consideration, a piece called “‘Conservative’: A Term Up for Grabs.” Its subheading is “To die, and not to die, for a word.” What’s this dying business?

In 2014, I talked with Hernando de Soto, the great Peruvian economist. Here is an excerpt from the resulting piece:

I want to ask de Soto about the word “capitalism.” Where I come from, it is a dirty word, usually said with a scoff or a sneer. De Soto is quite practical about the matter: “If the word is in bad odor, avoid it. Words are what people want them to mean, and if ‘capitalism’ is a bad word, I can think of a lot better uses of our time and talents than to defend it.”

In Peru, capitalism used to be known as “la economía de la selva” — “the economics of the jungle.” So, what word does de Soto himself use?

It depends on where he is, he says. It depends on the local vocabulary. “Private property,” to some, means “what the rich have” — not the materials a humble fruit vendor has.

In the Middle East, de Soto and his researchers found, the term “property rights” doesn’t mean anything. But everyone knows the word “expropriation,” because so many have been victims of it. So, when in Rome (so to speak), you lean on the word “expropriation.”

In any case, de Soto told me, “Never go die for a word, if what is important is the idea behind the word.”

Never go die for a word. I have often had occasion to reflect on this admonition, especially when it comes to the word “conservative.” In my piece today, I say that, “personally, I would not die for the word ‘conservative’ — but I would fight for it a bit,” not wanting to cede it entirely to the Buchananites, Trumpites, Orbanites . . .

Even the terms “Left” and “Right” have become confusing, in my observation. Another bit from my piece:

I mean, what is Putin? Left or Right? He is a former KGB colonel who runs Russia like a mafia capo. Most of the Putin admirers I know are on the right, thinking that Putin is a defender of Christian values who projects a proper national “strength.”

Recently, I’ve been reading about Sergei Mokhnatkin, a Russian human-rights activist. He was arrested over and over, and tortured over and over, until finally they broke him — literally. They broke his spine. Mokhnatkin died on May 28. A fellow human-rights defender observed, “There was a man who lived like a little sparrow stuck in the throat of a snake.”

Five years ago, in Albuquerque, I gave a talk. I wrote a piece about the experience, or based on the experience. Let me revisit:

During the Q&A, a friendly woman said, “What is conservatism? Can you define conservatism?”

I said that I have long opted out of the definitional wars. There are always people who try to define conservatism — who set themselves up as arbiters. They rule people out of conservatism, and rule people in. I call them Commissars of Conservatism. I sometimes call them Commissars of the Corner!

Words mean different things in different times and places. You can no more stop the changeability of words than you can the changeability of the weather. Just think of the history of the word “liberal”! But, in New Mexico, I gave my sense — just my sense — of what “conservatism” meant in America, circa 2015 (which in some respects seems a hundred years ago):

I believe that to be a conservative is to be for limited government. Personal freedom. The rule of law. The Constitution, and adherence to it. Federalism. Equality under the law. Equality of opportunity. Relatively light taxation. Relatively light regulation. Free enterprise. Property rights. Free trade. Civil society. The right to work. A strong defense. National security. National sovereignty. Human rights. A sound, non-flaky educational curriculum. School choice. A sensible stewardship over the land, as opposed to extreme environmentalism. Pluralism. Colorblindness. Toleration. E pluribus unum. Patriotism. Our Judeo-Christian heritage. Western civilization.

You call that conservatism? Maybe you don’t. I sometimes say, “Just don’t call me late for dinner.” At other times, I am in a mood to fight (for a round or two) over a word. In any event, my piece today might give you food for thought, or ammo for thought.

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