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Neil Reynolds

Reflections on the narrative of liberal Add to ...

Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has described himself as "the bifurcated man" - celebrated for his literary work but chastised for his essentially 19th-century liberal creed. ("When people pay tribute to my novels or essays," he says, "they typically add: 'This does not mean that we accept his opinions.' ") The left, after all, must protect the purity of its prejudices - and no authentic collectivist can forgive Mr. Vargas Llosa's commitment to free markets, an indispensible conviction of the classic liberal mind. Mr. Vargas Llosa repudiates this schizophrenic process, insisting that the world accept him as a unified being, "as a man who writes and thinks." Now, as winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for literature, Mr. Vargas Llosa writes a new chapter in what one historian has called "the narrative of liberty."

In a 2005 speech in Washington titled "Confessions of a Liberal," Mr. Vargas Llosa argued eloquently that the left and the right should work together for a common understanding of what constitutes a "liberal." He noted the word's 19th-century origin - specifically to describe Spanish rebels who fought against the Napoleonic occupation. But the word came to mean different things in different places. In the Anglo-Saxon world, "liberal" became synonymous for a time with socialism. In South America, it became synonymous for a time with loose living. (For Mr. Vargas Llosa's grandmother, it meant a person who didn't attend mass and who spoke poorly of priests.)

Resisting this "perversion of semantics," Mr. Vargas Llosa proposes defining "liberalism" as a philosophy, not an ideology, with three fundamental tenets: political democracy, market economy and the defence of individual rights against the power of the state. All the rest - such as society's different judgments on gay marriage and abortion - could be dealt with by the usual left-right debate. By Mr. Vargas Llosa's definition, Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned champion of democratic reform in China and the 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, would not be indifferently described as a "dissident," which explains nothing beyond a general disagreement, but rather as a "liberal."

Mr. Vargas Llosa's liberalism accords human freedom the "core principle" in politics. "Thanks to this freedom," he says, "humanity has been able to journey from the cave to the stars, to progress from collectivist and despotic association to representative democracy." Yet, for this liberal, freedom itself can't be splintered. "Political and economic liberties are as inseparable as the two sides of a coin." The left need not embrace a marketplace so ferocious, Mr. Vargas Llosa says, "that liberty for wolves is death for lambs." To be truly liberal, though, it must accept the principle that the free market is an indispensable part of human freedom.

Most of the left has already embraced the market economy, however regretfully - a process that began during the years of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In the 1980s, Mr. Vargas Llosa says, the left came to recognize that these leaders had implemented "deeply liberal reforms." At the same time, and thereafter, nominally socialist leaders such as Tony Blair implemented economic and social policies that could be classified as deeply conservative.

Mr. Blair, in his memoirs ( A Journey), writes a critique of traditional left-wing politics. According to one reviewer, he complains that "progressive parties" still tend to think that the more political power they gain, the more social benefits will follow. They fail to recognize, Mr. Blair says, that the public sector is a vested interest, too.

It was a historic mistake, Mr. Vargas Llosa says, when reformist political parties began to call themselves "Liberal" in the 19th century. They expropriated a cultural word for narrow, political purposes - and debased the only word that integrates a coherent political philosophy with a code of tolerance. Collectivist doctrine comes and goes - communism and fascism in days gone by, religious fanaticism now. Mr. Vargas Llosa proposes a simple defensive reform: Get rid of Liberals so we can unite again as liberals, democratic left and democratic right together, as champions of an integrated philosophy of freedom.

The ancient Romans, incidentally, bestowed a kindred word, "Libertas," on their goddess of personal freedom - whose last great shrine still stands in New York Harbor. In a symbolic sense, Mr. Vargas Llosa seeks a return to an old-time religion.

 

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