- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

The United States is in danger of becoming a nation of "hyphenated-Americans" pigeonholed by a multiple-choice test of social distinctions. The categories against which an individual is today compared is an ever-expanding list in an unending attempt to classify us. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, language, education, class and income are just the most obvious. While the ostensible aim is to somehow increase Americans individuality, the result is an elevation of groups and individuals subordination to them.

This threatened reversal of group over individual perfectly demonstrates the reversal of contemporary liberalism from classical liberalism. Today it is all too easy to forget that "liberal" used to describe the political right, rather than the left. Originally liberalism meant laissez faire. It sought to free society from its earlier strictures and allow it to manage itself. To do so, it first sought to free the individual — making him a free agent in society, politics and economics.

The idea was without precedent in human history. When classical liberalism began to take root in the 19th century, the world was largely still a place where individuals were limited by the groups to which they belonged — cities, states, occupations, gender, religion, etc. — and the individuals rights were transferred from their groups to them.

The idea that rights resided not in the old integuments but in individuals was nothing less than revolutionary. Up to that point in history, the individual hadnt existed as a possessor of rights except in rare cases. Only in the last two centuries did this begin to change.

Sadly, it is still not the case in many places today. Its progression has not always been smooth. Communism, totalitarianism, fascism, Nazism and other "isms" have all opposed it, but each challenge only served to confirm the crucial importance of recognizing the individual — not a persecuted or persecuting group.

As a result, the individual has become increasingly liberated. And this liberation has become the hallmark for determining whether we affix the adjective "modern" to a society.Yet this steady progression of the individuals elevation may today face its most serious challenge — not explicitly, but implicitly — through todays liberal attempt once again to recognize us primarily as members of a multiplicity of groups.

Contemporary liberalisms current attempt to transpose groups over the individual is indicative of the reversal of liberalism from its origin. Where classical liberalism was individual-centered, contemporary liberalism is government-centered; where classical liberalism minimized the governments control of society, contemporary liberalism seeks to maximize it.

Since it is inherently difficult to manage an atomized society of individuals, it is not surprising that contemporary liberalism prefers the easier task of managing society as groups. The result is the current incessant insistence of categorizing people by groups — promoting some and demoting others according to contemporary liberalisms subjective decisions.

Current liberals ostensible excuse for their exercise is that it will promote individuality, forcing us to recognize people as they are. However the very opposite is true. By making groups the primary means of identifying people, it is not surprising that groups will become primary and individuals secondary until we overlook people as individuals and see them only as representatives of groups.

Contemporary liberalism entirely misses this point. Increasing the number of groups with which we define a person does not create more of an individual. It creates more of a reliance on groups — their categorization and ultimately their cultivation. By increasing the multiplicity of groups with which we categorize people and increasing our reliance on group identification for defining people, society subordinates the individual to groups themselves. Means and end are inevitably reversed.

The direct attribution of rights to the individual and founding a nation upon this idea is undoubtedly Americas most important contribution to political thought. Certainly, its full realization took time. Yet the seeds of its full flowering were planted from Americas beginning. The unequivocal premise that the individual, as an individual, possesses indisputable rights served to pull this nation — and the world — toward its promises fulfillment.

It is hard therefore to understand why todays liberals are so eager to at worst reject that premise or at best endanger it by seeking to return to group identification as the criterion for defining the individual.

Far from being progressive as they imagine, the modern liberal attempt to classify us according to group is regressive — a rolling back of the calendar to a time when participation in a group determined an individuals rights. It is not the embodiment of the American contribution that contemporary liberals wish, but a divergence from it. The inevitable end result of their attempt will not be just a nation of hyphenated-Americans, but of hyphenated-American groups — and ultimately less of a nation.

James Young is a Washington writer and former U.S. Congress staff member.

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