- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

Sometimes something trivial gives you a clue about something serious. A tempest in a teapot has been stirred up about the zoning laws and New York’s famed Plaza Hotel.

By some fluke, half the Plaza’s ballroom is zoned for commercial and the other for residential use. Now the hotel owners want the whole ballroom zoned for commercial use, so they can put some more stores there.

Though all this is will go on inside the hotel, outsiders have protested the requested zoning change. At one time, the outsiders would have been told to mind their own business. After all, it is not their hotel and they can’t even claim what goes on inside the Plaza somehow blocks their view, creates more noise, pollutes the water or endangers some species. It is not even in their backyard.

What gives the busybodies a legal right to challenge the zoning change is the designation of the Plaza Hotel as a “landmark.” And that throws the issue into the jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Ironically, designating someone else’s property a landmark subjected to arbitrary regulation by people who pay none of the costs they create is a typical contemporary liberal idea. It also shows why words like “liberal” and “conservative” have lost all relationship to the original meanings of those terms.

Liberalism at one time referred to liberty, to making people as free as possible from the control of their presumed betters, and especially free of excessive control by the government. Broadly, liberals tended to favor change while conservatives defended the status quo. All that has been turned upside down.

Liberals today are for preserving not only historic landmarks but also the status quo in the welfare state, obstructing the building of new housing, fighting against introduction of parental choice into the school system, and are digging in against allowing even a little bit of Social Security privatization.

As for freedom from government controls, liberals have pushed ever more regulation of ever more details of people’s homes and businesses. Some places where liberals have been politically dominant for years, you dare not cut down a tree on your property, even if it is about to fall and smash your house or you.

Whatever the merits or demerits of any of these policies, the liberal label would never fit if it still meant what it once did.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the political spectrum, conservatives push all sorts of sweeping changes. Milton Friedman is widely regarded as the epitome of conservatism. Yet for 50 years he has argued for radical change in our school systems by providing vouchers so parents can choose whether to send their children to public or private schools.

Professor Friedman also for years has advocated sweeping changes in how the Federal Reserve System and the international monetary system works. Nor is such advocacy of change unusual among “conservative” people. It is hard to find a single person known as a “black conservative” who in fact favors the status quo, much less the previous status quo.

What do labels like “liberal” and “conservative” mean, when they bear so little relationship to what the people thus labeled actually do? It might cause less confusion if people with different political views were simply called X and Y, to show real differences exist but they have little to do with what words like “liberal” and “conservative” are supposed to mean.

In some other countries, a liberal still means someone who wants to reduce government control, and a conservative is someone who wants to keep things as they are. Not here. When we use those terms in the United States, we are really just talking about brand X and brand Y politics.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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