Monday, January 5, 2009

Goodbye to a libertarian opponent of Apartheid

Helen Suzman served in South Africa's Parliament for 36 years, beginning in 1953, as a member of the opposition, opposed to the racist government of that country. That was a lonely and demanding job. For 13 of those years, she was the only explicit opponent of apartheid among the lawmakers. Maybe a little conflict is good for your health. Born on November 7, 1917, she lived to see a post-racial (but still troubled) South Africa, dying on January 1, 2009 at the age of 91. For all of those long years, Suzman was a champion of true liberalism.

The details of her life and achievements are, deservedly, being trumpeted worldwide in the press and by politicians and activists. I will point out that she was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, once awarded the International Freedom Prize, and -- an honor of which her foundation says she was "inordinately proud" -- denounced as an "enemy of the state" by Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe.

But, since Helen Suzman is being widely mentioned as a leading South African liberal, I do want to comment on Helen Suzman's brand of liberalism. Specifically, I want to point out that Suzman's liberalism was real liberalism, not the micromanaging, for-your-own-good nannyism of so many Americans who use the term "liberal."

From the Helen Suzman Foundation, which Suzman, logically, headed:

The Helen Suzman Foundation supports and promotes liberal democratic policies and ideals in the South African political situation. Views such as these are very similar to those held by liberals in Europe and certain countries in the East, where liberals are non-racial in their views, support free enterprise and are generally sympathetic to individualism, although their views on, and support for, welfare policies vary both within countries and between countries.

As we understand it, in the United States of America, however, the way in which "liberals" are defined differs from the South African and European definition. Liberals in the United States include many people who hold "progressive" views in the sense that they are less sympathetic to free enterprise and individualism and more consistently supportive of public welfare. In Europe and South Africa such people are very likely to regard themselves as "social democrats" or socialists, which are less familiar categories in the United States.

American visitors to this website should bear these differences in mind when reading about The Helen Suzman Foundation and its mission.

In the American context, Helen Suzman's politics would likely have tagged her as a moderate libertarian (or a classical liberal, among some political wonks). In fact, she lectured at the libertarian Cato Institute in 1989, and that organization's executive vice president, David Boaz, has penned an enthusiastic tribute to her work.

Suzman understood, as too many people do not, that liberty is indivisible. You can't have free markets without civil liberty, and you can't have social freedom without economic liberty. The one is unsustainable without the other, and none of it can be maintained if the primacy of the individual isn't put front and center among our political values.

Helen Suzman fought the good fight for freedom all her life. While the job will probably always remain unfinished, it's time for somebody else to pick up the torch.



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