What’s in a name?
Dan Klein and Kevin Frei recently decided to launch a campaign dedicated to spreading awareness about the original meaning of the word ‘liberal’. At first I was a bit ambivalent about the project because a) I don’t mind using the term ‘libertarian’ to describe myself or the policies I favor, and b) I am normally very careful about classifying Leftists as such, rather than referring to them as ‘liberals’. In my mind, I’m doing everything right so why on earth should I spend time on really driving home a semantic point?
As I was thinking about this issue, Dr Gibson sent me an email of an interview Dan Klein gave with the London-based Adam Smith Institute. Here is how Dr Klein debunked my thoughts on semantics:
The word liberal is powerful. It relates to liberty and toleration, reflected in to liberalize. Words have histories that a generation or two cannot undo. A word has cognates and connotations that make our language cohere, more than we know, more than dictionary definitions can tell.
We need a wider understanding of the semantic changes of the 1880-1940 period. In a way, semantic issues are the momentous issues of our times; semantics tell who and what we are, our selfhood; they condition how we justify our everyday activities.
I can’t argue with this, so instead I have been asking myself how I can go about identifying myself as a liberal rather than a libertarian, and what exactly is the difference between a liberal and a libertarian if the semantics fight is one that should occur between individualists and collectivists (Jesper answers this second question quite well, by the way).
In a way, #LiberalismDay makes Will Wilkinson’s old essay on “bleeding-heart libertarianism” much more pertinent than ever before. Maybe I’m just a plain ole’ liberal, especially if the definition of libertarian being put forth by some individuals in our quadrant continues to gain traction. Maybe most of us are just plain ole’ liberals.
At the end of the day, and after thinking about this for quite some time, I think I’ll try to refer to myself as a liberal for the next little while. After all, as Klein and Frei point out, the term ‘liberal’ has increasingly come to mean the continued “governmentalization”of society so referring to myself as a ‘liberal’ while advocating policies that don’t conform to American conceptions of the term is basically an affront to the theft of the word in the first place.
Calling myself a ‘liberal’ while advocating for more restriction upon the state sounds better and better as I talk myself into it.
I know, I know, I didn’t explain how or why the term ‘liberal’ morphed into what it has here in the States. I outsource to F.A. Hayek on this matter (pdf).
Here are some more thoughts on #LiberalismDay (many of them do a great job of explaining the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ as well):
- Our own Warren Gibson’s thoughts on this matter are the gold standard
- Our own Jacques Delacroix has an interesting, must-read take
- Guest Notewriter Hank Moore has an excellent piece that’s worth your time
- Our own Edwin van de Haar was live-tweeting the project all day
- Matt Zwolinski invokes the ghost of Murray Rothbard
- Jason Pye over at United Liberty
- Richard Ebeling’s thoughts are definitely worth the read
- Australian Julie Novak adds some great thoughts