A Liberal: To Be or Not To Be (Happy #LiberalismDay!)

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):

Liberalism Unrelinquished: Some Tactical Thoughts

Today is #LiberalismDay. My friend Dan Klein of George Mason University along with his colleague Kevin Frei have launched a project called “Liberalism Unrelinquished.” An impressive list of economists and others have signed their petition which declares that they “affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.”

Other bloggers will presumably rehearse the tale of how that storied term lost its original meaning, at least in the U.S., as it has been appropriated, since at least the 1930’s, by statists.  (Example: George Leef’s fine piece). I just offer a few thoughts on some tactics that may be appropriate to this battle.

  • We must stop using the word liberal to denote present-day statists. This should be easy since they themselves have largely abandoned the term in favor of “progressives.” (Note that modern progressives hate progress of the material sort more than anything. That’s an issue for another time.) I have nothing better than “progressives” to denote these folks except perhaps a qualified “so-called progressives.” I hope “governmentalists” doesn’t get started. That would be too big a mouthful.
  • Speaking of which, there must be a better term than “governmentalization,” another mouthful. Perhaps just “government takeover” which is more forceful and easier to say.
  • “Liberalism unrelinquished” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. How about “liberalism restored?”
  • Our task will often be easier if we say “classical liberal” rather than just liberal.
  • The term libertarian has entered the mainstream of U.S. politics. We should take advantage of this progress. We can use phrases like “the libertarian position, or as I like to call it, the classical liberal position …”
  • We must understand the price we pay when we call ourselves or our positions “liberal” or “classical liberal.” The price consists in the time and energy required to make clear to our audience what we mean when we use the term. Whether the price is worth paying depends on circumstances.
  • In academic writing, speaking, or debating there is usually sufficient time to preface our arguments by explanations. Attention spans are long enough that the price paid for explaining why we say “liberal” will not be significant.
  • The last place to take this fight would be political campaigns or debates. Attention spans are minute, audiences are unsophisticated, and we will just confuse people by using the term in its classical meaning prematurely. We can, however, try to disavow the tired old “liberal-conservative” spectrum that is currently entrenched in the media. “I’m aTime permitting, we could say classical liberal, and that means I agree with conservatives on some issues and with progressives on others. All my positions are grounded in the notion of liberty.”
  • In letters to the editor where every word counts we can say “libertarian (or classical liberal)” or the other way around.

I congratulate Dan and Kevin on the response they’ve gotten so far and I hope the momentum continues.