Reclaiming the Word “Liberal”

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I propose that we call left-liberals just that, not “liberals” without qualification. Doing so would help reclaim the original name of an honorable old political tradition. It would resist the purloining and perversion of the word “liberal” as used in the United States. It would avoid ambiguity by bringing American usage into line with usage in much or most of the world outside the United States, where the word “liberal” retains its classical meaning, as I shall try to show. Left-liberals contrast sharply with classical liberals; they incline to interventionist and redistributionary policies extending into ever more aspects of life.

John Kekes’ Against Liberalism (1997), although a generally meritorious work, illustrates the ambiguous use of words. From a self-styled conservative, I expected an attack on his doctrine’s classical rival. But no: Kekes muddles classical and left-liberalism together, making his attack less incisive than it might have been.

Beyond inviting misunderstanding, controversialists put themselves at a disadvantage when they let their opponents define the terms of debate. When classical liberals and conservatives let “liberal” be purloined and even use it themselves (as a term of abuse), they concede too much to their opponents.

Words and Policy

The word “liberal” derives from the Latin for “free.” Classical liberals do not all share the same detailed understanding of their values; but to minimize repetition in what follows, it is convenient to list typical characteristics. Classical liberals typically believe in the importance of individual responsibility; in the freedom to live one’s own life, to travel, to change residence, and to choose one’s own occupation; in freedom of speech and press; in tolerance of the opinions and lifestyles of dissenting minorities; in capitalist enterprise with secure property rights and free markets for domestic and international trade; in freely and honestly elected representative government of defined and limited powers that protects human rights; in the rule of law, equality before the law, independent administration of law and justice, and separation of church and state.

Left-liberals share many of these values, of course; the chief difference concerns the character and scope of government, which affect the degree of respect that left-liberals have for others among those values.

Liberalism, if not yet so called, became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment. It rejected hereditary status, the divine right of kings, absolute monarchy, and established religoin. Leaders of the American and French Revolutions used liberal philosophy, including insistence on consent of the governed, to justify overthrowing tyrannical rule. The 19th century brought more or less liberal governments to countries in Europe and the Americas.

When classical liberals and conservatives let “liberal” be purloined and even use it themselves (as a term of abuse), they concede too much to their opponents.

An early political use of the term “liberal” dates from the Cortes of Cádiz, which adopted the Spanish constitution of 1812. There the conservatives derided their majority opponents as “liberals.” The liberals wanted to carry on the Enlightenment philosophy of Charles III, adding several ideals of the French Revolution. They fought for civil liberties and against absolute monarchy. Even though the constitution of 1812 remained in effect only for brief intervals, it served as a model for liberal constitutions of Latin countries in the nineteenth century. (These facts are found partly by Googling for “liberals” and “liberals Cadiz” and in the Wikipedia entry on “Constitución española de 1812." Club Liberal Español is also useful.)

Elsewhere also, and perhaps especially in Great Britain and its colonies, liberal aspirations included removing various restraints on residence, occupation or employment, and property ownership; increasing the flexibility of land inheritance; modernizing onerous old legal structures and practices; removing various legal discriminations; extending the franchise and (in Britain) remedying the over-representation of rotten boroughs in Parliament. Workers eventually gained the right to form unions.

How, then, did the word “liberal” acquire its changed meaning? Well, the early liberals worked for freedom from burdensome and oppressive old laws and regulations. Liberalism meant action. The ideal of change toward increased freedom and modernity drifted into accepting change almost for its own sake — or so I conjecture. Many conditions in the world plausibly seemed open to improvement — even in the liberal direction — by changing or adding some laws and regulations.

The case for a typical one of these interventions, taken by itself, may indeed be strong; yet a great accumulation of individually plausible interventions may become oppressive and make the task of monitoring government all the more difficult. Overlooking this point commits the fallacy of composition, the fallacy of supposing that what is true of the individual case is therefore true of such cases taken together. (The standard example compares one spectator standing up to see a parade better, and all standing up to see the parade.)

Even so, advocates of each particular intervention tend to focus on it, not perceiving or worrying about the fallacy. Some interventions may have unintended side effects that seem to require still others as correctives (as Ludwig von Mises explained). Ongoing growth of government activity motivates special interests to seek more interventions on their own behalf or in self-defense against privileges given to others. The political expediency of a “moderate,” middle-of-the-road position — the Hotelling effect, so called following Harold Hotelling’s article in the Economic Journal (1929) — allows the more active side of the road to drag along what is considered the respectable middle, thus reinforcing the drift. Many or most participants in an interventionist drift may well be high-minded people; but the drift does offer opportunities to control freaks, who may relish the prospect of power for their own purposes in a semi-socialist state.

The original term “liberal” persists, in the United States, anyway, even for an orientation that has metamorphosed into almost its opposite. The process illustrates the Hegel-Marx notion of a change of quantity into quality, of degree into kind (as rising temperature changes ice into fluid water and then into steam). An itch to change things has taken hold, with politicians and special interests constantly imagining what further government interventions into what further aspects of life might do some good.

Participants in the Drift of Meaning

John Stuart Mill illustrates a stage in the slide toward left-liberalism. Mill was a genuine classical liberal, concerned with removing interferences with individual freedom. He was an early feminist, urging that women should have fully as much control as men over their own persons and property. His On Liberty is a classic defense of the individual’s right to act as he wishes, even mistakenly, provided only that he does not infringe on the rights of others. He championed freedom of speech and controversy and freedom even from pressures to conform to general opinion; he valued eccentricity. On Liberty urged the benefits of private enterprise and the spirit of innovation.

In the last chapter of his Principles of Political Economy, a chapter entitled “Of the Grounds and Limits of the Laisser-faire or Non-Interference Principle,” Mill reviews the various arguments against extending the scope of government. Still, he considers how government intervention might enhance freedom. He distinguishes between two types. One is “authoritative interference” — requiring or forbidding private actions. A second type, alternative to commands and penalties, includes giving information and advice. But the scope for intervention, as imagined by Mill, is much wider.

Liberalism meant action. The ideal of change toward increased freedom and modernity drifted into accepting change almost for its own sake.

Mill wants to free individuals from finding their future selves bound by very long-term contracts. He would accept intervention when the consumer has inadequate knowledge of the market or is unable to judge the desirability or quality of some good or service, education perhaps being an example. Intervention might be justified when some persons exercise power over others, as over children and animals. The government might intervene to remedy defects of delegated decisions or management, as by giving shareholders more power over the companies they own. Intervention might help give effect to the desires of the persons concerned, as when, for example, workers might want shorter hours but could hardly demand them individually rather than collectively. Mill sees a case for public alongside private charity. Government might properly regulate or own such natural monopolies as gas and water. It might pursue any object of general interest in default of private action — roads, docks, harbors, canals, irrigation, hospitals, schools and colleges, a national bank, a manufactory, a postal service, an established church. (He even mentions printing presses!) Private alternatives would not be banned; private and public education might exist alongside each other. Government should regulate the colonization of new lands (e.g., Australia). In general, government might undertake any beneficial activities that private agencies would find unprofitable; it could support what are now called positive externalities. Mill’s example was voyages of geographical or scientific exploration; nowadays we might think of the space program.

Earlier in his Principles (Book II, Chapter I), Mill expressed some interest in and even sympathy for socialism in some sense or other. The decision between it and the present system of private property “will probably depend mainly on one consideration, viz. which of the two systems is consistent with the greatest amount of human liberty and spontaneity” (Ashley edition, 1929, p. 210). “It is for experience to determine how far or how soon any one or more of the possible systems of community property will be fitted to substitute itself for the ‘organization of industry’ based on private ownership of land and capital. . . . [However,] the object to be principally aimed at, in the present stage of human improvement, is not the subversion of the system of individual property, but the improvement of it, and the full participation of every member of the community in its benefits” (pp. 216–217). Thus, even Mill’s interest in (though not commitment to) socialism reflected his concern for individuality and personal freedom and opportunity.

I get the impression from his Principles that Mill’s acceptance of intervention and his interest in socialism were rather reluctant. He wanted to serve and enhance the autonomy and effectiveness of the individual; personal freedom was his touchstone, but he thought that wise government guidance could enhance it. He wanted to give a fair shake to doctrines or practices that he himself may have contemplated only reluctantly or tentatively.

Like Mill, Thomas Hill Green (1836–1882) exemplifies the drift (especially in his lecture on “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract”; see also the Wikipedia entries on Green and on “Social Liberalism”). He was a philosopher, adherent of the Liberal Party, political radical, temperance campaigner, and prominent figure among those, also including L.T. Hobhouse and John A. Hobson, who became known as the New Liberals. These men used the classical language of liberalism in support of state intervention in economic, social, and cultural life. Green favored factory legislation for safety and health, restrictions on child and women’s labor, public schools, reform of inheritance of land, protection of tenant farmers against arbitrary landlords, and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. He defended such interventions against the objection that they impair freedom of contract.

In distinguishing between negative freedom and positive freedom, Green made a now notorious play on words. He called the latter “true freedom,” charitably interpreted to mean individuals’ efficacy in pursuing their own interests and in political participation. Sir Isaiah Berlin made the same distinction in his “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), but he did so to warn against the equivocation involved.

Even Mill’s interest in (though not commitment to) socialism reflected his concern for individuality and personal freedom and opportunity.

John Maynard Keynes, member of the Liberal Party in Britain, was arguably a figure in the leftward drift. At least two schools of interpretation of his General Theory demonstrate the ambiguity of his position. One school stresses his evident appreciation of private property and a market economy; he had no particular quarrel with how the price system allocates resources. Writing during the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, he did worry about a persistent tendency toward lack of enough total demand to maintain prosperity with full employment. That defect could be remedied rather straightforwardly by monetary policy and especially by government fiscal policy, both without detailed control over the allocation of labor and other resources. On this interpretation, Keynes remained basically a classical liberal. The rival interpretation sees him as a meddlesome interventionist, or worse. It takes literally some of his stray remarks, such as his comment about the “socialization of investment,” as if he meant more than policy to stimulate enough investment to absorb otherwise excess saving — as if he did envision widespread government ownership of the means of production — in a word, socialism. Actually, he did not go that far.

The Oxford Liberal Manifesto of 1947/1948, written by Salvador de Madariaga and adopted by delegates from 19 countries, also illustrates how classical liberalism became stretched. Unsurprisingly, it urges protecting the standard freedoms and enhancing the several components of political liberty. But it goes further. Its concern for the freedom and wellbeing of persons extends to education; security from the hazards of sickness, unemployment, disability, and old age; and continuous betterment of conditions of employment and housing. Economic freedom must be protected from monopolies and cartels. “The welfare of the community must prevail and must be safeguarded from the abuse of power by sectional interests” (Wikipedia entry and text of the Manifesto).

So the Manifesto almost welcomes myriad detailed interventions. It allows politicians opportunities to perceive or invent ills that their legislation and regulation might remedy. In H.L. Mencken’s much quoted exaggeration, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” As if to illustrate Mencken’s point, a recent call-in session on C-SPAN recognizes appropriate federal government concern about . . . bedbugs.

The word “liberal” in the sense of left-liberal is (or was until quite recently) accepted gladly, and even as a self-congratulatory term, by American adherents of that political persuasion; and most do so use it still. However, many conservative politicians and commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, have come to use it as a pejorative. Thus even conservatives join in perverting the unmodified word to mean incessant leftward change.

International Usage

This drift toward perverting the word has not occurred, however, in all writings and all countries. In some English-speaking countries outside the United States (Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom), usage of the term “liberal” seems to be complicated by their having thus-named Liberal (or Liberal Democratic) political parties. But in the UK, anyway, the classical usage still seems to prevail. The London Economist does routinely and unambiguously so use the word. For example, its issue of 16–22 October 2010 hails Mario Vargas Llosa, winnner of the Nobel Prize for literature, as “A Latin American Liberal”: “His liberalism is universal, inspired by such thinkers as Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin.” In most other countries and languages, also, “liberal” means classical advocacy of a free-market economy; personal rights, liberties, and responsibilities; equality before the law; and a democratic element in limited government.

Liberal policies could plausibly drift into left-liberal interventionism, as I have argued, without any sharp break point bringing a change in terminology. But why did the change of meaning occur mainly in the United States while “liberal” retains its classical meaning in so many foreign countries? Well, in some developing countries where free markets and democratic politics have not yet fully emerged, classical free-market liberalism may still be only an aspiration of an intellectual minority and not yet an actuality subject to being democratically corrupted by organized interests; the process described by Mancur Olsen in his Rise and Decline of Nations (1982) has not yet taken hold. But this mere conjecture leaves unsolved the puzzle of why “liberal” or “liberalism” does indeed retain its classical meaning in many countries outside the United States.

As if to illustrate Mencken’s point, a recent call-in session on C-SPAN recognizes appropriate federal government concern about bedbugs.

But it does. Evidence follows. The Atlas Foundation, founded by Sir Antony Fisher and now headquartered in the United States, is an umbrella organization for classical-liberal programs and thinktanks around the world. Atlas lists many dozens of them that it supports or that cooperate with it. I tried to find all of these web sites (and also found a few others). Unsurprisingly, most by far of the American thinktanks use “liberal” or “liberalism,” if at all, in the American leftist sense. In other countries, also, by no means do all or even most of the free-market thin tanks explicitly label themselves “liberal” either by their names or in their homepage self-descriptions. That is understandable. They may not want to risk frightening away potential supporters by one explicit label. They do, however, express sympathy with the tenets of classical liberalism, which they review.

Yet some do explicitly name themselves. Examples include Club Liberal (Spain), Unión Liberal Cubana (located in Spain), Instituto Liberal (Brazil), Instytut Liberalno-Konserwtywny (Poland), Liberaljnaja Missija (Russia), Association for Liberal Thinking (Turkey), Center for Liberal-Democratic Studies (Serbia), Centre for Liberal Strategies (Bulgaria), Liberal Group (India), Liberal Network Europe (Bulgaria), Liberales Institut (Switzerland), Libertarni Klub (Slovenia), Eurolibnetwork (France), Liberal Youth Forum (India), and Red [Network] Liberal de América Latina (16 countries).

Tanks describing though not actually naming themselves as liberal include Free Market Center (Serbia), Free Market Foundation of Southern Africa (South Africa), Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales (Spain), Institut Constant de Rebecque (Switzerland), Institut Turgot (France), Institute for Development and Social Initiatives “Viitorul” (Moldova), Institute for Economic Studies Europe (France), Instituto de Ciencia Política (Colombia), Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (Brazil), Instituto Liberdade (Brazil, formerly named Instituto Liberal do Rio Grande do Sul), Istituto Acton (Italy), Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy), Liberté Chérie (France), Mont Pelerin Society (international), Prague Security Studies Institute (Czech Republic), Center for Political Studies (Denmark), Centre for Independent Studies (Australia). The Centre for Civil Society (India) straightforwardly calls itself “liberal,” as in announcing a “Colloquium on the Indian Liberal Tradition” and issuing invitations to the 2011 regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, whose theme would be “India as a Global Power: Practicing Liberal Values at Home and Abroad.”

In addition, many of the tanks not explicitly so naming their philosophy do present articles or other content using the word “liberal” (or “liberalism”) in the classical sense. Examples include Andes Libres Asociación Civil (Peru), Center for Free Enterprise (Korea), Center for Institutional Development (Romania), Centro de Investigación y Estudios Legales (Peru), Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina (Argentina), Education Forum (New Zealand), Eudoxa AB (Sweden), F.A. Hayek Foundation (Slovakia), Free Market Center (Serbia), Fundación Pensar (Argentina), Imani Center for Policy and Education (Ghana), Instituto de Libre Empresa (Peru), Free Market Center (Serbia and Montenegro).

Why did the change of meaning occur mainly in the United States while “liberal” retains its classical meaning in so many foreign countries?

Many institutions indicate their orientation by naming themselves after classical liberals. A list, partially overlapping the preceding ones, includes: John Locke Foundation (US), Locke Institute (US), James Madison Institute (US) Henry Hazlitt Foundation (US, now dissolved), Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (US), Bastiat Institute (US), Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation (US), Istituto Bruno Leoni (Italy), Adam Smith Institute (UK), Adam Smith Society (Italy), Adam Smith Centre (Poland), David Hume Institute (UK), Institut Turgot (France), Institut Constant de Rebecque (Switzerland), Fundación José Ortega y Gasset (Spain), many named after F.A. Hayek (Austria, Slovakia, Russia, Germany, Canada), and many named after Ludwig von Mises (US, Belarus, Belgium, Mexico, Argentina, Russia, Brazil, Romania, El Salvador, Czech Republic, Slovakia).


It is understandable how change in the liberalizing direction might have gained momentum and drifted into change valued almost as itself. But where should an originally admirable drift stop? It is odd that continual change through legislation and bureaucratic regulation, however democratically adopted, should be made a philosophical ideal. Political philosophy might better present a stable vision of the good society, one in which individuals can successfully pursue their own goals in life in peaceful and productive cooperation with others through trade and otherwise.

A stable society does not mean stagnation. A stable political framework does not obstruct — it fosters — an environment of progress in science, technology, and culture, a rising standard of living, and a widening of people’s opportunities.

Reclaiming the word “liberal” in its classical and international sense will help clarify discussion of such issues. Instead of outright and confusingly reversing how the word “liberal” is commonly used in the United States, qualifying it as “left” serves clarity.“Left” is not an abusive term employed instead of argument; it describes but does not in itself evaluate. Conceivably left-liberals are correct about the issues that concern them. Furthermore, they typically regard being politically somewhat to the left of center as the moral, humane, compassionate, and progressive position. In the many parliaments where the seating pattern distinguishes between left and right, delegates seated on the left are not ashamed of sitting there.

Two alternatives to the terminological rescue that I suggest come to mind. The left-liberals might be renamed “progressives.” Some of them call themselves that already; and some conservatives, such as Glenn Beck, even use “progressive” as a term of abuse. However, the word already names a specific policy stance in early 20th-century America. Furthermore, it concedes an undeserved terminological advantage to the “progressives,” as if they were for progress and their opponents were against it.

Or classical liberals might give up, concede the unqualified term “liberal” to their opponents, and call themselves “libertarians.” But one might plausibly distinguish between libertarians and classical liberals. I sometimes say, only half in jest, that libertarianism is classical liberalism for children, while classical liberalism is libertarianism for adults.

Most briefly, explicitly distinguishing between left and classical liberalism will promote clarity in discussion, particularly when international usage is taken into account.

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