Scholars seek to reclaim the term “liberal” from governmentalists


There is a push in libertarian circles to reclaim the term “liberal,” a word that once represented a hands off approach to government, from those who advocate for the “governmentalization of social affairs.”

Through Liberalism Unrelinquished, an effort spearheaded by Kevin Frei, a number of scholars are declaring that they will not surrender use of “liberal” to describe their views. The organizers of the statement hope to attract 500 or more signers.

The statement explains that “liberal” once represented the views of Enlightenment era, perhaps best identified through the work of Adam Smith, an 18th Century moral philosopher and the father of modern economics.

Smith laid the foundation for the moral case for capitalism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). The statement also points to Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and John Bright — 19th Century British liberals who advanced laissez-faire economic views.

The American founders enshrined the liberal concepts of the Enlightenment era into the Declaration of Independence and, later, the United States Constitution.

“Especially from 1880 there began an undoing of the meaning of the central terms, among them the word liberal,” the statement reads. “The tendency of the trends of the past 130 years has been toward the governmentalization of social affairs. The tendency exploded during the First World War, the Interwar Years, and the Second World War.”

“After the Second World War the most extreme forms of governmentalization were pushed back and there have since been movements against the governmentalization trend,” it continues. “But by no means has the original liberal outlook been restored to its earlier cultural standing. The semantic catastrophes of the period 1880-1940 persist, and today, amidst the confusion of tongues, governmentalization continues to hold its ground and even creep forward.

“For the term liberal, in particular, it is especially in the United States and Canada that the term is used in ways to which we take exception,” the statement adds.

Some high-profile names in economics, scholarship and research fields have signed onto the statement. They include Vernon Smith, a Nobel laureate; Walter Block, professor of economics at Loyola University; Richard Epstein, professor of law at New York University; Donald Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University; and Amity Shlaes, an author and chair of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.

This has long been a complaint of self-described “classical liberals,” many of whom believe that the term “libertarian” doesn’t accurately describe their philosophical views. But the term “liberal” carries negative connotations because it has been adopted by the political left in the United States.

“There have so far been a couple criticisms of this initiative that I think are fair and worth responding to. The first is that language evolves and words change, and trying to reclaim a word seems to miss that point,” Frei wrote in an email to United Liberty. “I guess my response is that there’s no law in linguistics that words can’t change back, and in this case retaining the earlier meaning has a lot of benefits, including making 19th century history coherent for students.”

The other criticism, Frei, a Phoenix native, notes is that some say this is an “impossible endeavor and we should just stick with ‘libertarian.’”

“[W]hether our goal is achievable remains to be seen,” Frei said. “My hope is that people are such innate grammar police that once enough folks start correcting misuse of the word ‘liberal,’ progressives might drop it in favor of something else. But we’ll see.”

“As for using the term libertarian, the problem is that it connotes some of the more radical, hardcore ideas associated with [Murray] Rothbard and Ayn Rand. I do think hardcore libertarians and more consequentialist liberals have enough in common that they should be on the same team, but we’d be better off with libertarian as a hardcore subset of liberal than with liberal as a softcore subset of libertarian,” he added.

In other parts of the world, however, the term is used to describe someone who believes in laissez-faire and decentralization of government. Typically, though not exclusively, governmentalists are members of socialist or green political parties.

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