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.”