For 2015, I would like to pick up an old campaign to take back the word “liberal” for the cause of human liberty. Or perhaps that’s too ambitious. Perhaps it is enough for each of us to do our part not to keep conceding the use of this glorious word to the enemies of liberty. It does not belong to them. It belongs to us.
This is not a tedious argument over definitions; this is about the proper identification of a magnificent intellectual tradition. Liberalism is about human liberty and its gradual progress over the last 500 years. It is not about state control. In the coming year, I’m determined to at least make my own language reflect this reality.
Yes, I know this is an old campaign. It was a cause pushed by F.A. Hayek, Leonard Read, Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn, Milton Friedman, and countless others.
My favorite case is Ludwig von Mises. In 1927, he wrote a book called Liberalismus. It was an attempt to recast and update the intellectual foundations of the entire liberal movement. To his knowledge, this had not yet been done.
“The greatness of the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the first World War,” he wrote, “consisted precisely in the fact that the social ideal after the realization of which the most eminent men were striving was free trade in a peaceful world of free nations. It was an age of unprecedented improvement in the standard of living for a rapidly increasing population. It was the age of liberalism.”
But by the time the English edition of his book came out in 1962, he worried that the word liberal had been lost. The book appeared under the title The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth. Very soon after, he changed his mind again. He had decided not to give up the great word, not because he was spiteful or belligerent or did not understand that language evolves. He decided that the term could not be given up.
“This usage is imperative,” he wrote in 1966, “because there is simply no other term available to signify the great political and intellectual movement that substituted free enterprise and the market economy for the precapitalistic methods of production; constitutional representative government for the absolutism of kings or oligarchies; and freedom of all individuals from slavery, serfdom, and other forms of bondage.”
Doesn’t that just sum it up beautifully? The core conviction of liberalism was that society contained within itself the capacity for self-management. The social order was self-organized. We didn’t need masters and slaves. Society did not need to be hierarchically organized. Everyone could have equal freedom. This was a radical idea, and it did indeed build the best of modernity as we know it.
Liberalism secured private property. It ended slavery. It brought equal freedom to women. It stopped wars of conquest. It broke down the class and caste systems. It freed speech. It stopped religious persecution. It opened economic opportunities for everyone. It cast moral disapproval on despotisms of all sorts.
It put the consumer in charge of production. It brought education, culture, leisure, and even luxury to the mass of men and women. It lengthened lives, brought down infant mortality, raised incomes, ended plagues and starvation, and ignited the fire of invention that gave humanity the ability to travel, communicate, and cooperate as never before and as one human family. It brought peace.
This is what liberalism did! How can we give up this word? We cannot. We will not.
It is because of liberalism’s great achievements that the term itself became such a prize. We began to lose the word about 100 years ago, when the partisans of state power began to use the excuse of "liberalization" to push their agenda.
Gradually "liberalism" became about using public policy to create opportunities and improve the world, with the best of intentions. The statists' goals were the same as those of liberalism but the means they used to achieve their goals were completely antithetical and even dangerous to liberal ideals.
Matters became especially intense after the economic crash of 1929. Suddenly the market economy itself was on the hot seat and self-described liberals were forced to choose. Mostly they chose wrongly, and mainstream liberalism hooked up with big government and corporate statism. By the end of the New Deal, it was all over. The word had been stolen and came to mean the opposite of the original idea.
In the postwar period, there was a new coinage to describe people who opposed the political agenda of these new fake liberals. That word was “conservative,” which was a highly unfortunate term that literally means nothing other than to preserve, an impulse that breeds reactionary impulses. Within this new thing called conservatism, genuine liberals were supposed to find a home alongside warmongers, prohibitionists, religious authoritarians, and cultural fascists.
It was a bad mix.
All these years later, this new form of liberalism remains intact. It combines cultural snobbery with love of statist means and a devotion to imposing the civic religion at all costs and by any means. And yes, it can be annoying as hell. This is how it came to be that the word liberalism is so often said with a sneer, which you know if you have ever turned on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. And quite often, the right-wing attacks on liberalism are well deserved. But what does the right offer as an alternative? Not liberation but a new type of party control.
Given all these confusions, why not make another attempt to take back the word liberalism? Again, this is not an argument over the definition of a word. It is an argument about the proper means to build a great society. Is the goal of political life to maximize the degree of freedom that lives in the world, or is it to further tighten the realm of control and centrally plan our economic and cultural lives? This is the critical question.
The other advantage to using the word liberalism properly is that it provides an opportunity to bring up names like Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Frédéric Bastiat, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, plus the more modern tradition with Rand, Mises, Rothbard, and Hayek, plus the tens of thousands of people who long for liberty today in academia, business, punditry, and public life generally. Just using the old term in its proper way provides an opportunity for enlightenment.
It’s true that liberalism of the old school had its problems. I have my own issues with the positions of the old liberals, and they include a general naïveté over democracy, too great a tolerance for the mythical “night-watchman state,” and some latent affection for colonialism.
The more important point is that genuine liberalism has continued to learn and grow and now finds a more consistent embodiment in what is often but awkwardly called libertarianism or market anarchism, both of which are rightly considered an extension of the old liberal intellectual project.
Still, even libertarians and anarcho-capitalists need to reattach themselves to the old word, otherwise their self-identifications become deracinated neologisms with no historical or broader meaning. Any intellectual project that is detached from history is finally doomed to become an idiosyncratic sect.
Let’s just say what is true. Real liberalism lives. More than ever. It only needs to be named. It’s something we can all do.