Dan Klein on Liberalism
By David Henderson
Two months ago, I posted about Dan Klein and Kevin Frei’s project to reclaim the word “liberal.”
You can read the Liberalism Unrelinguished statement here. This is the bottom line:
We the undersigned 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.
This week, the British Adam Smith Institute published an interview with Dan Klein on this issue.
My favorite highlight is Dan’s explanation for why he’s pursuing this seemingly Quixotic quest:
Bowman: Why should we care about what word we use to describe ourselves?
Klein: 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.
His minimum goal:
Bowman: Are you trying to effect a change within the libertarian movement, or among members of the centre-left who describe themselves as liberal?
Klein: The left gains enormously by getting away with calling itself “liberal,” so getting them to give up the goods is not even a prayer. Partly, I just want to self-declare, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam.” An Adam Smith liberal; a lovely little subculture. Next, I’d love to see the center-left, in the US, the Democratic Party people, be called by others something other than “liberal” simpliciter. Progressive, Democratic, social democratic, leftist, or left-liberal – all good. It is unfortunate that so many non-leftists comply with the self-description assumed by the left. For some 100 years the left/center-left dominated the cultural institutions. If non-leftists didn’t go along with their self-description, they were excluded. Then it took on a life of its own, and Republicans and libertarians are now surrendering “liberal.”
The whole thing, which is not long, is worth reading.
Alejandro Chafuen wrote yesterday about how the word “liberal” is used in other countries, pointing out that it is sometimes used in the way Dan and the other signers, including me, would like it to be used.
One major success in Dan’s and my preferred use of the world “liberal” is this. I have been working my way through Thomas Piketty’s tome, Capital in the 21st Century, and I came across this, on page 139, in a discussion of economic policy in 1980s France:
Despite these converging international currents, French voters in 1981 displayed a certain desire to sail against the wind. Every country has its own history, of course, and its own political timetable. In France, a coalition of Socialists and Communists won a majority on a platform that promised to continue the nationalization of the industrial and banking sectors begun in 1945. This proved to be a brief intermezzo, however, since in 1986, a liberal majority initiated a very important wave of privatization in all sectors.