How shall we define 'liberal'?
By Scott Sumner
Daniel Klein has a very interesting piece in the Intercollegiate Review on the changing meaning of the term ‘liberal’. It begins as follows:
Here I make a plea, addressed to conservatives and libertarians, regarding the word liberal: please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.” I do not ask that you describe yourself as “liberal.” Continue to call yourself “conservative” or “libertarian.” I propose only a single step: don’t call leftists “liberal.” By this single step, we can make great strides.
Klein points out that Samuel Johnson gave three definitions in 1755, of which “generous” seems to me to be the most interesting (the others have to do with being a gentleman, etc.) Klein then describes the gradual evolution of the term to represent support for political and economic freedom in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then a swing towards socialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In America today it refers to people on the left side of the spectrum, but not the far left.
My initial inclination is to oppose this sort of agenda. The meaning of words tends to naturally evolve over time, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t just let this occur in a way that matches the evolution of society. In addition, I’m less than completely convinced that political and economic freedom were the essence of 18th century liberalism, or that in any fundamental way the meaning of the term has evolved over time. (Although readers should keep in mind that Klein’s views on this are far more well-informed than mine.)
In this essay I argued that liberalism has always meant something close to “utilitarianism”, and indeed I’d argue that even Johnson’s “generous” meets that general description. When people like Mill changed their views over time, it wasn’t because their values changed, but rather because they had different views on what sort of public policies best embodied those values. In Mill’s case, he became somewhat more supportive of government intervention as he got older. Liberals born in 1950 tended to become less supportive of government intervention as they got older. In my view, American liberals “really are” liberal, and I also believe that pragmatic libertarians (like me) really are liberal. We simply have different views on which policies best advance utilitarian goals.
Nonetheless, I actually end up agreeing with much of what Klein says, including this:
Sometimes conservatives and libertarians balk at calling the left “progressive,” not wanting to concede the idea of progress. But I say, let them have it.
I’m not interested in reclaiming the meaning of liberal from 200 years ago, just as I have no interest in reclaiming the meaning of ‘gay’ from 100 years ago. Rather I favor what Klein is trying to do because (even today) in most of the world a liberal is a supporter of free market-oriented policies and social liberalism, and is also opposed to militarism. Those are also my views, and it would be nice to not have to constantly explain to my fellow Americans where I belong on the political spectrum. Unlike Senator Chuck Schumer, I favor legalizing drugs, free trade with China and the arms deal with Iran. And yet if I tell Americans that I’m more liberal than Schumer they get all confused. In addition, lots of non-Americans read my blog, so it would be nice if words meant roughly the same thing in the US as they do in Europe and South America.
And let’s be honest, ‘liberal’ sounds classier than ‘libertarian’. If I tell people in Europe that I’m a liberal, they might picture a cosmopolitan, socially liberal businessman who favors free markets and reads the Economist. If I say I’m a libertarian they might picture a Ron Paul supporter storing gold, can goods, and guns in his basement. (Not that there’s anything wrong with those activities.)
PS. For those who can read French, here’s a new article in Atlantico where I am interviewed on the subject of China.