By Bryan Caplan
Academic political philosophers use the word “liberalism” in a way that would baffle almost anyone else. (See here and here). Who counts? Virtually all the thinkers that normal Americans would call “liberal” + mainstream thinkers who call themselves “conservatives” and “socialists” + all or almost all libertarians. (Anarcho-capitalists might not count, but even that’s not clear). As long as you favor basic civil liberties and oppose dictatorship, political philosophers will probably label you liberal. Unless, of course, you call yourself a “communitarian,” even if your concrete policy views are quite moderate.
When students furrow their brows, philosophers often explain that there are two varieties of liberalism: classical (or libertarian) liberalism, and modern (or welfarist) liberalism. But the claim isn’t that people simply use the word “liberalism” in two incompatible ways. The claim, rather, is that libertarian and welfarist liberalism are two variations on some common liberal essence.
I remember being at an IHS conference where a professor advised libertarian philosophers and political theorists to capitalize on this nomenclature. “Whenever you’re talking with non-libertarian members of your profession, be sure to say, ‘We liberals think X’ And try to explain how your work defends liberalism against its enemies.” Even at the time, I found this advice overly careerist and sneaky; what good is it to be accepted if you’re misunderstood? Now I think it’s positively bizarre. Regardless of your own political position, why would you lump almost all mainstream thinkers together with radical libertarians, then oppose these strange bedfellows to non-liberal socialist Vladimir Lenin, non-liberal conservative Joseph de Maistre, and communitarian Michael Sandel?
Three closing questions:
1. Don’t classical and modern liberalism have common historical roots? Sure. But modern liberalism and socialism probably have more. Even in the 19th-century, many Marxists favored civil liberties and opposed dictatorship, so by modern academic usage, they were liberals despite their vocal hostility to “liberalism.”
2. What’s wrong with political philosophers using an eccentric definition for technical purposes? Nothing – if their definition actually clarifies thought and discussion. But their eccentric definition has the opposite effects.
3. Why complain about eccentric language that actually benefits my fellow libertarians? In part, I simply doubt that the benefits are high – though on that point I’ll defer to people actually in political philosophy and political theory. My main complaint, however, is that political philosophers’ eccentric definition of liberalism makes
libertarianism seem much less alien and threatening to modern
sensibilities than it really is – and it’s more important for libertarians to be understood than to be popular.