Shall we claim the word “liberal” back? David Henderson has already written on Dan Klein’s gallant effort to regain the word “liberal” for the “Adam Smith liberals” (see here and here).

Klein has a new interview with Jeffrey Tucker, which is well worth listening to. Klein touches upon many of the key concepts surrounding liberalism, and takes a very sane and sober route, by referring to classical liberalism as the tradition by which those who want to interfere with people’s lives and stuff bear the burden of proof. This is a simple and lean definition.

Whether his battle is going to be at all effective, it is difficult to say–and there is room for pessimism.

But I don’t think Klein’s efforts aim, at least in the short term, at changing the way in which the average American uses the word “liberal.” We, Klein’s liberals, are, so to say, “leave us alone” liberals, in a world in which liberalism is the quintessential “mess with us” philosophy. It’s quite a bit of confusion.

What I think Klein’s efforts aim at, is actually challenging the idea that contemporary social democracy (which is basically what now in the U.S. people intend with “liberalism”) is the ultimate result of a gradual enlargement of the sphere of individual rights. That is, contemporary liberalism is not the ultimate outcome of the fights of “real” liberals in other eras.

Famously Schumpeter noted that “as a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label”. I think Klein’s perception is that the compliment was intended: social-democrats wanted to be associated with that allure of tolerance, open inquiry, taste for experimentation, and reform that the tradition of free enterprise, “leave us alone” liberalism emanated.

The idea of massive income redistribution doesn’t necessarily evolve out of the idea of individual rights: that’s the point Klein is making in trying to gain the word “liberal” back, and that’s a very important one.