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Liberal With the Definition of ‘Liberal’

Regular Cafe patrons know that I never call myself “conservative” (for the excellent reason that I’m not now, nor have I ever been, conservative).  I call myself, and consider myself to be, either “libertarian” or “liberal.”  (The point of this post is not to explore the differences between the meanings of these two terms.)

Liberal is a good word with positive connotations, which is why English-speaking statists (people who are today commonly called “liberal”) appropriated the term despite it describing almost nothing about their political and policy beliefs.  There is nothing liberal about the itch to order other people about or the arrogance that encourages the scratching of that itch – there is nothing liberal about this itch and arrogance even when those suffering these afflictions genuinely believe that their commands will help the people who are ordered about, and when a majority of voters suffer from that same itch and arrogance.  Recall what Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) wrote on page 372 of his History of Economic Analysis (posthumously published in 1954) about 18th- and 19th-century proponents of free markets; he wrote that these free-market proponents believed

in a spirit of laissez-faire, that is to say, on the theory that the best way to promote economic development and general welfare is to remove fetters from the private-enterprise economy and to leave it alone.  This is what will be meant in this book by Economic Liberalism.  The reader is requested to keep this definition in mind because the term has acquired a different– in fact almost the opposite– meaning since about 1900 and especially since 1930: as a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label. [emphasis added]

With the above in mind, the brilliant Kevin Williamson exposes the flaws in Katrina Forrester’s Nation essay “Liberalism Doesn’t Start with Liberty.”  (HT Lyle Albaugh)  Here’s a slice:

Forrester has no patience for the “unbridled individualism of the market economist,” just as John Nichols, also writing in The Nation, laments “unfettered capitalism,” a favorite phrase among so-called liberals (Chris Hedges invokes it inThe Death of the Liberal Class). Which brings us back to a linguistic question: What is the opposite of “unbridled”? What is the opposite of “unfettered”? Excising the negative prefixes and considering the implications is a much more illuminating argument that “liberalism,” as we perversely call it, “doesn’t start with liberty” than anything one might read in The Nation lately.

Suetonius reports Caligula’s stated wish that “all Romans had one neck.” From a purely practical point of view, it would be easier to affix a bridle that way. A “liberalism” that is chiefly concerned with the many clever uses of bridles and fetters does not deserve the name. It never has.

Do read all of Williamson’s essay.

I add only that the Schumpeter quotation (from above) also is strong evidence against Ms. Forrester’s proposition that “liberalism” was never understood, before the cold war, by anyone to describe pro-free-market and pro-individualist political views.

If you’re going to be a tyrant – if you insist that social engineers must order people about (for their own good, of course!) – if you distrust individual adults to make their own life’s choices, or if you so disrespect other adults that you insist on the right to override their choices when those choices displease you – if you believe that a world that doesn’t conform to your ideal vision is a world demanding your forcible intrusion in order to ‘improve’ that world – if you are so ignorant of economics and history that you do not understand how complex social orders can always better emerge when the individual who comprise society are left free than when those individuals are bridled and fettered and led about by their ‘betters’ – then to artificially sweeten the flavor of what you propose you want a nice, warm, fuzzy, and positive name to go by.  “Liberal” fits the bill.  Unfortunately, though, it does not fit you.


UPDATE: Thanks to Brian Schwartz for reminding me that I should include in this post a link to an effort, spearheaded by my colleague Dan Klein, to reclaim the world “liberalism.”