EspañolKevin Frei, a businessman from Arizona, has launched an internet campaign to formally reestablish the free market meaning of the word liberal — the meaning the United States had until the late 19th century.
In modern Canadian and US politics, many take the word liberal to mean progressive. In this sense, people usually associate it with the Democratic Party (or the Liberal Party in Canada) and with those who favor state intervention in the economy. However, according to a statement released by Frei, the term, as originally used, had the opposite meaning. From the 17th and 18th centuries, it characterized the free-market economic policies of Adam Smith and politicians like Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and John Bright.
Frei’s organization, Liberalism Unrelinquised, further states:
Especially from 1880 there began an undoing of the meaning of the central terms, among them the word liberal. The tendency of the trends of the past 130 years has been toward the governmentalization of social affairs.… After the Second World War the most extreme forms of governmentalization were pushed back and there have since been movements against the governmentalization trend. But by no means has the original liberal outlook been restored to its earlier cultural standing. The semantic catastrophes of the period 1880-1940 persist…
Frei aims to collect a total of 500 signatures to assist him in his mission to recover the classical definition of the word liberal in the English language. He is already well on his way and has received 248 signatures from prominent academics in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Bahamas, and Australia. The proposal has also gained the support of 21 students from the United States and United Kingdom.
The project seeks signatories who are over the age of 30 and are currently working as professors in academic research, cultural activities, or involved with media.
Among those who have signed the petition are Walter Block, professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, Richard Epstein, law professor at New York University, and Janet Neilson and Matt Bufton of the Institute for Liberal Studies, an organization responsible for promoting the classical understanding of liberal in Canada.
To better understand the history of the word, the website recommends the writings of Milton Friedman, David Conway, Friedrich Hayek, David Hume, and Adam Smith, among others.
Nicolás Cachanosky, assistant professor of economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver, supports the project and said there is a similar phenomenon occurring in Spanish with the word “republic.” He told the PanAm Post that unfortunately for 21st Century Socialists there appears to be no difference between the words “democracy” and “republic.”
José Azel, a PanAm Post columnist and senior research associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, sees the debate over the meaning of a word so prominent in the history of economics to be a reflection of an important intellectual battle.
“Today, nearly everywhere, liberalism continues to defend the supremacy of the individual, and the conservatism of the state. Unfortunately, in the United States, the word ‘liberal’ has evolved over time to mean something almost diametrically opposed to its historical roots. The way it’s used now, liberalism and the left defend a greater role for government, and conservatism and the right advocate limited government,” said Azel.
He went on to explain that he believes a philosophical offensive is the best strategy to recover the original meaning of the word, and to disassociate it from those who support government intervention in the economy.
As classical liberals, we ought to “reestablish our historical claim to the word ‘liberal,’ and emulate the arrogant attitude of US-American liberals by labeling them ‘servile,'” said Azel.
Speaking to the PanAm Post, Frei also expressed his opinion on how this philosophical offensive should be carried out.
“There are some big advantages to reclaiming the word. For one, it is the ideal umbrella term to unite classical liberals, small-government conservatives, and libertarians, whose similarities are more important than their differences. For another, it illuminates a consistent ideological line that runs from Locke and Smith, through the US Constitution, Lincoln, and to the liberty movement of today. And finally, it exposes a kind of left-wing intellectual fraud.”