June 16 is Liberalism Day. It’s also Adam Smith’s birthday — a liberal; a classical liberal.
People who identify with Adam Smith’s defense of free markets and individual autonomy around the English-speaking world have launched a campaign to recapture the term liberalism, because it used to represent them up until the mid-20th century — and still does pretty much everywhere except the United States and Canada. In Spanish, French, German, or Italian, a liberal is someone who advocates for limited government and individual negative liberty.
In North America, before liberal came to represent a position favoring increasing government intervention in the economy — consolidated in the 1940s with the New Deal era of public works and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — this word referred to the ideas of intellectuals like Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, or Herbert Spencer (the 19th-century US liberal who witnessed the demise of the tradition). Ludwig von Mises, the distinguished Austrian economist who settled the socialist calculation debate, wrote a whole book defending liberalism, rightly conceived.
But to no avail. The old liberal movement continued its decline, and after World War II, the word was transformed. Ever since, a liberal in the United States or Canada has been a social democrat, a “progressive,” and used almost interchangeably to mean a Democratic Party supporter. This has put free-market advocates in an awkward position: in the eyes of the North American public, they stand on the opposite end of liberalism — and liberty — on the political, ideological spectrum.
There have been some attempts in the past to reclaim the word. This view was echoed by Milton Friedman in a 1955 article, Liberalism, Old Style and more recently in a speech: “In the modern day and age, the world ‘liberal’ has come to mean almost the opposite of what it used to mean … I’m a liberal in the original sense.”
Others gave up and started using the term “classical liberalism” or libertarianism. Alejandro Chafuen has accurately described how even free market think-tanks in the English-speaking world have avoided the word liberalism to describe their views.
The latest battle in this semantic war is being spearheaded by Arizona businessman Kevin Frei, as Belén Marty wrote for the Pan Am Post:
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.
But why should we care about a word? Aren’t we being unnecessarily picky? I don’t think so. In political discourse, words are very important. I couldn’t agree more with the reasoning put forth by Daniel Klein:
The word liberal is powerful. It relates to liberty and toleration, reflected in to liberalize. Words have histories that a generation or two cannot undo. A word has cognates and connotations that make our language cohere, more than we know, more than dictionary definitions can tell.
It’s high time for the true liberals to reclaim a noble heritage of freedom fighters from freedom abusers.