What does the word liberal meaning?
For 2015, I would like to pick up an old campaign to take back the word “liberal” for the cause of human liberty. Or perhaps that’s too ambitious. Perhaps it is enough for each of us to do our part not to keep conceding the use of this glorious word to the enemies of liberty. It does not belong to them. It belongs to us.
This is not a tedious argument over definitions; this is about the proper identification of a magnificent intellectual tradition. Liberalism is about human liberty and its gradual progress over the last 500 years. It is not about state control. In the coming year, I’m determined to at least make my own language reflect this reality.
Yes, I know this is an old campaign. It was a cause pushed by F.A. Hayek, Leonard Read, Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn, Milton Friedman, and countless others.
My favorite case is Ludwig von Mises. In 1927, he wrote a book called Liberalismus. It was an attempt to recast and update the intellectual foundations of the entire liberal movement. To his knowledge, this had not yet been done.
“The greatness of the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the first World War, ” he wrote, “consisted precisely in the fact that the social ideal after the realization of which the most eminent men were striving was free trade in a peaceful world of free nations. It was an age of unprecedented improvement in the standard of living for a rapidly increasing population. It was the age of liberalism.”
But by the time the English edition of his book came out in 1962, he worried that the word liberal had been lost. The book appeared under the title The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth. Very soon after, he changed his mind again. He had decided not to give up the great word, not because he was spiteful or belligerent or did not understand that language evolves. He decided that the term could not be given up.
“This usage is imperative, ” he wrote in 1966, “because there is simply no other term available to signify the great political and intellectual movement that substituted free enterprise and the market economy for the precapitalistic methods of production; constitutional representative government for the absolutism of kings or oligarchies; and freedom of all individuals from slavery, serfdom, and other forms of bondage.”
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