Thursday, February 10, 2005

Why not reclaim liberalism?

About three years ago, I posted an essay on Strike-The-Root-com called "Why Not Reclaim the Left?" In that piece, I explained that until the rise of socialism in the mid-19th century, classical liberals (i.e., laissez-faire libertarians) were considered the Left, the party of liberty, peace, and progress. "Then liberals," I wrote, "allowed socialists to outflank them strategically and pose as 'the Left.' Political terminology was turned on its head. Socialists became liberals. Liberals became conservatives." In my essay, I suggested that we libertarians reclaim the Left and the "liberal" label for ourselves.

Well, the argument continues...

In the latest issue of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, editor Sheldon Richman offers a terrific piece titled "I, Liberal." Richman reports that he and some colleagues traveled recently to Tbilisi, Georgia, one of the former USSR's imperial possessions, to lead a student seminar on the political economy of freedom. He writes:
"Aside from the countless amenities extended to us, it was also nice to be in a place where the word 'liberal' is understood. In the linguistically challenged United States, to be a liberal is to favor the government over the individual. Before the word was hijacked in the Progressive Era by devotees of what Ludwig von Mises called 'statolatry,' a liberal supported private property, free markets, and the rule of law as a bulwark against the state. The words 'liberal' and 'liberty' obviously share the same root. They originate in the Latin word for 'free.'

"But that's all forgotten. Now that 'liberal' is associated with bully government, it has become a dirty word, especially during elections, and no one wants it anymore -- not even the advocates of bully government."
Richman joins the editors of The Economist in saying he'd prefer that Left and Right continue to shun the word "liberal" and leave it to "its original owner[s]. That will free 'liberal' to be used exclusively from now on in its proper sense..."

Historian Ralph Raico, whose translation of Mises' Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition is readily available from, has said he prefers the term "liberalism" to "libertarianism" (largely due to that word's hijacking by the so-called Libertarian Party).

Maybe it is time we reclaim the lexicon that was once ours.


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