The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Theft and Destruction of "Liberal"
Mike Rappaport

When one first starts reading about libertarianism, one of the first things you learn is that libertarian views grew out of classical liberalism.  But then, especially in the United States, liberalism came to be associated with people who embraced the use of state power to promote certain ends.  And thus the term "liberal" was taken from people who were largely libertarians and used by people who were largely statists, like FDR.   As a result, the less attractive term "libertarian" had to be coined.

I have long since given up being upset of the theft of the term "liberal."  But I had chance to reflect on this when listening to a CSPAN show, in which a liberal was attacking the myth of Ronald Reagan.  This liberal did not openly speak to other liberals, no he spoke to his fellow "progressives."  And that is because liberals have made liberalism so unpopular that they had to change their name to "progressive."   So, even in the age of Obama, liberals cannot openly call themselves by their former name, instead they must hide behind another name.

This latest development only makes the story of the term "liberal" more infuriating.  Statists stole the term from libertarians, but then behaved so badly with it, that they themselves had to abandon it.  It is as if someone stole the Mona Lisa from Louvre, and then did not care for it, so that after a generation, it was just garbage that no one wanted.

Update:I had intended to post this as a comment, but for some reason it won't let me post it that way.

In response to Russel L. Carter: I am glad I could amuse you, but sadly it is your post that is historically illiterate.  In fact, in 2002, I attended a conference styled “Progressive and Conservative Approaches to Constitution Law,” and it was admitted by many of the progressives that they needed to use the term progressive because liberal had become a dirty word.” 

In response to Jeremiah J: It may be that modern liberals have arguments that place them closer to classical liberals than libertarians are, but I find them quite unpersuasive.  Classical liberalism embraced markets and was suspicious of the state.  That conservatives are not closer to classical liberals than modern liberals are – whether true or not – is besides the point.

In response to DJF: The term liberal changed its meaning in the late 19th and especially inthe early 20th century.  While John Stuart Mill was one of the thinkers who moved liberalism toward its modern meaning, it was in the works of Hobhouse and T.H. Greene that the change was most effected.

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Mike Rappaport
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Comments

Take it back!

Posted by: dgm | Mar 30, 2009 5:34:44 AM

Interesting sentiment. It reminds me that at one time Abraham Lincoln called himself a Republican.

Posted by: JB in University City | Mar 30, 2009 8:22:11 AM

This is almost comically historically illiterate. The reason that people like myself call ourselves "progressives" rather than "liberals" is that the quite a large majority of so-called liberals in, for instance, the Democratic Party are toadying corporatist authoritarian types indistinguishable from the bulk of the less insane minority of Republicans.

And it is quite sublime that the banal authoritarian modern Republican stylizes himself as libertarian. That's an impressive cognitive leap, but explains a lot about the last eight years. (Remember those?)

I have to say that this has become by far my favorite Republican crackup blog. The lawyerly training provides for felicitous sentences while not impairing the vivid expressions of the motivating insanity. I do want you to know that I really appreciate that.

Posted by: Russell L. Carter | Mar 30, 2009 10:23:43 AM

I'll agree with Russell that these are some conceptually and historically incorrect claims. It's a common libertarian move, but pretty perverse, to take military dictatorship, fascism and communism and throw them into the same "statist" category as American New Deal liberalism. You're abstracting away from the whole industrial-era American debate--among people with roughly liberal values--about economic freedom, industrial policy, free trade, and the rights of workers and recasting it as a plot by some sneaky socialists who managed to cynically hoodwink everyone into considering them liberals.

Modern liberals actually do have arguments to the effect that their New Deal "statism" (along with modern liberal concerns with civil liberties and personal freedom) is true to the spirit of classic liberalism, indeed truer than libertarianism is. In the U.S. this argument goes back before FDR to the progressives, through FDR's Commonwealth Club Address and recently to books like Paul Starr's Freedom's Power. It seems to me like there's an actual debate, and that it's not an easy case of fraudulent labelling.

Moreover, the American conservative attack on "liberalism" is not entirely an attack on statism and economic egalitarianism, either. It's frequently an attack on permissiveness and a lack of discipline, a decline in social norms and respect for authority, a loss of religious values, and the valorization of arbitrary freedom. In short, the American conservative critique of "liberalism" has a lot in common with critiques of liberalism throughout history, indeed in places where liberalism meant about what libertarians want it to mean. The fact that "liberal" is like a dirty word, too often used, on right-wing radio, whereas conservative intellectual types want to "take it back!" says a lot about the American conservative movement.

Posted by: Jeremiah J. | Mar 30, 2009 2:07:59 PM

Translation of the above leftist-troll comments - The Left stands for everything good, and, therefore, liberty is only a good thing to the extent the Left approves of it (e.g., the liberty to abort fetuses is good; the liberty to spend money to disseminate a movie critical of Hillary Clinton is bad). Thus, since leftists favor all of the liberty that any one should have, and the "liberty" championed by the nonleft is bad or illusory, the Left deserves the name "liberal."

I wonder - if "liberal" is such a natural term for the Left, how is it that this use of the term has never caught on in Europe, or even Australia?

Also, how does one square the view of the Left as the true "liberals" with the present de facto alliance much of the Left has formed with Islamist organizations in North American and Europe (no, not Al Queda, but groups like CAIR)?

Mike - It would also be interesting to know who the specific originators of the contemporary usage of "liberal" were. Was Herbert Croly one of them?

Posted by: DJF | Mar 30, 2009 7:00:13 PM

I'd be interested to hear from Mike Rappaport if he thinks my comment is characteristic of a "leftist troll". Perhaps DJF is just a wandering crank, and not representative of the conversaton on this blog, which I'm not very familiar with.

I can't see any claim above that "liberal" is "a natural term for the left". Such a claim is absurd. There clearly are totalitarian and authoritarian versions of the left, and the European left casts itself as social-democratic rather than left-liberal. A part of the American left calls itself liberal, and fights with (a tiny, intellectual slice of) the right over the mantle of liberalism. Of course part of that fight involves denying there's a real fight and claiming the whole thing for one side. But that's not a very accurate claim about the history of ideas and political movements.

Posted by: Jeremiah J. | Mar 30, 2009 10:13:35 PM

In response to Russel L. Carter: I am glad I could amuse you, but sadly it is your post that is historically illiterate. In fact, in 2002, I attended a conference styled “Progressive and Conservative Approaches to Constitution Law,” and it was admitted by many of the progressives that they needed to use the term progressive because liberal had become a dirty word.”

Sorry mate, I could not care less what a bunch of lawyers think, and as far as some wimpy lawyer "liberals" piggy backing on "progressive" at a conference, well Jeremiah was accurate in his references. There is quite a bit of history stretching well back into the 19th century.

That is, your anecdote from a conference is worthless as historical interpretation, but I expect no less! Keep it up! This is the most entertaining wingnut nonsense out there right now (well possibly excepting those Volokh torture threads).

Posted by: Russell L. Carter | Mar 31, 2009 6:10:31 PM