Monday, March 30, 2009
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.