David R. Henderson  

I'm a Liberal

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When I figured out my basic political beliefs at ages 17 and 18, I didn't know the term for them. Katherine George, a left-wing sociology professor at the University of Winnipeg with whom I was arguing, called me a libertarian. That was in the summer of 1968 and it was the first time I had ever heard that word.

"A what?" I asked, confused.

"A libertarian," she answered.

"What's that?" I asked.

"You know, it's those people who ran the student newspaper last year: Dennis Owens, Clancy Smith."

"I didn't know," I said, "but I'll be sure to look them up."

"S**t," she said.

So I did look them up and quickly became involved with the University of Winnipeg libertarians. The above-mentioned Clancy Smith, whom his Kelvin High School classmate, Neil Young, had in mind when he wrote "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing," became my mentor.

It was Clancy who taught me that no, the libertarian tradition doesn't begin with Ayn Rand but goes back to the classical liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, said Clancy, they didn't call themselves classical liberals. They were, simply, liberals.

Now George Mason University economics professor Dan Klein, working with Kevin Frei, has undertaken a project to reclaim the term "liberal." He has produced a statement that many economists and others have signed. I go back and forth about this project. Dan wants to do it and I want to help him and I believe in it, which is why I signed. I also wonder if the project is Sisyphean.

But I've bet wrong on Dan before. When he wanted to meet in St. Louis eleven years ago this month to discuss his idea for a journal that would contain articles critical of articles in other journals, I planned to go there and say, "Dan, don't do it." Because of a family crisis that came up at the last minute, I cancelled. Of course, he did do it. And the result is one of my favorite journals: Econ Journal Watch.

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
ThomasH writes:

It seems to me that most libertarians are just another variety of liberal whose beliefs about the relative costs and benefits of certain policies lead them to come down (in practice) on the side of those who do not like the idea of trying to shift income from those with more to those with less.

Jack PQ writes:

Likewise, I was about 18 when, following a university classroom discussion, the (economics) professor said to me, "You must be a libertarian." Unlike your sociology professor, however, this fellow had a lot of admiration for libertarians.

I had not read Ayn Rand or Hayek or anything else really in that literature. Rather, I took a libertarian position to protest the homogeneously left-wing opinions everyone else seemed to have. I just wanted to inject some skepticism into the discussion.

In the university union I was usually the lone voice of dissent against whatever new left-wing proposal the union leaders brought to the meeting. I was just happy that not one of their proposals that adopted unanimously, because the idea of unanimity strikes me as inherently wrong.

I cannot say today I consider myself a libertarian, but given what is happening in Western countries, expressing skepticism and doubt will probably lead to such a label. Which is fine.

Andrew_FL writes:

I've taken to referring to the self styled American "liberals" of the left as "Pre-liberals" both because implying they are backwards really gets on their nerves, and also because they really do seem to me to favor a sort of reconstructed Medieval society.

Still, I feel that, not being a "pure" libertarian, and given how strongly the public has come to associate the liberal label with leftism, it's a lost cause to call myself a "liberal."

Michael Nichols writes:

As a libertarian, I'm not sure this sort of movement makes sense. It seems to me to be a form of tribalism and betrays a lack of insight from Hayek. Words have nuanced meanings that have developed over time and change by the moment. Let's say that we could somehow redefine and reemploy this word from the top-down. As soon as we unleashed the cleansed word on society, it would immediately morph into something unpredictable, because that's what language does. The meaning of a word is the result of communication "trade". It just seems ironic that the solution to the governmentalization of society is to governmentalize a word. I would take a humbler approach to language. One can never have all the information necessary to undertake this task, just as planners run into the same problem with regulation. Language is a beautiful thing because of its very spontaneity. It's not the meaning of the word "liberal" that is causing people to stray from libertarianism. We should recognize this and seek better solutions.

If this is just mean to be a thought-provoking project, however, then that has more merit.

Steve Reilly writes:

Why stop at the 18th century? If they want "the original meaning", why not go back farther?

"The original sense was ‘suitable for a free man,’ hence ‘suitable for a gentleman’ (one not tied to a trade), surviving in liberal arts . Another early sense, ‘generous’ (sense 4 of the adjective), gave rise to an obsolete meaning ‘free from restraint,’ leading to sense 1 of the adjective (late 18th cent)."

David R. Henderson writes:


It seems to me that most libertarians are just another variety of liberal whose beliefs about the relative costs and benefits of certain policies lead them to come down (in practice) on the side of those who do not like the idea of trying to shift income from those with more to those with less.

Thomas, You’ve missed a lot. I can’t list off the more than 100 counterexamples. I’ll settle on a few of the most important:
(1) Libertarians were prominent in opposing military conscription, as, I’m guessing you know, I’ve written about often. These programs imposed 60-80% average tax rates on low-income people.
(2) Libertarians oppose farm subsidies, most of which go to the wealthy and, if they take the form of subsidies that hold product off the market, disproportionately hurt the poor.
(3) Libertarians oppose restrictions on who can practice an occupation, drive a cab, etc. These restrictions tend to help existing established businesses at the expense of newcomers.
(4) Libertarians oppose Social Security and Medicare, which take from working people and give to the second wealthiest age group in the United States.

So my question for you, ThomasH, is do YOU oppose these programs? And if not, why not?

Bill Frampton writes:

David, you're right to describe yourself as liberal, though classical liberal is a more accurate way of putting it. Your statement about the libertarian tradition going back to the original liberals is mistaken though, in fact there are three very different traditions all going back to about the same time period.

The first of these is liberalism, whose history is well-known. Little more need be said about that other than to note that liberalism became broader over time as ordoliberalism and social liberalism emerged. All three strains of liberalism are concerned with freedom and opportunity for all.

The second of these traditions is denoted by the French word libertaire and its' English translation libertarian. Libertaire was coined by French anarcho-socialist Joseph Déjacque in the 1850s to describe his ideas, so it means anarcho-socialism. Consequently that is also the proper meaning of libertarian, and early libertarians such as Déjacque, Mikhail Bakunin, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Emma Goldman, Ferdinando Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti ― yes, that Sacco and Vanzetti ― were all socialists. Real libertarians still exist today, Noam Chomsky is probably the best known of them. Note that unlike doctrinaire, the word libertaire does not exist in English.

The third of these traditions (variously known as "market anarchism" or "anarcho-capitalism") is even more bizarre than libertarianism. As far as I can tell it originated with Frédéric Bastiat's philosophical heir, Gustave de Molinari (though its' germination was likely present in Bastiat's own works, e.g. when he called the state a "great fiction") but it lay more or less dormant until Ayn Rand's ideas gave it a new lease on life. Randians like Roy Childs and Murray Rothbard wanted a name for their movement, but the best come they could come up with was an attempted political identity theft: they tried to steal the name libertarian from those who had the word first.

adbge writes:

Language changes, but not by committee. People do not appreciate being told what their language "really" means (cf. the ban bossy campaign.)

I'm reminded of Through the Looking Glass:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

If Dan and Kevin need a new label, they ought to invent one.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

And it's worse than just that, adbge. It's not just changing the usage of a word, it's a change in the interest of purging an intellectual tradition, which has scary undertones I think.

If there is a problem with calling left liberals "liberal" it is not that it's an inaccurate label, it's that the label is being applied too narrowly.

Often this is just remedied by context. Libertarians already use the word "liberal" to refer to the liberal tradition a lot, as well they should. Casting non-libertarian liberals out of the liberal tradition with an internet petition is something else entirely.

Andrew_FL writes:

No, it's a denial that they are a part of the tradition in the first place, or ever were.

Greg G writes:

This is a deeply ironic situation for a couple of reasons. First of all, as Michael Nichols ably points out, word meanings are as much a case of bottom up emergent order as market solutions or anything else.

Second, it is American Conservatives not non-libertarian liberals, who succeeded in killing the use of the word liberal for anyone right of center on the American political scene.

In a two party system, conservatives and right libertarians tend to vote for the same candidates despite having some important philosophical differences. And conservatives have crushed libertarians when it comes to control of the Republican party in America.

William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan chose to define themselves as the enemies of liberals. The succeeded in attaching a stigma to the label that caused every Republican candidate to run from the word liberal. In fact, they were so successful in attaching a stigma to the word that they caused some on the left to want to rebrand as Progressives rather than Liberals.

A similar attack on the word "moderate" can be seen in many Republican primaries.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Greg G-Your reading of the history here is incorrect. The term liberal was first taken by self styled progressives-a term used by the left which predates their use of the term liberal-and then "conservatives"-so labeled by their opponents to further their claim to being liberal-decided to run with it and attack the self styled "liberals." But it was the reality of their policies which attached a stigma to the term as they used it to describe themselves. Not the fact that their opponents constantly used their own-appropriated-self description as a term of derision. The derision had to be earned in order to stick.

The criticism of the word moderate, as it happens, is similar, although not in the way you are imagining. Contrary to your implication, the "moderates" in the Republican party are left wing progressives, not libertarians, and again the criticism is made after they have chosen to use the term to describe themselves, and the criticism stings because the derision is earned.

Greg G writes:


Word meanings as language conventions are emergent. They are not simply available to be effectively "taken."

Conservatives really are opposed to liberalism in important ways which is precisely why Hayek insisted that he was not a conservative.

I am happy to accept the label of "liberal" without feeling that I have earned or suffered any derision at all. Try and find a Republican primary candidate who will admit to feeling that way.

And I am curious as to who these left wing progressive Republicans are that you have in mind? And why would you be so eager to give up the fight for the word "moderate" if you didn't really think that moderation was a bad thing?

MingoV writes:

Left-wingers have won every time they tried to steal a label or symbol from a different political group when their current label or symbol became tainted. Most people in academics and the media are left-wing, and they control communications.

The most recent theft by left-wingers was color symbols. For decades, the right-wing was shown as shades of blue and the left-wing and communists were shown as shades of red. A few elections ago, the media began talking about red states and blues states, with the blue states being democrat/left-wing. This dissociated the left-wing from failed communism (and confused the public). I thought someone misspoke the first time I heard a democrat-dominant state referred to as a blue state.

I believe that trying to reclaim the label liberal will be a futile effort. Even if the label is reclaimed, it has been so tainted that most people will not associate it with what we call libertarian today.

Greg G writes:

It is interesting how many people here think of words as the kind of things that can be stolen.

There is a marketplace of ideas. What could be more libertarian than each person deciding what word meanings he will accept?

It is surprising how quickly enthusiasm for bottom up emergence can fade.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Greg G-Hayek also rejected the term libertarian, in favor of "Old Whig."

But Hayek was also almost certainly thinking in terms of the way the term "conservative" has been used in Europe. In America it has taken on a meaning quite foreign to it's historical meaning almost anywhere else.

And arguably justifiably so. America began as a liberal state, in the old sense. So that to be an old school "liberal" in America is to be in some sense conservative, in the literal sense. Conservative of Liberalism.

And a Republican primary candidate who considers himself a liberal almost certainly considers himself a leftist not a libertarian. His fear of admitting to being a liberal is fear of admitting to being a leftist.

As for who the left wing progressives in the Republican party are, you could start with the last two Presidential nominees. But to give a full list would take far too long.

And "moderation" is a bad thing. Or more precisely, to use the construction of that reviled conservative, in the pursuit of justice, it is no virtue.

Greg G writes:


Yes, Hayek did call himself an "Old Whig." You are welcome to that term if you want it. I expect it could be claimed without much of a fight.

You might think of McCain and Romney as leftists but I can assure you that they reject the label and I have never met a self-identified Progressive that voted for either of them.

Most of the self identified libertarians I've met voted for McCain and Romney and Bush twice.

You can argue they are no true libertarians and I will be happy to agree with you on that. But we are back to that persistent problem of libertarians talking in a different language than the emergent convention.

Andrew_FL writes:

Greg, although I suspect our perspectives are quite irreconcilable I would like to think you for making me realize something.

Language represents a tragedy of the commons.

Unfortunately there is no obvious remedy to this problem as far as I can tell, since defining property rights in words would be problematic indeed. It's probably best to simply try to cope with the consequences.

Greg G writes:


I think we have come to some kind of significant common understanding here although I probably see it in less tragic terms than you do.

MikeP writes:

Bill Frampton,

You are indeed correct that the original meaning of 'libertarian' is 'anarcho-socialist'. In that sense the libertarians of today stole the word from the leftists.

But I find it odd that you label Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker socialist. On the contrary, they are both firmly in the individualist anarchist tradition.

Shane L writes:

In Australia the Liberal Party is the major right-wing party. Wikipedia calls them "centre-right" and their ideology "conservative" and "Australian liberal", whatever that means. There, the big debate is between the right-wing Liberals and left-wing Labour, which makes more sense.

Here in Ireland I believe "left-wing" or "socialist" are more commonly used to describe left-leaning parties than "liberal"; liberal still has some connotation of personal and economic liberty. I'm not sure if it's only North America where liberal means left?

Scott Freelander writes:

Liberal is always a relative term, and since it represents mere semantics, I hope opponents of actual American liberalism will waste their time with such issues.

Pajser writes:


I'm willing to sell my share in the word "liberal" semantics for $99,89. For only $99,89 each time someone says that I'm liberal, I'll warn him that I'm not and that guys from Milton Friedman school of thought are real liberals.

Don't fight for the semantics, you can buy it!

The price is negotiable.

Greg G writes:


I am glad we have come to an agreement that words are not property and cannot be stolen.

But I do want to point out that your notion of language as a tragedy of the commons is a deeply conservative and anti-libertarian idea. It is based on the idea that there is an older, superior, more correct, more pristine, more accurate language that needs to be conserved. Many people share this idea but almost none of them are serious linguists.

The more libertarian approach is to think that it is a good thing and not a tragedy that no one gets to own the language and dictate a "correct" usage. Everyone has the freedom to decide for themselves.

There is really no reason why you shouldn't be perfectly able to argue for or against whatever public policies you want to argue for or against while using words as they are conventionally understood.

The surest sign you are losing the argument is when you find yourself claiming that the majority of people are using their own language wrong.

ThomasH writes:

@ Dave Henderson,

[Great topic, thanks!]

Not to deny credit to libertarians for getting getting rid of the draft (and creating the EITC), I think it succeeded in part because "liberals" got on board pretty quickly. [Although I'm of the right generation I won't swear by my recollections of political history, so I could be wrong. If so, the liberals of that time were wrong.]

I've never heard of anyone, liberal or otherwise, defend occupational licensing -- that the benefits of licensing to consumers outweighs the cost to them and to the excluded providers -- (except maybe for medicine). Licensing is just plain old non-ideological self interest. [Liberals are responsible for disallowing of direct sales of Tesla in New Jersey and Texas and NC?] Of course since I read more "liberal" sources than libertarian sources my perceptions of precedence may not count, but MY awareness of the problems occupational licensing or of zoning that prevents urban density and comes through Matt Yglesias who is not a libertarian. And the sub-optimality of rent controls and taxicab medallions was textbook stuff for jibes by liberal economics professors since forever. Ditto farm price supports, trade restrictions, ethanol subsidies, sugar policy, departures from uniformity in corporate taxation or even taxing corporate profits instead of personal income. None of those things seem to me to be particularly "liberal" positions. Certainly not mine.

Now Social Security and Medicare I agree are typically liberal positions that I support. Do they transfer income from low to high income folks? I don't think so, but even if they do, I'd think the "liberal" position would be to tweak the are financed (by say, increasing the EITC) and possibly encouraging people to work longer by increasing the retirement age rather than get rid of a program of of giving people money when the are too old to work. [I see an adverse selection problem in the development of a proper market in annuities even if everyone was appropriately foresightful in saving for retirement.]

But my basic point is that I think the differences liberals and libertarian have on these and many other issues are basically over parameter values in our implicit models of how public policy works with some liberals like me falling pretty close to the "libertarian" end and others not so much.

I contrast this with what I think is the basic "conservative" position of not wanting to transfer income from higher to lower income people, period.

Mrs. Renard writes:


re:licensing; the arguments made in favor of occupational licensing are distinctly progressive in flavor: occupational licenses in the name of consumer protection, or occupational licenses in the name of protecting high wage jobs. Occupational licensing is a form of economic regulation, and as such in the leftist corner of the Nolan Chart.

re: SS & Medicare. Henderson writes these "take from working people and give to the second wealthiest age group." You write "Do they transfer income from low to high income folks? " You confuse income and wealth. Today a low-income elderly individual who is low-income only because they are not working but still lives in a million-dollar home receives SS checks paid for by a much-less-wealthy working individual.

Mark V Anderson writes:

ThomasH --

This is a little off topic to be talking about occupational licensing, but I am very interested in the subject. In fact I am constantly arguing in favor dropping almost all occupational licensing here in Minneapolis and Minnesota. I get a whole lot of pushback on this, to the point that I think 90% of people are in favor of such licensing. They believe that sure the government makes mistakes and many times the industry controls the licensing, but they think quality is generally better under licensing so it is a good thing. As I've said, I am constantly telling them otherwise, but to little effect.

I am curious that you never see support for such licensing. It is true that most people consider it a low priority, but it has been my experience that most generally support it.

It is true that currently many Republicans in Minnesota talk a lot against such licensing, but it also true that they control neither the legislature or the governorship. Furthermore, they did nothing about this when they did have some power.

nl7 writes:
I've never heard of anyone, liberal or otherwise, defend occupational licensing -- that the benefits of licensing to consumers outweighs the cost to them and to the excluded providers -- (except maybe for medicine).

Try suggesting the abolition of non-medical occupational licenses to someone who is either left of center or centrist. Explain that cabbies will be unlicensed, contractors and plumbers will not have to be bonded, lawyers will not have to be bar licensed, and big rig drivers will not need Commercial Driver Licenses.

I'm pretty sure they'll look at you with some mixture of repulsion and pity, as they slowly and subconsciously back away from the conversation.

Some licenses are pretty dumb and most people not being protected can laugh at them - like required licenses for florists or decorators. But few people feel as strongly against them as the passionate few feel in favor of them. And licensing regimes in general give most people the sense Someone In Charge is checking to make sure things are okay.

So the general bias is to assume that anybody who can't hack the license requirements is probably an incompetent hack or a dangerous fraudster.

MikeL writes:

Back when I took my journeyman license test I was a rookie with very little experience. But I'm good at reading and academics and, since I was allowed to take the test immediately after trade school, I scored a 90 on the test. The rule was such that I had to work a certain number of hours before I would actually receive my license, but even then, my competence was less than many people who had done much worse on the test. All I'm saying is that if you're going to test people for something, then the test should be MEANINGFUL, and in that case, there should be no requirement for a certain number of classes or hours spent working in the field. I mean c'mon, if you can pass a meaningful test, you should be allowed to work at the occupation. Sadly, the libertarian in me says that this isn't the way government works.

Kevin writes:

'There's a word for that - and we want it back' Immediately came to mind:


One of my favourite Economist titles of all time.

[broken html fixed. --Econlib Ed.]

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