David R. Henderson  

Dan Klein on Liberalism

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Two months ago, I posted about Dan Klein and Kevin Frei's project to reclaim the word "liberal."

You can read the Liberalism Unrelinguished statement here. This is the bottom line:

We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.

This week, the British Adam Smith Institute published an interview with Dan Klein on this issue.

My favorite highlight is Dan's explanation for why he's pursuing this seemingly Quixotic quest:

Bowman: Why should we care about what word we use to describe ourselves?

Klein: The word liberal is powerful. It relates to liberty and toleration, reflected in to liberalize. Words have histories that a generation or two cannot undo. A word has cognates and connotations that make our language cohere, more than we know, more than dictionary definitions can tell.
We need a wider understanding of the semantic changes of the 1880-1940 period. In a way, semantic issues are the momentous issues of our times; semantics tell who and what we are, our selfhood; they condition how we justify our everyday activities.

His minimum goal:
Bowman: Are you trying to effect a change within the libertarian movement, or among members of the centre-left who describe themselves as liberal?

Klein: The left gains enormously by getting away with calling itself "liberal," so getting them to give up the goods is not even a prayer. Partly, I just want to self-declare, like Popeye, "I yam what I yam." An Adam Smith liberal; a lovely little subculture. Next, I'd love to see the center-left, in the US, the Democratic Party people, be called by others something other than "liberal" simpliciter. Progressive, Democratic, social democratic, leftist, or left-liberal - all good. It is unfortunate that so many non-leftists comply with the self-description assumed by the left. For some 100 years the left/center-left dominated the cultural institutions. If non-leftists didn't go along with their self-description, they were excluded. Then it took on a life of its own, and Republicans and libertarians are now surrendering "liberal."

The whole thing, which is not long, is worth reading.

Alejandro Chafuen wrote yesterday about how the word "liberal" is used in other countries, pointing out that it is sometimes used in the way Dan and the other signers, including me, would like it to be used.

One major success in Dan's and my preferred use of the world "liberal" is this. I have been working my way through Thomas Piketty's tome, Capital in the 21st Century, and I came across this, on page 139, in a discussion of economic policy in 1980s France:

Despite these converging international currents, French voters in 1981 displayed a certain desire to sail against the wind. Every country has its own history, of course, and its own political timetable. In France, a coalition of Socialists and Communists won a majority on a platform that promised to continue the nationalization of the industrial and banking sectors begun in 1945. This proved to be a brief intermezzo, however, since in 1986, a liberal majority initiated a very important wave of privatization in all sectors.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

But Dan Klein's conception is much narrower than this right? That's my impression reading their material and talking with Frei about it.

They mean libertarians quite narrowly, and not just non-socialist proponents of markets. I think Piketty's use here is very reasonable and it's how I use it (at least when I'm using it to mean modern rendition of the classical liberal tradition and not the American left-liberals more specifically). Klein and Frei are not talking about that broad group, they are talking about libertarians, right?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I'd need to read it in more context of course - he could be talking narrowly as well, but it sounds like he's just using it to mean non-socialist proponents of markets.

James writes:

Keeping in mind that in European French 'liberal' generally refers to non-socialists (and often specifically to classical liberals), it could be that whoever was doing the translation of Piketty's work was working on autopilot. Not sure this is exactly a reclamation of the word in this instance, as much as a continuation of the Franco-European use of 'liberal'.

David R. Henderson writes:

Not sure this is exactly a reclamation of the word in this instance, as much as a continuation of the Franco-European use of 'liberal'.

Greg G writes:

---"Republicans and libertarians are now surrendering 'liberal'."

Umm, no. Republicans have been actively rejecting the term "liberal" for over a half century now. The right half of the American political spectrum is overwhelmingly conservative not libertarian. A big showing for a Libertarian Party presidential candidate is 1% of the vote.

Conservatism has always had issues with liberalism in all its forms. This is what happens when you form an electoral alliance with conservatives. They get their way.

It seems like more people on the left half of the American political spectrum call themselves "progressives" than "liberals" now. Fox news has done the most in the last 20 years to convince people that liberalism should be understood to mean bigger government.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

David -
Well now I'm confused - you say "exactly" when he references the French/European use of the term, but in Europe "liberal" is still used to describe many of the people that Klein is saying shouldn't call themselves liberal in the very interview you cite. "Liberalism" in Europe, and indeed in Piketty's passage is a reference to what sometimes gets termed "neoliberalism" (which is used more consistently here and in Europe), and maybe not all but huge swaths of the Democratic Party in America are very much neoliberals/European liberals.

What Klein has in mind as a "liberal" falls in this group too, but it's broader than Klein's usage.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It seems to me there are three contending uses of the word "liberal":

1. Liberal as "neoliberal" (most common in Europe and used by Piketty here)
2. Liberal as "left-liberal" (most common in the U.S.), and
3. Liberal as "libertarian

#1 and #2 are fine by me. The first is nice because it is consistent with the traditional meaning of "liberal" and classical liberalism. The second is OK with me too because to a large extent language is majoritarian and who am I to tell an entire society they are using a word wrong? The third I think poses the most problems because it is rarely used that way and implicit in it is a very narrow and I think misleading reading of intellectual history.

Greg Heslop writes:

I share Klein's view that "liberal" really means (classical) liberal and I generally try to use the word in my preferred way, but I doubt him when he claims that "the word liberal is powerful". It is apparently not powerful enough to result in any conspicuous differences in policy between areas in which the different definitions are used, as far as I can tell.

Feminists sometimes oppose the use of the pronoun "he", preferring instead that "he or she" be used, but certain languages, such as Finnish and Farsi (I think), use a standard third-person pronoun which is gender neutral (actually, "hesh" was suggested in America about a hundred years ago or more to serve as an equivalent pronoun, but it never took off). The few feminists I have heard talking about this fact have always concluded, albeit tentatively, that pronouns make no difference for what they think of as women's rights. Seems to me that the same goes for policy consequences from proper use of the word "liberal".

By the way, are not liberals who emphasize the importance of semantics vulnerable to PC causes such as choosing "Native American" rather than "Indian", and "conjoined" instead of "Siamese" twins? Liberals might not want to encourage policing of language in this way.

Jameson writes:

As an American living in France, I was initially excited to hear everyone using the word liberalisme in its classical sense, then immediately disappointed to hear that it was essentially a dirty word. Apparently all the problems in France are due to l'ultraliberalisme.

The word libertarianisme has entered into the French language, but apparently only to describe the American movement.

Daniel Kuehn, what did you make of this passage in the interview?

As I see it, there is a narrow sense and a better, broader sense. The better sense, to me, rediscovers the outlook of Adam Smith. But the narrow sense of Murray Rothbard, for example, certainly has some tensions with the broader sense (from me on such tensions: one, two, three, four, five). I like to think that libertarianism grows more Smithian; in that sense I don’t see it as a matter of liberalism versus libertarianism.

You may be right about a lot of Democrats being (neo-)liberal, but if that's truly the case, what makes you think Klein is excluding them? I interpret him here as saying that libertarians should absolutely not claim to represent all classical liberalism.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
Read Chafuen’s paragraph on Europe and commenter Jameson’s first paragraph above.

NZ writes:

Has any conscious effort to "reclaim" a word ever worked?

I've noticed a lot of these in the past few years, but haven't noticed any successes.

Words do get "reclaimed" from time to time, but it seems to happen by happy accident, from the group who wants the word casually using it a lot and everyone else deciding they don't like using the word so much (because, perhaps, that's what those icky people who use that word are saying).

Daniel Klein writes:

@Jameson: That's interesting, and depressing, about liberalisme. I think of William Graham Sumner's title, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain."

@All: The U in LU stands for unrelinquished. That's a bit different, and less quixotic, than "reclaimed."

Not that I'm against being quixotic.

When we invited Sam Peltzman to sign, he responded: "It's quixotic, but that adds to it."

Do consider signing!

Kevin Frei writes:

Words mean whatever people agree that they mean. That point isn't lost on us. We're trying to persuade people to use the word "liberal" the way we use it - a way that is more consistent, we believe, with its historical usage. Who knows whether it'll be effective, but it wouldn't be the first time a campaign managed to change people's minds about something, so it's worth a go.

We had a great discussion about this in the comment section of Daniel Kuehn's blog. Here is what I wrote there:

Some people make the argument that modern liberalism is really consistent with the earlier liberal tradition, but I think the general consensus is that modern liberal theory is really social democratic theory, and modern "classical liberalism" is much more in line with liberalism as it was understood in the 19th century. This is an initiative about classical liberals trying to reclaim their label.

Most people don't know what a classical liberal is, so classical liberals tend to refer to themselves as libertarians. But "libertarian" has a lot of extreme connotations. Within the libertarian umbrella there is a hardcore variety (Ayn Rand, Rothbard, etc) and a more moderate classical liberal variety (the ones who win Nobel Prizes in economics). So classical liberals have always been a little uncomfortable about the libertarian label, and many of us would prefer that libertarianism is a subset of liberalism, rather than the other way around.

Words evolve all the time, of course, but there's no law of linguistics that words can't revert back. With the word "progressive" currently coming back in vogue among the Left, it seems like a ripe time for classical liberals to assert their claim to "liberal" and try to carve out a spot for themselves in the political discourse.

Freedom of contract and freedom of association were centerpieces of 19th century liberalism, and it's a stretch to rectify those values with the labor regulations and other policies associated with modern liberalism. So I do think it's fair to say that the meaning of the word changed - at least, that is what all the signers are asserting. I guess you could say we're all liberals in the very broad sense that we're not monarchists or communists, but I think the term has a little more precision than that.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Jameson -
Right, but despite the fact that their view of Smith is broader than Rothbard it still implies (again I gather from conversations I've had with Frei) something much narrower than pro-market liberals of the broad sense I was discussing. I'd be delighted to be wrong.

David -
I read it and I maintain the point. Many American liberals, centrists, and conservatives would be considered liberal in Europe in the sense that we are pro-market, do not like nationalization, and are far more skeptical of regulation and the welfare state. But this is much bigger than what Frei and Klein are focusing on. I've had Europeans call me a liberal and a neo-liberal and somehow my support for a modest welfare state and some intervention into the economy did not dissuade them from thinking of me that way. Which is fine by me - I am a "liberal" in that sense, but not in Klein and Frei's sense (from what I gather).

ThomasH writes:

I some time ago decided that "liberal" was the best word to summarize views that see some income redistribution as legitimate and allow some public expenditure, taxation, and regulation of the economy, but ask for strong evidence for the need for any specific expenditure or regulation, especially taking account of imperfections in the way democracies aggregate preferences and the distortionary effects of taxation.

The word "liberal" has a positive normative content. If you call something "liberal" it sounds good, generally, apart from whatever empirical meaning is attributed to the word. That's why I want the label and also why the left stole it. Hospers' textbook An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis helped me to see and separate the normative and empirical contents of words.

I like to think that the historical empirical meaning of liberal is still captured today in what we would mean by "a liberal parent". A liberal parent cares for the youngster but is reluctant to impose controls. A liberal parent wants to be sure the youngster is aware of pitfalls ahead but, with that education assured, a liberal parent would prefer that the choice be made by the youngster. This is not anything like the attitude of the left.

"Liberal" means open minded and reluctant to impose control. That is not anything like the left.

In Radical Son David Horowitz tells how undercover communists in the US of his upbringing purposely adopted the label "progressive" for their public outreach. They liked "progressive" because it has positive normative connotation, in contrast with "communist".

To be kind, I would suppose that most US leftists adopt the "liberal" label without such conscious premeditation.

ThomasH writes:

"Liberal" means open minded and reluctant to impose control. That is not anything like the left.

I think there is a huge range of "reluctance" displayed by "the left" that is like the LU "Liberal" in kind, but different in degree. The reluctance depends on both the reason for the control (preventing harm to others, preventing harm to self, distribution, public goods) and the historical circumstance that determines the costs and benefits the imposer sees.

I think most of the differences in practice between "progressives" and LU Liberals arise from different analyses of costs of control -- government failure, regulatory capture, etc.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Richard Hammer -
re: "I like to think that the historical empirical meaning of liberal is still captured today in what we would mean by "a liberal parent". A liberal parent cares for the youngster but is reluctant to impose controls. A liberal parent wants to be sure the youngster is aware of pitfalls ahead but, with that education assured, a liberal parent would prefer that the choice be made by the youngster. This is not anything like the attitude of the left."

Until I got to the last sentence of this paragraph I thought you were disagreeing with Klein and Frei.

Daniel Kuehn -
Indeed I agree with Klein and Frei, generally, and I hope I've added to their case.

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