David R. Henderson  

Saturday Afternoon Video: Dan Klein on Liberalism

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I didn't think that a 20-minute video on the origins and use of the words "liberal" and "liberalism" could hold my attention and draw me in. I am notoriously impatient and I have a strong preference for videos that are less than 5 minutes. But this one, "Semantic History of Liberalism," by Daniel Klein, given last month at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, did draw me in. There were some surprises along the way. One interesting bottom line: the important role of Adam Smith in the spread of the word "liberal."




COMMENTS (4 to date)
Greg G writes:

That was an interesting video, but it was interesting as much for what it left out as for what it contained.

For a long time, "liberal" was understood to describe quite a wide range of people who shared some common beliefs about the virtues of markets and a tolerance for a wide range of political and intellectual views. There always was a core of conservative opposition to liberalism in all its forms.

Rightish liberals in America chose to abandon the term much than more than leftish liberals demanded the exclusive use of it. William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan chose to define what they were opposed to as liberalism. In Buckley's case, he really was a conservative more than a liberal. In Reagan's case, he was just accepting popular usage rather than taking an interest in the semantic finer points. Either way, those on the right have themselves to blame for rejecting the label rather than fighting for it (present company excepted).

Ironically, word meanings are determined in just about the most perfectly libertarian, bottom up, emergent way possible. No central authority gets to dictate word meanings. Word meanings are entirely conventional and constantly evolving based on countless instances of individual free choice. Everyone gets to decide what words he wants to choose to express his intended meanings and everyone gets to interpret for himself the meanings of the word choices of others. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Mark Brady writes:

Or you can read Dan's article in The Atlantic here:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/the-origin-of-liberalism/283780/?single_page=true

And this links to a 69-minute video if you're a real glutton for punishment!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Greg G,
Ironically, word meanings are determined in just about the most perfectly libertarian, bottom up, emergent way possible. No central authority gets to dictate word meanings. Word meanings are entirely conventional and constantly evolving based on countless instances of individual free choice. Everyone gets to decide what words he wants to choose to express his intended meanings and everyone gets to interpret for himself the meanings of the word choices of others. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
All true. And Dan, bless his heart, is working from the bottom up. One friendly revision to your comment I’ve quoted. “Live by the word, die by the word.” :-)

guthrie writes:

Not to say that there aren't 'central authorities' who try to dictate language use...

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