Alberto Mingardi  

Klein's battle for "liberalism"

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Shall we claim the word "liberal" back? David Henderson has already written on Dan Klein's gallant effort to regain the word "liberal" for the "Adam Smith liberals" (see here and here).

Klein has a new interview with Jeffrey Tucker, which is well worth listening to. Klein touches upon many of the key concepts surrounding liberalism, and takes a very sane and sober route, by referring to classical liberalism as the tradition by which those who want to interfere with people's lives and stuff bear the burden of proof. This is a simple and lean definition.

Whether his battle is going to be at all effective, it is difficult to say--and there is room for pessimism.

But I don't think Klein's efforts aim, at least in the short term, at changing the way in which the average American uses the word "liberal." We, Klein's liberals, are, so to say, "leave us alone" liberals, in a world in which liberalism is the quintessential "mess with us" philosophy. It's quite a bit of confusion.

What I think Klein's efforts aim at, is actually challenging the idea that contemporary social democracy (which is basically what now in the U.S. people intend with "liberalism") is the ultimate result of a gradual enlargement of the sphere of individual rights. That is, contemporary liberalism is not the ultimate outcome of the fights of "real" liberals in other eras.

Famously Schumpeter noted that "as a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label". I think Klein's perception is that the compliment was intended: social-democrats wanted to be associated with that allure of tolerance, open inquiry, taste for experimentation, and reform that the tradition of free enterprise, "leave us alone" liberalism emanated.

The idea of massive income redistribution doesn't necessarily evolve out of the idea of individual rights: that's the point Klein is making in trying to gain the word "liberal" back, and that's a very important one.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
James writes:

This seems like a battle which would do nothing to help win the larger "war" for libertarians. If everyone started using the world liberal in its classical sense but continued to regard the actual idea as undesirable, how would that make anything better?

Grant Gould writes:

I've always thought of liberalism as the notion that the individual is the fundamental moral unit of account, as opposed to conservatism that has regarded societies, nations, and cultures as the unit of account. These visions naturally yield radical differences not only about the scope and role of government but even about the purpose and nature of government.

In this view liberalism encompasses both moderate leftism and libertarianism (depending on how one balances individuals' utility and liberty in the moral calculation), which see government as protecting or promoting the real interests of people. They differ on the value function, but agree that its form is a sum over individuals.

Conservatism by contrast encompasses the right and elements of the interventionist left (think of the "neoliberal" notion that capitalism is permissible because it makes more stuff for the nation to redistribute); it sees government as embodying and promoting the nation or culture, with benefits to individuals a happy side effect and unrelated to those individuals particular interests.

This is not an entirely unrelated definition to the "don't mess with people"/"burden of proof for intervention" definitions: It is possible to imagine a liberal honestly executing by a policy of not messing with people or hearing out burden-of-proof arguments in good faith. By contrast a conservative is only one "national crisis" away from finding a more important priority that justifies messing with people and sweeps away all burdens of proof, which are after all merely human values and as nothing when set against the flag (or cross or ethnic "sphere").

(The extreme left and right are hard to account for, as extremes generally should be, as they admit classes, ideologies, religions, and races to the moral accounting in ways that are fairly _sui generis_ and I don't think can be assigned in fairness to either camp.)

Brett Champion writes:

If libertarians want it, I doubt the left would protest much since they seem to have become enamored of the label "progressive".

Shane L writes:

James, it strikes me that a lot of political popularity is about getting people to identify broadly with your side. For example I very often see feminist friends talking about feminism as if it is perfectly natural and obvious - "the radical notion that women are people" - and complaining about female celebrities who refuse to identify as feminist. Why? My guess is that for many people, identifying with a political ideology is the beginning and end of their critical engagement with political questions. Get people to identify as feminist and they are more likely to conform to various policy prescriptions that they associate with feminism.

Right now few people identify as libertarian, but many identify as liberal. If people who identify as liberal become more aware of its heritage and begin to associate it with lower taxes and less regulation - which they currently associate with the loathed conservatives - it's possible that they might warm to those policies.

Out of curiosity I just looked up the Google Trends result for the search term "liberals":

It is most common, as a percentage of all searches, in Canada. I gather Canada has a major Liberal Party, which Wikipedia describes as fairly moderate "centre to centre-left". The next most common was Australia, where the Liberal Party is broadly right-wing. Thus it's interesting to see that "liberals" are right-wingers still in some places.

Miguel Madeira writes:

«Thus it's interesting to see that "liberals" are right-wingers still in some places.»

"Liberals" are right-winger (or, more exactly, the equivalente of americans call "social liberal, fiscal conservative") in almost all places; it is the US who is the outlier.

ThomasH writes:

"Liberalism" seems like a perfectly good name for a view that, for all its virtues, the outcomes of an unregulated market economy are not perfect and that government intervention can sometimes improve things. There are public goods to be purchased, externalities to be taxed and regulated, and income to be redistributed. Libertarians do Liberals a service in pointing out that this is often easier said than done.

Hazel Meade writes:

I thought that was the underhanded goal of calling the other side "progressives" instead.

Trick them into switching to "progressive" and then once "liberal" is out of style, we pick it up, dust it off, and wear it for ourselves.

We are sneaky that way.

Mauro Suttora writes:

Lost battle. The Atlantic divide is too wide for the word 'liberalism'. Same goes for the word 'football'. Two different meanings in Europe and the U.S.

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