Scott Sumner  

How shall we define 'liberal'?

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Daniel Klein has a very interesting piece in the Intercollegiate Review on the changing meaning of the term 'liberal'. It begins as follows:

Here I make a plea, addressed to conservatives and libertarians, regarding the word liberal: please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as "liberal." I do not ask that you describe yourself as "liberal." Continue to call yourself "conservative" or "libertarian." I propose only a single step: don't call leftists "liberal." By this single step, we can make great strides.
Klein points out that Samuel Johnson gave three definitions in 1755, of which "generous" seems to me to be the most interesting (the others have to do with being a gentleman, etc.) Klein then describes the gradual evolution of the term to represent support for political and economic freedom in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then a swing towards socialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In America today it refers to people on the left side of the spectrum, but not the far left.

My initial inclination is to oppose this sort of agenda. The meaning of words tends to naturally evolve over time, and there's no reason why we shouldn't just let this occur in a way that matches the evolution of society. In addition, I'm less than completely convinced that political and economic freedom were the essence of 18th century liberalism, or that in any fundamental way the meaning of the term has evolved over time. (Although readers should keep in mind that Klein's views on this are far more well-informed than mine.)

In this essay I argued that liberalism has always meant something close to "utilitarianism", and indeed I'd argue that even Johnson's "generous" meets that general description. When people like Mill changed their views over time, it wasn't because their values changed, but rather because they had different views on what sort of public policies best embodied those values. In Mill's case, he became somewhat more supportive of government intervention as he got older. Liberals born in 1950 tended to become less supportive of government intervention as they got older. In my view, American liberals "really are" liberal, and I also believe that pragmatic libertarians (like me) really are liberal. We simply have different views on which policies best advance utilitarian goals.

Nonetheless, I actually end up agreeing with much of what Klein says, including this:

Sometimes conservatives and libertarians balk at calling the left "progressive," not wanting to concede the idea of progress. But I say, let them have it.
I'm not interested in reclaiming the meaning of liberal from 200 years ago, just as I have no interest in reclaiming the meaning of 'gay' from 100 years ago. Rather I favor what Klein is trying to do because (even today) in most of the world a liberal is a supporter of free market-oriented policies and social liberalism, and is also opposed to militarism. Those are also my views, and it would be nice to not have to constantly explain to my fellow Americans where I belong on the political spectrum. Unlike Senator Chuck Schumer, I favor legalizing drugs, free trade with China and the arms deal with Iran. And yet if I tell Americans that I'm more liberal than Schumer they get all confused. In addition, lots of non-Americans read my blog, so it would be nice if words meant roughly the same thing in the US as they do in Europe and South America.

And let's be honest, 'liberal' sounds classier than 'libertarian'. If I tell people in Europe that I'm a liberal, they might picture a cosmopolitan, socially liberal businessman who favors free markets and reads the Economist. If I say I'm a libertarian they might picture a Ron Paul supporter storing gold, can goods, and guns in his basement. (Not that there's anything wrong with those activities.)

PS. For those who can read French, here's a new article in Atlantico where I am interviewed on the subject of China.

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CATEGORIES: Economic History , Liberty

COMMENTS (24 to date)
sam writes:

If your main concern is having upper-class Europeans think you're cosmopolitan, you are a "liberal" in the current American usage of the term.

There are plenty of Democrats in the US that believe in free markets and social liberalism, and plenty of Republicans that believe in neither.

"Liberal" at this point merely denotes wanting to fit in with upper-class Europeans and educated coastal urbanites.

"Conservative" means tribal affiliation with the working class, suburbanites, and rural people.

foosion writes:

The terms liberal and conservative have lost all useful meaning.

The following quote from R. A. Lafferty might be relevant:

"...the opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive."

Greg G writes:

I thought this was a very sensible post Scott. The rejection of the term "liberal" by the political right has everything to do with the fact that the right is dominated by conservatives, not libertarians. Dan Klein neglects to discuss this crucial aspect of the evolution of the use of the word.

It is true that, in Europe, something closer to the older semantic convention survives. Conservatism has always placed its highest priority on trying to conserve certain elements of the past. That's why they call it that. Real conservatives never did want to liberalize the society going forward. They always opposed liberalism and they still do. Europeans also remember this when they use these words.

Liberalism in its older sense was a very tolerant and big tent type of approach to these questions. That's why Adam Smith was able to take a job as Commissioner of Customs despite advocating free trade.

Word meanings are entirely conventional. Everyone is free to use any word any way they want. The price for using a word in a way that doesn't conform with convention is simply that you may not be understood the way you want to be understood.

Words meanings cannot be stolen or "seized" to use Dan's word. Or, to put it another way, any word can be "seized" by anyone who wants to use it. My use of a word the way I want to use it does not prevent you from using that same word the way you want to use it. We never run out of words or word meanings.

Andrew_FL writes:

I liberal in the old sense really meant utilitarian then it really is for the best to forget about it.

Scott Sumner writes:

Sam, There is some truth to what you say, but even more to what foosion said.

Foosion, I agree.

Joseph, Nice quote.

Greg, When talking about Europe, and especially Eastern Europe, it's important to realize that left and right have very different ideologies from the US. In Eastern Europe liberals favor free markets and internationalism and social liberalism, and conservatives favor big government and nationalism and social conservatism.

Andrew, I believe that utilitarianism is the wave of the future.

Andrew_FL writes:

And if you're right then I'll be over here, standing athwart history yelling stop.

ThomasH writes:

In the US context I think you need to add sympathy for pro-poor redistribution/progressive taxation to round out the concept of "Liberal." Of course Liberals recognize that there are no re-distributive instruments that do not distort markets to some extent, so there is a tension in their values and some are willing accept more distortion than others. It's a pretty diverse group.

David Michael Myers writes:
Define your terms ---- Ayn Rand

People use language so ignorantly and imprecisely that it's a wonder any meaningful discourse takes place.

IMHO I think word-meanings should have some connection to their ancient and original roots [Latin, Greek, Indo-European, etc.]

If people actually used their dictionaries and their brains, there'd by far less confusion and misinterpretation.

"Liberal" to me means "deriving from liberty." "Liberty" to me derives from individual freedom of action and thought.

"Progressive" seems to me to remain undefined. Many, many words are actually undefined.

Greg G writes:


Ayn Rand certainly did define her terms...although often not in the way that most other people define them.

You complain that people should use language less "imprecisely" but your advise on how to fix that seems very imprecise to me. But then, perhaps "precise" and "imprecise" mean different things to me than you.

I would be very interested in any more precise method you have of discovering the "original" meanings of words. And why precisely, you chose whatever time you did as the "original." Was there no language before this era of "original" meanings?

Floccina writes:

I avoid calling myself anything descriptive. I call Democrats, Democrats, it actually seems to me like a good name for them. They seem to be more in favor of deciding things democratically, i.e. gay marriage, marijuana legalization, cigarette policy, soft drink policy, zoning, eminent domain, even on free speech they seem to be moving away from absolutism to you are free to say what the majority thinks is not hate speech.

Andrew_FL writes:

@Floccina-I partially agree, but you're definitely wrong on their position on marriage, in which they are in favor of courts overturning majority votes if necessary to get their preferred outcome. That they got public opinion to move in their direction is just a coincidence.

Tom Brown writes:

"If I say I'm a libertarian they might picture a Ron Paul supporter storing gold, can goods, and guns in his basement. (Not that there's anything wrong with those activities.)"

Or they might imagine you believe in "libertarian free will" (which *IS* clearly wrong). ;^)

Brian writes:

"I call Democrats, Democrats, it actually seems to me like a good name for them. They seem to be more in favor of deciding things democratically,"

They're only in favor of deciding things democratically when they think their position has the votes. Otherwise, they'll use the courts, executive fiat, or whatever, just like all other ideologues.

Brian Donohue writes:

Great post Scott, and some very good comments too.

James writes:

Scott says utilitarianism is the wave of the future.

This would have been a great forecast to make about a century ago, as the world saw huge populations subject to government policies intended to optimize or fine tune society as if that were just another optimization problem. From the great leap forward in China and the five year plans in Russia to the New Deal and Keynesian demand management and fine tuning in the US, it was all about governments implementing policies that were intended to make people better off. None of that worked especially well but it has resulted in an odd consensus: The problem was not the optimization approach, but in how the problem was formulated. We just made technical errors but the optimization approach was fundamentally sound as a foundation.

Well, I'll make a forecast right now. The wave of the future will be people advocating all manner of policies and attempting to justify them in utilitarian terms despite the fact that it is impossible to know even in hindsight if any policy is even improving, let alone maximizing aggregate utility.

I have asked Scott on many occasions to provide some kind of specific numbers for the expected utility gains from NGDP targeting, the policy he probably knows the most about and gotten nothing. If a self described utilitarian cannot even offer a definite prediction of the utility gains from his number one policy recommendation, I am very doubtful about the whole utilitarian approach.

ThomasH writes:

Oh, I'd say government policies have gone pretty well in some places - North America, Europe, Japan, post-Mao China, India. And by applying the insights of Libertarians about public choice problems, market-friendly Liberals (if that's not redundant) can do even better.

Les Baker writes:


And, if anyone still cares, the opposite of "integration" is "disintegration". Which, unfortunately, appears to be something of a tendancy these days.

Mike Sax writes:

I agree liberal is more classy than libertarian and as a Democrat I also think liberal is more classy than progressive.

I don't really love the progressive label. As a liberal even one like myself who is slightly left of center you are by definition for the free market. Though you believe in a fairly generous safety net and adequate regulation.

Mike Sax writes:

I also think the progressive tag was a reaction to the 80s when 'liberal' became a dirty word.

Jean Kirkpatrick in her speech at the GOP convention in 1984 said 'There are not liberals and conservatives there are only liberals and Americans.'

Todd Kreider writes:

Google Translate:

Atlantico: In recent days, several events have disrupted the financial markets: devaluation of Yuan, new fall in oil prices, drop in Russian GDP and overall economic health of emerging concern. What are the expected consequences of these events, should we fear the emergence of a new "currency war"? What consequences for Europe?

Scott Sumner: In recent years, the strong Chinese growth has fostered the rise of many raw materials. Indirectly, this has had the effect of supporting growth in many emerging countries but also in developed commodity-exporting countries such as Australia.

Now, this process is being reversed, due to the slowdown in Chinese growth, but also because growth is moving to services that consume less raw materials.

Although the decline in commodity prices benefits to European consumers, the net effect of these changes will be negative for European growth. Lower growth will depress European exports and slow recovery in the euro area. Therefore, a currency war would be really desirable, as it would bring more monetary support from major central banks around the world. To date, monetary policies were too restrictive in the euro area, the United States, Japan, and China. The monetary support is not a zero sum game, because if growth progresses in a country, it will affect the rest of the world.

Todd Kreider writes:

[There is no Great Stagnation in machine translation, continued.]

What are the real causes of this situation? Thus, the role of the United States is here regularly singled out by what means?

Scott Sumner: The roots of this are very complex. First, taking the broader perspective, the world has struggled to generate sufficient growth over the last 8 years. The global slowdown has pushed interest rates to levels close to zero in many countries, and central banks have struggled to understand and adapt to this context. A monetary policy that looks to be expansionary for naïve observers who focus only on interest rates, reality is too restrictive compared to the objectives of major central banks.

Because the Fed has been more aggressive than the European Central Bank in recent years, the US recovery has been stronger. The result is that the dollar is gaining strength relative to other currencies, causing a downward pressure on commodity prices, as these are expressed in dollars.

Because the Chinese have linked their currency to the US dollar, China's growth tends to slow when the dollar strengthens, as was the case in the late 90s and during this year. The Chinese have realized belatedly that an overly strong Yuan led to a severe slowdown in growth, and that support was then required, either monetary or fiscal. Now the Chinese are reluctant to use the fiscal tool because they are trying to reform an economy that is too dependent on expensive government programs.

michael pettengill writes:

Seeing the headline for this discussion, I thought of commenting, but then thought better of it, but then, as a liberal, I not only seek out facts, but also seek out diverse political-economic views and theories of the world, so....

I was looking at RedState and saw this headline:
John Kasich: liberal flavor of the day

This is just the present day redefinition of the meaning of liberal that really began in earnest with the rise of Reagan. In 1964, Reagan said in his famous address:

Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.

That began his repeated use of liberal until he stopped giving the speeches, a use carried on by those who idolize the myth of Reagan.

After all, in the same 1964 speech, Reagan said

We've raised our debt limit three times in the last twelve months, and now our national debt is one and a half times bigger than all the combined debts of all the nations of the world.

In the 60s, the deficit was under 2% tending to 1% of GDP. In the 80s, the deficit was well over 2% increasing to over 5% of GDP, falling thanks to higher taxes. So, in 1988, this was the flavor of his use of liberal
But, surprise! Surprise! The liberals have consistently voted against the line-item veto and the balanced budget amendment. The liberals oppose these measures because, despite what they tell Dave Brinkley [host of ABC's ``This Week With David Brinkley''], they don't want a balanced budget, and they don't want to stop their big spending. They want pork, pork, pork. And you know what that means? It means taxes, taxes, and taxes.

Thus, we have Kasich running for president based on the claim he balanced the budget in the 90s (which did end with a real budget surplus of about a hundred million), followed by liberals turning the balanced budget into a massive deficit, defying the PAYGO requirement for paying for all increased spending, and letting it expire in 2003.

President Bush and the Republican controlled House and Senate were liberals engaging in "...big spending. They want pork, pork, pork." Right??

How can anyone challenge the Reagan definitive definition of liberal?

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

Ok, Let's just call a "moderate leftist" thinker what he/she is, moderate leftist.

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