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New Initiative Targets Semantic Distortion, Decline of Liberalism

By: Belén Marty - @belenmarty - Jul 10, 2014, 8:50 am

Español“Allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice,” wrote Adam Smith (Book IV, Chapter IX). But do the words liberty, equality, and justice mean the same today as they did when Smith wrote them at the end of the 19th century? Daniel Klein, an economics professor at George Mason University, has launched the website Lost Language, Lost Liberalism (4L), in conjunction with the Adam Smith Institute, to address the degree to which semantic changes to these concepts have affected the popularity of classical liberalism.

Lost Language, Lost Liberalism website
The website: Lost Language, Lost Liberalism.

4L logs the path of how these words have changed in Western discourse, particularly between 1880 and 1940. To dig deeper into the evolution of key words such as liberal (often used interchangeably with progressive in North America), equity, justice, and liberty, the site uses graphs and chronologies to show alternate meanings through the years and their popularity. For example, democracy evolved into the thousands of nuances it has today, after gaining popularity around 1945.

The terms rights, equality, property, and contracts, coined near the end of the 19th century, were at that time in line with the ideals of classical liberalism and individualism. However, over time, 4L’s research details how their meanings shifted towards collectivist preferences for a larger state, particularly in the realm social engineering.

The initiative claims that collectivist authors “robbed” the original meanings of these “key words of western civilization.” While some have celebrated this, others reject these semantic mutations, as the 4L introduction affirms:

In the United States, the mainstream political culture … finds no handle on large ideas and larger argumentation. Metaphorically speaking, they are accomplices in a vast betrayal that dates back well over 100 years.… Today [most are] tepid, bound by status-quo policies, led by establishment players, and framed by Democrat vs. Republican, in the code of “liberal versus conservative”— a framework that epitomizes the breakdown of liberal understanding.

Ricardo Avelar is the executive director CREO, a classical-liberal advocacy organization based in El Salvador, and he stresses that “the semantic battle is vital to our belief in freedom. These principles are so deeply rooted, and yet, their content is emptied when we sell out these words.… Populist governments talk about liberties when in fact they are the rulers who decide how and to what extent freedom will be allocated to their citizens.”

Liberty, Justice: Two Terms Redefined by Collectivists 

In the pure sense of the word, liberty — as described by 4L and from an individualistic point of view — means others won’t interfere in your life. 4L explains, however, that an assumption of liberty and justice in conflict can lead to the view that rights are a matter of political discretion, so-called civil liberties.

“Of course, an individual will not understand the profound value of liberty when it has been sold poorly to him and  limited, subjected to a politician’s whim,” Avelar concludes.

The same has happened with the word justice. Originally, it was associated with abstaining from violating another person’s property. Today, it has become conflated with access to collective property and even redistribution, the exact opposite of its origin and often described as social justice.

The Battle to Win Back Original Terms

According to Klein, we must recover the true meaning and culture of liberalism, as we still suffer under the changes and distorted dialogue. He believes the key to understanding what liberalism stands for lies in analyzing and acknowledging the historical fact of its semantic evolution. He also invites defenders of classical liberalism to spread the original meaning and to make it a topic of conversation.

“People decide how to use semantics in practice. We must come up to them and ask: have you thought of the semantics you are using when you read or write? Once people wake up, they will be able to see and think of the importance of semantics.”

Unfortunately, he says, the true concepts of liberty and justice have become a great taboo in socialist and collectivist arenas, despite the daily abuses these individuals are subjected to.

“Our culture has taken from us all of the principles that lie within the concept of liberty, our civilization is nothing but a mass with no spine. It is a great shame, how civilization’s spine is not just weakened, but fractured and abused,” he concludes.

Translated by Laura Weiss and Anneke Ball.

Belén Marty Belén Marty

Belén Marty is the Libertarian Latina, a journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has lived in Guatemala, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States and is a former candidate for local office with Argentina's Libertarian Party. Follow @BelenMarty.