The Linguistic Bastardization of Liberalism


There is an unfortunate divide over the use of the word liberal in North American discourse. I say unfortunate because this word has historical roots we should celebrate, yet in the United States its meaning has become bifurcated — in contrast to elsewhere in the Anglosphere.

As economist Daniel Klein of George Mason University writes, US commentators often refer to economic liberalization and a liberal society, in reference to limited government and respect for individual rights and negative liberties such as free speech, property, and privacy. But on the other hand they assign the liberal label to people who want the very opposite, an expanded role for government and more coercion.
Although not the first to apply the terms liberal and liberalism to political economy, Adam Smith greatly popularized its use in The Wealth of Nations, to describe the laissez-faire approach. (Amazon)

I see no reason why the second use of the term, which is a departure from the original understanding of liberalism, should continue. It both confuses the word and assigns the success of liberalism to those who are in fact its ideological enemies. Further, there are plenty of more accurate alternatives: progressive, socialist, Marxist, central planner — take your pick.

That is why I and hundreds of others in the media and in academia of the Anglosphere have pledged to only use the word with its original meaning, as popularized way back by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations.

Daniel Klein and I actually met late in 2014 in Guatemala, as we were both down for the Estudiantes para la Libertad annual conference. He is the top man when it comes the history of this word, particularly as it relates to economics, and one of his presentations was recorded by Francisco Marroquín University.

The video is a quick 20-minute overview, but if you prefer to read, you can find his similarly sharp overview article with the Intercollegiate Review: “A Plea Regarding ‘Liberal.'”

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