Who Is a Liberal? What Is Liberalism Today?

I often like to annoy liberals with Harvey Mansfield’s remark that it is the job of modern conservatism to save liberalism from liberals. Heh. After all, “liberty,” a pre-eminent principle for conservatives, is obviously a cognate of “liberal,” and liberalism for most of its history has been a creed of limited government and individual rights against the State.

But just as often here on Power Line commenters will remark, quite correctly, that today’s “liberals” aren’t liberal at all, but are in fact quite ill-liberal. In this regard I think the best thing to have happened in political discourse in recent years is for the left to disdain the term “liberal” in favor of “progressive.” This is progress indeed. We should affirm this trend on the left, and reinforce it whenever possible.

Maybe we should attempt to reclaim the term and label liberal for ourselves? That’s the recommendation of Daniel Klein, an economist at George Mason University, in a recent offering for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute entitled “Ten Reasons You Shouldn’t Call Leftists ‘Liberal’“. Here are a few of his ten very good reasons:


The two ancient meanings run deep in Western civilization. Calling leftists “liberal” evokes generosity and the blessings of the liberal arts and sciences. To call leftists “liberal” is to extol their character and purpose. It was not for nothing that, between 1880 and 1940, collectivists arrogated “liberal” for themselves. . .


When we call leftists “liberal,” we relinquish the term. We then have difficulty claiming Smith and his tradition, because that was the liberal tradition.

The idea of “a liberal society” is the idea of a limited, constitutional government, which is necessary to uphold “the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” Liberalism 1.0 is the soul of Western civilization. (Larry Siedentop suggests that such emergence was the child of Christianity.) . . .


To call leftists “liberal” is to acquiesce to semantic breakdowns of the 1880–1940 period. If we knuckle under to that semantic practice, it puts us in the position of knuckling under to all the semantic breakdowns of that period: liberty, freedom, justice, equality, equity, property, contract, liberal. Without understanding the great semantic breakdown of 1880–1940, one has trouble understanding the mess we’re in. . .


By calling leftists “liberal” we fail to call them by a name that suits them, such as: “leftists,” “lefties,” “left-leaners,” “progressives,” “social democrats,” or “Democrats.” By calling leftists “liberal,” we allow them to slip out of leftism’s anti-liberal legacy.

Read all ten at the link. Who’s up for signing up to be charter members in The Real Liberal Party?