Language: Liberating Liberal

It's time to take back the name.


These are pretty good times for libertarians. Some of the policy proposals put forth by the Republican troika of Gingrich, Armey, and Gramm are explicitly libertarian (such as abolishing the FCC); others are implicitly so (such as reducing taxes and the scope of government). The Libertarian Party is doubling its national staff. A 1994 Gallup poll categorized a hefty 22 percent of the country as "libertarian."

"Libertarian Impulses Show Growing Appeal" reads a recent Wall Street Journal headline. Why, going libertarian is so hip now that dubious presidential candidate Sen. Arlen Specter—heretofore known for creating the single-bullet theory for the Warren Commission, hemming and hawing with Anita Hill, appearing post-brain surgery with a shaved head, and voting aye on massive government spending—even claims to be one.

And yet, it's hard to find a "libertarian" who is satisfied with the name, which only came into common usage in the late 1960s. The list of complaints is a long one—it's clumsy, it's associated with kooky causes, it's obscure, it's clichéd—but it all adds up to the simple fact that libertarian just doesn't cut it. If it's true that "a good name is better than precious ointment"—and the Book of Ecclesiastes, the only book in the Bible with a #1 hit ("Turn! Turn! Turn!") under its belt, says it is—then we libertarians must admit that we're stuck with the equivalent of Vick's Vapo-Rub: It gets the job done, but it pretty much stinks up the joint.

Those of us uncomfortable with libertarian are in distinguished company. When push came to shove for F.A. Hayek, the intellectual capo di tutti capi of contemporary libertarianism, he chose to call himself an "Old Whig—with the stress on the 'old.'" George Mason University's Institute for Humane Studies, perhaps the premier libertarian outpost in academia, uses the offending word interchangeably with classical liberal in its mailings while the Cato Institute, the inside-the-Beltway libertarian think tank, uses market liberal. Even REASON's motto—"Free Minds and Free Markets"—eschews the L-word.

The major problem with libertarian may be that it is devoid of significant, obvious content. Most of the word liberty is in there, but it somehow gets lost in the suffix -arian. Such a confusing etymology results in ideological hybrids as strained and embarrassing as the half-man, half-animal creations that wandered the island of Dr. Moreau.

Hence, the civil libertarian, who usually believes that people should be allowed to say and do whatever they want, unless it relates to making money, owning property, or criticizing bureaucratic social programs. Or the paleolibertarian, who wish they was in Dixie. Or the libertarian socialist, Noam Chomsky's puzzling self-description. What can the linguist gone leftist mean—that you're free to do whatever the state orders you to do?

Or Bill Buckley's recent use of the term libertarian journalist in the subtitle of his latest book, Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist. This is strange language from the de facto pontiff of the conservative movement, a man who once boasted that his magazine, National Review, "stood athwart history, yelling stop," and who eulogized Murray Rothbard as follows: "We extend condolences to his family, but not to the movement he inspired." Somehow, those are sentiments libertarians shouldn't even be thinking, much less saying in public.

Clearly, libertarian invites such usage problems. But what might we call ourselves? One thing we can do from the get-go is rule out Hayek's own preferred designation, "Old Whig—with a stress on the 'old.'" That seems more appropriate as a description of an Andy Rooney-esque curmudgeon than a philosophy interested in market dynamism and spontaneous social orders.

We should also put the kibosh on "classical liberal." This term, though somewhat descriptive, is too nostalgic for such a forward-looking group as libertarians. Think of other "classical" or "classic" things that pass themselves off as somehow harkening back to a golden age. There's classic rock, for example, which, taking a page from National Review, stands athwart pop music mumbling the lyrics to "Freebird" and "Smoke on the Water."

Who wants to be classic, or classical, anyway? Despite the fact that Old Spice markets a "classic" deodorant, the appeal to a pristine past remains a gamey advertising strategy at best. Classic cars, classical music, classical liberalism—it's just another way of announcing: "Thanks, but I stopped being relevant years ago."

Names that highlight the economic basis of libertarianism offer some hope. The Cato Institute's market liberal rightly implies the centrality of voluntary exchange, but it also comes perilously close to reducing mankind to that penny-pinching Marxist straw man, homo economicus. (And, given revelations of Hillary Clinton's commodities trading, "market liberal" has gained an unintentionally ironic sub-definition.) Other commerce-oriented possibilities fail too: Marketeer has some punch, but it sounds too much like mouseketeer to be taken seriously. Privateer is rousing, but the pirate angle is overripe for parody.

In the face of the readily available alternatives, libertarian doesn't seem so bad. But we should consider a modification of the strategy proposed by Milton Friedman in his 1961 essay "Capitalism and Freedom." In outlining the case for libertarian values, Friedman talked about the "new liberalism" which was, in fact, a return to 19th-century liberalism. Let us do the Nobelist one better and restake our unfettered claim to the dreaded L-word itself: liberal.

After all, it was ours first and, given our interest in property rights, it's only right that we take it back. And with left-liberalism apparently on the ropes, this is the perfect opportunity to redefine liberal in our terms.

Throughout the late 18th and the 19th centuries, liberal meant essentially what libertarian means today. Liberals were preoccupied with individual liberty, favored laissez-faire economics and a minimal state, and balanced respect for traditional social arrangements with support for constitutional reforms guaranteeing personal freedom.

Of course, reclaiming liberal won't be an easy task. It will require the rhetorical equivalent of a "Take Back the Night" strategy. It will require us to bother and condemn people in otherwise polite, casual conversation—something for which libertarians are well-known anyway.

When people describe themselves as "liberal," we will have to demand an immediate clarification: "Do you mean to say that a centralized government combining the moral integrity of Ted Kennedy with the economic acumen of FDR should dictate virtually all aspects of social, political, and economic life? That you're a paternalist who thinks people are too stupid to think for themselves? Or do you mean that people are ends in themselves and should be free to say and do whatever they want as long as they don't infringe on other people's rights? That you agree with the dictum that the government that governs least governs best?"

No, it won't be pretty. But then again, neither is libertarian.