Liberating Liberalism


Agitator Radley Balko wants to take back the term liberalism from those who, um, borrowed it a century ago.

As someone who subscribes to the limited government, laissez-faire
capitalist, live-and-let-live philosophy of Locke, Jefferson and Smith, I
say it's time to pick "liberal" up off the ground, dust her off and reclaim
her as our own. It'll take a while, I realize. But it's the only word that
works, the only word that fits.

Maybe now's the time. As Balko notes, "liberal" has become "such a bad word here in America that even the liberals don't want it."

NEXT: Toward a Less Cluttered In-Box

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Cool idea. I might start calling myself a “classical liberal.”

    The terms available aren’t too satisfying, are they? So-called “conservatives” nowadays tend to really be either authoritarians (secular or theocons) or corporate lackeys (as opposed to capitalists). Statists all in any event, with little interest in limited government.

    Meanwhile “liberals” tend to be statists but of the leftist variety. Centralized top-down command and control from DC will lead us all to enlightenment.

  2. Sorry to break it to you……but John Stuart Mills was in favor of public welfare program. And around the turn of the century Private corporations, “trusts,” had grown so powerful as to corrupt and destroy the political integrity of the Republic itself (a true “classical liberal” for instance would never grant a corporation “personhood” or rescind the charters that are a hallmark of a democratic republic.) Corporations in fact are a form of mercantilism, and are granted subsidies by the state and thus actually violate free market principles. Jefferson warned aginast the “moneyed” corporations at the very beginning of the Republic. Your so called libertarianism (or “classical liberalism”) is a sham if you grant corporations -a mere “legal fiction”- personhood that I, a private “sovereign” citizen of the Republic (an actual person), has to subsidize with my tax dollars and don’t even have the ability to regulate with a state charter. The government is merely the concrete expression of the “will of the people” and you can’t get closer to the true principles of classical enlightenment liberalism as that.

  3. That may not be a bad idea. The lefties are trying to identify themselves as libertarians these days. We better do it now. I have seen many places where Chomsky was described as ‘libertarian left’. The idiot Bill Maher calls himself Libertarian but votes for quasi-marxist Nader.

  4. Labels are silly abstractions most of the time. I tend to avoid them like SAARS.

    Anywho — “Liberal” is a word that has been soiled pretty good, probably not salvagable. “Libertarian” is heading the same direction.

    How about Whig?


    Any other suggestions?

  5. Whig earns geek points but isn’t all that catchy.

    Howbout “Freedom Dudes!” . . . nah.

    Moocow – good point. Often big corporate power goes along with big government power. They feed off each other. (All the various attempts by Big Entertainment to impose draconian IP protection schemes and to get the govt to enforce them come to mind). The govt and corporations often work hand and glove in restricting freedom and the easiest thing to do (ha!) would be to remove the coercive power of govt to do the bidding of its corporate masters. Then what could the corporations do? They can’t throw you in jail or anything. . . yet.

  6. Which corporations are you refering too, Moocow? The guy selling hot dogs from a cart is probably incorporated but doesn’t recieve subsidiaries.

    So if you are against mercantilism, are you for the free market?

    “Will of the people”? If it is such, then you must support corporations since they are a creation of the government (as you state yourself).

    Incorporation is just a scam anyway to empower business to serve as tax collectors. Do yourself a favor and don’t work for one.

  7. bring back anti-federalists

  8. Torch the Treaders

  9. I just wish people would stop thinking that Percy is a nerdy name. It has a fine history. It’s just been misused for so long.

  10. “Liberal” is a bad word that no one wants? It isn’t 1988 anymore, Radley.

  11. how about the “Anti-Tread Mills”?
    guess not

  12. The British once said, “The trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots.” Well, today I say, “The trouble with Liberals is that they’re Liberal.”

  13. Eclectics?

    Coal Burners?




  14. Moocow,

    I don’t know where you get your information, but it’s wrong. Irrespective of what the Real Liberals (TM) of the 19th Century may or may not have thought about corporations, corporations are not subsdized by individual taxpayers by virtue of their legal personhood. Quite the opposite is true, as corporations pay billions in corporate income tax to pay for services only natural persons (i.e., individuals) can ever hope to use. This tax is just for the privilege of doing business in the corporate form; it is not a substitute for all the additional taxes the employees and shareholders must pay as well, just as they would if their business did not add an extra layer of personhood to the mix. Hate to burst your bubble, but you’re not subsidizing All Those Evil Corporations; they are subsidizing you.

    And what gave you the idea states can’t regulate corporations, suspend their corporate charters, and such? These things happen all the time.

  15. Wouldn’t “Freedom Dudes” be interpreted as “French Dudes” in the current political climate? Or has that whole Freedom/French thing run its course? If so, I vote for Freedom Dudes. I’d also suggest that we all wear snazzy blue berets as our official signifier, but that also would make us seem very French.

  16. Nom:

    The first time I read the name “Harry Percy” in Shakespeare, I just about ruptured myself.


    You’re right, the problem is not the corporate form itself. In a libertarian society, people would be able to combine in whatever forms of organization they want, without a charter from the state. There’s one problem, though: exemption from liability beyond the value of a corporation’s shares.

    The real problem with corporations is their size. And despite its ostensible “populist” origins, the corporate income tax has a very powerful cartelizing effect. First, the giant corporations in the monopoly capital sector are able to pass taxes on to the consumer. Second, tax breaks like depreciation, R&D, and the exemption of interest on debt go disproportionately to the biggest companies–so the corporate income tax just underlines the difference in privilege between competitive sector firms that pay it, and the giant corporations that pay little or none.

    Even assuming a gradual rollback of the state, the corporate income tax is near the top on my list of taxes to eliminate first (right along with raising the personal exemption to $50,000).

  17. Damn! You beat me to it again, Kevin!

    Yes, “corporations pay billions in corporate income tax” — which they then happily pass on to you when you buy their products.

    (Of course, that’s what the gubmint TOLD them to do.) heh-heh!

  18. Has anyone read the Libertarian Party newspaper lately? Liberal, my foot!

    There are some conservative wolfs writing in there, posing as libertarian sheep, talking about “killing millions of people” because they happen to have a different religion. This — in a libertarian paper, for Pete’s sake! Such an embarrassment.

    Lazarus is right. Labels are so misleading.

  19. Thales is right, and I addressed the two errors in the piece on my website. But for posterity:

    1) Mill lived in the 19th century, and therefore could not have influenced the founders. This was an error of carelessness on my part.

    2) “Liberal” as a philosophical label didn’t come into prominent political discourse in the U.S. until the 1820s (though variations on the word were used in Europe as early as the 17th century). Therefore, the founders would not have considered themselves to be “liberals,” as I indicated. This was an error of ignorance on my part.

    As for Mill, I think it’s generally undisputed that he be considered a liberal despite, like Thomas Paine, a few notable welfare-state-ish departures from the philosophy late in life.

    At any rate, I apologize for both errors, and I’ll include a correction in my next piece for Fox.

  20. Regarding what makes a real libertarian:

    1. I agree that corporations are creatures of the state, and, wanting the state to do as little as possible, and having seen from outside and inside what damage big corporations can do, I say, let the state do one thing less: neither subsidy nor personhood for corporations.

    2. “Libertarian warmongers” is practically an oxymoron. Any red-blooded libertarian I know wants to defend his family, community, and country, but ALL of them think that war should be avoided whenever possible, and fought defensively if unavoidable. There is NOTHING “libertarian” about the Iraq war or the War on Terror. Even the noblest war vastly expands state power, and a libertarian will oppose it and try to moderate its prosecution to that extent, regardless of whether he feels it nevertheless must be fought in the name of true defense.

    “Libertarian” is fine with me. Why waste energy to “reclaim” the “liberal” word, when energy is needed to keep from losing “libertarian” altogether?

  21. Michelle-

    I have seen the letters you’re referring to in LP News. I really hope the anti-Wahabbist rants are specific to a tiny handful of fanatics, but the tone of the rants makes me wonder if the letter-writers really want a “clash of civilizations.”

    There is one way to have a legitimate clash of civilizations, and we’ll win it every time. Allow all peaceful people to immigrate wherever they wish, and do business with whomever they wish. The people voting with their feet and products will favor the US every time.

  22. I like “Freedom Dudes”, but with raspberry berets…the kind that you find in a secondhand store.

  23. J.S. Mill was indeed a proponent of ?welfare?, as was Gladstone, another outstanding figure of the 19th Century. However, the political and social environment in which they espoused such views were totally alien to the one in which today?s champions? of such base their strategy.

    Mill and Gladstone were reacting to some unfortunate consequences of the Industrial Revolution. To equate their stance with many of today?s ?do-gooders? is historically and intellectually disingenuous.

    ?Liberalism? needs to be rescued, as a term and a philosophy. It is perplexing how a word that described one of the most influential and important sociopolitical events of the last 500 years has suddenly turned into a ?hot potato? phrase no one wants to touch. We should start calling those with these contemporary views ?Leftists?; they hardly represent the classical form of liberalism.

    It?s time we take it back.

  24. I find it fascinating that possibly the most right wing US administration in a long time, when it finds a country to build from the ground up, starts with electricity, water, health care, education, security and gun control. They show no interest in building an offensive army and want a secular government, free from popular religious dogma. They want equality, fair representation and honest, open discussion.

    These are fundamental liberal principals. We could use some more of them here in the most prosperous country on earth.

  25. Regarding the term “Freedom Dudes” and “Blue Berets”.

    The Whole French/Freedom thing appears to be over, so that part works, but the blue berets are WAY too United Nations.

  26. Interesting and thoughtful piece, but there are some factual errors: ?The thinkers who influenced the founders — Adam Smith, John Locke, John Stuart Mill . . . .? The influence of Locke (and I would add Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, Machiavelli, etc.; all liberals of a sort) is clear. Smith didn?t publish the Wealth of Nations until 1776, though there is some evidence that his ideas on political economy were transmitted to Jefferson, Madison, and others even earlier through Scottish emigres teaching at William and Mary and Princeton; still, it would be hard to call his influence a strong one. John Stuart Mill certainly did not influence the Founding generation, living as he did from 1806 to 1873. Mill was rather influenced by the Founders and also by de Tocqueville?s observations on American liberal democracy, among many others. Also, Mill, who the author rightly identifies as a pivotal classical liberal, was instrumental in straddling the line between classical liberalism and state intervention of the modern liberal sort, especially later in his life, lending at least some credibility to the linkage between the two usages of the term.

    Mill did not hold the same views throughout his life–compare On Liberty with Principles of Political Economy.

  27. Lefty, you “find it fascinating that the most right wing US administration … starts with electricity, water, health care, education, security* and gun control.” (?)

    For your info, the most right wing US administration is not insulated from vote-buying. The most right wing US administration is not immune from the dirty political habit of pandering to the masses. The most right wing US administration is not that pristine body of statesmen you make them out to be. They are POLITICIANS, like any other.

    Furthermore, you claim they “want a secular government, free from popular religious dogma.” (?) Really now. You couldn’t possibly be talking about THIS (current) administration, could you?

    *(And in the paragraph above, what “security” is that, pray tell?)

  28. I forgot to mention the oil. “It belongs to the people of Iraq.”

    Fidel Castro couldn’t have said it better.

  29. I prefer “me”

    labels are kinda stupid cause they tend to cause intellegent conversation to degenerate from a good debate about values and beliefs to whos the “pinko commie” or who’s the “facist pig.”

    It would be much more satisfying if people discussed issues rather than worrying about what exclusive club names they can claim, which trying to come up with colorful way of expressing their distain for others.

  30. And the oil in Kuwait belongs to the people in Kuwait. Yet the Iraqis didn’t think so, did they?

    It’s payback time, Fidel.

  31. John Henry is wielding a nine pound hammer and is right on. Conservative and liberal labels today have little to do with the policies they reflect. We keep on trying to make life simple by putting groups together and giving them a title (race, religion, librul, neocon, etc.). We can then easily judge whether they or “good” or “bad” just by their title or appearance without bothering with the individual idea or behavior.

    Political parties today, on the other hand, reflect the interests of the money and voting blocks that support them. In their actions, anyway, they seem to have little to do with classic liberal or conservative philosophies. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, since dominance of any one dogma is almost as repugnant as the absence of one.

    Personally, I feel that as long as governments respect the individual liberties of every single person they can use any label they want. I believe liberalism best describes that.

  32. I am amazed that in 30 or so notes nobody mentioned Either Hayek (see “The Road to Serfdom, 1940) or Friedman (see “Capitalism and Freedom” 1962yr?)

    Both said that they were “liberals”, not conservatives and that it was a fine word, meaning “freeman” that had been hijacked by others to mean exactly the opposite.

    In the early 90’s the Wall Street Journal publihed an article calling Friedman a “conservative” and then, when he complained, published a correction saying that he was a liberal. This along with a letter from him on the meaning of “liberal”.

    I believe I even have the correction/letter clipped and tucked away in my copy of “Capitalism…” and if anyone is interested, I can probably dig it out.

    John Henry

  33. “I use throughout the term “liberal” in the original, nineteenth century sense which is still current in Britain. In current American usage it often means the very nearly the opposite of this. It has been part of the camnoflage of leftish movements in this country, helped by the muddleheadedness of many who really believe in liberty, that “liberal” has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control. I am still puzzled why those in the United States who truly believe in liberty should not only have alowed the left to appropriate this almost indispensible word but should have even assisted by begining to use it themselves as a term of opprobrium. This seems to be particularly regrettable because of the consequent tendency of many tru liberals to describe themselves as conservatives.”

    F.A. Hayek, “The Road to Serfdom”, preface to 1956 edition.

    John Henry

  34. shit, lefty’s making sense for once…whatever mix you had tonite lefty, take it more often.

  35. Regardless of how you use a word yourself, people are gonna interpret it based on their own experiences. Right now, if you say you’re a liberal, people are gonna think you like Walter Mondale. That’s just how it is, regardless of your opinion of what the word *should* mean. If you’d rather be “right” (in your own limited sense) at the expense of being understood, be my guest, though it strikes me as a rather absurd strategy to pursue, personally.

    I’d say it’s probably easier to coin a new word than try to change people’s conception of a well used word. That’s what happened with “libertarian,” I believe. But once the word gets out there, there’s no controlling how people use it. Many people currently describing themselves as “libertarian” strike me more as right-wingers who seem to like the word more for its aesthetic value and/or emotional impact than for the principles I attach to it myself. I think they feel it makes them more of a rebel or something.

  36. James: Corporations are creatures of the state? The dude selling hotdogs down the street from a cart is no doubt incorporated. Is he a “creature of the state”?

    And surely those pro-Iraq War libertarians were also interested in defending their family, community, and country — and most especially their liberty. The rest of your post shows how cowardly most “libertarians” are in the face of the inherent statisim of terrorism. Calling people “warmongers” simply shows your willingness to avoid thinking and discussion and instead throw around mindless slogans (like a good leftist).

    Partisan slogans and mindless abstractions – these are libertarians today. And people wonder why the word has been soiled?

    Hope everyone had a good holiday.

  37. OK, fine. I’ll stop calling myself a liberal, if everyone who doesn’t believe in monarchy, artistocratic privilege, state sponsored religion, and wealth-based suffrage stops calling themselves conservatives. It isn’t the 19th century anymore – deal, people.

  38. Pigeon-holing has been going on since time immemorial. And it shall continue, I’m sure.

  39. I feel like a stranger in a strange land.

  40. EMAIL:
    DATE: 05/20/2004 05:19:47
    Anyone can learn from pain.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.