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What’s in a word: “Liberal”

Adam Smith

As you may have noticed by now, I am a lover of words–to the point of pedantry–and it gives me indigestion to hear people abuse my little darlings. Americans are especially prone. For example, they are scandalously liberal with the word … liberal.

Traveling around America, we at The Economist get at least two questions in any gathering. 1) Why don’t we have bylines? 2) Are we liberal or conservative?

Folks, the way you (the Americans) ask that second question, it does not make any sense! You, unique among nations, did something quite uncivilized to this word, liberal. You unilaterally and wantonly changed its meaning, without telling the other 6.3 billion of us. You cannot do that! As The Economist has demanded before, it’s our word and “we want it back.”

Here is what liberal means: It comes from the Latin liber, free, and refers both to a philosophy and worldview that treasures individual freedom (as in Liberalism) and to the habits and learning befitting a free individual (as in Liberal Arts). That’s all.

The origins of liberalism go back to classical Greece (the “left leg” in this analogy of the Western Tradition as a “body”). It thrived during the Enlightenment, especially its Scottish flavor; found a permanent fan group when The Economist was founded; came under undignified attack in the past century; was defended valorously by people like my great-uncle Ludwig Erhard; became a whipping post in France (especially in the phrase “neoliberal”) for people who like to roll tractors through McDonald’s outlets; and now lives this bizarre American double life among barely literate TV-show hosts.

Liberal means: Tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the eccentricities of individuals and the diversity of lifestyles, as long as nobody is harmed. Hence, a modern Liberal is likely to support the right of gays to marry, as The Economist has done far longer than any other major publication that I’m aware of.

It also means being tolerant, even enthusiastic, about the willingness of individuals to take risks for gain, without any sour-grapes Collectivist outbreak of envy after the fact.

It means skepticism about huge efforts to change human nature; about naive faith in governments or companies always being “good”; about any attempt to subordinate the individual to society.

But Liberalism does not mean (as anti-Thatcherites in Britain once tried to imply) denial that there is such a thing as society.

And it does not mean (duh, really!) salivating over “big government”. Whatever that is called, it is not Liberalism.

Finally, is it the same as what Americans call Libertarianism? In theory, it comes close. In practice, not. American Libertarianism tends to attract a lot of loonies.

Liberals are not loonies. They don’t foam at the mouth. If you need an image, it is of a dour Scot like Adam Smith, pictured above. Slightly dull, but excited about the fun that others get up to. Sort of like The Economist.


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