What's in a Name?

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by Gene Callahan

The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. ~ Lord Acton, Freedom and Power

Sometime near the turn of the last century, our political vocabulary underwent a tremendous shift. The term “liberal,” which before that had referred to those who wished to steadily reduce government control over people’s lives, began to refer to thinkers advocating more and more expansive government interference in those lives. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter said at the time of the transition, “As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label.”

Later in the twentieth century, F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises both attempted to make the term “liberal” again refer to those who love liberty. Their attempt has been mostly unsuccessful, as the media has refused to cooperate, and people believe that they already know what the term means.

But if we, the lovers of liberty, are not liberals, then what are we? It is, it would seem to me, a good idea to have a term for everyone who wishes to significantly roll back the scope of government. Yes, there are tremendous differences between paleo-conservatives, anarcho-libertarians, minarchists, flat taxers, constitutionalists, secessionists, economic conservatives, and so on. But the way I see it, we all want the bus to be heading in the same direction, and it ain’t the one its going in right now. Once we turn around the bus, we’ll have plenty of time to argue among ourselves about how far to drive it.

The terms put forward to replace liberal have so far proved inadequate. Libertarian is awkward, too much like “antidisestablishmentarian.” It just hasn’t caught on as a popular term. Just the other day, I told an intelligent friend of mine that I was a libertarian. “What’s that?” was her immediate response.

Conservative carries along with it much inappropriate baggage, especially the idea of supporting whatever institutions currently exist simply because they exist. It brings to mind images of corporate fat cats and Pentagon generals meeting to safeguard the status quo.

Anarcho-capitalist, while a technically accurate name for an important segment of the libertarian movement, sounds to the “man in the street” like someone who wants to toss bombs at the authorities from inside their own factory.

Market liberal, the favorite of Cato’s Ed Crane, also seems confusing to me. After all, everyone today, even the Communist Chinese, say that they’re in favor of market mechanisms.

However, the other day I read an article by Murray Rothbard where he used a term that caught my eye: “true liberal.” What I find most interesting about the term is that it almost forces whoever hears it to ask what it means. Simply by adding the adjective “true,” the listener’s facile assumptions about what it means to be liberal are called into question.

This term may not work either. But for what its worth, I forward it as a suggestion, along with my planned response when someone asks me what I mean by “true liberal”:

  • A true liberal believes that opportunity means the chance to determine our own fate, while false liberals think that opportunity means we shouldn’t be allowed to fail.
  • A true liberal believes that liberty means we can decide on our own what we wish to risk, while false liberals think it means that we shouldn’t be allowed to do anything “too risky.”
  • A true liberal believes, along with Lord Acton, that “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority.” A false liberal believes that whatever the people vote for, however oppressive, is acceptable.
  • A true liberal believes that peaceful cooperation is the basis of human society, and the use of force should be minimized. A false liberal believes that people need to be coerced, all the time, so that they act “socially.”
  • A true liberal knows that one cost of freedom is that things will occur that we hadn’t foreseen and that we may not like. As long as the principles of civil society have not been violated, we know we must tolerate such events. A false liberal thinks that freedom is OK only until something happens that he doesn’t like.
  • A true liberal treats each person as an individual, valuable in his own right and responsible for his own fate. A false liberal views people as members of ethnic, racial and other groups, only important as a representative of his group.

Of course, this leaves us with a problem. Our audience may say to us, “If you are a true liberal, then what are the people who call themselves liberals today?”

But this can be handled as well. There is a name for the “third-way” between socialism and laissez-faire, for the economic system that nominally leaves property in private hands, but subjects it to the control of the state, that views people primarily as members of ethnic or racial groups. We can tell the inquirer, “Why, sir, they are the fascists, of course!”

Gene Callahan is a regular contributor to mises.org.

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