Lexophiles’ Locale: Pet Peeve Edition
Liberal. Clearly this word shares the same root as “liberty.” In political conversation “liberal” generally has one of two meanings – meanings sometimes in direct conflict. We have classical liberals and american liberals. For the former, think of an economist/moral philosopher like Adam Smith or the views generally espoused by a newspaper like The Economist. The latter use of “liberal” in the American context really means “social liberal,” “social democrat,” or progressive. Think FDR or The American Prospect.
Here’s Martin Wolf in the notes of his marvelous book, Why Globalization Works:
The word ‘liberal’ has become almost unusable nowadays. Broadly speaking, contemporary liberals can be divided into those who emphasize freedoms from the state and those who rely on a benevolent state to provide welfare and other interventions in the interest, in particular, of the disadvantaged.
My point isn’t to re-narrate the history of this topic (although I’m sure that would be interesting and worthwhile). I’m animated more by my desire for clearer language. It may be best summed up by Strunk and White writing about a different word.
Although the word in its new, free-floating capacity may be pleasurable and even useful to many, it offends the ear of many others, who do not like to see words dulled or eroded, particularly when the erosion leads to ambiguity, softness, or nonsense.
So for clarity can we stop using “liberal” if we aren’t using it in the original or classical sense? The American context has plenty of better alternatives. When people ask me what I am politically (the one word answer they’re looking for is already imprecise enough), I’d love to answer, “liberal” but that often gives the wrong impression. Saying “classical liberal” often forces me into a long boring lesson and carries a sleight pretense. “Libertarian” doesn’t quite do it for me either. It’s probably too late to completely rescue the word, but can everyone who reads this be a little more discriminating and a little less liberal in the usage of their terminology.
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.”