Home > Lexophiles' Locale > Lexophiles’ Locale: Pet Peeve Edition

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.

(h/t to Andreas)
[update]: Can’t believe I didn’t cite this above! Here’s Andreas on the same topic, I wholeheartedly agree (and he says it better):

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.”

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  1. April 16, 2010 at 7:43 pm | #1

    I'm on your side, as you know. ;)It might help you to know that I have been accused of being "liberal" in France and Germany and also in America, and that the accuser in each case meant to express the exact opposite thought (and in neither case captured my confused and complex ideas). Keep grappling.

  2. April 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm | #2

    Thanks for the support. Maybe we can reach a Gladwellian tipping point. I empathize with your pain; it's frustrating to be tarred with positions you don't even hold – it's hard enough to defend the ones we do. I found it particularly funny when, I believe, Micklethwait and Wooldridge recounted in The Right Nation (it's been very long since I read it) their scary experience when a Southerner thought they worked for "The Communist" instead of The Economist. At least I don't have that hurdle!

  3. April 17, 2010 at 12:06 am | #3

    I've also had that one. But more often I get: "Oh, you're an economist? (Which I'm not.)So I've become very pedantic when picking up name tags at conferences, insisting that the The is included and capitalized. (Instead of: "Andreas Kluth, Economist"One day we should separately follow up with a post on "conservative". Boy, has that word become meaningless. What would Edmund Burke say after some tea with the Tea Partiers?

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