Since roughly the time of FDR, “liberal” and “conservative” have been the terms used to describe those on the political left and right, respectively, in American politics.  The third biggest group is libertarianism, which has generally come to mean fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

However, are these really the terms we should be using to describe our political ideologies?  Conservatism has no globally accepted meaning.  It is mainly an attitude predisposed towards prudence, or more cynically, a suspicion of change.  A conservative in the United States differs greatly from a conservative in Iran.  Anglo-American conservatism has become a sort of Burkean smorgasbord of classical liberalism coupled with traditionalism, and where one draws the line between the two is up for debate.

Unlike conservatism, liberalism actually does, or at least it should in theory, have a global meaning.  The words liberal and liberalism can be traced back to the Latin liberalis meaning “of freedom” or “befitting a free man.”  This can further be simplified to liber meaning “free,” “unrestricted,” or more negatively “licentious.”  The definition of liberal has changed over the course of millenia.  It can also mean “generous.” By the time of the Enlightenment, it had become a doctrine based on principles of liberty and, also, equality.

This Enlightenment thought of thinkers such as Locke, America’s Founders, and Adam Smith became what we now call classical liberalism, which, at least in the eyes of many, is synonymous with libertarianism.  However, this tradition is quite different from the political thought of those on the current political left who call themselves “liberals.”  Perhaps, liberals claim that their inspirations are the same as the libertarians’ heroes, but they then add on the progressives Woodrow Wilson and Thomas Dewey, and arguably, even the architect of the modern social welfare state, Otto von Bismarck (though most progressives probably would not admit it).
The progressive doctrine tries to do the impossible task of reconciling equality of outcome with liberty.  Historically, we have seen that the progressives choose this radical view of equality over liberty, time and again.  Hence, we see illiberal liberalism, or, perhaps more accurately, illiberal progressivism.

Hayek did not like the term libertarianism because he considered it awkward.  He preferred being called a liberal or even a “Burkean Whig” (which begs the question was Burke a classical liberal, a conservative, or both – but we can talk about that another time).  Should libertarians seek to reclaim the term “liberal” from those who currently claim that label?  Because it seems to me, that libertarians are more deserving of the doctrine that translates to “befitting free men.”  Thoughts?


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