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Nor are statists, collectivists and socialists, but I repeat myself. The simple plea above is made by Daniel Klein in an essay appearing in the Intercollegiate Review and in Modern Age. He asserts that libertarians (and conservatives) fall into a semantic trap when they use the term as a pejorative for leftists. I have touched on the mangled, modern usage of “liberalism” several times on Sacred Cow Chips, but Klein brings some interesting empiricism into consideration and makes several points worth emphasizing.

First, Klein traces the historical record of appearances of certain words related to liberalism in published literature using the “n-gram viewer” on Google. He shows that the political use of “liberal” began around 1770. For the next 110 years, liberalism referred to a philosophy and policies associated with small government and individual autonomy. In the U.S., however, the term began to be co-opted by the political left in the late 1800s. Around the turn of the twentieth century, references to “New Liberalism” and “Old Liberalism” became more frequent. So the term was subverted in that time frame, a decade or two before the term “left-wing” came into use.

The literature of the so-called New Liberals declaimed openly against individual liberty and in favor of state collectivism and socialistic reform.

Today, the association of “liberalism” with the left is confined mostly to the U.S. and Canada:

…when we step outside North America, we see that, by and large, liberal still means liberal (in the UK, usage is in-between). …

Where liberal still means liberal, such as in Europe and Latin America, leftists have no reluctance in calling their imaginary bogeyman ‘neoliberalism.’

By way of suggestion, Klein reviews a few alternative labels for the left. In doing so, he notes that in general, the left supports the “governmentalization of social affairs”. For that reason, one of my favorite labels is “statism”. Oddly, Klein never mentions this as a possibility. (Klein concedes that the left supports liberty on a few issues, which happen to be issues upon which most libertarians are in agreement.) He does refer to the old standby “collectivists” in passing.

Klein likes the label “Progressivism” for the left, despite the positive associations some might make with that term. He argues with some merit that progressivism implies activist, goal-directed policy, as opposed to non-intervention and the spontaneous social order favored by true liberals.

That collectivists should join together for what they imagine to be progress is perfectly fitting. For them the term progressive is suitable. By contrast, conservatives and libertarians look to, not progress, but improvement. …

Another fitting term for leftism is social democracy, which is standard in Europe. Social democracy is a compromise between democratic socialism and a tepid liberalism. The socialistic penchant is foremost, but a vacillating liberalism gnaws at the social democrat’s conscience.”

I fully agree with Klein that we should never refer to leftists as liberals. They are completely undeserving of the description, and doing so concedes a glaringly false premise. Every leftist I know advocates the increasing governmentalization of social affairs and a naive acceptance of an impossible proposition: that government can ever possess the detailed knowledge necessary to successfully regulate individual actors from above. And leftists are foolishly willing to place faith in the benevolence and wisdom of political agents and central controllers. Klein mentions a recent editorial by Kevin Williamson in National Review:

Williamson ends the piece by quoting two leftist authors writing in The Nation, one decrying ‘unbridled individualism,’ the other ‘unfettered capitalism.’ Williamson concludes: ‘A ‘liberalism’ that is chiefly concerned with the many clever uses of bridles and fetters does not deserve the name. It never has.’