A familiar refrain from the “liberal” community today is objection to the stench that surrounds the term. No political candidate wants to be called a liberal. Those who align themselves closely with conventional liberalsim hate this. The tragedy though is not that liberal candidates are unable to be honest about their beliefs. Actually, the tragedy is that the term “liberal” has been plundered from its honorable intellectual roots and twisted to mean the very opposite of what it once was.

Milton Friedman, a name every American should be familiar with in these difficult economic times, discusses the commandeering of the term in the introduction to his classic work Capitalism and Freedom. In this excerpt, Friedman explains his use of the word in the book.

Many who call themselves liberals today are not really liberals at all. The term “liberal” in the classical sense centered around freedom and individuality. This is the liberal tradition that the Founding generation drew heavily from leading up to the American Revolution. Today, liberalism commonly means statism; government rationing “freedom” (IE: wealth) to individuals through empowerment as a positive right vs. government protecting the inherent freedom of the individual to act as he/she sees fit. In short, it means Al Franken liberals not Adam Smith liberals.

As with any label, it is foolish to suggest that all liberals today are statists or that all conservtives or libertarians share the same intellectual roots with classical liberals. True liberals in the classical sense are hard to find anywhere in modern America. While conservatives for example generally favor free markets, less government and lower taxes they also tend to favor such things as government intervention in television and radio programming, or restrictions on civil unions or the curbing of civil liberties in the name of causes such as the War on Terror or the War on Drugs.

The central difference however between liberals of today and classical liberals of a bygone generation lies in how they interpret the word freedom. Another great economist, FA Hayek, explains:

“To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the ‘despotism of physical want’ had to be broken, the ‘restraints of the economic system’ relaxed. Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth.”

Freedom means that you have the liberty to live your life as you see fit – whatever the circumstances of your birth may be. It is likely for example that a person born to a wealthy family has certain advantages over someone born to a poor faimly. Current liberals will argue that the poor man is less free and that the state should perhaps intervene on his behalf (Barack Obama calls this “neighborly”). Classical liberals were wise enough to understand that a government attempting to level those inequalities was just as dangerous as one trying to preserve them. It should do neither. Freedom should be protected – not granted – by government. Liberty not endowed at birth but bestowed by government is not liberty at all. It is slavery.

“It is extremely convenient to have a label for the political and economic viewpoint elaborated in this book. The rightful and proper label is liberalism. Unfortunately, ‘As a supreme, if unintended compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label*’, so that liberalism has, in the United States, come to have a very different meaning than it did in the neneteenth century or does today over much of the Continent of Europe.

As it developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the intellectual movement that went under the name of liberalism emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual; it supported free trade abroad as a means of linking the nations of the world together peacefully and democratically. In political matters, it supported the development of representative government and of parliamentary insitutions, reduction in the arbitrary power of the state, and protection of the civil freedoms of individuals.

Beginning in the late neneteenth century,and especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis, particularly in economic policy. It came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as deisrable. The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought. In the very act of turning the clock back to seventeenth-century mercantilism, he is fond of castigating true liberals as reactionary!

The change in the meaning attached to the term liberalism is more striking in econmic matters than in political. The twentieth-century liberal, like the nineteenth-century liberal, favors parliamentary institutions, representative government, civil rights, and so on. Yet even in political matters, there is a notable difference. Jealous of liberty, and hence fearful of centralized power, whether in governmental or private hands, the nineteenth-century liberal favored political decentralization. Committed to action and confident of the beneficence of power so long as it is in the hands of a government ostensibly controlled by the electorate, the twentieth-century liberal favors centralized government. He will resolve any doubt about where power should be located in favor of the state instead of the city, of the federal government instead of the state, and a wolrd organization instead of a national government.

Because of the corruption of the term liberalism, the views that formerly went under the name are now often labeled conservatism. But this is not a satisfactory alternative. The nineteenth-century liberal was a radical, both in the etymological sense of going to the root of the matter, and in the political sense of favoring major changes in social institutions. So too must be his modern heir. We do not wish to conserve the state interventions that have interfered so greatly with our freedom, though, of course, we do wish to conserve those that have promoted it. Moreover, in practice, the term conservatism has come to cover so wide a range of views, and views so incompatible with one another, that we shall no doubt see the growth of hyphenated designations, such as libertarian-conservative and artistocratic-conservative.

Partly because of my reluctance to surrender the term to proponents of measures that would destroy liberty, partly because I cannot find a better alernative, I shall resolve these difficulties by using the word liberalism in its original sense – as the doctrinse pertaining to a free man.”

* This quotation is attributed to Joseph Schumpeter in his work History of Economic Analysis.