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Should libertarians try to reclaim the word “liberal”?

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the word “liberal” was commonly used to describe the political views that we today call “libertarian.” But usage shifted, and “liberal” came to stand for a school of thought that supports extensive government intervention. Economist Daniel Klein has put together a statement signed by numerous libertarian academics and intellectuals urging a return to the earlier terminology.

I have a lot of sympathy for Klein’s position. But, on balance, I think libertarians would do better to stick to “libertarian.” I explained why in this 2006 post:

If I were writing on a blank slate, I would argue that we should opt for the terminology favored by F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman….: what we call libertarians should be called “liberals,” today’s liberals should be called “social democrats” (as they are in most of Europe), and the nonlibertarian right can continue to be known as “conservatives…”

However, Hayek and Friedman lost this terminological battle a long time ago, and I’m not sure we should want the term “liberal” back today even if we could have it. After all, the word now has such negative associations that even many liberals (in the modern sense of the word) no longer use it and have instead taken to calling themselves “progressives.”

Sticking to “libertarian” avoids the substantial annoyance and cost of trying to change the language. Moreover, the term has important positive connotations because of the link to the word “liberty,” traditionally perhaps the most important of American values and among the most important principles of Western civilization more generally. The other terms proposed by various people are either awkward (“market liberal”), confusing (“classical liberal”), or lacking in any positive connotations (“minarchist,” etc.).

I don’t think much has changed since 2006 that should lead us to reconsider. If anything, the case for sticking with “libertarian” has gotten stronger, because that term has become better known.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and popular political participation. He is the author of "The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain" and "Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter."



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