It’s Time to Reclaim the Word ‘Liberal’


founding-fathersThe United States is a country that revels in its difference from the rest of the world. So it is perhaps no surprise that the American political taxonomy differs so radically from that of other nations.

In particular, the word ‘liberal’ has become entirely unmoored from its original meaning in American politics. In the rest of the world, to be liberal is to be in favor of things like trade and individual rights. Liberalism is an ideology of liberty, and across Europe avowedly liberal parties have remained bastions of individual freedoms, more open borders, and economic liberty. The origin of liberalism bears out this European understanding: It was the ideology of Adam Smith, and was the founding premise of The Economist (hardly a leftist rag).

Only in America has liberal come to represent the moniker of the political left. In fact, it has been used for decades by the left wing of American politics to describe all manner of illiberal politics. It was because of the embrace of the term by the left, particularly the Democratic Party, that the right came to use it as a dirty word. If the warmed-over Marxism of George McGovern could be called liberal, thought many Americans in the 1970s, then it could hardly mean pro-freedom.

Libertarians have suffered mightily for this. The very word ‘libertarian’ is a bit of an atrocity, a modern-day neologism for an ideology that already existed. Liberalism is built into the very heart of the American Constitution and government; it was the ideological beating heart of the Founding Fathers. By abandoning liberalism, libertarians have in many ways lost their birthright.

For decades the American left has been allowed to use the label of liberal without objection, desecrating the core idea of liberalism with each new regulation and prohibition it imposed. But times change. It’s time to take back liberalism.

And now is the perfect time to strike. Politicians on the left have been cowering away from the label of liberal in recent election cycles, preferring instead to adopt the new mantle of ‘progressive’. Apparently liberalism, even as a bastardized left wing homunculus, is still too right wing for the new wave of left wing activists and politicians. With the left veering aggressively toward more collectivist social and economic thinking, it is hardly surprising that they would choose to abandon the cloak that once hid these proclivities behind a guise of liberalism.

With liberalism abandoned by its unworthy bearers, libertarians should begin the process of reclaiming the word. We need to remind the world that it was real liberal principles that make this world freer, safer, and more prosperous.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.