Comments: Quick Links

Liberal used to mean someone who agreed with Adam Smith and J.S. Mill, that government should protect us from each other, provide important collective projects, and otherwise stay out of our way. The "protect us from each other" morphed into "and ourselves" and "collective projects" became nation-building exercises like compulsory education, central banks, and welfare systems.

Round about 1900, liberal stopped meaning anything really. Now, classical liberalism is like a moderate libertarianism, and I usually describe myself as an enraged moderate progressive.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at March 28, 2004 12:03 AM

Well, I could get behind being an EMP :) but I don't really have a problem with the fact that the meaning of the word "liberal" has changed over time. Language is a living tool, after all.

Posted by Anne at March 29, 2004 08:22 AM

True. But not enough people recognize that a term like "liberal" is both poorly defined in the present and historically slippery. It makes my job as a teacher a little difficult, when "conservative" and "liberal" mean such different things at different times. And it makes my political life difficult, that people will label me "liberal" and ignore the vast differences between me and whatever it is they think they mean because Fox news is making it sound dirty.

I actually wrote a letter to the editor back in the early nineties, in which I refered to the "l------" word, and being San Francisco, they filled in "lesbian." Poor Michael Dukakis.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at March 29, 2004 02:13 PM

ROFL! That's a pretty good one.

But seriously. I know the people I used to think of as "liberal" have, to some extent, begun referring to themselves as "progressive" these days, and it aggravates me.

Yes, I know the Right has worked hard for over twenty years to make "liberal" a bad, bad word, but we're not required to let them dictate terms like that, are we?

I say the best thing we can do is to define the word, or find one we can live with for the foreseeable future, and get on with the job.

(For what it's worth, when I was in college, I loved that kind of thing. Tracking changes in the meaning of a word over time. Didn't matter if it was political, social, economic, whatever. I think it's fascinating. And, of course, educational.)

Posted by Anne at March 30, 2004 08:11 AM