Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Battle of the L-Words

I believe that the first words that Tim Sandefur said to me—or more accurately yelled at me—ran something very much like this: "You're WRONG!"

Tim had just attended a lecture I'd given at a Liberty and Society seminar run by the Institute for Humane Studies. The students and faculty were streaming out of the lecture hall and walking towards dinner when Tim felt compelled to share with me, at 30 paces and in his adorably cantankerous manner, his evident disagreement with a rule of usage I had offered during my talk: Never describe a leftist as "liberal."

I agree with leftists on many issues. I will not, however, agree to let them appropriate "liberal." The derivation and near-universal meaning of that word—in nearly every time and place except contemporary, casual U.S. speech—reserves "liberal" for people who regard liberty as a paramount value. Leftists, because they disparage economic freedom and property rights, manifestly do not.

We have very accurate and fair labels for people who think that civil liberties exist independent of and merit more respect than economic liberties. We can call those people "leftist" or "left-wing." Moreover, we should not call them "liberal," a term that they neither deserve nor that they always welcome.

I am not sure that true liberals will ever be able to reclaim their rightful name. At a minimum, though, they can and should deny the term to illiberals. It would represent a great step forward if, when someone in the U.S. used "liberal," they had immediately to address the question, "Do you mean 'left-wing' or do you mean 'libertarian'?" We should thus aim, at least at first, to cast "liberal" into a linguistic no-man's-land. Reconquering that lost semantic territory can come later.

I take heart in the thought that I may already have won a convert to my rule of usage: good 'ol Tim Sandefur himself. He recently wrote, "[W]e libertarians are liberals . . . ." Plainly, Tim no longer equates "liberal" with "left-wing"! Perhaps he even made the switch for the right reasons. At any rate, I welcome him to the team, and look forward to more of his brilliantly anti-leftist (and anti–rightist) critiques from the liberal point of view.

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