The meaning of the word ‘liberal’ in politics used to be aligned with notions of personal and business freedom, along the lines of the meaning of ‘libertarian’. However its meaning changed over time to now mean “Lets have the government mess with people’s lives and with what business does, for we know better how everything should run.” Over time, with the help of “conservative” invective, the term liberal was tainted. Now it seems people are trying to adopt the term ‘progressive’ which seems to mean “Lets have the government mess with people’s lives and with what business does, for we know better how everything should run, only this time we know how to do that better.” So it seems that modern day liberals are trying to escape the label without changing their positions.
However, at least they are consistent (for the most part). People who adopt the label ‘Conservative’ seem to take some positions that are diametrically opposed to each other from a philosophical perspective, e.g., ‘Lets have the government tell people how to live their lives but it should stay out of business affairs.’
Don Boudreaux has a short but eloquent discussion of a similar issue on CafeHayek.com at
For a slightly different take on the issue, Walter Russell Mead describes how the environmental movement has lost the connection it used to have with people from the early days of the environmental movement – it used to be that environmentalists were suspicious of government-provided solutions but now seem to think that only the government can save us. The Greening of Godzilla – Walter Russell Mead’s Blog That fits with my default thought: we ought to be seriously suspicious of any claims that government solutions will be the best approach to our problems – see my series on Unintended Consequences for more along those lines.
[Added April 2, 2011]
FA Hayek wrote about this issue in the Road To Serfdom and said:
“I use throughout the term “liberal” in the original, nineteenth-century sense in which it is still current in Britain. In current American usage it often means very nearly the opposite of this. It has been part of the camouflage of leftish movements in this country, helped by the muddleheadedness of many who really believe in liberty, that “liberal” has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control. I am still puzzled why those in the United States who truly believe in liberty should not only have allowed the left to appropriate this almost indispensable term but should even have assisted by beginning to use it themselves as a term of opprobrium. This seems to be particularly regrettable because of the consequent tendency of many true liberals to describe themselves as conservatives.” Location 1218.
[Update March 30, 2012]
Tim Nerenz today offered a clarifying post discussing the relationship between Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians stating “The difference between the modern day Democrat Party and the modern day Republican Party is that Republicans are un-libertarian, while Democrats are anti-libertarian.” He notes that Libertarians and Democrats ought to find common ground on some issues but that the Democrat’s default assumption that the government ought to be busy meddling in things moves them away from Libertarians more often than not.