Liberalism Unrelinquished: An interview with Dan Klein

Liberalism Unrelinquished (LU), is a new project by Prof Daniel Klein and Kevin Frei which aims to reclaim the word 'liberal' from those people who want to 'governmentalize' social affairs. So far it has been signed by around 350 people, including Alan Macfarlane, Charles Murray, Deirdre McCloskey, Richard Epstein, and Alan Charles Kors — as well as several members of the ASI. Dan spoke at the ASI back in 2012 on“Mere Libertarianism”, his synthesis of Hayekian and Rothbardian strands of libertarianism. I reviewed his rather excellent book Knowledge and Coordination here. I spoke to Dan about his new project. Bio: Daniel Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University (where he leads a program in Adam Smith), the JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at GMU, a fellow of the Ratio Institute in Stockholm, editor of Econ Journal Watch, and the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation(Oxford University Press, 2012).

What is Liberalism Unrelinquished (LU)?

LU is a declaration of no surrender on the word liberal. The 250-word Statement is as follows:

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was an ascendant cultural outlook that may be termed the liberal outlook. It was best represented by the Scottish enlightenment, especially Adam Smith, and it flowed into a liberal era, which came to be represented politically by people like Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and John Bright. The liberal outlook revolved around a number of central terms (in English-language discourse, the context of the semantic issue that concerns us).

Especially from 1880 there began an undoing of the meaning of the central terms, among them the word liberal. The tendency of the trends of the past 130 years has been toward the governmentalization of social affairs. The tendency exploded during the First World War, the Interwar Years, and the Second World War. After the Second World War the most extreme forms of governmentalization were pushed back and there have since been movements against the governmentalization trend. But by no means has the original liberal outlook been restored to its earlier cultural standing. The semantic catastrophes of the period 1880-1940 persist, and today, amidst the confusion of tongues, governmentalization continues to hold its ground and even creep forward. For the term liberal, in particular, it is especially in the United States and Canada that the term is used in ways to which we take exception.

We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.

Thus far, about 350 people have signed the statement.

You speak of "governmentalization." What’s that?

“Governmentalization” captures things beyond interventionist restrictions and taxation, such as the role of government or governmentally subsidized institutions in the culture -- government as benefactor, employer, and on-the-field player in commerce, industry, and finance. Government as big player. That comes only from coercive power, of course, but too often critics of governmentalization focus on the coercion and not enough on the resultant cultural power. Government is a ginormous player in social affairs. It both rams and beguiles its way into cultural spaces, to self-validate. Government as cultural vortex. Look at what has become of France, despite its rich history of liberal intellectuals.

What made you decide to start Liberalism Unrelinquished?

Kevin Frei and I started it. Kevin emailed me to propose a Liberalism Day, to talk up the original political meaning of liberal. That morphed into Liberalism Unrelinquished, executed mainly by Kevin, though I drafted the Statement. We approached five individuals as initial signers — Deirdre McCloskey, Stephen Davies, Richard Epstein, James Otteson, and Mario Rizzo. That set the ball rolling.

Why should we care about what word we use to describe ourselves?

The word liberal is powerful. It relates to liberty and toleration, reflected in to liberalize. Words have histories that a generation or two cannot undo. A word has cognates and connotations that make our language cohere, more than we know, more than dictionary definitions can tell.

We need a wider understanding of the semantic changes of the 1880-1940 period. In a way, semantic issues are the momentous issues of our times; semantics tell who and what we are, our selfhood; they condition how we justify our everyday activities.

I’ve heard a few people object that you’re trying to be prescriptivist about the word liberal – that, rightly or wrongly, the word’s meaning has changed and it’s pointless to try to undo that. And you say?

When words hit home everyone is prescriptivist. People who say “That’s just a semantic issue” don’t seem to have thought very deeply about the importance of semantic issues.

If T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse could affect how words are used, what they are taken to mean, why shouldn’t we try to do the same when doing so would be to the good? LU does not force anyone to learn about the original political meaning of liberal. People choose for themselves what semantics to practice.

Can you tell me about the differences between ‘liberalism’ and ‘libertarianism’, as you see them? Are there liberals who could not be described as libertarians, and vice-versa?

Since age 16 or 17 I’ve been raised up on American-style libertarianism. As I see it, there is a narrow sense and a better, broader sense. The better sense, to me, rediscovers the outlook of Adam Smith. But the narrow sense of Murray Rothbard, for example, certainly has some tensions with the broader sense (from me on such tensions: onetwothreefourfive). I like to think that libertarianism grows more Smithian; in that sense I don’t see it as a matter of liberalism versus libertarianism.

Are you trying to effect a change within the libertarian movement, or among members of the centre-left who describe themselves as liberal?

The left gains enormously by getting away with calling itself “liberal,” so getting them to give up the goods is not even a prayer. Partly, I just want to self-declare, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam.” An Adam Smith liberal; a lovely little subculture. Next, I’d love to see the center-left, in the US, the Democratic Party people, be called by others something other than “liberal” simpliciter. Progressive, Democratic, social democratic, leftist, or left-liberal – all good. It is unfortunate that so many non-leftists comply with the self-description assumed by the left. For some 100 years the left/center-left dominated the cultural institutions. If non-leftists didn’t go along with their self-description, they were excluded. Then it took on a life of its own, and Republicans and libertarians are now surrendering “liberal.”

Why is LU generally restricted to over-30s?

Just to put some bounds on it. Wisdom comes with age …

In what countries do you think LU is most relevant? I’ve noticed that in the US ‘liberal’ usually means something like ‘progressive’, whereas in Europe it still generally has its old meaning. In the UK we’re a little bit in between.

I’m learning that, within the English-speaking countries, “liberal” means center-left most in the US and Canada, and that it retains its original political meaning most in Australia and New Zealand. Though I’m really not sure about India, South Africa, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. Yes, the UK is in between. In most of Europe liberal still principally retains its original political meaning.

Discourse from North America extends globally, so I think LU is relevant globally. Although our recruiting has been directed only to those in English-speaking countries, people from other countries, too, have signed on.

Do you think ‘liberalism’ implies a greater sympathy with redistributive public policies than ‘libertarianism’? Where do you see the ‘Bleeding Heart Libertarians’ fitting in to the ‘liberal’ nexus?

I think that Adam Smith liberalism is more flexible, more pragmatic generally, so yes. But I wouldn’t say that Adam Smith liberalism is positively friendly toward redistribution by government coercion. The attitude is more one of compromise.

As for the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” I am a fan. I think they are right (and concordant with Smith) that justice should not be confined to commutative justice (CJ). For justice beyond CJ they use “social justice.” I wouldn’t use that term, I’d use “estimative justice” for what they are talking about. But still I like what they are doing.

Do you have any thoughts about how political discourse will change in the future?

The left has a penchant to protest against "the unjust system." But we are wising up to the fact that, to a great and increasing extent, they are the system. The establishment, the status quo, is one of long-standing governmentalization of social affairs. If "conservative" means conserving the way things have been, the term increasingly fits governmentalization, since the trend is well over a century old. The establishment is one of governmentalization and hence cronyism and apparatchism. Since, let's face it, the left is basically about leaning toward governmentalization, more and more it is the left who are the conservatives, strictly speaking. What will come of this? I hope it starts to gnaw on their conscience, and that there is a reconsideration of what it means to be liberal.

Do you think the current left-right dichotomy makes sense and will it last?

The left/center-left dominated discourse. They determined semantics as follows: We the left are the humane ones. If you are not one of us, you are “the right” or “conservative.” So really there is the left and an everything-else category. Whether we can overcome the iron cage of leftist semantics is to be seen. Learning more about the original political meaning of the term liberal, 1769-1880, is a start (from me on that here).

The Statement says that the meaning of many ‘central terms’ fell into confusion during the 1880-1940 period. What terms?

The core set are: liberty, freedom, justice, property, contract, equality, as well as liberal. It was those terms, it seems to me, that confusion most befell. A second set would include equity, rights, law, rule of law, force/coercion, and privilege.

What should people read if they want to learn more about liberalism?

At LU (here), Kevin and I compiled a list of sources on the history of classical liberalism. Let me also offer my short piece “What Should Liberals Liberalize?,” needling left-liberals for failing to promote liberalizations that would promote what they claim to care about. But I see Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments as the most important work of liberalism.

Where do you think the semantic shift that LU wants is most likely to happen – academia, journalism, online, or somewhere else?

The Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs!