Lost and loster

“So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” That is Jim Carrey’s reaction, in Dumb and Dumber, when the lady he fancies tells him his chances are like one out of a million. (The 33-second clip is here.) You’ve got to admire such optimism. May we classical liberals find it when we ponder the chances of seeing a turn toward classical liberalism.

The prospects are enhanced by understanding the situation. But currently we are still stuck in the ruts that were worn into our culture from 1880. A hard look at the period 1880-1940 might inspire, not a comedy, but a tragedy: Sad and Sadder.

But there’s still a chance, so chin up. At the end of Dumb and Dumber, Carrey does not get the girl, but he and his friend carry on in good cheer.

Our movie would be called Lost and Loster. “Lost” not as in “lost cause,” but as in “lost children.” Our civilization has gone astray and is now bewildered as to place and direction. That is the theme of the new website, Lost Language, Lost Liberalism, nicknamed 4L.

With governmentalization on autopilot, with the center-left dominating much of the media, schooling, academia, and other cultural institutions, with the entrenchment of government as big, suffocating player, it is no surprise that many people who fancy themselves “liberal” are doing some soul searching. Edmund Fawcett’s 2014 book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea demonstrates such soul searching, if not soul finding.

What makes a liberal? To answer that question, it is good to learn about how the term “liberal” first arose as a political term. Here, think Adam Smith (as I explain here). Then, we also need to understand how from 1880 the meaning shifted—the theme of Lost Language, Lost Liberalism – 4L.

4L shows that English-language discourse underwent a watershed change during the period 1880-1940. 4L studies the changes in the meaning of words, and suggests that these changes played an important role in the decline of classical liberalism. Ten central words are treated: liberal(ism), liberty, freedom, justice, property, contract, equality, equity, law, and rights.

Compendia of quotations show the debate over the meaning of each word. The site also features other forms of evidence, including ngrams and copious testimony about generational shifts.

I am honored that the Adam Smith Institute has chosen to partner on the project; the Press Release from ASI can be found here.

The chances of recovering Adam Smith liberalism depend on understanding the course of the past 250 years. The 1880-1940 act is especially sad and casts a long shadow. But there is still hope that we’ll find our way to the true path of liberalism.