Press Release: Semantic shifts were key factor in decline of classical liberalism, argues new study

Key concepts central to the Western tradition of classical liberalism have shifted dramatically in meaning since the late 19th Century, according to a new scholarly website, Lost Language, Lost Liberalism (4L), released today (Tuesday) by Professor Daniel Klein in partnership with the Adam Smith Institute. 4L shows that the English-language discourse of Western Civilization underwent a watershed change during the period 1880-1940. 4L focuses on changes in the meaning of words, and suggests that these changes played an important role in the decline of classical liberalism in the politics of the English-speaking world.

Ten central words are treated: liberal(ism), liberty, freedom, justice, property, contract, equality, equity, law, and rights.

Up to about 1880, people understood these terms particularly for certain salient classical liberal meanings. But then, from 1880, the culture changed and meanings became upset or confused. 4L provides vast compendia of quotations in which the central words are used. The changes were a move toward collectivization, a favor for greater governmentalization of social affairs.

For each of the ten words, the website provides quotations showing how collectivists innovated, often assaulting the classical liberal meanings and flaunting innovation. The website also provides many rejoinders by authors who objected to the assaults. The site shows the debate over the meaning of each word.

The website presents tables capturing the classical liberal meanings of the words, and the changes.

The site also provides many ngram diagrams, verifying that a profound shift occurred from 1880.

The site also provides a vast collection of quotations testifying that the shift came by new generations, which talked one way, displacing older generation, which had talked another way.

4L shows that Western Civilization not only changed direction after 1880, it altered the meanings of its most important words.

Klein claims that today we are still stuck in the ruts of those changes; his message is that we need to recover the meaning and culture of the original liberalism. 4L is part of Klein’s broader ambition to advance understanding of the original arc of liberalism, its ascent, its decline, and its bearing on today.

Daniel Klein is professor of economics at George Mason University, where he leads a program on Adam Smith. He is also JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at GMU and Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute, Stockholm. He is the editor of Econ Journal Watch, and the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation (Oxford University Press, 2012). The Adam Smith Institute recently interviewed Klein about another project called Liberalism Unrelinquished.

4L is authored by Klein, but the collecting of quotations was chiefly the work of Ryan Daza, an independent research and collaborator (and former student) of Klein’s.

For further comment or to arrange an interview with Daniel Klein, please email His home page is