Dan Klein issues this plea:
Please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.”
The word liberal began to take on a political meaning around 1770, he notes:
By virtue of textual digitization, we now can pinpoint the inception with remarkable precision and certainty. In figure 4 we see the introduction of liberal in a political sense, in the expressions liberal policy, liberal system, liberal plan, liberal government, and liberal principles.
The inception of liberal as a political term should be credited to the Scottish historian William Robertson, who published a book in 1769 that uses the term repeatedly to mean principles of liberty and commercial freedom.(3) Adam Smith embraced and made important use of the semantic innovation in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith used the term repeatedly in a signal way to refer to the sort of policy he advocated, a system that gives a strong presumption to individual liberty, and hence commercial and market freedom.
If all nations, Smith says, were to follow “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation,” then they would be like one great cosmopolitan empire, and famines would be prevented. Then he repeats the phrase: “But very few countries have entirely adopted this liberal system.”(4) Smith’s “liberal system” was not concerned solely with international trade. He used “liberal” to describe the application of the same principles to domestic policy issues. Smith was a great opponent of restrictions in the labor market, favoring freedom of contract, and wished to see labor markets “resting on such liberal principles.”(5)
Klein has considered himself a classical liberal for decades:
Today conservatives and libertarians often use the term liberal to refer to leftists, progressives, social democrats, and Democrats. Here I beg you to stop doing so. But if you are not to say “liberal,” what are you to say? One option is to put “liberal” in quotation marks or to say “so-called liberal.” But even better is to use the words that have always signified the mentality of governmentalization: the terms left, progressive, and social democrat.
Prior to the twentieth century, in English-language discourse there was very little talk of “left” and “right,” as shown in figure 8. As the political term left emerged in the twentieth century, it has always signified political and cultural state centralization, through the governmentalization of social affairs. The extreme left is communism. A supposedly more liberal collectivism is socialism. The meaning of the left has changed somewhat, but, despite its verbiage and false consciousness, it still basically remains centered on the governmentalization of social affairs (although we must recognize that on a few issues, the left does lean toward liberalization). The left pretends to favor diversity, but that slogan is in reality just an agenda for people of diverse backgrounds to come together in a broadly uniform set of leftist beliefs.
As for progressive, the essence was aptly described in 1926 by H.?L. Mencken: “The Progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.”(13) That is, the progressive is one who favors greater governmentalization of social affairs. The description has been largely accurate since the word progressive emerged as a political term. As Jonah Goldberg has shown in his regrettably titled book Liberal Fascism, early American progressivism contained rich veins of racism, eugenics, and all-around statism. In figure 9 we see that the political term progressives emerged around 1910.
Sometimes conservatives and libertarians balk at calling the left “progressive,” not wanting to concede the idea of progress. But I say, let them have it. Not only has progressive always signified statism, but the idea of progress is not suited to true liberalism. The idea of progress is goal-oriented: “Are you making progress on your term paper?” It suggests a goal or destination. But in politics the notion of a social goal or destination is baneful. That collectivists should join together for what they imagine to be progress is perfectly fitting. For them the term progressive is suitable. By contrast, conservatives and libertarians look to, not progress, but improvement.
Another fitting term for leftism is social democracy, which is standard in Europe. Social democracy is a compromise between democratic socialism and a tepid liberalism. The socialistic penchant is foremost, but a vacillating liberalism gnaws at the social democrat’s conscience. In figure 10 we see that the term social democracy emerged around 1900.
With the onset of the social-democratic age came a confusion of tongues, a Tower of Babel. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the left came to dominate most cultural institutions, its partisans set the semantic rules, and one either played by their rules or found oneself marginalized or excluded. Besides arrogating “liberal” to themselves, they created categories along the lines of “you’re either with us or against us.” There was the left, and then everything else — classical liberals, defenders of tradition, status-quo interest groups, or whatever else — was “the right.” For good measure they would throw in the Nazis, even though they stood for national socialism. With their absurd construction (“the right”), the left, by demonizing any of the groups placed therein — from religious extremists to skinheads to business-interest cronies — would damage and discredit every group within the set of groups denominated as “the right,” most important the true and perennial threat to the leftists’ worldview and selfhood, the classical liberals. How many times have Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, both of whom described themselves as “liberal,” been called “fascist” and “right-wing”?