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June 22, 2006

What is a "Liberal"?

I think I may just stop using the word "liberal" altogether. I can't think of another word which twists my brain into such knots when I try to discern what people mean by it.

Part I:

There is a "classic" definition for the word which goes back hundreds of years in political literature and is still used today the world 'round.

There is also a new definition of the word which seems to exist only in the United States, and only in non-academic usage (i.e., news media, day to day conversations between ignoramuses, etc.).

The word "liberal", classically, and it seems to be everywhere else in the world other than the United States, always means the anti-thesis of authoritarian. There's a reason for this:

liberal -> liberty -> libertarian

They all based upon the root idea: freedom from the government. It's what the United States is based upon.

If you're in favor of the government being "big brother", you're authoritarian, not liberal.

If you're in favor of the government regulating businesses and having its little fingers in everything, telling us what we can do and what we can't, you're authoritarian, not liberal.

Part II:

But the new use of the term "liberal", which I'm guessing has come about by people trying to discern its meaning from context, assuming its meaning incorrectly, then using it incorrectly and thus perpetuating the error though his audience, often turns the correct definition on its head.

"Liberal", in the United States, has come to mean the opposite of conservative, rather than an opposite of authoritarian. So the rest of the world reads America's attacks on "liberals" and, owing to their adherence to its proper definition, thinks we're a bunch of Nazis. (That's simplistic, but I'm sure the confusion exists.) Meanwhile, Americans hear people in other countries talking about their "liberal government" and we, owing to our ridiculous common usage definition, think they're a bunch of freaks, when they mean something very different by the word.

liberal (adj.)
c.1375, from O.Fr. liberal "befitting free men, noble, generous," from L. liberalis "noble, generous," lit. "pertaining to a free man," from liber "free," from PIE base *leudheros (cf. Gk. eleutheros "free"), probably originally "belonging to the people" (though the precise semantic development is obscure), from *leudho- "people" (cf. O.C.S. ljudu, Lith. liaudis, O.E. leod, Ger. Leute "nation, people"). Earliest reference in Eng. is to the liberal arts (L. artes liberales; see art (n.)), the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement, not immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed worthy of a free man (the word in this sense was opposed to servile or mechanical). Sense of "free in bestowing" is from 1387. With a meaning "free from restraint in speech or action" (1490) liberal was used 16c.-17c. as a term of reproach. It revived in a positive sense in the Enlightenment, with a meaning "free from prejudice, tolerant," which emerged 1776-88. Purely in ref. to political opinion, "tending in favor of freedom and democracy" it dates from c.1801, from Fr. libral, originally applied in Eng. by its opponents (often in Fr. form and with suggestions of foreign lawlessness) to the party favorable to individual political freedoms. But also (especially in U.S. politics) tending to mean "favorable to government action to effect social change," which seems at times to draw more from the religious sense of "free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions" (and thus open to new ideas and plans of reform), which dates from 1823.

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." [Ambrose Bierce, "Devil's Dictionary," 1911]

The noun meaning "member of the Liberal party of Great Britain" is from 1820. Liberalism is first attested 1819.

What I am, politically, is:

* Pro-private property (anti-communal ownership of property)
* Liberal (anti-authoritarian)

Posted by Jeff at June 22, 2006 04:12 PM


Thank you, that really helped me, a student in London, trying to understand why Americans and Europeans appeared to be talking about two completely different concepts when they used the word "liberal". You are correct, of course, America was founded on liberalism.
Best regards

Posted by: Catriona at April 19, 2007 07:53 AM

America was not foundd on liberalism, it was founded on Christian values and beliefs.

Posted by: audentia at April 24, 2007 06:04 PM

America was not founded on Christian...anything.

Yes, America shares a lot of values with Christianity. America also shares a lot of values with Judiasm, Islamism, Buddhism, Hinduism...you get the picture. But Christianity does not serve as any kind of foundation of America.

Of course, I would never try to convince someone of that truth, if that someone is a person who has voluntarily shut down their own brain (i.e., someone who engages in faith).

Posted by: Jeff at April 24, 2007 06:53 PM

"Of course, I would never try to convince someone of that truth, if that someone is a person who has voluntarily shut down their own brain (i.e., someone who engages in faith)."

Is being condescending needed to validate your points of view? Your thesis would be more convincing if you were willing to not stoop to the level of the poster to whom you responded.

Please respect those people who choose to have faith and equally those who do not. Regardless, it sounds like no one hear has done extensive research into the writings, influences, and values of the founding fathers so it seems no one can claim they know where and what America was founded on however indirectly it may have been.



Posted by: Mike at February 4, 2008 05:15 PM

"Is being condescending needed to validate your points of view? Your thesis would be more convincing if you were willing to not stoop to the level of the poster to whom you responded."


It's a shame that even among people of the same political beliefs, there exists a very divisive and as previously stated, condescending view of those of faith. Oppression begins with the self-declared superiority of one group of people over another group. As much as most anti-religion activists like to brand people of faith as superiority complexed, narrow minded and intolerant, I can't help but to notice the irony.

Posted by: Detryck at June 10, 2008 03:05 PM

For years I, as a foreigner living in the US, have been incredibly non-plussed by the often- pejorative use of the term "liberal", which is, in all other countries, regarded per the classic definition above, as a compliment, or at least, of noble intentions and of an unarguably fair world-view.

Well, it's not like trunk vs boot, so it would have saved many frustrating conversations, had I known of this odd premise beforehand!

Interestingly, there was no Internet look-up to "explain" this years ago, so most foreigners probably had the same experience for years, before figuring these sorts of things out.

The word "feminist" took a bit of time.

Even the subtle cultural differences influencing personal relationships, which have taken me years to figure out (and adapt to - good or bad), would have probably been pointed out so clearly on the Internet, I could have taken all kinds of short-cuts!

It seems we trade personal access (the risk of potential loss of privacy, etc.) for the luxurious gains of free-range public access... I guess it's a reasonable deal!

Posted by: jackie at October 20, 2008 06:33 PM

Despite perjorative view of liberals, there seems a difference even in America between the liberal view and the liberal political view.

The liberal view is tax the rich, tax the corporations, increase size of government, increase taxes on everyone, why no one knows, and they pretend to be smart.

This is the antithesis of conservatives who wants to keep rich people and corporations in America, creating jobs while reducing size of government, reducing taxes and demanding accountability of government employees and political representatives.

They are the smart ones, and the liberal elite sending jobs overseas are the real dumb asses

Posted by: Don at April 18, 2011 11:19 PM

Chris Hedges really opened my eyes to this topic in "Death of The Liberal Class"
He explains how the american liberal class is a willing subject of the corporate dominance in this country and in that way supports american foreign policy which in turn is supporting globalization, war, countless human rights violations which is all completely anti liberal if you get my drift... the book changed my life and chris hedges has many other eye openers

Posted by: Tom at April 25, 2011 08:19 PM

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