Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

A review of the changes 1880-1940 to the central semantics of liberal civilization.

Dan’s Reflections



The spine of classical liberalism (the spine, not the heart or the head!) involves the ideas of commutative justice (CJ) and liberty:

Your doing commutative justice is: Not (initiating) messing with other people’s stuff

Your having liberty is: Others not (initiating) messing with your stuff.

The two concepts are tightly related: Liberty is the flipside of CJ, and CJ is the flipside of liberty. (Though there’s more to it than that.)

The CJ-liberty complex figures directly into the story of many of the words treated by this website.

The overarching story of the semantic changes 1880-1940 turns principally on how the CJ-liberty complex was regarded and treated. Some of the words treated by this website, such as property and contract, play central roles in the CJ-liberty complex.

Subversion of the CJ-liberty complex could come in different forms. If liberty means others not (initiating) messing with your stuff, the ways to subvert the classical liberal understanding of that are several:

  1. One can alter understanding of what counts as “stuff;”
  2. One can alter understanding of whether certain stuff is “yours” or others’, such as “the people’s;” that is, one can reconfigure the configuration of ownership;
  3. One can alter understanding of what it means to “mess” with someone’s stuff (or to “initiate” messing—as, now, perhaps it is thought that it was you who initiated messing, by violating someone’s newfangled rightssuch as the right to not have to compete against laborers charging only $5/houror the supposed social contract).

What has actually happened: All of the above.

The pages of this website show these changes and the breakdowns in definitions.

Here I want to say a little bit about how the semantic wars relate to claims (sometimes only falsely attributed claims) for principles, in particular for the liberty principle.

My main message here is that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Yes, some of the bathwater was dirty, even unhealthy, but the baby, the CJ-liberty complex, was (to a great extent) tossed out with it, leaving the left-leaning culture without a firm spine of CJ/liberty, and consequently with little original-liberal soul. Its head and heart lurch, if not lean headlong, toward governmentalization. A culture needs a backbone to withstand all the pressures toward governmentalization.

I am avid for Adam Smith. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) he distinguishes the equal-equal relationship (like between you and your neighbor, or between you and your boss) from the superior-inferior relationship (the governmental legal power and you). I read Smith as seeing CJ as a concept that applies in both relationships, so, when the government violates the liberty principle, it violates CJ.

But Smith saw government as a special, exceptional player; the conventionalist view of government maintained by Hume and Smith saw very plainly that, although CJ was well-nigh indefeasible in equal-equal relationships, it and its flipside, the liberty principle, were to be only maxims, or presumptions, in the superior-inferior relationship. Exceptions to the liberty principle were recognized, accepted, sometimes even propounded.

Exceptions to the liberty principle were, in Smith, frequently defended on the grounds of liberty, in the sense that there are disagreements between the direct-liberty principle and the overall-liberty principle (on these, see 1, 2). Also, (and relatedly), in superior-inferior matters, the presumption of liberty has to share sway with another presumption, the presumption of the status quo. Readiness to accord sway to the latter presumption is Smith’s Solonic side (see 1, 2).

In TMS, Smith expounds that, among the virtues, CJ is exceptional, special; several of the main ideas of TMS turn on that specialness. Indeed, the very distinction between the equal-equal relationship and the superior-inferior relationship turns on CJ.

Still, CJ is but a grammar, within which equal-equal relationships are to proceed. CJ is not a philosophy of life. To embellish and enrich life one must look to more than CJ.

Superior-inferior relationships are, according to Smith, to venerate CJ and liberty, to hold them sacred. CJ and the liberty principle are to restrain the superior like the presumption of innocence restrains the prosecutor, judge, and jury. The restraint is known as the burden of proof.

Presumptions of CJ/liberty are built into the liberal semantics. CJ/liberty make up the spine of the Smithian outlook. But the heart felt and the head knew that richer, looser notions of justice (including what might be called estimative justice, for the third sense of justice enumerated on p. 270 of TMS), provided the warrant for the presumption of liberty, as well as for those contraventions of the (direct-)liberty principle that are to be approved of.

It seems to me that after 1790 understandings tended to be much flatter than Smith’s understandings. Some people tried to make grammatical or precise some of the things that cannot be grammatical or precise. Some neglected the distinction between the equal-equal relationship and the superior-inferior relationship, in an attempt to flatten all proper social relationships down to one kind (“we are the government, we rule ourselves”). In the early 1800s TMS fell into oblivion and it remained in oblivion until, say, about 35 years ago.

Critics of original liberalism often represented liberals and liberal thought in ways that do not fit Smith (and, yes, liberals themselves too often gave cause to such representations). Two ways stand out: First, the critics characterized liberals as bent on treating the CJ/liberty principles as supreme, indefeasible, axiomatic. Second, the critics characterized liberals as blind to ethical considerations that are not grammatical (that are, to use Smith’s expression, “loose, vague, and indeterminate”). Broadly speaking, people saw that the flattened images of liberalism were unacceptable, dirty bathwater; they regarded the CJ/liberty principles as the spine of such unacceptable apparitions and as obnoxious to their personal ideological interests. They threw out the misguided images of liberalism—and, with them, also, to a great extent, the CJ/liberty principles. They did so by subverting the semantics of the central words of liberal culture.

In academic and other left/center-left cultural arenas, the CJ/liberty principles have become matters of great taboo. But no matter how much people oppose and sabotage them, those principles cannot be entirely undone, if only because our equal-equal relationships serve as a parallel for our superior-inferior relationships, and in the former the regard for CJ/liberty principles is high and universal. So our culture has not fully torn out the CJ/liberty principles; our civilization is not a spineless, amorphous blob. But it is a real shame how much the spine of liberal civilization has been weakened, fractured, and abused.

4L is authored by Daniel B. Klein, Professor of Economics, JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute; email: dklein@gmu.edu

Quotations compiled by Ryan Daza & Daniel B. Klein