Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

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

Summary Tables of Meanings

For each word, the row in a table shows the principal original liberal meaning(s) followed by the new meanings and confusions.

The core set includes seven words, liberal, liberty, freedom, justice, property, contract, and equality, for which certain original-liberal meanings were rather definite and which then, subsequently, principally in the 1880-1940 period, were confused or undermined. The story of these seven words is the core exhibit of this website.

Core Set of Seven Words

Classical liberal meaning(s)
New meanings; confusions
A serious presumption of liberty, advanced by the scheme of liberal semantics; a proclivity toward reducing the governmentalization of social affairs. Government redistribution, welfarism, and interventionism generally, based on precept of overlordism; a proclivity toward augmenting the governmentalization of social affairs.
Liberty and Freedom
Others not messing with your stuff (liberty is the flipside of commutative justice); understood on an individualist/atomistic configuration of ownership. (1) Liberation of the polity to act and create meaning; (2) positive capabilities for the individual; (3) rights to terms prescribed by government (or “civil liberty”).
Commutative justice (CJ) is primary; you do CJ when you refrain from messing with others’ stuff; CJ is the flipside of the liberty principle; injustice implies an action that violates a principle of commutative justice; CJ is grammar-like. The undoing of the atomistic configuration of ownership destroys the sense of grammar in government rules regarding private doings; “social justice,” which one can think of as distributive justice now on a collectivist/overlordist configuration of ownership.
Property is something owned by the owner(s) of the property; ownership is understood as exclusion or dominion over the property, understood on an individualistic/atomistic configuration of ownership; the exclusion/dominion claim is not morally absolute/indefeasible/axiomatic, but it is presumptive.State/polity/people as overlord, with private property as either enveloped within a supposed social contract or as a tenant-like subdominion, sometimes thought of as a “bundle of rights.”
An agreed exchange of promises involving a meeting of minds or the procedural doings that customarily represent such a meeting of minds (e.g., the welcome entry and participation within the domain of another’s property). (1) Democracy, governmental procedure, or supposed consent given by choosing to exist within the overlord’s dominion; “social contract.” (2) Some vague set of agreements, only, not impelled by “necessity,” the “capitalist system,” etc., thus, it is not voluntary contract when one party, from poverty, is “forced to work.”
The principles of commutative justice go for all equally; everyone equally is “king” of his stuff. Equality before the law. (1) Equality in condition (e.g., wealth or income) or opportunity. (2) Equality in ability to participate in political processes, notably elections.

Next is a table of another three words – equity, law, and rights. Their stories are perhaps less exemplary of what this website aims to show. I offer some further remarks about equity and rights in an endnote here.

Secondary Set of Three Words

Classical liberal meaning(s)
New meanings; confusions
Procedural fairness in a sense of equal regard or dignity of individuals, within the system of governmental law and lawmaking; responsibly interpreting the fine points, gray areas, delimitations, etc. of the law; judging whether a law is good or just (in the widest sense of justice). Equal weight in reckoning social welfare; getting one’s “fair” slice of a collective pie (often justified by citing the diminishing marginal utility of wealth).
Law is rules given by a law-giver, but the law-giver can be theological (God) or figurative (“nature,” “society,” “custom,” “convention,” etc.). Laws are not confined to rules enforced or authorized by government (a notion itself figurative, in a way), but also may be informal, customary, and moral. Every rule is subject to judgment based on higher rules, and each level of rules may be denominated “law.” (1) Some writers wish to confine “law” to governmental legal rules; legal positivism. (2) Some writers emphasize government law as the means or expression of societal purpose, organization, or solidarity.
The most central rights are those of CJ/liberty. Rights imply duties, but duties are not confined to governmental legal impositions. They include moral duties (or accountability to disapproval, disapprobation, and abstention). Thus, rights are very broad and take different schemes. (1) Rights are only what are enforced by governmental legal impositions. All rights are “positive.” (2) Schemes of rights at odds with the atomistic configuration (“right to food”, etc.).

Other words not yet treated by this website, such as privilege, coercion, force, consent, and voluntary also fit the broader story, I believe. Also, it is my impression that during the late 20c rule of law underwent something of a change, now often meaning simply compliance and enforcement of government rules and procedures, whatever they be, whereas older notions of rule of law had to do with such things as integrity to basic bottom-up understandings, generality/simplicity, coherence, and common applicability of the rules to government officials and ordinary citizens alike.

Remarks on the stories of Equity and Rights:

Equity: The word was perhaps not so central in classical liberalism to begin with; see James Reddie (1840, 123-25) for a discussion of multiple meanings. Changes in meaning came perhaps especially sometime after the core period of transition 1880-1940. The Ngram shows a significant upturn from 1970, perhaps because “equity” became the term in economics (the social sciences generally?) for distributional issues.

Rights: For classical liberals, the rights corresponding to commutative justice and liberty were central, but focus on such rights is simply a corollary of focusing on commutative justice and liberty; it doesn’t necessarily reflect a special understanding of the concept of rights. Some libertarians today might want to treat rights (as well as law) differently than I have. 

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