Friday, January 21, 2005

Will "libertarian" go the way of "liberal"?

Words and their meanings shift disturbingly: the classical liberal of a century ago, in America, is probably a moderate conservative now. The term "liberal" has shifted alarmingly leftwards over the last few decades, to the extent that it's almost become a pejorative. George W Bush kept accusing John Kerry of being a liberal though their presidential debates, and an outraged Kerry kept denying it. The European "liberal" hasn't quite shifted that leftwards, and still means someone in favour of free markets to many people.

And is it now the turn of "libertarian"? In a piece titled "John Locke Lite" in Reason magazine, Tom Palmer examines how the left is trying to usurp the term. He writes:
Advocates of massive redistribution who seek to make every property title subject to expropriation have decided they want to be known as “libertarians.” Since it’s hard to appropriate a label outright, they’re willing to share it: They have taken to calling themselves “left libertarians,” to distinguish themselves from “right libertarians.” One of them, Philippe van Parijs, uses the term “real libertarianism,” because he feels real liberty is about doing whatever you want to do, which means you have a right to be comfortably supported by others, even if you are able-bodied but refuse to produce anything and instead spend all your time surfing and hanging out.

Sigh. On a related note, read Ravikiran Rao's post on how labels change their meanings through the years.

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