L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 84, August 7, 2000
On Corruption of Language
by Joshua Freeman
Special to TLE
In The Road to Serfdom, (hardcover, paperback) F. A. Hayek explained how the political meaning of the word "freedom" had been subtly perverted by proponents of socialism. "Freedom" had formerly referred to a freedom from coercion and from outside tyranny; the "new freedom" was freedom from material want and from the uneven economic restriction of individuals' choices. With the "new freedom," everyone's options, so far as they were dictated by economics, were to be equal. "Freedom" now meant not only equality of rights, but equality of property, at least to a certain extent. Since liberalism seemed to be the prevailing intellectual trend of the time, Hayek points out, hijacking the word "freedom" gave socialists "another word in common with the liberals"; the positive associations people had with liberalism could be to some extent transferred, unearned, to socialism.
Particularly since Hayek's time, a similar transformation has taken place in regard to the very word "liberalism." Historically, liberalism was a political philosophy calling for lessened government control of the individual, personally, economically, or both. In more recent years, however, "liberalism," at least in the United States, has come to refer to a rather ambiguous collection of positions generally calling for decreased government control of personal liberties and increased government control of economic activity. "Conservatism" has undergone a similar transformation, from a position generally opposing the liberalization of both personal and economic liberties to one defending the economic liberties that were in fact gained as well as opposing the trend toward greater personal liberty.
The transformation of the word "conservatism" is in a sense logical; the basic and most general meaning of "conservatism" is an opposition to change. Since economic liberalism more or less became the status quo in the United States, defending it has been a position of conservatism, of opposition to change. The modern "conservative" opposition to a broadening of civil liberties is, in the same way, a favoring of the conservation of social order as it is.
The word "liberalism," however, is not fundamentally an antonym of "conservatism." While "conservative" positions, by the words simplest definition, favor a retention of current policy, "liberalism" connotes a position of favoring greater autonomy and freedom for individuals, regardless of what the current circumstances are. It is inconsistent with the obvious lexical roots of the word for "liberalism" to imply support for a reduction of economic liberty; however, given the new meaning of "freedom" given it by promulgators of socialism, economic liberty might well be believed to be an elimination of the "despotisim of physical want," as Hayek puts it. The existence of two different and contradictory meanings of the word "freedom" has led to the blurring of the meaning of the word "liberalism," so far as economics are concerned.