Classical Liberalism Hijacked

Liberalism Hijacked – – Still a work in progress of putting the pieces together.

In the most simplified of terms: Liberalism= individualism, individual rights,Individual liberty, and freedom from restraint.

Q-How did a liberal go from a promoter of the maximum amount of individual freedom in all aspects to a so called “liberal” advocating any and every kind of government control?


First lets start with what true liberalism really is:

Classical liberalism – It is committed to the ideal of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets (economic liberalism). It also includes the importance of human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, the protection of civil liberties, individual freedom from restraint, equality under the law, constitutional limitation of government, and historically a gold standard to facilitate global free trade and place fiscal constraints on government. In the rest of the world, it is simply known as liberalism.  In America, this new liberalism means nearly the opposite.  Traditional Liberalism is based on the founding of America and why many say Jeffersonian liberalism. The new American meaning has been made into any form of collectivism. It’s a matter of individual rights vs. group rights or individualism vs. collectivism. One holds that there is no smaller minority than the individual, the other believes group rights trump individual rights.

In his book Liberalism (1929), Ludwig von Mises sums up,

“The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production… All the other demands of liberalism result from his fundamental demand.”

Political and economic collectivist ideology such as Socialism, Fascism, Progressivism and Communism have been words that are usually not very respected and typically looked down upon in America so it is natural to develop other labels that can be used to accomplish the same objectives. It is from this point that “liberalism”, among other words, has become corrupted and manipulated to mean different things, and in fact, opposites. Some claim this an example of ideological evolution but others believe this has been an intentional act of terminological theft.

To find this early acknowledgment was in a 1920s New York Times article that criticized “the expropriation of the time-honored word ‘liberal'” and argued that “the radical red school of thought…hand back the word ‘liberal’ to its original owners.”

If you note the era of the NYT’s article, you will see that this is a process that had begun with the progressive movement in the early twentieth century. The first progressive president in America was Republican Theodore Roosevelt. Following Roosevelt was Taft but he was mildly progressive while the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, was truly the more powerful second and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the even more powerful third progressive president.

Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises  wrote in prescience,

“In the United States “liberal” means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities, i.e., socialism.”Liberalism (1929)

When Mises argued against anti-liberal policies by saying it is “socialism”, he considered, as I do, that socialism refers to all forms of central economic planning. This includes national socialism (Nazism), fascism, progressivism, Fabian socialism, and communism (international socialism). Historically, the commonly used economic terms include state capitalism, state socialism, planned economy, and industrial policy. In reality, there are many more terms to describe these similar economic policies which, in the end, are all similar attempts at the same Utopian ends. Today, all of this is can be considered to be some form of progressivism in America. War was originally an excuse for central planning but it has branched off in several directions. Leftist progressives have created many forms of “war” — war of drugs, poverty, global warming, etc– to achieve their goals. The progressivism on the right–typically termed neoconservative– have adopted many aspects of pro-war.  “Neo” is used because many modern conservatives– emulating Republican, Robert Taft— have argued that true conservatism is non-interventionist which means they do not support wars of aggression or nation building.

Ludwig von Mises explained in his 1922 book Socialism that,

“The socialist movement takes great pains to circulate frequently new labels for its ideally constructed state. Each worn-out label is replaced by another which raises hopes of an ultimate solution of the insoluble basic problem of Socialism—until it becomes obvious that nothing has been changed but the name. The most recent slogan is “State Capitalism.”[Fascism] It is not commonly realized that this covers nothing more than what used to be called Planned Economy and State Socialism, and that State Capitalism, Planned Economy, and State Socialism diverge only in non-essentials from the “classic” ideal of egalitarian Socialism.” (p.22)

The outspoken socialist, H.G. Wells, was of the greatest influences on the progressive mind in the twentieth century (and, it turns out, the inspiration for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Wells didn’t coin the phrase as an indictment, but as a badge of honor. Progressives must become “liberal fascists” and “enlightened Nazis,” he told the Young Liberals at Oxford in a speech in July 1932.

In 1927 H.G. Wells (An enormous fan of FDR’s New Deal) couldn’t help but notice “the good there is in these Fascists. There is something brave and well-meaning about them.”

By 1941 no less a figure than George Orwell couldn’t help but conclude,

“Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there…” Source

The fact that fascism and Nazism were admired by many American ‘liberal’ progressives and British Fabian socialist intellectuals should come as no surprise. Their tendency toward learning from evolving thought in collectivist intellectual movements was natural and Germany was making great “progress” in economic planning, science, and eugenics which was a common characteristic among socialists of all stripes; All resembling some form of scientific statism. These new ideas were not viewed as being diametrically opposed to socialism and it actually helped give spread to the modern evolution of the current socialist movements in the world. This does not mean that all socialists agreed on this or that they are all entirely identical philosophically as an obvious difference between the classical socialists was class conflict and anti-nationalism while fascists believed that all groups and classes could be harmonized and brought into unity by the nation state (corporatism). However, when compared to true liberalism (IE Classical liberalism), the differences only truly matter in academia.

Ludwig von Mises (1940) recognized the growing popularity of central economic planning, scientific statism, and eugenic thought. Not that he or any true liberal believes that science was bad by any means but the fact that “science” was used by the elites to justify and politically “plan”society was where it went and is going horribly wrong. He realized the hijacking of the label “liberal” in America and said, “The “progressives” who today masquerade as “liberals” may rant against “fascism”; yet it is their policy that paves the way for Hitlerism.”

Many progressive “liberals” today claim to be opposed to the doctrines of fascism because Mussolini and Hitler were against liberalism. Here is where we get to the an important point. They were anti-liberal but they were referring to classical liberalism.

Benito Mussolini himself said that “Fascism has taken up an attitude of complete opposition to the doctrines of Liberalism, both in the political field and in the field of economics”. And that “If classical liberalism spells individualism, fascism spells government.” ~ Benito Mussolini, Fascism: Doctrines and Institutions, p. 10

In 1927, Benito Mussolini stated: “It may be expected that this will be a century of authority, a century of the Left, a century of Fascism. For the nineteenth century was a century of individualism…. [Liberalism always signifying individualism], it may be expected that this will be a century of collectivism, and hence the century of the State….”

The quotes above certainly display how they are not the liberals that Hitler and Mussolini despised and were directly opposed to. The new American progressive “liberals” have been well known to be anti-liberal in the realm of economics and hostile towards many aspects of individualism–demonizing it as selfish and greedy.

Ludwig von Mises (1952) also said “The idea that political freedom can be preserved in the absence of economic freedom, and vice versa, is an illusion. Political freedom is the corollary of economic freedom.” Economic freedom and political freedom are mutually essential to true liberalism. To believe that you cannot fully own your property or business and use it for the ends that you speculate may please yourself or your customers the most–without massive state intervention–and still maintain political freedom is a myth. If you cannot use your property (including you wealth) how you see fit, you do not have political freedom. Hence economic and political freedom go hand and hand.

This implies modern liberals have much more in common with fascists and socialists than they would lead you to believe. This does NOT mean that they are the exact same as German National socialists, Italian fascists or Soviet socialists either but it dispels the common myths of them being polar opposites. When you look beyond the top layer of the onion , they share some significant characteristics (gun control or confiscation, State control of or heavy regulation of commerce, regulated free speech, a general social nannyism, and an overall collectivist/statist mindset). Today, while there are different forms of modern militant-like groups, fascism has generally come with more of a happy face than the sternness of past forms. Also, modern progressives are still loyal to Keynesian economics of which both fascists and socialists were and are faithful to as well.

As the Socialist Party candidate for president, Norman Thomas said in a 1944 speech:

“The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But, under the name of ‘liberalism,’ they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.” He went on to say: “I no longer need to run as a presidential candidate for the Socialist Party. The Democratic Party has adopted our platform.”

Hayek stated in the Forward to the Road to Serfdom (1944) that

“I use throughout the term ‘liberal’ in the original, nineteenth-century

sense in which it is still current in Britain. In current American usage it often means very nearly the opposite of this. It has been part of the camouflage of leftish movements in this country, helped by muddleheadedness of many who really believe in liberty, that ‘liberal’ has come to mean the advocacy of almost every kind of government control.

I am still puzzled why those in the United States who truly believe in liberty should not only have allowed the left to appropriate this almost indispensable term but should even have assisted by beginning to use it themselves as a term of opprobrium. This seems to be particularly regrettable because of the consequent tendency of many true liberals to describe themselves as conservatives.”

Another Economist, Joseph Schumpeter (1950) said

“The term (liberalism) has acquired a different- in fact almost opposite meaning since about 1900 and especially since about 1930. As a supreme, if unintended compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label.” —History of economic Analysis (p.372)

Milton Friedman hits the nail on the head in regards to the manipulative use of the term liberalism and how it relates to being “reactionary”.

“Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis, particularly in economic policy. It came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as desirable. The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom. The nineteenth century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought. In the very act of turning the clock back to seventeenth-century mercantilism, he is fond of castigating true liberals as reactionary!” Capitalism and Freedom

Ludwig von Mises also states with a certain clarity that

“Liberalism and capitalism address themselves to the cool, well-balanced mind. They proceed by strict logic, eliminating any appeal to the emotions. Socialism, on the contrary, works on the emotions, tries to violate logical considerations by rousing a sense of personal interest and to stifle the voice of reason by awakening primitive instincts.” Socialism p. 460 Ludwig von Mises (1922)

Scholar Leonard Liggio (a self-described classical liberal) holds that social liberalism does not share the same intellectual foundations as classical liberalism. He says,

“Classical liberalism is liberalism, but the current collectivists have captured that designation in the United States. Happily they did not capture it in Europe, and were glad enough to call themselves socialists. But no one in America wants to be called socialist and admit what they are.”

A professor of philosophy,Richard Hudelson, wrote in his book Modern political philosophy that,

“It is important not to confuse this classical liberalism with the political ideology known as “liberalism” in the United States. In fact, the ideology of classical liberalism is closer to what today is a current of conservatism in the United States.” (p.37)

The Cato Institute says in their About section, “Only in America do people seem to refer to free-market capitalism–the most progressive, dynamic, and ever-changing system the world has ever known–as conservative.” And “The liberals in societies from China to Iran to South Africa to Argentina are supporters of human rights and free markets–but its meaning has clearly been corrupted by contemporary American liberals.”

Thus the CATO Institute sees Classical Liberals and libertarians being from the same ideological family. The CATO Institute often prefers to call themselves liberals because they see themselves as the true and only rightful inheritors of Liberalism. Modern-day American liberalism is a descendant of progressivism. Progressivism has roots of using all brands of collectivism/statism. A segment of modern-day American conservatism is the direct descendant of classical liberalism. Freedom is not slavery and liberalism is not statism. Its time we start correctly using words by their original meaning to cease the manipulation and infiltration of the collectivist agenda.

Marx said, “Corrupt the money and the language, and capitalism can be brought down.”

Free books:

Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition- Ludwig von Mises (full book in pdf) (full book in HTML)

Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism- Jörg Guido Hülsmann (full book in pdf)

The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton– Ralph Raico (Full book in pdf)

The Liberal Tradition: From Fox to Keynes- Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock (full book in pdf)

Keynes at Harvard– Zygmund Dobbs (full book in HTML)

Additional Reading:

What Is Classical Liberalism?

Liberalism: History and Future

The Progressive Era’s Derailment of Classical-Liberal Evolution

The Culture of Classical Liberalism

The Psychological Roots of Antiliberalism

Philosophy 1 On 1 – The Principles of Classical Liberalism Are Intuitive

The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism

Was Keynes a Liberal?




About ClassicalLiberalism

The philosophy of liberty is a beautiful thing.
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