On the Term "Liberalism"

by Ludwig von Mises

[Posted on Friday, March 31, 2006]
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Those who are familiar with the writings on the subject of liberalism that have appeared in the last few years and with current linguistic usage will perhaps object that what has been called liberalism in the present volume does not coincide with what is understood by that term in contemporary political literature.

I am far from disputing this.

On the contrary I have myself expressly pointed out that what is understood by the term "liberalism" today, especially in Germany, stands in direct opposition to what the history of ideas must designate as "liberalism" because it constituted the essential content of the liberal program of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Almost all who call themselves "liberals" today decline to profess themselves in favor of private ownership of the means of production and advocate measures partly socialist and partly interventionist. They seek to justify this on the ground that the essence of liberalism does not consist in adherence to the institution of private property, but in other things, and that these other things demand a further development of liberalism, so that it must today no longer advocate private ownership of the means of production but instead either socialism or interventionism.

As to just what these "other things" might be, these pseudo liberals have yet to enlighten us. We hear much about humanity, magnanimity, real freedom, etc. These are certainly very fine and noble sentiments, and everyone will readily subscribe to them. And, in fact, every ideology does subscribe to them. Every ideology — aside from a few cynical schools of thought — believes that it is championing humanity, magnanimity, real freedom, etc.

What distinguishes one social doctrine from another is not the ultimate goal of universal human happiness, which they all aim at, but the way by which they seek to attain this end. The characteristic feature of liberalism is that it proposes to reach it by way of private ownership of the means of production.

But terminological issues are, after all, of secondary importance. What counts is not the name, but the thing signified by it. However fanatical may be one's opposition to private property, one must still concede at least the possibility that someone may be in favor of it. And if one concedes this much, one will, of course, have to have some name to designate this school of thought.

One must ask those who today call themselves liberals what name they would give to an ideology that advocates the preservation of private ownership of the means of production. They will perhaps answer that they wish to call this ideology "Manchesterism." The word "Manchesterism" was originally coined as a term of derision and abuse. Nevertheless, this would not stand in the way of its being employed to designate the liberal ideology if it were not for the fact that this expression has hitherto always been used to denote the economic rather than the general program of liberalism.

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The school of thought that advocates private ownership of the means of production must in any case also be granted a claim to some name or other. But it is best to adhere to the traditional name. It would create only confusion if one followed the new usage that allows even protectionists, socialists, and warmongers to call themselves "liberal" when it suits them to do so.

The question could rather be raised whether, in the interest of facilitating the diffusion of liberal ideas, one ought not to give the ideology of liberalism a new name, so that the general prejudice fostered against it, especially in Germany, should not stand in its way.

Such a suggestion would be well-intentioned, but completely antithetic to the spirit of liberalism. Just as liberalism must, from inner necessity, eschew every trick of propaganda and all the underhanded means of winning general acceptance favored by other movements, so it must also avoid abandoning its old name simply because it is unpopular.

Precisely because the word "liberal" has a bad connotation in Germany, liberalism must stick to it. One may not make the way to liberal thinking easier for anyone, for what is of importance is not that men declare themselves liberals, but that they become liberals and think and act as liberals.

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was dean of the Austrian School. This article is excerpted from an appendix to the book LiberalismComment on the blog.