It is hard to find free-market think tanks which use the term capitalism in their name or even in their mission statement. As the word “liberal,” at least in the U.S., tends to be used by the enemies of the free market, it is understandable that free-market think tanks seldom use it. For a while, Cato tried to use the term “market liberal.” The mission statement now uses the word libertarian to describe its guiding philosophy.
Two noted scholars, Mario Rizzo and Richard Epstein, at NYU, started the Classical Liberal Institute in 2013. They are part of a group of economists, political scientists and philosophers who have endorsed Liberalism Unrelinquished (LU), an effort to recover the word. Dan Klein, a professor of economics at George Mason University, and one of the leaders of the LU campaign has written that the “Anglo” world created the term liberal. It was in part of this world, the United States, where the term began to be corrupted and today it means almost exactly the opposite of what it meant at the dawn of the twentieth century. David Green’s “The Language of Politics in America” (1987) is still one of the best books describing how “liberal” became appropriated by proponents of state-activity. The change was consolidated in the 1940s. Green aptly describes how in politics words are used like weapons, not only as tools.
After more than 70 years of using the word in the statist sense, it is yet unclear how successful the effort to recover “liberal” will be. After the “Republicans” in Spain became identified with socialists, also around the 1940s, the term was never recovered. It is now used by the radical left.
The word liberal had its problems in other countries as well. In Brazil, the success of one of the first think tanks, the Instituto Liberal (or Liberal Institute) in Rio de Janeiro, led other think tanks to use the same liberal label. Brazilians had Liberal Institutes in São Paulo, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Brasilia, Recife, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador. The political use of the word, however, led most of them to change their name. The Brazilian Liberal Party was captured by people with little inclination to economic liberty. Instituto Millenium, Instituto Mises, Ordem Livre, Instituto Liberdade, and Instituto de Estudos Empresariais are some of the groups which, at least on their name, shun the liberal label.
In Europe some free society champions still use the term. There are “Liberal Institutes” in the Czech Republic, Germany, andSwitzerland. During the 19th century, and still in many countries, the term liberal encompassed people who today would define themselves as libertarian, “fusionists” (who combine traditional values with libertarian means), Randians, and even many conservatives. It is questionable if “anarcho-capitalists” such as Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute (US), Jeffrey Tucker ofLaissez Faire books; or Jesús Huerta de Soto, a famous Spanish scholar, would feel at ease with the liberal label. They have yet to sign the LU statement (full list here). The liberals of the past believed in limited government. Some anarcho-capitalists believe that laws, defense, security, can be bought and managed by the highest bidder, they just have to be open to competition. Not clear who will enforce that competition, but I shared that creed during my youth.
Another label which is shun by free-market think tanks is “neo-liberal.” It is almost despised by today’s free-marketers. It was used by noted Austrian economists to differentiate themselves from some of the theoretical views, such as their theory of value, of 19th century Classical Liberals. Milton Friedman used the term neo-liberal in an important essay in 1951. Decades before, in 1922, Ludwig von Mises used the German neuenLiberalismus “new liberalism”, and contrasted it with the older liberalism. During the discussions that started theMont Pelerin Society in 1947, a meeting that included Mises, Hayek and Friedman, most speakers used the word liberal in its pro free-market sense. Nevertheless some argued that as the word liberal was associated with different things in different countries it would be better to replace it by the “philosophy of freedom.”
Leading free-market think tanks understand the importance of words. In 1996, Milton Friedman, before starting what is today the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, commissioned an extensive study about the meaning of words in the K-12 educational debate. In order to improve the impact of its work, the Fraser Institute, in Canada, also studies how the Canadian public reacts to different policy words. These surveys are not public, but in both countries, non-ideological words like freedom, choice, and private property, create many more positive responses than “markets” or “free markets” let alone “capitalism” or “liberal.” As Canada, like Brazil, has an official Liberal party, the word is seldom used by think tanks in their mission and name. The Institute for Liberal Studies, which conducts effective programs for university studies, is an exception, and might lead the way in the effort to recover the word.
It is clear that think tanks that champion the free society in foreign countries will face different language challenges. A new one comes from Chile, where the free market process and its favorite words are under attack. The Spanish word for “profit” (lucro from the Latin lucrum] is being demonized pushing some free-enterprise advocates to the defensive but prompting a counter-offensive by others. The battle for words will continue and think tanks, if they want to be effective and reach wider audiences, will have to engage and identify the best way to communicate their message.
ALEX CHAFUEN | FORBES