460. The taming power of the small (XI)
The word “liberal” has a curious history, filled with many crisscrosses back and forth. Recently, Twitter user Carlsbad noted that the political term was coined in opposition to French revolutionaries—the right, as then was, opposed “Jacobins” and not “liberals”; in this sense, “liberal” is a word like “ideology” that has flipped over—“ideology” was also originally developed as a term by men opposed to the French Revolution. “Liberal” appears in the 14th century from the Latin “liberalis”, which meant “noble, generous, freehanded, and gracious”. The contemporary idea that a “liberal elite”—in Washington or London—dictates to the masses is quite apposite; a liberal always sees himself as a nobleman of a sort, even if he is a democratic nobleman who protects “minorities” and “the oppressed”.
By the 18th century it was possible to speak about “a liberal gentleman” with positive overtones. A day labourer in some Devon village might turn to his companion as the squire went by and say, “Squire Trelawney is a very liberal gentleman en no mistake. Shows a freehand to all his friends, puts on the biggest Christmas spread—invites all the village, not like some. En he’s building new cottages down by the quay for the widows from the fisheries.” “He’s a gent if ever there was one,” replies his gap-toothed friend. This sense, the sense that you could “show a liberal hand to all”, conveys generosity. Today, liberals like to think of themselves as “just good people” because they are generous; the difference is that, unlike Squire Trelawney, they are generous with other people’s money—the state budget—and not their own; and that is not true generosity at all.
However, the word “liberal” fluctuated a little more than this. Before the Enlightenment, it went through a period where it was mostly negative in connotation. It conveyed excess and looseness, moral slackness and spendthrift ways—to be too free with money or sex. Thus in Much Ado About Nothing we have: “Who hath indeed, most like a liberal villain / Confess'd the vile encounters they have had / A thousand times in secret.” The Enlightenment fully rehabilitated “liberal”, particularly as an antonym to someone who was “bigoted”—a dichotomy that carries on today.
By 1776, “a liberal” was a person who took a free-and-easy, generous, and, as we say today, non-judgemental view as regards religion—from the more religious perspective, “a liberal” was someone who did not follow the faith. “Liberal” in this sense, as opposed to a “bigot”, was particularly associated with Unitarians and Universalists, people who opposed “orthodoxy”. In other words, “liberalism” has always been associated with those people Yarvin identified as the originators of America’s civic religion, the people we now know as “the woke”.
By the 1820s, “liberal” had come to mean, particularly in America, “open to the reform of government and institutions” and this, eventually, morphed into “liberal” in the modern American sense: “A person who wishes to use the government to reform society”. Despite the semantic drift, the modern “liberal”—“the libs” Americans like to “own” online—retains a relation to its genealogy. To reform society through government you will have to be openhanded (with other people’s money) and you will have to be broadminded about what new schemes might work (“More women on executive boards?”)—and you will not want to be “a bigot” against other faiths, you must not be, for example, “Islamophobic”. Further, to reform society you must be an elitist—a nobleman who shepherds the masses from “superstition” to “science”.
So the modern term “liberal” is still related to the word’s full sense through the ages. Essentially, in its benign form, “a liberal” was an aristocratic gentleman who was generous with his money and time, and also broadminded and not bigoted about religion; eventually, the term came to mean a dissolute nobleman—a man who spent too freely; and then it became the name for a new revolutionary elite who wanted to be “liberal” with other people’s property.