Lecture in Stockholm, 8 Jan 2014.
Google's massive digitization of texts has opened up research possibilities formerly undreamt of. Using tools such as n-grams, Daniel Klein reveals the first political usages of the term "liberal".
The results show that "liberal" in a political sense originates in Scotland, notably with the Edinburgh University historian William Robertson in 1769 and Adam Smith in 1776. Adam Smith's signal use of "liberal", and promulgation by Scots such as Dugald Stewart, is what really launched the take-off of "liberal" to describe what indeed became liberalism.
It has long been claimed that "liberal" in a political sense originated on the Continent, and that it was then imported into Britain and the English language. Klein mounts a multifaceted case that such an importation thesis is wrong. Rather, the Continent imported "liberal" in a political sense from the British (especially the Scots). It was the Scots who exported "liberal" in a political sense.
Swedes such as Georg Adlersparre were picking up on Adam Smith's usage of "liberal". This study shows that the original political use of "liberal" had at the core of its meaning, not democracy, not political participation, not state redistribution, but rather Smith's natural liberty.
Daniel Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is chief editor of Econ Journal Watch, and an associate fellow of the Ratio Institute.
January 17, 2014