Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: On the Term Liberalism - Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (LF ed.)
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2: On the Term “Liberalism” - Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (LF ed.) 
Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, trans. Ralph Raico, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).
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On the Term “Liberalism”
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 as they define this word 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 as the term is used in this book 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.
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. And it is best to adhere to the traditional name. It would only create 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 with 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.
A second objection that can be raised against the terminology used in this book is that liberalism and democracy are not here conceived as opposites. Today in Germany “liberalism” is often taken to mean the doctrine whose political ideal is the constitutional monarchy, and “democracy” is understood as that which takes as its political ideal the parliamentary monarchy of the republic. This view is, even historically, altogether untenable. It was the parliamentary, not the constitutional, monarchy that liberalism strove for, and its defeat in this regard consisted precisely in the fact that in the German Empire and in Austria it was able to achieve only a constitutional monarchy. The triumph of antiliberalism lay in the fact that the German Reichstag was so weak that it might be accurately, if not politely, characterized as a “babblers’ club,” and the conservative party leader who said that a lieutenant and twelve men would suffice to dissolve the Reichstag was speaking the truth.
Liberalism is the more comprehensive concept. It denotes an ideology embracing all of social life. The ideology of democracy encompasses only that part of the realm of social relationships that refers to the constitution of the state. The reason why liberalism must necessarily demand democracy as its political corollary was demonstrated in the first part of this book. To show why all antiliberal movements, including socialism, must also be antidemocratic is the task of investigations that undertake to provide a thorough analysis of the character of these ideologies. In regard to socialism, I have attempted this in my book, Socialism.
It is easy for a German to go astray here, for he thinks always of the National Liberals and the Social Democrats. But the National Liberals were not, even from the outset—at least in matters of constitutional law—a liberal party. They were that wing of the old “liberal” party which professed to take its stand on “the facts as they really are”; that is, which accepted as unalterable the defeat that liberalism had sustained in the Prussian constitutional conflict from the opponents on the “Right” (Bismarck) and on the “Left” (the followers of Lassalle). The Social Democrats were democratic only so long as they were not the ruling party; that is, so long as they still felt themselves not strong enough to suppress their opponents by force. The moment they thought themselves the strongest, they declared themselves—as their writers had always asserted was advisable at this point—for dictatorship. Only when the armed bands of the Rightist parties had inflicted bloody defeats on them did they again become democratic “until further notice.” Their party writers express this by saying: “In the councils of the social democratic parties, the wing which declared for democracy triumphed over the one which championed dictatorship.”
Of course, the only party that may properly be described as democratic is one that under all circumstances—even when it is the strongest and in control—champions democratic institutions.
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