The Reading Room

Bruno Leoni and the (Still Ongoing) ‘Semantic Revolution’ Against Liberty

What does language have to tell us about our daily politics? Can the use of specific terminologies influence public debates?
In his 1958 series of lectures, later published in 1961 as Freedom and the Law, Bruno Leoni discussed the ‘semantic change that huge pressure and propaganda groups have promoted in recent times.’ According to him, the evolution of language reflects the downfall of liberalism during the 20th century. Spoiler alert: Leoni helps us understand the 21st century, too.
In Freedom and the Law, Leoni dedicated entire chapters to the meaning of the term ‘freedom,’ which was traditionally understood as lack of interference. He did not only stress the difficulties of defining immaterial concepts or of translating them, but also noted the purposeful actions by specific groups that aimed to change their meaning. Leoni quoted, for example, legislation that made trade unions ‘free’ from the ‘constraint’ of court orders if employees attempted to coerce employers. Such laws only implemented ‘freedom’ for trade unions and not for society as a whole, so this is an extremely questionable definition of the concept. Indeed, being immune from prosecution is a privilege, not a freedom.
Leoni also shared Ludwig von Mises’ and Friedrich Hayek’s concern about the word ‘democracy’. He feared that people would ‘exploit the familiar sound of favorite words like democracy,’ whatever their meaning, simply to convince others of their views. Earlier, Mises had denounced in Human Action that coercion by trade unions was being disguised as ‘industrial democracy.’ More generally, Hayek noted in ‘The Confusion of Language in Political Thought’ that the meaning of democracy had been stretched to include unlimited and unconstrained power of the majority. In this regard, Leoni was concerned about situations when ‘a decision taken by a majority is not freely accepted, but only suffered by a minority.’
Today, the semantic revolution against liberty is still ongoing, and Leoni’s concerns from decades ago are highly relevant. The left continues to advocate for an understanding of freedom that they equate with privileges for specific groups, to the detriment of the rest of the society. The result is that, today, the left only supports ‘freedom’ for certain actors: In the job market, for example, they welcome the right to collective bargaining, but not anyone else's right to reject it.
Furthermore, Leoni’s warning against democracy seems entirely justified at a time when ‘democratic socialism’ is becoming fashionable. A growing number of people seem to be convinced that is it ‘democratic,’ and therefore good, to seize private property through various means so that government administers it to its liking. A concept like ‘democratic socialism’ should be unthinkable because of the intrinsic incompatibilities of socialism with democracy, yet its popularity is real. And worrisome.
In his book, Leoni also cautioned against advocating for the ‘certainty’ of the law, and the warning still holds. Leoni defined the long-run certainty of the law as the ‘uniformity of rules through the ages, and… [the] continuity to the modest and limited work of courts of judicature instead of that of legislative bodies.’ But he said, righthly, that this was incompatible with ‘the short-run certainty implied by identifying law with legislation,’ which was favored by collectivists who wanted government to pass more and more legislation. Indeed, the tendency to accumulate legislation implies that the law becomes less certain, because it is impossible for individuals to be up-to-date with all of its latest developments. This was true in 1961, and it is still true in 2023.
Over six decades ago, when Leoni published Freedom and the Law, ‘freedoms’ were giving way to privileges, ‘democracy’ was somehow turning to tyranny, and the law was getting more uncertain despite claims that it was turning more certain. Strikingly, all of these assertions are still true today, which means Leoni’s 20th-century analysis of language helps us understand our 21st-century problems. If we aim to understand how we lost freedoms in order to restore them, we must turn to (and revise) the very terms in which contemporary debates are based. The semantic revolution against liberalism will continue unless we stop it.