Hijacking Liberalism: Spencer’s The Man Versus the State

Hijacking Liberalism: Spencer’s The Man Versus the State

Liberalism was once about repealing laws, now it is about making laws. That the way in which we use the word “liberalism” mutated with time is beyond question. In the 20th century, “liberalism,” particularly in the U.S., overcame the idea of the sanctity of contracts between freely agreeing parties. Joseph Schumpeter once observed that the enemies of the system of free enterprise paid it an unintended compliment as they hijacked the very word “liberal” to apply it to their own views. Old-fashioned liberalism therefore became “classical liberalism” with modern liberalism being what perhaps may be more appropriately called social democracy.

This shift in the meaning of liberalism, however, predates the great depression and the New Deal. Herbert Spencer’s The Man Versus the State (1884, reprinted by the Liberty Fund in 1982) is an illuminating treatment of the subject. After…

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