Liberalism, and translating in your head

The quoted parts are from ‘Economics: The User’s Guide’ by Ha-Joon Chang, p 69,70.

Although the term was not explicitly used until the nineteenth century, the ideas behind liberalism can be traced to at least the seventeenth century, starting with thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The classical meaning of the term describes a position that gives priority to freedom of the individual. In economic terms, this means protecting the right of the individual to use his property as he pleases, especially to make money.

But “the individual” didn’t mean any individual, it meant white Christian property-owning men of the middle or upper class. This concept of “freedom of the individual” actually only applied to a small group of individuals within society as a whole. That part is never said straight out though, it’s just implied.

Today, liberalism is usually equated with advocacy of democracy, given its emphasis on individual rights, including the right to free speech. However, until the mid-twentieth century most liberals were not democrats. They did reject the conservative view that tradition and social hierarchy should have priority over individual rights. But they also believed that not everyone was worthy of such rights. They thought women lacked full mental faculties and thus did not deserve the right to vote. They also insisted that poor people should not be given the right to vote, since they believed the poor would vote in politicians who would confiscate private properties. Adam Smith openly admitted that the government ‘is in reality instituted for the defence of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.

Then, as now, this causes a great deal of unnecessary confusion: people talk about “individual freedom” when they really mean “freedom for the right kind of people, you know, the ones who really count” and you have to keep translating in your head in order to work out what’s really being said.

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