Montreal, February 5, 2006 • No 165




Jean-Hugho Lapointe is a lawyer. He holds a certificate in business administration from Université Laval.




« As a supreme if unintended compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label. »


- Joseph A. Schumpeter


by Jean-Hugho Lapointe


          During the course of the 20th century, the word "liberal" has evolved in a dramatic way, and particularly on the American continent. Once a word that referred to the free market and limited government interventionism, it now means exactly the opposite, especially in the United States where welfare-state supporters are commonly called liberals. In Canada, centrist or left-of-centre parties are oftenly branded with the same word(1).

          Indeed, with the help of friendly media and of some intellectual circles, the various proponents of government interventionism and of the welfare-state (which shall be regrouped under the term "leftists" in the present discussion) have successfully changed the meaning of several words so that these words can serve their purposes or, perhaps more importantly, no longer hinder them.


Words by the left

          Leftists realized early that liberty may be the only value shared by each and every human being, and that it may be their dearest. Leftist philosophers were at the same time well aware that their ideas, which all involve the coercive power of the state, were not reconcilable with political freedom and that for both to exist, the later needs to be reduced for the benefit of the former. Some leftists and socialists thus simply began to use the word freedom as if it was compatible with leftist policies, while some others put forward a new concept of economic freedom(2).

          On this, Hayek had these insights:

          To allay these suspicions and to harness to its cart the strongest of all political motives – the craving for freedom – socialism began increasingly to make use of the promise of a “new freedom.”


          The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth. But the new name gave the socialists another word in common with the liberals, and they exploited it to the full. And, although the word was used in a different sense by the two groups, few people noticed this and still fewer asked themselves whether the two kinds of freedom promised could really be combined.(3)

          The reversal of the sense of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism’ is now complete, as Milton Friedman also explains:

          The nineteenth-century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites or alternatives to freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought.(4)

          Over time, this deception allowed leftist political organisations to earn some legitimacy at branding themselves as liberals or at supporting individual liberties, but its most perverse effect probably was that it helped leftists to hide the core aspect of their policies that renders them so undesirable to almost every citizen when presented honestly – namely their incompatibility with the universally desirable political freedom. As Hayek finds:

          There can be no doubt that the promise of greater freedom has become one of the most effective weapons of socialist propaganda and that the belief that socialism would bring freedom is genuine and sincere. [...] Unquestionably, the promise of more freedom was responsible for luring more and more liberals along the socialist road, for binding them to the conflict which exists between the basic principles of socialism and liberalism, and for often enabling socialists to usurp the very name of the old party of freedom. Socialism was embraced by the greater part of the intelligentsia as the apparent heir of the liberal tradition: therefore it is not surprising that to them the idea of socialism’s leading to the opposite of liberty should appear inconceivable.(5)

          Sadly for the state of our society’s political awareness, this seems to be even truer now than it was sixty years ago.

"Social": a corrupted and corrupting word

          Few words, if any, have been used more often and to all purposes in political debates than the word "social." I would suggest that a word that can be used to any purpose and in any context has no meaning by itself, just like water can be used in so many recipes because it is tasteless.

          Now, if "social" has no meaning in itself, let’s see if it has the virtue of giving new meanings to the nouns it qualifies.

          In one of his works(6), Hayek presents a list of one hundred and sixty (160) nouns qualified by the word ‘social’ that he met through his readings, like ‘action’ or ‘development,’ for instance. His conclusion is of the same essence:

          It is difficult to conclude from this list alone whether the word "social" has acquired so many different meanings as to become useless as a tool of communication.(7)

          Hayek then indicates, in one of his famous quotes, that the word "social" “has acquired the power to empty the nouns it qualifies of their meaning.” This brings him to describe the word "social" as a weasel word:

          As a weasel is alleged to be able to empty an egg without leaving a visible sign, so can these words deprive of content any term to which they are prefixed while seemingly leaving them untouched. [...] But while the rule of law and the market are, at the start, fairly clear concepts, the attribute "social" empties them of any clear meaning.(8)

          What can be said, at least, is that the way this word has come to be used nowadays by journalists, teachers, artists or special interest groups' representatives leads us to believe that when a word is qualified by "social," as in "social action," a sense of morality is underlying – leftists are slowly succeeding in replacing the word "good" by the word "social" as a way to identify what they consider as being morally right. The contrary is also true, as a court decision against unions, for instance, would oftenly be called "socially unjust." Wherever "social" is, there is never a clear meaning to the phrase, but a political stance is offered.

“Now, in our new corrupted political language where the words ‘progress’ and ‘progressive’ mean ‘social progress,’ we are brought to understand that good progresses are the welfare policies or the collectivist ideas that the leftists so dearly want, pulling us in the very opposite direction than where our ancestors brought us.”

          In my humble judgement, the word "social" can have an even worse effect than emptying words of their meaning – it can actually pervert them. The most reprehensible and damaging use of the word "social" is in the now universally accepted phrase "social justice." By corrupting the word "justice" with their deceptive language, leftists have managed to use this noble word in their call for wealth redistribution ("social justice" is essentially "redistributive justice").

          The image of Lady Justice is now fundamentally changed. The blindfold that had always covered her eyes meant to represent justice as impartial and blind to stature. This symbol served civilized societies well. But at some point, Lady Justice has been asked by various special interest groups and welfare-state supporters to take off her blindfold, in their ignorant belief that government intervention is the solution to the alleviation of poverty.

          Redistribution of wealth and government intervention to the benefit of a few arbitrarily-chosen individuals or groups of individuals cannot be made while wearing a blindfold. In all cases, the beneficiaries of leftist policies need to be determined according to stature defined by arbitrary criteria, and so are determined those on whose expense these policies are to be implemented.

          Therefore, the word "social" has not only emptied the word "justice" of its classic and honest meaning, it managed to corrupt the word to the point where what should be considered unjust according to the traditional notion of justice must now be considered “morally” just. But it remains that "social justice" is nothing more than the language fraud that leftists have invented to avoid using "wealth redistribution."

          Hayek discussed "social justice" at some length in his Law, Legislation and Liberty(9), but I shall choose to present here the following thoughts:

          Thus use of the term "social" becomes virtually equivalent to the call for "distributive justice." This is, however, irreconcilable with a competitive market order, and with growth or even maintenance of population and of wealth.


          Imagining that their [the anti-capitalists] reason can tell them how to arrange human efforts to serve their innate wishes better, they themselves pose a grave threat to civilization.(10)

“Progress” now means “regress”

          At some moments in time, men and women earned the right to make their own choices and to believe in their own values. They elaborated the principle of equality before the law as opposed to equality forced by the law. They died fighting against tyrants to establish societies based on fundamental individual liberties.

          These developments would have been rightly considered as progress by these valorous men and women. A vast majority of all technological, medical or scientific advances have been made in societies where trade, individual entrepreneurship and a free competitive market were promoted.

          Now, in our new corrupted political language where the words "progress" and "progressive" mean "social progress," we are brought to understand that good progres is represented by the welfare policies and the collectivist ideas that the leftists so dearly want, pulling us in a direction that is the very opposite of where our ancestors brought us. Policies or ideas that support a collectivist culture while condemning individualistic goals and achievements. Policies or ideas that have only led to regression on every occasion they have been fully implemented.

          The words "progress" and "progressive," especially when qualified by "social," are now associated with developments that supposedly change our civilization for the better but which, when looked at more closely, are actually pulling it backwards to a state we freed ourselves of only with great sacrifice.


          While it seems that most, if not all, leftist catchwords converge on wealth redistribution, welfare state advocates insist on hiding this phrase behind words that do not reflect their values. And they do it for obvious reasons, as we have seen.

          I firmly believe that political abuses of language such as those discussed here have contributed much to help socialist policies gain much more popularity than they deserve. By hiding themselves under the cover of the very principles and values which they actually intend to fight against, they are allowed to constantly deceive unwary citizens towards and convince them of the worth of their attractive but erroneous solutions.

          I would invite those who believe in freedom and prosperity for all to look at ways of purging our language of these deceptive schemes. Political organisations promoting a sound system of private enterprise within which the state only plays a limited role should consider branding themselves with the words ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ in order to reclaim them. An open debate could also take place on the meaning of these words, a debate which leftists wish to avoid and which would certainly help uncover the lost meaning of various phrases.


1. This has become shockingly true in the course of the two last federal election campaigns, during which the Liberal Party of Canada concentrated on promises of grand national state-run programs and, on countless occasions, kept “indicating” to Canadians what their values are and what they are not, as if values were not a personal but a collectivist matter. This sort of discourse is as liberal as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is democratic.
2. Not in the sense of less government intervention in the market, but rather in the sense of freedom from materialistic restraints.
3. The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek, The University of Chicago Press, 1944 (see Chapter 2 “The Great Utopia”). Friedrich A. Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and the Medal of Freedom in 1991.
4. Capitalism and Freedom, M. Friedman, The University of Chicago Press, 1962 (see Introduction). Milton Freedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1976.
5. Idem, note 3.
6. The Fatal Conceit – The Errors of Socialism, F. A. Hayek (edited by W.W. Bartley III), The University of Chicago Press, 1989 (see Chapter 7 “Our Poisoned Language”).
7. Idem, note 6.
8. Idem, note 6.
9. Law, Legislation and Liberty, vol. 2: The Mirage of Social Justice, F.A. Hayek, The University of Chicago Press, 1976 (see especially Chapter 9 “‘Social’ or distributive justice”).
10. Idem, note 7. In previous chapters, Hayek explores in remarkable detail the idea that socialism’s core foundation is built upon the idea that man is able to shape the world around him according to his wishes. This idea is convincingly refuted, and Hayek demonstrates that imposing human-designed changes on the spontaneous and impersonal processes that created and led to our civilization poses a threat to civilization itself, which brings him to this comment.