Take millions of data points, each one a geolocated entry plucked from a digitised collection of 18th- and 19th-century ships’ logs, pin them all on a blank canvas, and you get this extraordinary world map. Can you find the doldrums? For more consult the image credit.
From a manifesto that aims to reclaim the word 'liberal' from those people who want to 'governmentalize' social affairs.
In the 17th and 18th centuries there was an ascendant cultural outlook that may be termed the liberal outlook. It was best represented by the Scottish enlightenment, especially Adam Smith, and it flowed into a liberal era, which came to be represented politically by people like Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and John Bright. The liberal outlook revolved around a number of central terms (in English-language discourse, the context of the semantic issue that concerns us).
Especially from 1880 there began an undoing of the meaning of the central terms, among them the word liberal. The tendency of the trends of the past 130 years has been toward the governmentalization of social affairs. The tendency exploded during the First World War, the Interwar Years, and the Second World War. After the Second World War the most extreme forms of governmentalization were pushed back and there have since been movements against the governmentalization trend. But by no means has the original liberal outlook been restored to its earlier cultural standing. The semantic catastrophes of the period 1880-1940 persist, and today, amidst the confusion of tongues, governmentalization continues to hold its ground and even creep forward. For the term liberal, in particular, it is especially in the United States and Canada that the term is used in ways to which we take exception.
We the undersigned affirm the original arc of liberalism, and the intention not to relinquish the term liberal to the trends, semantic and institutional, toward the governmentalization of social affairs.
The appeal is understandable and legitimate, but hardly consequential, I would have thought.
Whatever one may want to claim from the past for modern liberalism, most important is the recognition that liberty is naturally intermittent, fragmentary, dispersed, layered, subject to compromise and relativisation - in a word: liberty is not a monolith, not a unitary Ism, she is not in everything, but in the joints of society.
We need a better understanding of the fact that freedom coexists with things indifferent as well as averse to her. This is a natural condition of liberty, in fact, a condition brought about by herself, as she shields her enemies and provides a wonderful world for them as well.
We need a self-critical liberalism, one that is aware of the fact that liberty is a method (of coexistence and thought), and far less of a blueprint than other political creeds.
We need a liberalism emancipated from the implied idea that there is a world in which liberty is unimpeded and perfect.
We must not compound (a) the defense of and argument for liberty with (b) the expectation of a perfectly free society; there cannot be any such thing.
Liberalism can by its very nature do only few concrete things - one of it is to change the political institutions of modern society (to improve democracy and better secure liberty), a task that is not tried, however, when liberalism cannot delineate itself clearly from social democracy, imitating its moves under verbal disguise (which is what politically active liberals do, at least over here in Germany) or from crypto-anarchism, which is an attitude of permanent and exclusive denunciation of politics and the state, an addictive habit fuelled by the subliminal and unexpressed belief in a perfectly free society.
The only way that liberalism can make a mark today is by shaping the institutions of politics and the state (in its own way, rather than ignoring the task, as the crypto-anarchists do, or following the social democratic pattern).
However, this might be too subtle, too deep, too truly liberal a point of view to receive much attention from liberals, who tend to look for handy stereotypes no less than do their opponents.
As a result there is wind and turbulence at the social democratic end of the liberal spectrum and on the crypto-anarchist end, while in between there lies a vast ocean in the doldrums: classical liberalism as it ought to be practiced in the modern world.