Equity in Lost Language, Lost Liberalism
Liberalism was long a word for a family of perspectives and policies thought central to advancing societies of free and responsible people.
Firms, churches, clubs, societies, and a wide range of voluntary associations advanced knowledge in agriculture, industry, science, exploration, medicine and other fields. Expanded trade and specialization allowed more productive workers in enterprises with new tools and technologies to raise living standards in Western Europe and later around the world.
Free societies self-organized these advances and governments were believed by classical liberals to play a limited part. Government by nature was believed a dangerous institution.
Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force. Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action. (Note on source.)
Later though, reformers saw a larger role for government in advancing society, and enthusiasm for these new reforms led advocates to expand and change earlier meanings of key words like equality, equity, and freedom.
The Lost Language, Lost Liberalism project works to reclaim the earlier meanings of words that have been shifted to similar but less liberal or illiberal meanings. It is a long and complex story, but this year’s NCFCA Lincoln-Douglas debate topic seems a good place to start.
Resolved: In the realm of economics, freedom ought to be valued above equity.
I encourage students to investigate the shifted meaning of “equity” as well as “freedom” and other words commonly used in LD debate on the Lost Language website.
The Lost Language page for “equity” includes a matrix for the classical liberal meaning, new meanings, confusions, and also rejoiners. Links take readers to selected quotes that show the shifting meanings and implications.
Update: Daniel Klein notes via email:
… on the Tables page I have an endnote that reads: Equity: The word was perhaps not so central in classical liberalism to begin with, and changes in meaning came perhaps especially sometime after the core period of transition 1880-1940. The Ngram shows a significant upturn from 1970, perhaps because “equity” became the term in economics (the social sciences generally?) for distributional issues.