Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Liberal: Another weasel word

How’s that for a weird title? Given that I call myself a Classic Liberal.

Liberalism as promoting individual liberty

Near as I can figure out, Liberalism originally was opposed to the non-Liberal economic/political systems dominant in Europe (though England was more liberal). Liberals favored individual liberty, the dignity of every person, and the rights of men as delineated by Locke and Kant. If you want a primmer on Locke, read the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers – they pretty much lay out the political philosophy of Classic Liberalism.

At the time, implementing the Liberal program involved substantial changes in Europe: individual rights, security of private property, the inviolability of an individual’s protected private sphere of activity, the rule of law, the state as servant of citizens (not the other way around), equality before the law, etc.

The United States, however, was founded on Liberal principles and was, to the extent practical, given the realities of the time (the strong vested interested in continuation of slavery being the biggest failing), the leading light in implementing Liberal principles. In the U.S., being a Liberal meant seeking to preserve the liberal social/political/economic system from anti-liberal encroachments and to eliminate the existing contradictions and failings – e.g., slavery, disenfranchisement of women, racial and religious disabilities.

Liberal had nothing to do with change (just as Conservative had nothing to do with liberty). In a society that already had a very high degree of personal liberty (a condition the United States had never achieved, at least not for all citizens), a Liberal would want to prevent certain changes, not promote change for the sake of change.

A new kind of liberalism
During the 19th century, communitarians, socialists, rational constructionists, reactionary back-to-nature dreamers (a la Rousseau), and other enemies of individual liberty believed they could improve human conditions by applying their ingenuity to correct (what they perceived as) the inadequacies or injustices of the spontaneous human order based on liberty and evolving traditions. These people, enemies of individual liberty because they believed liberty led to what they perceived as injustices, believed that, by limiting individual liberty, they could somehow realize a higher form of liberty – particularly a communitarian liberty. So they appropriated the label “liberal”.

Much confusion and obfuscation followed.

This new kind of liberal essentially worshipped change: existing patterns of social interaction and human rights were so far from the Utopian ideal they envisioned that pretty much everything had to change. Progressivism pushed for change (changes they considered to be progress, not realizing the changes they proposed would lead backward to the political and economic systems that existed before civilizations; progressives unwittingly sought to undo 10 thousand years of human progress) and, as “liberal” began to be identified not with liberty but with change, Progressives also adopted the liberal label.

Advocates of the expansion of personal liberty and the freeing of individuals from state control (the new liberals depended on the increased control over individuals of an active state to achieve their visions of how humans should live), the Classic Liberals, found themselves without a label of their own.

By resisting the encroachments by the state on individual liberty advocated by Progressives and others who called themselves liberal, Classic Liberals adopted an essentially conservative posture, allying themselves (and being confused with) traditional authoritarian conservatives. Some began calling their philosophy “Libertarianism”.

Today “liberal” is pretty much a weasel word: it connotes liberty and freedom and good things while the economic and political philosophies behind the label are, denotatively, anything but liberal. Those who call themselves “liberals” generally are progressives or socialists who don’t believe in liberty and the free markets that spontaneously emerge when people have liberty. (See previous posts on “Believing” in things).

In American political discourse, "liberal" refers to modern liberals, usually Democrats or the "left wing" of Republicans. Modern liberals do promote individual liberty in just about everything but property and economic activity. To the modern liberal, individuals should have privacy and be free to decide lifestyles, sexual activity, abortion, reading materials, and the whole First Amendment gamut of individual rights. But their concept of individual liberty is limited.

Modern liberals believe individual liberty is shallow or meaningless without the wherewithal to buy things (positive liberty), but that individuals should not be at liberty to buy just anything they want: SUVs, firearms, fatty fast foods, unapproved toys, cigarettes, and a long list of neo-Puritanical no-nos. Modern liberals clearly believe one does not have the right to retain the product of his own labor, but must relinquish a part of this product so that others may buy things.

The key word in the previous sentence is "must". Christ said that we should share with the less fortunate; liberals say we must.

Government coercion (backed by the threat of violence if you don't go along) to surrender your property for use by someone else is decidedly unLiberal, in the classic sense, but today is called "liberal". Weaselly.

Further Reading:

For more and better discussion, see “Why I Am Not a Conservative” by F.A. Hayek.

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