When the term “liberalism” (derived from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, its hallmarks were a belief in: individual rights (which included civil liberties, political equality, freedom of conscience, and freedom of thought); the rule of law; limited government; private property; and laissez faire economics. Moreover, liberalism favored a pluralistic secular state and opposed all efforts to link religion to the government. It also believed strongly in the idea of progress, but stressed, unlike socialism, that progress should take place by means of orderly, legal procedures rather than by revolutionary upheaval; in other words, liberty could not be separated from the means used to attain it. These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch, generally identified as the period of 1815-1914. It was a time of industrial development, unprecedented growth in both population and living standards, expansion of individual liberties and social tolerance, the abolition of slavery and serfdom, a reprieve from major wars, and the waning of political authoritarianism.
The foregoing liberal ideals did not coalesce in a vacuum. Classical liberalism grew out of the 17th-century Age of Reason and the 18th-century Enlightenment. This was a period when:
skepticism gained unprecedented prestige, making it acceptable to doubt every tenet of conventional wisdom or tradition that could not be readily justified by a valid criterion of truth;
man’s willingness to admit his ignorance about things that could not be proved by scientific method, was seen as a proper humility, preferable to feigned certainty;
legislators, philosophers and the common man alike endeavored to devise better ways of governing and of treating their fellow citizens;
the culture came to believe that “natural” human motivations such as the pursuit of happiness -- which eventually would be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence -- were every bit as constant and predictable as the natural laws that governed the orbits of the planets;
the West came to understand that each person's knowledge and beliefs were limited to his experiences and surroundings, a realization that promoted tolerance for other cultures, faiths, and worldviews;
it was widely believed that a commercial, secular, and religiously diversified state was much to be preferred over a state dominated by the elite of any single faith; and
a free-market, laissez faire economy was seen as the system best suited for the creation of wealth.
These views were proposed and advanced by a host of giants in the fields of philosophy, economics, and science -- among them Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, Joseph Butler, Denis Diderot, and Adam Smith.
No figure was more important than Locke, whose observation that all knowledge and ideas arise from human experience paved the way to classical liberalism's humility about the limits of our knowledge, its respect for freedom of thought and of religion, and its admonition against sudden, revolutionary breaks with established tradition. Locke also identified the vital link between political liberty and private property; indeed, history has since shown that only when a government acknowledges the right of the individual to own private property, does that government understand that there are boundaries to its own power.
When the American colonists issued their Declaration of Independence in 1776, that document was steeped in liberal Lockean themes. Most notably, its assertion of the right of every man to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" echoed Locke's claim that everyone had a right to defend their "life, health, Liberty, [and] possessions." Also, the Declaration's notion that governments should be abolished and replaced if they become abusive of people's natural rights, is yet another Lockean idea.
1776 also saw the publication of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, the foundational work of free-market economics. Embodied in that book, and in the Declaration of Independence, was a liberalism that was evolving from the proposals of philosophers into the policy of governments -- thereby setting the stage for the century-long liberal epoch that would soon commence.
Since the end of that epoch, however, "liberalism" has been gradually transformed from a term denoting Jeffersonian domestic liberty, into a synonym for the welfare state; from a term advocating limited government, to a shill for expansive statism.
Tracing the cause of this semantic shift, the economist Joseph Schumpeter says: "As a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label" (i.e.,"liberalism"). In the early 20th century, for instance, the education reformer John Dewey marveled at the achievements of Soviet Bolshevism and urged Americans “to give up much of [their] economic freedom,” to abandon their “individualistic tradition,” and to recognize “the supremacy of public need over private possessions.” And yet Dewey called himself not a Marxist but a liberal -- a "new" liberal; similarly, he referred to his ideas not as collectivism but rather as individualism -- a "new" individualism.
Over the succeeding years and decades, leftists, progressives, and socialists have routinely championed crusades and ideals bearing ever-less resemblance to classical liberalism, yet they invariably have identified both themselves and their evolving causes as “liberal.” Programs that were in fact leftist and socialist were enacted by legislators and social reformers in the name of “liberalism,” whose reputation as a guardian of human freedom served not only to shield those programs from public criticism, but in fact to win wide public approval of them.
In terms of both semantic usage and governmental policy, "liberalism" today is most widely associated with a single concept: the mixed economy, i.e., a state that is neither completely capitalist (laissez faire) nor entirely socialist (totalitarian). It is a union of conflicting -- liberal vs. anti-liberal -- elements. As Friedrich Hayek, the great twentieth-century scholar of liberalism, observed, such inconsistencies raise a host of vital questions:
- If we have the redistribution of wealth, then what of private property?
- If we enact biased laws to effect economic (or "social") equality, then what of political equality?
- If we regard the collective as the essential entity, then what of the primacy of the individual?
- Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy?
- When is it capitalist and when is it socialist?
- When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it?
- When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them?
- When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism?
Mixed practices (such as the mixed economy) imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed, and therefore irrational, premises. And it is precisely that jumble which constitutes the modern "liberal" welfare state. Its exemplar is the "liberal" who supports laissez faire for social issues but statism for economic issues.
Contemporary "liberalism," then, is a parody of its predecessor. It is leftism in disguise. Specifically, it is a stalwart champion of:
- group rights and collective identity, rather than of individual rights and responsibilities (e.g., the racial preference policies known as affirmative action, and the left's devotion to identity politics generally);
- the circumvention of law rather than the rule of law (as exemplified by the flouting of immigration laws and nondiscrimination laws, and by a preference for judicial activism whereby judges co-opt the powers that rightfully belong to legislators);
- the expansion of government rather than its diminution (favoring ever-escalating taxes to fund a bloated welfare state and a government that oversees virtually every aspect of human life); and
- the redistribution of wealth (through punitive taxes and, again, a mushrooming welfare state) rather than its creation through free markets based on private property.
In addition, today's "liberalism," unlike classical liberalism, is intolerant of opposing viewpoints, favors the promotion of group-think, and interprets as treason any deviation from its own intellectual orthodoxy. We see this phenomenon manifested with particular clarity by self-identified black "liberals" who excoriate black conservatives as “race traitors,” “house slaves,” “Oreos,” and “Uncle Toms.”
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore:
- the intellectual origins of leftism, its precepts, and how these have evolved over time; and
- who is more inclined to donate money to charitable causes -- liberals or conservatives.