Sunday, May 23, 2010

Defining Liberal

THEN

"A liberal used to be one who was generous with his own money."

--- Will Rogers

NOW

"The trouble with socialism (or liberalism) is that eventually you run out of other people's money."

--- Margaret Thatcher

1 comment:

kwix said...

Pretty funny. Will Rogers also said

I am not a member of any organized political party... I'm a Democrat!"

As true now as it was then: the Republicans have always been far better at organization and discipline.

But if you are really serious about "Defining Liberalism," then let's do it!

Don't forget that our Founding Fathers were the world's first real liberals. Yes, there were a few liberal theorists before them -- the writers of the Enlightenment who championed new liberal ideals -- but our Founders were the first people to actually put in place a modern liberal democracy based on those ideals (e.g., guarantees of individual liberty, protection of minority rights, separation of church & state, etc...).

As any political scientist will tell you, our Bill of Rights is probably THE central, defining document of liberalism: it represents the first time liberal ideals were actually encapsulated on paper as a working part of government. Indeed, the very idea of a written Constitution that lays out the role of government and protects minority and individual rights is central to liberalism.

During the nineteenth century, many liberals noticed that big business could use the traditional liberal philosophy of limited government to basically take over and run things itself. Therefore, many liberals grew as concerned about the coercive power of big business as they were the power of big government, and decided that, in a functioning liberal democracy with proper guarantees of individual and minority rights in place, a certain amount of government power could be used to counter corporate power. How much government power is needed to protect individuals from corporate power is of course a matter of debate.

Therefore, liberalism split into two camps: a right-leaning camp represented by today's Libertarians and economic conservatives, and a left-leaning camp represented by today's Democrats. While the right wing has indeed been dominant for the past three decades, the left wing doesn't really seem dead either.

And of course, true liberalism has nothing to do with left or right per se. It is a philosophy based in the once-radical notion that the purpose of government is to serve the people and guarantee their rights -- and NOT to impose any particular notion of good, religion, morality, order or culture upon them. By contrast, BOTH left and right philosophies represent a particular notion of the good which, when taken to extremes, results in despotism (fascism is indistinguishable from stalinism, no?).

Therefore, true liberalism now seems to center on the shifting, moderate space in between the extremes of left and right. One can be a liberal and still lean either left or right -- but if one is truly a liberal, that will keep one from going too far either direction.

This liberalism is the wonderful gift our Founders gave us, and we must do all we can to preserve it.