The Pathos of Politics (76-2) Liberalism


Of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved. ~ Aristotle

Liberals share a belief in the general competence of people. They too desire progressive change, albeit more stepwise than radicals.

The meaning of the term liberal has been muddled through history and differs today by polity.

Few words have generated more confusion than the word ‘liberal’. ~ South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang

Scottish historian William Robertson first used the term liberal in a political sense in 1769, in his book on the history of Scotland. Fellow Scot Adam Smith followed in his 1776 economics book.

The first political group under the liberal label were Spaniards, who, in 1814, opposed the king’s suspension of the constitution. The word spread from Spain to France, but set down deep roots in England, where it became associated with the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill, and in the policies advocated by the Liberal Party.

Classical liberals believed that government oppressed people when it had too much power: the less government the better. In valuing freedom above all, the laissez-faire (let things be) of classical liberalism is now called libertarianism. This remains the take of European liberals.

In bold contrast, modern American liberals are more concerned with societal well-being, and are willing to experiment with social engineering; what Europeans call social democracy. The term liberal in this context is intended to signify social liberalism, which involves attempting some degree of egalitarianism.

Liberalism, above all, means emancipation – emancipation from one’s fears, his inadequacies, from prejudice, from discrimination, from poverty. ~ American politician Hubert Humphrey in 1968

Today, liberalism is usually equated with the advocacy of democracy, emphasizing civil liberties such as freedom of speech. Until the later 20th century, most liberals were not democrats. They did reject conservative esteem of tradition and social hierarchy, but early 20th-century liberals did not support equal rights and universal (adult) suffrage: men labeling themselves as ‘liberal’ believed that women lacked the mental faculties necessary for rational choice. Further, the poor should not be enfranchised, lest they vote for the socialist confiscation of private property.

The character of liberalism changed as the ‘rising middle classes’ succeeded in establishing their economic and political dominance. Liberalism became increasingly conservative. ~ Andrew Heywood

By the turn of the 21st century, the term liberal in the US had been so effectively vilified by American conservatives that those on the left labeled themselves progressive instead. This was a repackaged reincarnation of a label from a century earlier. In the early 20th century, progressives were isolationists in foreign affairs who demanded leftist reforms in domestic policy, including antitrust legislation, and an end to government corruption. Progressives were modernizers ahead of their time. In that era, liberal was the term for the milquetoasts on the left.

Following Jeremy Bentham, contemporary liberals are prone to optimism about people’s ability to solve problems via reason and consensus. They tend to address social problems with a vigor that conservatives find meddlesome, by people armed only with dangerous overconfidence.

Liberalism is totalitarianism with a human face. ~ American economist and political philosopher Thomas Sowell

Today’s liberals have abandoned the natural law that fuels libertarianism, and fret less about government power. Contemporary liberals are more concerned about the corrosive effect of concentrated economic power than heavy-handed government. The liberal view now is that government can even expand liberty by limiting the oppression that capitalism imposes on workers. It is the philosophy of applying a bandage to someone profusely bleeding to death.

Worldwide, the liberal label is often more confusion than description. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is a nationalist party with reactionary inclinations. Russia’s party of the same name is nakedly fascist. Britain’s ailing Liberal Democrats and Canada’s governing Liberal Party are among the few parties where the title lives up to its billing in meaningful measure.