Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Meaning of Liberalism (Part 1): The Old Liberalism

Note: This is the first part in a three-part series on liberalism and its meaning. At the end of the series, I will explore the intersection of biblical Christianity and liberalism and whether they are compatible. 

"Liberal" is one of the most misinterpreted, maligned, abused, and downright overused term. Both the detractors of the term and the people who claim to be liberals misunderstand the real meaning of that term. In the United States, it now means someone who votes Democrat, who supports gun control, who supports libertine values, who supports "coddling criminals," who supports public schooling, who supports redistribution of wealth, who supports anti-discrimination and hate speech legislation, who supports universal healthcare, who supports state intervention (both federal and local) in the economy, and a host of other things. However, when the term was originally used, it meant something radically different from what it means now. As libertarian historian Ralph Raico notes, liberalism (otherwise known as classical liberalism or "old liberalism") is the term designating "the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism. The qualifying "classical" is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France), because liberalism has come to be associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals. This version of liberalism — if such it can still be called — is sometimes designated as "social," or (erroneously) "modern" or the "new," liberalism." The classical liberal viewpoint stands in stark contrast to modern-day liberalism.

Liberalism (in the classical tradition) had its origins in John Locke, (though there were prototypes of liberal/libertarian thought in traditions like the Bible, the Middle Ages, natural law, the School of Salamanca and the Scholastics) who is known as the "Father of Classical Liberalism." He wove such traditions as Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and the Thomists, the Scholastics, the natural law tradition, radicalism, the Whigs, the English Revolution, and Christianity to form this brilliant philosophy that has given us such principles as inalienable rights, the homesteading principle, the triad of life, liberty, and private property (the last being changed by Jefferson as the "pursuit of happiness"). How does Christianity factor into this? Amy Sturgis at the LockeSmith Institute argues that "Christianity offered a religion less collectivist than the pagan pantheons or Hebraic law." She argues that as the Alexandrian Church Fathers rediscovered the classics, notions of self-cultivation gained wider acceptance. Also, the Reformation left a great schism in Christendom, "leaving individualism to the Protestants via the "priesthood of the believer" doctrine and natural-law theory to the Catholics." Eventually, the rise of absolutism and the decline of liberty led to the birth of the Levellers, which were led by such liberals as Richard Overton and John Liliburne. As Ralph Raico notes, "this movement of middle-class radicals demanded freedom of trade and an end to state monopolies, separation of church and state, popular representation, and strict limits even to parliamentary authority. Their emphasis on property, beginning with the individual's ownership of himself, and their hostility to state power show that the amalgamation of the Levellers to the presocialist Diggers was mere enemy propaganda. Although failures in their time, the Levellers furnished the prototype of a middle-class radical liberalism that has been a feature of the politics of English-speaking peoples ever since." Then came John Locke, who "framed the doctrine of the natural rights to life, liberty, and estate — which he collectively termed 'property' — in the form that would be passed down, through the Real Whigs of the 18th century, to the generation of the American Revolution." With all this rich heritage, the Founders of this country led a mighty libertarian revolution against the British Empire. After this, unprecedented restrictions on power came into place, first in the form of the Articles of Confederation and then in the form of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Raico notes that "through much of the 19th century it was in many respects a society in which the state could hardly be said to exist, as European observers noted with awe. Radical liberal ideas were manifested and applied by groups such as the Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, abolitionists, and late-19th-century anti-imperialists." Not only that, we had such people as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker,  and the individualist anarchists who, in the words of Rothbard, "were basically laissez-faire individualists who carried on the age-old battle for liberty and against all forms of State privilege." 

Now, there were inconsistencies in these liberals that definitely should be noticed. Thomas Paine and Marquis de Condorcet supported some form or another of the welfare state. Thomas Jefferson sold out when he was in power. Also, as Raico notes, "they turned to the state to promote their own values. In France, for instance, liberals used state-funded schools and institutes to promote secularism under the Directory, and they supported anticlerical legislation during the Third Republic, while in Bismarck's Germany they spearheaded the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. These efforts, however, can be seen as betrayals of liberal principles and in fact were eschewed by those acknowledged to be the most consistent and doctrinaire in their liberalism." Also, as Murray Rothbard recognized, "the chief defects of Enlightenment liberalism, I believe, are these: an inordinate passion for democracy, and an inordinate hatred for institutional religion, particularly for the Roman Catholic Church." However, as the libertarian scholar and author Lew Rockwell noted in his speech "The Misesian Vision," they were united in their undying belief that "society contains within itself the capacity for self-management, and there is nothing that government can do to improve on the results of the voluntary association, exchange, creativity, and choices of every member of the human family." They have left us with a wonderful heritage to build upon and to develop. They built the United States, gave us the Industrial Revolution, gave us the principles and values of liberty, justice, human rights, private property rights, limited government, and peace that we now commonly associate with Western civilization, and laid the foundations for modern libertarianism.

UPDATE (8/02/2013): This piece was published at The Reformed Libertarian. For more information on my job at The Reformed Libertarian, see here.

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