Reclaiming Liberalism

The United States was founded as, and should remain, a liberal country. You might be surprised to hear that, considering that a 2011 poll found that forty percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, thirty-five percent identify as moderate, and only twenty-one percent consider themselves liberal (Gallup). You might also be surprised to hear this from me, since I constantly make the case for limited government, religious liberty, Second Amendment rights, and other ‘conservative’ causes by quoting from our nations’ founders and a ‘strict constructionist’ read of the U.S. Constitution. Your surprise is understandable. What we have here is a classic case of misappropriating terms.

You see, when we hear the word ‘liberal’ today, we think of leaders like Presidents John F. Kennedy (D), Jimmy Carter (D), Bill Clinton (D), and Barack Obama (D). The word has gotten bound-up with the political doctrine known as progressivism, which rose to prominence under President Theodore Roosevelt—a Republican—but later came to be the driving force behind the Democratic Party. The American brand of progressivism began with government reforms and trust-busting efforts at the turn of the twentieth century that greatly increased the powers and authorities of the federal government. The movement supported laudable policies like child labor laws, the move toward women’s suffrage, set-asides of land for conservation purposes (i.e., the national parks), and, later, the civil rights movement. But progressivism also brought us onerous regulation of business, the ill-advised experiment with alcohol prohibition, progressive (i.e., unequal) taxation, the eugenics movement and related anti-fertility policies, and a generally paternalistic approach to governance.

The Democratic Party’s traditional policy stances are generally in-line with progressivism, although it is debatable whether progressivism is actually progressive (i.e., moving forward or onward). That’s a discussion for another day. What is curious is that the term ‘liberal’ has gotten bound up with the term ‘progressive,’ when they actually refer to very distinct and often divergent approaches to government.

Liberalism, classically defined, is a political movement that seeks to give as much liberty as possible to individuals. As such, a liberal would support equal rights for women and minorities—a point of overlap with progressivism. There is also some overlap in the area of ‘social issues,’ since both progressives and liberals balk at the government regulation of private relationships, and both support a secular, non-religious (though not anti-religious) government. But a liberal would only support government intrusion into individual or corporate activity when absolutely necessary to protect others’ rights, while a progressive would support a much more intrusive government—especially in the economic field—in the name of ‘leveling the playing field.’

Progressivism falls a few steps short of statism or socialism; it seeks to obtain the apparent benefits of a powerful central government while trying to avoid the nasty, totalitarian side-effects. If you tell a progressive that you’re going to tax the ‘rich’ at fifty percent while taxing the ‘poor’ at a nominal rate, he’ll applaud your effort to redistribute wealth from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots’ and build a more equal society. But if you propose the same plan to a liberal, he will condemn it for its inequality. To a liberal, taxing one man at fifty percent and taxing another at zero percent is an affront to the idea that all are equal under the law.

The U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are two of the most liberal documents ever written, and they were crafted by some of the most notable liberal thinkers of the modern era. They very clearly put the authority in the hands of the people, not a paternalistic government. The liberals crafted a federal system that left the centers of domestic authority in smaller, more accountable state and local governments. The liberals codified into law the individual and collective rights to free speech, free press, and free practice of religion. The liberals codified the right to keep and bear arms, so that all power—even the power to use violence to bring about change in government—would rest in the hands of the people. The liberals dared to say that every one of us has a God-given right to life, liberty, and property that cannot be trampled by anybody, not even those who wield national sovereignty.

It is time for those of us who believe in these things to reclaim the word that describes us. Liberals believe that all human beings—black and white, man and woman, elderly and pre-natal—are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberals believe that all of us have the right to speak our minds, share our beliefs, live in accordance with our faiths, and be secure in our persons and our property. Liberals believe that all of us—regardless of our race, creed, sex, age, preferences, opinions, or income—are equal under the law. Liberals believe that the federal government has specific, limited authorities defined in the U.S. Constitution. Liberals believe that the people can be trusted with arms for their own defense. Liberals believe that businesses should succeed or fail on their own merits, not on government largess. Liberals believe that you are responsible for your own choices, and nobody owes you a bailout. Liberals believe in giving everybody equal opportunity, but also that equal opportunity doesn’t guarantee equal outcomes.

I’m as guilty as anybody else in mis-using the term ‘liberal’ to describe the policies of the modern Democratic Party. These policies are properly described as ‘progressive,’ more in the vein of progressives like President Theodore Roosevelt (R), William Taft (R), and Woodrow Wilson (D) than liberals like Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican), James Madison (Democratic-Republican), and, dare I say it, Ronald Reagan (R). I don’t really like the term ‘progressive’ as applied to this philosophy, since it implies something I don’t believe to be true—that progressive policies lead to progress. But the term has had consistent meaning over time, for better or worse. Those of us who study political theory can map-out a logical progression from Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘square deal’ to Barack Obama’s ‘stimulus’ and health care reform. Though the two presidents would find themselves at loggerheads over foreign policy, where Roosevelt preferred a borderline-imperialist approach, their general philosophy on government is quite similar. Roosevelt, Obama, and all the progressive presidents in-between believe that the federal government can and should assert itself wherever it seems necessary at the time, and if the plain text of the U.S. Constitution disagrees then you can just ignore it in the name of doing something ‘good’ for the country.

But liberalism gave us a government with clear, specific limits—and with mechanisms to change those limits if it really becomes necessary. The progressive just ignores the Constitution when it is inconvenient, or skirts around it with childish word games (it’s not a purchase mandate, it’s a tax!; it’s not private farming, it’s interstate commerce!; it’s not private use, it’s public use!). The liberal, on the other hand, considers our written constitution and the Bill of Rights to be among the highest achievements of modern political philosophy, and takes them very seriously. Never before had a system of government been written out in plain text. Never before had a people known exactly what their government could and could not do. Never before had a nation been founded on the radical, liberal idea that government derives its power from the people. Never before had the basic rights of man—the right to life, liberty, and property, the right to speak and publish his thoughts, the right to follow his religious conscience, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to security in person and property—been codified in law. To the liberal, these aren’t negotiable. To the liberal, these things are so important that political or social expediency doesn’t even begin to justify undermining the system that guarantees them.

So, my fellow liberals, let’s take back our word. We believe, like millions of liberals before us, that government isn’t our mommy or daddy, but a tool. It is meant to be used to protect human liberty, not to trample it. It is meant to set up guard rails to protect us from others, but not from ourselves. It is meant to help give us opportunities, but cannot give us guarantees. It is meant to give us options, not orders. Our progressive brethren have a very different view of the role of government—one where government grows and grows until it provides for our every need, but affords us very little freedom. We will debate back and forth and, eventually, one or the other of us will emerge victorious. But let’s agree to put an end to the word games. Mandates aren’t taxes. Private farming isn’t interstate commerce. Private use isn’t public use. And progressivism isn’t liberalism.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.