Define classical Liberalism
In previous elections, including the last presidential election, many of us will recall hearing allegations that this or that candidate “is a liberal, ” “has a 100 percent liberal record, ” “has always sided with the liberals in his party, ” and so forth. And, without any further elaboration or explanation, certain ideological positions came automatically to our mind: support for abortion and same-sex “marriage”; no restrictions on obscenity or pornography but censorship of religious speech and symbols; governmental redistribution of wealth from the rich to the economically challenged.
But liberalism has had a long and largely honorable existence in recent centuries. Many of the American Founders were liberals and intent on establishing a liberal constitution and a liberal way of life for the United States. So what has happened? Has some enormous change of meaning sneaked up on us?
“Liberalism” has liber as its Latin etymological root, meaning “free.” And the interpretation of liberalism runs parallel to one’s interpretation of freedom.
For some, freedom may connote arbitrary choice — “doing what you want, as long as you don’t infringe on someone else’s freedom (or as long as you don’t get caught).” The choices in question could be good, bad, or indifferent. I might impulsively and arbitrarily decide to go out and give cash to needy persons, or collect rattlesnakes, or commit suicide in such a way that no one who depends on me will be affected.
For others, freedom may mean the opportunity to pursue his or her natural rights, most of which are included at least implicitly in the UN Charter of Human Rights: namely, the right to life and property; the right to reproduce (not “reproductive rights” as a bizarre synonym for abortion), raise a family, and bequeath property to one’s offspring; the right to pursue knowledge, to be educated or educate oneself; to express what one considers to be the truth to others; and to contribute in rational and constructive ways to the building up of communities and societies.
As regards political ramifications, either of the above types of freedom could view the state as an impediment or as an important facilitator. If the state is viewed as an impediment, an extreme proponent of freedom might end up as an anarchist. But more moderate and rational views of government might include:
- A minimal, “night watchman” type of state, simply providing security for all its individual citizens, as they go about their various pursuits and businesses. This type of state could be optimally supported by a laissez-faire approach to economics.
- With a little more sophistication, political libertarianism, as systematic political maneuvering to make sure that the natural rights of individuals are untrammeled by needless laws, unfair taxation, or intrusions into any person’s private life.
If, on the other hand, the state is seen as a facilitator, the extremist proponent of “freedom for all” may resort to a dictatorship or to an overbearing nanny state. But more moderate implementations might include:
- Strict and uniform governmental regulation of education and economics.
- Enactment of laws to ensure basic human rights, including freedom of religion without favoritism of any particular religion.
- Moderate democratic socialism (which may bring out that other common meaning of “liberal, ” i.e., supplying all manner of material benefits to as many persons as possible).
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