What is the definition of a liberal?

It is impossible to understand the world around us, or to cultivate a coherent set of core principles, if our use of language is fraught with sloppiness and imprecision. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of politics, where emotionally charged terms are routinely bandied about with scarcely any conception of what they actually mean. “Liberal” and “conservative” are perhaps the most significant of these.

Many people who describe themselves as “liberal” typically use the term as a synonym for all things noble and morally pure. The late newsman Walter Cronkite, for instance, equated liberalism with a “broad-minded, ” “unprejudiced, ” and “beneficent” mindset. Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor – who views “conservatives” as people of “ugly and rancid” political beliefs – proudly declares: “I am a liberal, and liberalism is the politics of kindness … tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for.” And the revered “Liberal Lion” of the U.S. Senate, the late Ted Kennedy, defined a liberal as “someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions” and “someone who cares about the welfare of the people.”

But if one merely equates liberalism with what is “good, ” and conservatism with what is “bad” – or vice versa, for that matter – he or she cannot lay claim to any authentic understanding of either term. Thus we need an operational definition for each term, just as we need definitions for any other words we employ in our daily lives. Regardless of how we feel about “liberalism” or “conservatism, ” we need to know specifically what qualities give each of them their respective identities.

When the term “liberalism” (from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, it was founded on an unwavering belief in individual rights, the rule of law, limited government, private property, and laissez faire economics. These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch, generally identified as the period from 1815-1914.

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