“Liberalism” and its changing identity

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Economics / Political Commentary / Society & Culture

I’ve decided never to use the term “Liberal” again. Or rather, I’m not going to use it to refer to someone who seeks further government expansion and intervention into the marketplace and our individual lives.

The term originated during the enlightenment, when concepts of natural rights and democracy were catching on like wildfire in the western world. Revolutions in nearly every country followed, and the idea of limited government and free markets replaced monarchism and rigid caste systems. “Classic Liberals” such as Adam Smith, John Locke, and Ludwig von Mises would be conservatives or libertarians in today’s political landscape, believing that government ought to be small and efficient, and resist messing around too much in economics and private business. Classic Liberalism is nearly the antithesis of New Liberalism. How so?

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, as American labor was shifting and society hadn’t had the chance to adjust, increasing focus was placed on national political leaders who championed reform, to serve in the interest of public welfare. In particular, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson played major roles in breaking with past traditions of governmental barriers in order to accomplish their goals. They called their policies “Progressive.” The goal of these policies was to even out the score, so to speak. Or as T.R. put it, “give Americans a Square Deal.” The big bomb came with FDR and his “New Deal” which sought to put in place a “new economic constitution.”

The crux of true Progressivism is the idea that people are shaped by their environment, and that if we adapt our laws, our traditions and other social structures we can shape better people, who will then transcend the petty conflicts that have caused war and violence throughout history, bringing peace and harmony to the world, at last. In practical application, the quickest way to achieve this is through the schools, the courts, the legislatures, and perhaps most effectively the office of the supreme executive. Thus, this agenda has defined American political and social history for the past century.

The confusion between “Progressive” and “Liberal” occurred during the 1920s and 30s, where the latter term was used not to describe liberty from government, but liberty from economic and social constraints. Are your wages too small? Then you’re not free. Are you afraid to do something because of what people will think? Then your not free. You haven’t been able to live your life the way you want because others have placed hurdles in front of you. True liberty is the freedom to live, act, think, and work without these hurdles – and government is perfectly equipped to remove them.

In addition to this new definition of liberty, the progressive culture that sought a revolution against what they viewed as destructive man-made traditions began to embrace an amoral, secularist mantra. The premise was simple: society must rid itself of anything that qualifies a person or behavior as “bad” as a necessary step toward tolerance, acceptance and complete unity. Even the most heinous crimes would be excused for reasons of insanity or childhood abuse.

Thus, progressivism became liberalism. It advocates freedom from religious and economic restraints, and requires a strong and integrated government. It is an ideology that is vastly different from our founding era, and which builds upon itself to create a society that is increasingly dependent on government, and in which power is increasingly consolidated into the hands of fewer individuals. People vote for whomever makes the best promises, and money is always the first to be redistributed. Religion is relegated to private life, and family structures are broken down.

The picture I’m painting is not imaginary – it has been advancing in European nations and is quite far along in the United States. And with all of its talk about peace and prosperity, I can’t help but wonder what a “progressive” world without natural rights, limited government, and democracy might look like. It’s definitely not peaceful, and it’s definitely not liberal.

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  1. Wesley, great writeup of classical versus modern “Liberalism”. It seems that at some point Liberalism became more about Government than people, and at that point it’s meaning was bastardized. Now, one can say that Conservatism might actually be closer to the original Liberalism than the current Progressive/Marxist nature of some Politicians.

    Of course, even Democrats seem to avoid the term now, favoring “progressive” before their names.

    • Tim, I believe you are cuonfsing the idea of improvement with the idea of change . The Constitution was designed to be amended by Founders who understood the importance of improvement as a natural aspect of national growth. Women\’s suffrage, for instance, was an example of healthy improvement in a growing nation. Progressivism, the early 20th century American term for socialism, is ideologically opposed to the government established by the Constitution. Socialism has nothing to do with suffrage of any kind. Therefore, it is invalid to even insinuate that the progressivism of which the author is speaking has anything to do with the right to vote.Although, you are correct inasmuch as certain progressives, like Margaret Sanger, were active in the women\’s suffrage movement at least when it came to the right for WASP, upper-class women to vote, not the immigrants, poor, African Americans, or Irish who were, in her progressive way of thinking, human weeds,\’ reckless breeders,\’ spawning human beings who never should have been born. Were it up to the real progressives in American society, freedoms of any kind would belong to those deemed privileged by the progressives in charge. Which leads me to ask, if we as a nation handed the power to grant freedoms over to a select few, would we really be moving forward, or would we be marching swiftly backward to the same oppressive monarchies and dictatorial regimes from which our ancestors escaped?

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