There are two people standing at the curb, waiting for the bus: one is a small pizza shop owner and the other is a social justice warrior. Which one is the liberal?
Both of them.
The term liberal or liberalism is one that has gone through big changes over the last 150 years. And today there are at least two different descriptions of the term. First off, the term comes from the Latin word, libertas, meaning liberty.
The descriptions of the term fall into two categories: classical and modern. Classical liberalism focuses on individual rights and freedoms of the individual as well as economic freedom, or a free market economy. The small pizza shop owner is an example of the classical liberal because he believes in having nearly unlimited freedom to use resources and capital to open the business of his choice and to keep it going successfully every day.
Classical liberalism is what the founding documents of our country are based on. The Declaration of Independence tells us of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’’ Thomas Jefferson’s statement was based on the political philosophy of John Locke, who wrote that the main purpose of government is to protect the “life, liberty, and property’’ of the individual. And he added that any government that steals those rights can be overthrown.
Our Constitution gives the framework for a government that cannot, and should not, become powerful enough to take away individual rights and freedoms. Each branch of government has enough power – or checks – to stop the other branches from becoming too strong. The same document also gives us a Bill of Rights, so that we know the rights and freedoms we have.
No. Government does not give Americans the rights we have. We are born with them. That’s why they are called natural rights. The ninth and 10th amendments are particularly important here because they tell us that many of the rights and powers not given to the federal government belong to the citizens and states.
Modern liberalism is relatively new, getting its start in the United States about 100 or more years ago with the progressive era. In modern liberalism, equality is emphasized as is a mixed economy over free markets. The social justice warrior is a modern liberal because he believes in fighting for equal rights for those of different “races, colors, and creeds.’’
This type of liberal believes in the importance of government and taxpayer money to help those who are less fortunate to have the same prosperity as the rest of society. The social democracies of Europe are similar to modern liberals in the U.S.
Modern liberals believe in limiting certain rights like the Second Amendment, and also the redistribution of wealth to make the playing field level for everyone.
Notice the difference. One version of liberal focuses on keeping government as small as possible while its need is to protect rights; and the other version focuses on government as facilitator in helping people. As a facilitator, government grows larger by having more social programs and safety nets.
What are the drawbacks? Classical liberalism was great with the ideal of freedom, but a laissez faire approach to the economy led to huge injustices to the American people. The formation of monopolies took advantage of American consumers while the muckrakers exposed corruption in corporate America and dirty practices in food production. Upton Sinclair wrote of how filthy the meat packing industry became in The Jungle.
On the other side, modern liberalism is very noble in trying to include as many citizens as possible in the American dream. But high taxes and redistribution of wealth gives the impression that hard workers are being penalized for hard work.
The recent presidential election seems to have been an 18-month debate between the differing ideologies of classical and modern liberals. Donald Trump’s potential policy of lowering taxes to stimulate the economy and bring industry back to the U.S. was an extreme contrast to Hillary Clinton’s policy of more taxes to business owners so that the folks at the top pay “their fair share.’’
Even though both sets of ideals are considered liberal in varying degrees, today’s classical liberals are also referred to a conservatives or libertarians while modern liberals are considered socialists.