Classical liberalism is not a static political philosophy. But it appears that some are trying to make it so.
The issue that brought this to mind was the debate regarding marriage equality. And, while that got me thinking about the issue, it is not directly relevant to the broader issue of the dynamic, or static, nature of liberalism.
One opponent of marriage equality argued that support for this right is not liberal becauseJohn Stuart Mill never said anything about gay marriage or civil unions.
True as his observation might be, his conclusion is not constructive to the debate nor particularly relevant. There are several things contained in his remarks. But at the core of it is the idea that liberalism is static.
In some ways this is a religious view of liberalism because it treats liberalism as a revealed faith. But the numerous founding fathers of liberalism were not divine prophets speaking from a scripture revealed from God. They were men. Decent men, intelligent men, but just men. They never pretended otherwise.
What this means is that they did make mistakes. They were incarcerated by their culture and their times. Even such a great liberal as Thomas Jefferson, living as he did in the 1700s, was a creature of his culture. Born when slavery was acceptable and raised as a slave-owner, he continued that tradition until the day he died, though it is true that he saw a conflict between his liberalism and slavery.
Jefferson tried to abolish slavery, but his own culture could not accept that view at that time. Almost a century later slavery was still alive in the American South. So why should we takes Mill's view on marriage anymore seriously than Jefferson's ownership of slaves?
Jefferson was deeply troubled by the institution of slavery. He was aware that that there was a conflict between his society and culture, and his political values. He pushed to end the institution—but didn't push very hard fearing that would tear asunder the new nation he helped found. Slavery was traditional. It was backed by much of organised religion of the day—especially the orthodox creeds. Liberalism simply couldn't be applied to the slavery issue at that time because the culture wasn't ready for the rights and liberties that American liberalism promised.
The conflict Jefferson had was between his values and his willingness to stop fighting for the full equality of all men. The man who penned "all men are created equal" knew he was hamstrung and couldn't fight for the very principle he enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
For various reason liberals have not always carried their principles through. Some like Jefferson, and his antislavery ideas, were completely out of step with their own society. They were men born too early, advocating an application of liberalism far too radical for the culture in which they lived. Others saw no further than the issues of their day, not knowing where their principles would lead future generations.
Throughout the ages liberalism has evolved. And I don't mean the confiscation of the name "liberal" by socialists either. I mean that liberalism has consistently moved to extend liberty to more and more areas of human life. Liberalism never started with a fully fledged agenda of freedom. That agenda has evolved and is still evolving. It is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to outline a full liberal agenda since each generation is facing new issues and must be mentally prepared for new applications of liberal principles.
Because liberalism is an evolving view there is always a tension within it in between those who continue to push for more liberty with a more consistent application of the equality of rights, and those who feel uncomfortable and wish to stop the process—or even turn it back a notch or two.
As with any creed there are conservatives who feel the principles of that creed have gone as far as they can go—or at least as far as they feel comfortable. FA Hayek, in his classic essay Why I Am Not a Conservative argued that in the modern world socialism, in it's various guises, has dominated. Conservatives and liberals both opposed this state of affairs causing some to assume they were allies. But compared to conservativism "the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still."
Hayek said that one apparent difference between classical liberals and conservatives is that of their psychology: "one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new, as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead."
This fear of "uncontrolled social forces", said Hayek, "is closely related to two other characteristics of conservativism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces." The conservative does not understand that order in society is spontaneous and he does not comprehend how the economic forces of the market help bring about this order. The conservative assumes that order, to exist, must come from authority or from tradition. Order to them is not a spontaneous evolution from below but is imposed from above—either by the King, the priest, or the two in concert. As Hayek said: "Order appears to the conservatives as the result of the continuous attention of authority."
The logical conclusion for the conservative then is that state power is not inherently problematic. They merely want it directed toward goals which they can accept. Hayek wrote: "In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. ...Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people."
And it is here that the conflict between classical liberalism and conservatism is most apparent. The conservative, in the end, sees the problem with government to be that of who is in control, more than what it is that government does. He does not so much wish to limit the state as to change those controlling it. In this sense he is more in tune with the socialist. Both ultimately believe in order from above, imposed on society by the superior man, though they vehemently differ about the ends to which they would use state power. This is why liberalism stands as far from conservatism, as it does from socialism. This is why penitent socialists, like Whitaker Chambers, often find it much easier to seek solace in the bosom of conservatism than to ally himself with actual liberals.
Liberalism is found in the conclusions of the great liberals, but more than that as well. The conclusions they reached are not the foundations of liberalism. In a sense their conclusions are almost totally unimportant. Liberalism is rooted in their principles. To the degree that their conclusions were a consistent outgrowth of those principles then modern liberals (in the classic sense) can embrace the conclusions. To the degree that were inconsistent, we can shun them.
We are not wedded to the conclusions of any specific liberal thinker, but we are wedded to their foundational truths. We live in a different world, one where attitudes and political realities are constantly changing. Because we do, that means that new areas, where liberal principles may apply, open up to us in ways not available to previous generation of liberals.
Lord Samuel Brittan noted that many of the reforms of the 1960s were the logical consequences of classical liberal principles that could not be realised any time sooner. He said: "Many of the classical ideas of nineteenth-century liberalism did not come on the statute book until the 1960s. The battle is still far from won, as can be seen from the sentences still passed on 'obscene publications' or the hysterical and vindictive attitude adopted by so many authority figures towards the problem of drugs."
It is for this reason that we can not discover liberalism merely by looking backwards and investigating the conclusions of previous generations of liberals. Liberalism is an inherently evolving, dynamic system of beliefs. But, if this is true, then what prevents it from simply evolving into some creature totally illiberal in nature?
The foundational principles of liberalism, if adhered to, will keep the liberal ship on course. That is the strength of liberalism. Mills may never have conceived of gay marriage or anything like it. It surely would be amazing if he had. But his principles about liberty, and the limitations that it necessarily required be put upon the state in order to preserve liberty, leads to certain conclusions. The conclusions to which they lead will expand from generation to generation as cultures, societies and people change. But the principles of liberalism remain. And it is those principles that determine where liberalism moves to in the future, not some snapshot of what liberals believed at specific moment in history.