Friday, April 18, 2014

A Return to Liberalism

Liberalism, as originally  and properly understood, is the historic advocate of individual freedom. It has promoted the rule of law and private property, with the free exchange of goods and ideas. Its opposition to censorsh

The entire liberal philosophy revolves around the primacy of the rights of the individual. As two philosophers put it: “Rights are the language through which liberalism is spoken” (Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Liberalism Defended).

Thomas Jefferson put this liberal ideal into one succinct paragraph in his magnificent Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the Governed . . . .”

Liberalism turned the prevailing doctrines of human rights and politics upside down. For centuries it was assumed that man lived for the sake of the state; that what rights he possessed were gifts, given to him by his king or government. Li berals argued that the opposite was true. People possess rights first, and governments receive their sanction from the people. The government is not the giver of rights to the people but the people are the source for the legitimacy of the government.

The French statesman and journalist Frederic Bastiat explained liberal principles in his classic work The Law. Bastiat starts first with the fact that all people are given the gift of life. But he says that life “cannot maintain itself alone.” Humans have “marvelous faculties” to produce that which is required for life, and man sits amidst “a variety of natural resources.” “By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.”

To survive man must apply his rational mind to natural resources. Life requires freedom, and if man is to survive he must keep the product of his labor or, in other words, he m ust have the right to property. Liberals have argued that it is for this reason that legitimate governments are created. Jefferson said the purpose of government is to secure rights already held by the individual. Bastiat explained it this way:

In a liberal society the primary function of government is to protect the pre-existing rights of the individual. The government grants no rights, but merely acts to prevent others from infringing on such rights. Liberalism does not attempt to tell man how to live, or what moral principles to hold. It deals si mply with his material well-being in this world. It provides a framework in which each individual can find personal happiness or fulfillment according to his or her own values. In his book Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises wrote:

 It is not from a disdain for spiritual goods that liberalism concerns itself exclusively with man’s material well-being, but from a conviction that what is highest and deepest in man cannot be touched by any outward regulation. It seeks to produce only outer well-being because it knows that inner, spiritual riches cannot come to man from without, but only from within his own heart. It does not aim at creating anything but the outward preconditions for the inner life.

Human Interaction

Liberalism establishes a basic principle for how people must interact. This principle is that all interaction must be by mutual consent. Each individual is thus free to pursue his own happiness in a regime of freedom, regulated only by the equal liberty and rights Œof others. The proper method of interaction economically is one where individuals trade value for value. Thus in a truly liberal society, the economy is one of free markets and property rights. Individuals seeking their own well-being produce goods and services for exchange with other individuals who are also seeking their own good. No trade takes place in a free economy unless all trading partners believe they will benefit. To improve his own life each individual must also improve the lives of others, even if this is not his intent.

In a society where government is limited to the protection of rights, individuals may pursue varying sets of values. Thus liberalism is the only system that allows for pluralism, or the pursuit of contradictory sets of values. The function of the state is not to impose one set of values on everyone, but to allow the free exchange of goods, services, and ideas. It protects, equally, every group within the society, but it does not place the values of any one group higher than others. Liberalism respects man’s most important right: the right to think for himself. It does not seek to control his mind, but leaves him free to use his rational faculties to the best of his ability.

Applied liberalism means free minds and free markets. But for man to be free, government must be limited. Most liberals have, therefore, advocated constitutional restraints that limit the powers of government. If the purpose of government is to protect the rights of people, then the purpose of a constitution is to limit the powers of government.

Liberalism arose because governments have been the most effective means for the destruction of human rights and human liberties. An all-powerful government—even one motivated by the best of intentions—is a potent threat to human freedom. And liberals believe that without freedom man cannot flourish and prosper. Thus liberals have historically spoken of absolute human rights and limited governments. And this, they believe, is what a constitution is meant to guarantee.

Liberalism does not espouse one overriding utopian ideal for everyone. It recognizes the diversity of human life, and it understands that the pursuit of utopia is far more likely to end up on the road to hell. Thus it proposes a society based on equal rights and equal liberties. Each person is free to seek his or her own happiness, provided only that each respects the equal rights of the others. Only in this free society is there the chance for substantial prosperity, and only when man is free from hunger and disease is he capable of pursuing his higher values—whatever they may be.

No Equal Results

But liberalism recognizes that a society of equal righ ts will not lead to one of equal results. And a society that promotes equal results will not be one that has equal rights. Liberalism, properly understood, defends equal liberty. And when all are equally free, the results will be vastly different.

Wealth will be created—not distributed. Those who can reach for heights will do so, and the rest of us will benefit from their actions, though that was not their motivation. The state will be of limited importance, acting only to protect rights. Those who reach the top in the business world will have done so because they are good at what they do and not because they have political pull. The result, though not the intention, will be an uplifting of the poorest in society. Jobs will be created as a necessary component of the profit-seeking of the entrepreneurs.

When this happens there w ill be economic inequality. But so what? Why should everyone be equally poor? The poor will have their living standards vastly improved, and the wealthy will be even wealthier. If prosperity is our goal then why worry about an inequality of results?

And this is the crucial difference between liberalism and socialism (or what goes by the name “liberalism” in America today). Liberalism, based on an ethics of achievement, advocates equal freedom, which leads to unequal results. Socialism, based on the ethics of envy, demands equal results, which requires limiting freedom. Thus with liberalism we have freedom, prosperity, and unequal wealth. With socialism we have equality, poverty, and no freedom. As much as we might want there to be a third alternative, it doesn’t exist.

Request: We have a series of slides on the nature of liberalism that we would like to convert to a video format. Anyone who has the ability and would like to undertake this task as a donation to the Institute's work should contact us by leaving a comment on how to reach you. Those comments will not be visible to the public. There are approximate 60 slides.


  1. Wouldn't it be great to take that word back?

  2. @SORG - I have a strategy to suggest! There are a few contexts in which "liberal" has retained its original political meaning in English (the word is only distorted in English, every other language still uses the word correctly, AFAIK), and that is as an adjective of "markets", "tradition" and other more obscure uses. For example, english-speaking academics still refer to "liberalized markets" and "the liberal tradition".

    The trick then is to use the word ONLY in those contexts, which will create a perfect little contradiction in the readers mind. When you need to refer to democratic socialism, use "leftist" or "socialist" or something other than "liberal". This way, you are always understood, but still get to "bring the word back".