What’s a Liberal, Daddy?

One of our commenters has a reasonable request. It got me to thinking.

Cynthia of California said:

Can we please drop the word “liberals” in these comments? There are Classical Liberals and there are Leftists (often also referred to as Progressives), and they are *not* the same.

As I consider myself one and not the other, thank G-d.

Cynthia has a point, though if she’s a Classical Liberal then she may be all by herself in California. I remember well the politics and policies of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Scoop Jackson. Even Joe Lieberman fell into that category — at least he was forced to leave the Democrat Party as it turned toward a bloated welfare state and away from individual liberties. When Moynihan retired from the Senate and Hillary Clinton assumed his New York seat, I think he died of a broken heart.

Here is a brief introduction from George Mason University:

Consider this [edited] snip from “Discover the Networks” to be the Cliff Notes on this subject:

When the term “liberalism” (derived from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, its hallmarks were a belief in: individual rights (which included civil liberties, political equality, freedom of conscience, and freedom of thought); the rule of law; limited government; private property; and laissez faire economics. Moreover, liberalism favored a pluralistic secular state and opposed all efforts to link religion to the government. It also believed strongly in the idea of progress, but stressed, unlike socialism, that progress should take place by means of orderly, legal procedures rather than by revolutionary upheaval.

In other words, liberty could not be separated from the means used to attain it.

These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch, generally identified as the period of 1815-1914. It was a time of industrial development, unprecedented growth in both population and living standards, expansion of individual liberties and social tolerance, the abolition of slavery and serfdom, a reprieve from major wars, and the waning of political authoritarianism.

The foregoing liberal ideals did not coalesce in a vacuum. Classical liberalism grew out of the 17th-century Age of Reason and the 18th-century Enlightenment. This was a period when:

Western culture broke its long-held faith in the presumptive and everlasting authority of the past, and embraced instead the notion that human beings were capable of progressing beyond the knowledge and insights of ancient scholars and writers;

skepticism gained unprecedented prestige, making it acceptable to doubt every tenet of conventional wisdom or tradition that could not be readily justified by a valid criterion of truth;

man’s willingness to admit his ignorance about things that could not be proved by scientific method, was seen as a proper humility, preferable to feigned certainty;

legislators, philosophers and the common man alike endeavored to devise better ways of governing and of treating their fellow citizens;

the culture came to believe that “natural” human motivations such as the pursuit of happiness — which eventually would be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — were every bit as constant and predictable as the natural laws that governed the orbits of the planets;

the West came to understand that each person’s knowledge and beliefs were limited to his experiences and surroundings, a realization that promoted tolerance for other cultures, faiths, and worldviews;

it was widely believed that a commercial, secular, and religiously diversified state was much to be preferred over a state dominated by the elite of any single faith; and

a free-market, laissez faire economy was seen as the system best suited for the creation of wealth.

These views were proposed and advanced by a host of giants in the fields of philosophy, economics, and science — among them Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, Joseph Butler, Denis Diderot, and Adam Smith.


There is more here, including how the Left managed to co-opt the term and abuse it.

Cynthia got me to thinking further on this topic.

What if the Reformation of our political and cultural life were to come from the Left? It’s not likely, given their enthrallment with Communism and the multi-culti pottage Progressives have been sold and have eaten…still and all, what if?? It certainly is food for thought — to grandly slosh my metaphors here, it is pregnant with possibility. Oops, that might be one quick abortion. Never mind.

No overview would be complete without a reference to Wikipedia. Is the subject old enough to be a safe one for Wiki? See what you think.

Keep in mind the differences between English and French liberalism (an important distinction that “Discover the Networks” didn’t distinguish), recognizing that American colonial thought was built on an English foundation. With that said, Frederic Bastiat is enjoying a renaissance within some circles in America, even as he has been largely forgotten in France.

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If my pondering leaves you feeling reactively angry, well… just keep it cool in the comments, please. Precious neologisms like “libtard” got old years ago…

And thanks to Cynthia for the thought experiment.

25 thoughts on “What’s a Liberal, Daddy?

  1. Two points: one, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was no liberal by my lights. He it was who came up with the idea of cutting off handgun owners’ access to ammunition through unpayable taxes, in order to prevent “gun crime” by drying up the supply. Two, today’s authoritarian hard-left liberals are best described by a portmanteau word I came up with: “progresso-fascist.” This neatly combines what these creatures see themselves as and what they really are, and taints the “progressive” brand with its odious precursor.

  2. Glad Im not the only one that feels this way! The words Liberal and racism are owed an apology for how they’ve been so grossly misused.

    • And this post is an attempt to defy that control by pointing out that Liberal (when used as a proper noun) does not refer to liberal as defined by the dictionary.

      The leftists don’t try to control language so much by saying “don’t use that word” as they do by trying to confuse people into conflating terms, such as when Liberal as a proper noun (name of a political faction) is conflated with liberal according to a dictionary.

      This is most obvious in the climate change area where anyone who denies an impending doom caused by human generated CO2 which must necessarily be the only factor behind climate change is then accused of “denying climate change”, as though to deny one specific crackpot theory about CO2 causing uncontrollable global warming is the same as denying that the climate ever changes at all.

      The real control method being used is to trick people into conflating multiple distinct issues such that nobody can even discuss the issues without conflation occurring.

      Anyone who wants people to communicate honestly will object to easily conflated or outright dishonest terms. The difference with the leftists is that they don’t want honest communication and actively want easily conflated or outright dishonest terms (like “kinetic activist”) to be used because they want to perpetrate deceit through conflation and “PC” definitions.

  3. One of the biggest problems in this regard is Rush Limbaugh, with his habit of talking about “LIBERALISM” (emphatic) as the source and sum of our political woes. Occasionally he’ll mention “leftism” or “the left,” but then he reverts to the “liberalism, liberalism, liberalism” mantra. And he doesn’t define it, so far as I’m aware; it’s just everything he disagrees with.

    He also claims that “progressive” is a (recent) euphemism for “liberal.” He apparently doesn’t understand the history of progressivism, nor does he acknowledge that “liberal” has become a euphemism for coercive collectivism. People who want the government to push other people around will cite a dictionary definition of the “liberal” label they wear and ask, “How could a decent person be on the other side?”

    Many people cite Rush like gospel. Because he’s fairly savvy about the daily workings of practical politics, his listeners tend to think he’s a sage on the deeper aspects of political philosophy. But he does have his bind spots, and his moral failings — and his fans get outraged if anyone points them out. (“How dare you bash Rush, you bitter liberal feminazi!”)

    • I’ve always felt like Rush L was too much like a propagandist fighting other propagandists. Fortunately he isn’t a Goebbels-style propagandist like Michael Moore, but he has had a tendency to use sensationalism to entertain. That’s just necessary given the constraints of the talk show industry, and I’m glad that there are “entertaining” individuals like him out there to counteract the “entertainment” of blatant liars like Moore. But I don’t personally listen to talk shows that much and prefer to research things myself.

  4. Progressivism rose in the 19th Century, and is based on an primal attachment to science as the answer to all things, including matters of social interaction.

    Liberalism’s roots are older than Progressivism, and in America come from the same sources as conservatism.

    • Yes to both your assertions. In the first, the excitement of scientific discoveries was generated outside academia. Even then the schoolmen held out against the germ theory, Lister’s ideas,etc. Many dedicated amateurs, including Darwin, deduced from the evidence. Fletcher never saw a government grant. Now we have the creed of scientism and its high priests and perpetrators live and move and have their being inside the hollowed-out halls of government-aided academe.

      They’re still trying to make sociology into a science. College students who can’t cope with the rigors of science move toward sociology with its secular saints like Ruth Benedict and the serial liar, Margaret Mead. The latter just made stuff up and called it “ethnography”. She is surely the patron saint of “climatology”.

      As for liberalism’s roots and conservatism: funny how that turns into a circle, isn’t it?

      • Yes, and though both liberalism and conservatism are fundamental pillars of American political tradition, progressivism certainly is not. From the start it held that the Constitution was outdated and irrelevant in the face of determinations based on science.

      • Lets not forget one of it’s other children – Eugenics that was all the rage among the scientific elite especially in the U.S. and Britain. The high priests like of science thought they could manage mankind like so much cattle. Entire groups of inferiors such as: Italians, drunks, Irish, the poor, low IQ types, the insane could be eradicated from the world by simply sterilizing them.

        Cass Sunstein had nothing on this lot of self declared god men and monsters.

        • There was some truth underlying the eugenics movement: that human characteristics are heritable, and that traits like retardation are passed along to offspring.

          Eugenicists wanted to use the power of government to act on their theories. Also, of course, there is a world of difference between the idea that traits are inherited, and making off-the-wall judgments on entire populations and calling it “scientific”.

          We’re on the other end of the spectrum right now, totally ignoring the effects of modern medicine on population genetics. It is considered desirable to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars of public funds to keep non-viable babies, often the offspring of drug-takers and habitual criminals, alive and eventually able to produce offspring themselves.

  5. I have some doubts about the full appropriateness of this definition. For one, DtN seems to have missed that talking about “Enlightenment” is nonsensical unless one separates between the English, Scottish and French ones, and the distinct and non-overlapping ideas of each one. That also leads to the very different outcomes of the Enlightenment in the US and in France, for instance.

    Second, the term “libtard” being admittedly shopworn, I object to using “liberal” in the modern sense for the additional reason that the syndrome is not merely a set of political proclivities but a fully-fledged mental illness. Much too large a theme to expound on here and now, but show me, for instance, where do you see in any city of either Left Coast any people scraping off their “Obama-Biden” stickers off millions of bumpers carrying those. And that is when the Big BHO has just managed to drag the Middle East into a nuclear arms race, in addition to his other “achievements.”

    • Yes, it’s a big subject. My arrow hit the board, if not the bulls’-eye. But it was ever only my intention to make it to the board. However, our commenter had a good point: to save Liberal for Classical Liberalism and to reserve Leftist and Progressive for the modern-day Left.

      I did mention the fact that DtN failed to distinguish the differences among the various national/cultural emanations of Classical Liberal philosophies. Even within their borders they differed widely. But as I said, this is the Cliff Notes. In other words, an Introductory survey of the subject for the purposes of letting our readers know the rules for the discussion of a subject fraught with confusion. It was meant to be taken as a notice, and I’ll put that in the “categories” section of the post to further clarify.

      • I forgot to mention that I disagree with another statement of DtN: “the West came to understand that each person’s knowledge and beliefs were limited to his experiences and surroundings, a realization that promoted tolerance for other cultures, faiths, and worldviews.”

        Not so at all. Yes, fashionable ideologies like Objectivism developed on the heels of the Enlightenment, and more religious tolerance , too. But the idea of “tolerance” for other cultures and worldview would be laughable to an English John Bull or a Prussian Junker of mid-19th century or a Belle-Epoque Parisian; I don’t see it much in America’s Manifest Destiny or Philippine or Cuban wars , either. The authors took a 20th century “Progressive” construct, the primary architet of which was Franz Boas, and backdated it to the Enlightenment.

  6. A minor point, bit maybe helpful: in the UK, the “centre” party, the Liberal Democrats, are not so inclined to control freakery as Labour (the erstwhile socialists)’ which is partly why I’ve usually voted for them (though no more).

  7. Wow! I was just making a (I hope) polite request for more specific usage of a couple of terms of political identification.

    Thank you, Dymphna, for the essay and links–and thank you, too, to the readers who’ve also provided links.

    I haven’t had time today (Sunday, 29 March) to read through all the links, but will have a decent reply tomorrow or Tuesday. (Tomorrow is the last Monday of the month, a busy day for me.)

  8. Insightful, creative, intelligent people can over intellectualise to such an extent that it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees.

    • I’m none of those, so I have an excellent view of you, NG. Happily my government doesn’t allow me a gun.

      On a more serious note, when I was in the Air Cadets in my teens (when the RAF still flew Sopwith Camels) I was a good marksman, and unlikely to hit anyone unintentionally. Are gun owners in those US states which allow them, obliged to pass any test of competence, with periodic rechecks?

      Some here (MC, Nemesis…) have, I believe, handled weapons in combat situations. Until put to it, none of us knows whether we could pull the trigger when needed.

  9. The classic liberal as defined here is very close to the non-anarchist libertarian.

    Incidentally, the classical liberal, like the libertarian, favors free borders and the free movement of populations. Of course, they would oppose welfare, figuring that people will not relocate to any area where they are no better off economically than before.

    Coincidentally, your series on Ethno-Religious Diversity and the Limits of Democracy, Part Three by El Ingles highlights a major problem with classical liberalism or any other.

    The basis of liberal thinking, and free market economics, is the impulse of the individual to advance himself by rational means. The job of the government is to provide a milieu guaranteeing physical security and enforcement of legal contracts, and a rational system of commerce. It sounds much like the US Constitution as originally constructed.

    Representative government provides the feedback mechanism on the functioning of government, serving as a rough analog to the feedback of a free market. That is, politicians are elected depending on how closely they meet the “needs” of their electorate.

    We have, through our importation of immigrant Muslims, ever-growing populations who 1) do not follow their best interests economically and 2) form numerous strong political power groups devoted to removing the liberal form of government that allowed them to enter.

    In fact, societies with a weak government tend to be susceptible to takeover by foreign elements, or sometimes by the strongest entity within the federation. Phillip of Macedon ruled a relatively obscure Greek province that took over the entire Greek confederation. The Federalist Papers go over the need for a government strong enough to fight off domestic and foreign enemies.

    Does it make any sense to be a liberal now, in light of the systematic invasion of Muslims who believe religiously in the suppression of individual rights and human liberties? The founding fathers remarked on the necessity for an educated electorate that loved liberty, but never addressed, as far as I know, any mechanisms for maintaining that type of population through selective immigration. In fact, it could be argued that the first amendment precluded legislating immigration based on favoring or excluding any religion…although the Obama administration seems to have found numerous opportunities to encourage the immigration of Muslims.

    But, the contradiction remains that we cannot maintain a liberal government through liberal means.

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