Liberalism: It's All in the Name
There is so much confusion about the meaning of the term. In fact, "liberalism" seems to be a word at war with itself. For example, "illiberal" means "restricting freedom of thought or behavior." Yet people in government who call themselves "liberal" used the force of law to impose politically correct thought and behavior on a Christian baker who declined to provide a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his faith. So we have an illiberal policy, imposed by "liberals." What is going on here?
The key to untangling the confusion is this one remarkable fact: in politics, the term "liberal" today means the precise opposite of what it meant to America's founders. The important point to understand is that the name of liberalism was confiscated by the political enemies of (true) liberalism.
The term "liberal" comes from the Latin "liber," meaning "free." Liberalism originally referred to the philosophy of liberty, the great tradition in political thinking the American founders did so much to define and advance. Washington's celebrated "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport" of 1790 makes perfectly clear how the founders used the term: "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience[.]" According to the founders, "liberal" is all about liberty. In their time, the word was not at war with itself.
The liberalism of the American founders focused on reining in the powers of government. The purpose of the founders' design of the government was protecting our unalienable rights from encroachment by people in the government. But today's so-called liberals are dedicated to expanding government into every area of life and to attacking the safeguards of liberty in the founders' design. Whether they are using Obamacare to force Americans to buy government-approved insurance or attacking the Electoral College and the 1st and 2nd Amendments, they are the sworn enemies of the founders' gift to us.
Ludwig von Mises puts it like this in his book Liberalism:
In the United States "liberal" means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities[.] ... Every measure aiming at confiscating some of the assets of those who own more than the average or at restricting the rights of the owners of property is considered as liberal and progressive.
Today, "liberal" and "progressive" often travel together as virtual synonyms, but originally the Progressives made it clear they were the enemies of liberalism. The Progressives intended to replace America's founding principles with new, improved Progressive principles. Instead of overthrowing the American system by means of a bloody revolution, their plan was to do it progressively, one step at a time.
To understand Progressivism, let's start with Woodrow Wilson. He proudly called himself a Progressive, and here he is making clear what he thought of the founders' ideas: "No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle[.]" "Nonsense," he said of the principles of the American founders.
Wilson was a disciple of the 19th-century German philosopher GWF Hegel. According to Hegel, the process of history itself renders the ideas of each earlier period obsolete. Therefore, according to Hegel and to Wilson, the founders' principles were relevant only to the time of the founders. The founders believed that the proposition that all men are created equal is, as Lincoln said, "an abstract truth applicable to all men and all times." According to Hegel and Wilson, it was merely an idea for another time.
By championing Hegel, Wilson played a leading role in introducing an alien strain of thought into the American body politic, a strain of thought that rejected the self-evident truths and the unalienable rights of the founders. Hegel rejected the idea of individual liberty, exalting the state instead. "One must worship the state as a terrestrial divinity." Consequently, a more accurate name for Wilson's political philosophy would be "statism," though Progressivism was obviously a more appealing-sounding label to present to America's voters. However, that label soon lost its appeal.
The Progressive policies of the Woodrow Wilson era quickly gave Progressivism a bad reputation. FDR was a proud Progressive who had served in the Wilson administration, but running as a Progressive had become politically unwise by 1932. Prohibition, enacted at the crest of the Progressive wave in 1919 during Wilson's administration, had not exactly turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. The country was mired in the Depression, making it painfully clear that the Federal Reserve, one of Progressivism's crown jewels, had not in fact smoothed out the business cycle as promised. And the Progressive income tax, another of Progressivism's most prized accomplishments, was a sore point for many voters.
Time for a name change!
And what a change it was. Nowhere is FDR's genius for politics more evident than in his decision to call himself a liberal. FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the Progressives. Thanks to FDR, the illiberal party of the state – the party of government, the self-proclaimed political enemies of the classical liberalism of the founders and of limited government – got away with calling itself liberal.
FDR's theft left the proponents of the philosophy of liberty without a name. What should they call themselves? As Charles Kesler writes in his book I Am the Change: "FDR suggested, helpfully, that they ought to call themselves conservatives, a designation they were loath to accept because it sounded ... vaguely un-American[.] ... Robert Taft, 'Mr. Conservative,' was still insisting he was a liberal in 1946." The people who wanted America to continue to live according to the Constitution at first resisted taking FDR's helpful suggestion. They finally gave in when they decided that the Progressive theft of their name had succeeded.
The philosophy of America's founding documents is the classical liberalism of the founders. It has been under attack in politics and academia by the Progressives for over one hundred years. Consequently, it is now only dimly remembered, if at all, even by those Americans who are alarmed by what the Progressives are doing to America.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and on the Board of Distinguished Advisers of the Ronald Reagan Center for Freedom and Understanding. He is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books. You can preview the book here.