A Quick Defense of Classical Liberalism

Bill Starr’s thoughtful and interesting discussion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence ("The Blood of Liberty," American Thinker, June 21, 2014) has much to recommend it.  However, the following quote from his article calls out for a defense of classical Liberalism:

[W]e are told that long, long ago there was something wonderful called Classical Liberalism that became corrupted over the years. But how could something so good become so bad, unless there was something bad in it from the beginning?

The term “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free.”  Liberalism originally referred to the philosophy of liberty – that is, the philosophy of the American Founders, the great tradition the Founders did so much to define and advance.

The term “liberal” today means the precise opposite of what it once meant. 

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.  (Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism)

So we have a familiar word with two totally contrary meanings, one meaning having been very nearly completely buried by the other.  How did this confusing state of affairs come about?

It was the result of a masterstroke by that shrewdest of politicians – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

FDR was a proud progressive, but the progressive policies of the Woodrow Wilson era had given progressivism a bad name with American voters.  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 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 and his brilliant campaign to re-name progressivism as liberalism.  A lesser politician could never have gotten away with it. 

Think of it: FDR stole the label of the philosophy of liberty and bestowed it on the progressives – the party of the state, the party of government, the self-proclaimed political enemies of classical Liberalism and of limited government.  It was a knockout punch, and it left the proponents of the philosophy of liberty without a name. 

What should the defenders of the Constitution call themselves now?  As my friend the eminent scholar Professor Charles Kesler writes in his masterful 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 classical Liberals resisted taking FDR’s helpful suggestion because “conservative” had always been the label of their political foes.  In the words of Jacques Barzun, “free enterprise, free trade, freedom to vote and run for office, free speech and religion are Liberal achievements.”  Classical Liberalism’s political opposition in the fight for liberty, the champions of the old order, had always, and very properly, too, been called the “conservatives.”

It gets confusing, doesn’t it?  That is the beauty of it from the progressives’ point of view.  Making sense about this has become a challenge even for very sensible people.  Consider this passage written by Harvey Mansfield, the distinguished Harvard professor, in the pages of The Claremont Review of Books, America’s foremost journal of political thought:

A true liberal is at minimum a person who wants both sides to be heard.  That is the practice of free speech and its companion, academic freedom.  The so-called liberals today don’t want to hear both sides.  Real liberals…do, but those who stand up for liberalism today are mostly conservatives. [Italics added].

I cite this in complete sympathy with Professor Mansfield, noting only that this thoughtful scholar is forced to modify liberal with true, so-called, and real in quick succession in order to be able use liberalism without a modifier – all this, in order to make an important point that, however, has to be stated as an apparent paradox. 

Political discourse in America, even when conducted by our very best, has been plunged into terminological confusion.  This confusion has not been good for our republic, dependent as it is on the ability of the voters to make sound choices at the ballot box.

In the 1950s, William F. Buckley and other leading American defenders of the Constitution decided to accede to FDR’s “helpful” suggestion and call themselves conservatives.  Their decision grew out of the failure of the proponents of the philosophy of liberty to mount a successful defense of their right to their own name. 

So it was that the name of liberalism became the property of the opponents of Liberalism.

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation, a forthcoming book on the American Founding.

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