What happened to the liberals?


No, Edmund Burke was not a liberal. That’s not why he’s in this image.

In political life, there is no shortage of natural battle lines. Once a society sets up a welfare state, for example, it’s no surprise that some people think it should be bigger and others think it should be smaller. Similarly, standing armies have a way of tempting some, as John Quincy Adams warned, to look “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” while others are more constitutionally disinclined to pick up the sword.

With time, society exchanges this set of norms and values for that one, much to the delight of some and the horror of others. (Also, it should be noted, to the large indifference of many.) And in every group, there are some who seem drawn towards rule making and some who would rather people figure things out for themselves, just as long as they don’t get in the way.

To sort this wonderful mess out, people like to come up with labels, and because they have read Plato, or because they are influenced by people who have read Plato, or because they resemble Plato, they seem to want to believe that these labels describe political archetypes – that there is such a thing as a ‘political conservative’ or such a thing as a ‘moral relativist’. Sometimes, briefly, such statements are true: the early Soviets, for example, really did think they could centralize control of just about everything. The French Revolutionaries really did think they could remake society entirely. Mostly, however, such labels are little more than cognitive shortcuts.

For example, Edmund Burke, the prototypical conservative, argued that social change should be pursued only incrementally, with deference to existing institutions and traditions, and never out of some sort of commitment to an abstract ideological vision. In the United States, today’s ‘conservative’ movement is spearheaded by people who want to radically change the relationship between government and society, abolish long-standing social programs, and readily apply a stringent ideological litmus test. It would be fascinating to get Edmund Burke and Ted Cruz together for tea.

But if conservatism has lost the methodological grounding that first gave it its name, what has happened to liberalism has been even more fascinating.

The Roots of Liberalism

Once upon a time, liberalism was a coherent worldview. If we’re going to be pedantic about language, it would be wrong to call it a tradition at its inception, and it would be incongruous to call it radical – a word that takes its meaning from the Latin word for ‘root’ and has traditionally meant something more akin to fundamentalist than disruptive. But radical is certainly a word we would be tempted to use. It was, however you slice it, anti-establishment.

The early liberals were men like John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and John Stuart Mill. Early liberals championed ideas associated with personal freedom and free trade, as well as private property and limited government.

They were reformers who wanted to chip away at a world designed for the benefit of the empowered few against the disenfranchised many, where aristocrats and governments worked hand-in-glove to protect their established privilege. Everywhere and always, liberals have been pro-individual, suspicious of agglomeration, pro-market, but not necessarily pro-business. One famous quote from Adam Smith captures this last sentiment nicely:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

This sort of classical liberalism has traditionally been associated with a small role for government, which liberals have distrusted because they see it as the servant of powerful elites. Even so, the basic instinct of liberalism has been to level the playing field, which has led thinkers with rock solid small-government bona fides to nevertheless support broad-based social welfare programs. For example, Milton Friedman was a vocal supporter of the earned income tax credit, and Friedrich Hayek argued in favor of universal healthcare and unemployment insurance.

In a similar vein, when progressives like Teddy Roosevelt aggressively sought to have the government intervene and break up monopolies, they were effectively siding with the interests of the market against the interests of business. In doing so, Republican Teddy Roosevelt was acting as a liberal.

Liberals in America

In modern America, the term ‘liberal’ has been most directly associated with the left and with the Democratic Party. This has been the case for a whole host of complicated reasons, but we should take a moment to recognize that it has happened in error. The Democratic Party has never been a liberal party; rather, it has always been a coalition-driven party. That has been both its major weakness and its major strength.

On the other hand, the Whig Party that Abraham Lincoln left in his youth was a largely a liberal party, as was the Republican Party that he helped bring to prominence. But that was a long time ago, and the GOP hasn’t been a liberal party since arguably well before World War II, and certainly not since Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964. Today’s Republican Party is largely anti-market, pro-business, pro-wealth, and socially conservative.

Both Democrats and Republicans like to throw the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ around like they know what they’re talking about, and as if the public does too. And of course, in a very important sense, they’re right. Such code words serve as cognitive shortcuts about who we are, what we stand for, and who we stand against. What those words bear little resemblance to in today’s parlance, however, are their historical antecedents. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are partly reformist and partly conservative; they just want to reform or conserve different things.

When Democrats promise not to touch social welfare programs, they’re espousing a deeply conservative position. When Republicans promise to abolish large swaths of the federal government, they stand firmly in the footsteps of the reform tradition – the same reform tradition that has always been opposed by conservative forces. Neither party can claim the mantle of ideological purity.

Libertarians & Social Justice

There’s one piece left to sort out of the puzzle – well, technically, two. Liberalism began with twin observations. First, that people cannot be free if their ability to better themselves, rule themselves, and associate with each other is impeded. Second, that people cannot be free if they are denied the tools to better themselves, tools like access to education and the basic necessities of life.

At first, those observations reinforced each other; with time they have come into tension and have seemed to settle onto different ends of the political spectrum. Libertarians, largely ensconced on the periphery of the Republican Party, emphasize the importance of self-determination, oftentimes in conflict with the GOP’s more general tendency towards social control. Alternatively, a vocal minority within the Democratic Party fights for issues that fall under the rubric of ‘social justice’, to which the rest of the party pays due but largely ineffective lip service.

Somewhere down the road there might be an opportunity for the liberals of the right and the liberals of the left to get together again – a bizarro-world alternative to our earlier imagining of a meeting between yesterday’s conservative paragon, Edmund Burke, and today’s voice in the wilderness, Ted Cruz.

But until that happens, America has no liberal party, few liberal candidates, and is much the worse for it.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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