November 28, 2012 columns

“Liberal” is Not a Dirty Word

Libertarianism is part of the liberal tradition, and we should be proud of that.

Like clockwork, whenever we post an item to Libertarianism.org’s Facebook page mentioning liberalism—such as, “John Locke was the father of liberalism.”—someone responds in a comment with, “Don’t call me a liberal!” or “I hope that’s a typo.” Too many libertarians sneer when they hear the word liberal.

The simple fact is that libertarians are liberals—and we should be proud of that.

So what’s a liberal? It’s important to start by recognizing that the way we use “liberal” in the United States today is relatively new and, in fact, bears little relation to most of liberalism’s long tradition. The bulk of people who call themselves liberals today mean that they’re members of the political left, who are in favor of a large government that spends a great deal and intervenes extensively in our lives. They believe the government should regulate not only the market, but also what we eat, what we teach our kids in school, and what kinds of light bulbs we install in our homes. These “liberals” are the descendants of the Progressive and socialist movements—and are, in many respects, a sharp divergence from the liberal tradition.

So, again, what is liberalism? Opening my handy desk reference, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, we get this quick definition.

One of the major political ideologies of the modern world, liberalism is distinguished by the importance it attaches to the civil and political rights of individuals. Liberals demand a substantial realm of personal freedom—including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality—which the state should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm.

That sounds a lot more like libertarianism than it does modern progressivism, right? It’s certainly a definition unworthy of those misguided sneers.

Still, it’s important to note that not all liberals are libertarians.

The liberal tradition, with its roots in the struggles for religious liberty and with John Locke as its first major philosophical proponent (though the term came into use much later, in the 19th century), ends up experiencing quite a rift regarding the centrality of economic liberties.

Early liberals were generally enthusiastic supporters of markets and private property. (Adam Smith, for example.) But today most philosophical liberals—i.e., the people who apply the term to themselves as it’s understood within political philosophy—take a rather dim view of capitalism the related, robust right to private property. While they remain respectful of markets as an unmatched means for wealth creation, they believe those markets should be heavily regulated and their participants heavily taxed in order to minimize income disparities in the name of egalitarianism and social justice.

This branch of liberalism’s family tree has as its biggest name John Rawls, author of the seminal A Theory of Justice. And it is this branch that—unfortunately—dominates liberalism within the academy.

Those liberals who continue to give economic rights equal weight have thus come to be known as “classical liberals.” And, depending on who you talk to, classical liberalism is either a sub-category of libertarianism, or else libertarianism is a sub-category of classical liberalism.

Either way, libertarians are liberals, and we claim as our intellectual ancestors such great liberals as Locke, Smith, Hume, and Mill. We should never forget that.