Bohemian Tangents

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Defining Liberalism

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Words have histories and often change meaning, sometimes drastically, over time. The term “liberal” would probably make a good “Exhibit A” if you wanted to make a case for words that seem to have evolved into their own antonyms (opposites) over time. I decided to explore the formal political-philosophical category of “liberalism” to shed light on “liberal” semantically. I consulted the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary’s definition of liberalism:

1) the quality or state of being liberal as: (a) lack of strictness or rigor, (b) broad-mindedness, open-mindedness; (2) a movement in modern Protestantism emphasizing intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity; (3) a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint esp. by government regulation in all economic activity and usu. based upon free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard; (4) a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of man, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for tolerance and freedom of the individual from arbitrary authority in all spheres of life esp. by the protection of political and civil liberties and for government under law with the consent of the governed; (5) an attitude or philosophy favoring individual freedom for self-development and self-expression

One way to give some kind of clarity to these many meanings is to dichotomize liberalism as follows

1) Classical liberalism: a political ideology, a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties and political freedom with representative democracy under the rule of law and emphasizes economic freedom. Classical liberalism developed in the 19th century in Europe and the United States. Although classical liberalism built on ideas that had already developed by the end of the 18th century, it advocated a specific kind of society, government and public policy as a response to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. Notable individuals whose ideas have contributed to classical liberalism include John Locke, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. It drew on the economics of Adam Smith and on a belief in natural law, utilitarianism, and progress.

2) Social liberalism: a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or center-left. The term social liberalism is used to differentiate it from classical liberalism, which dominated political and economic thought for several centuries until social liberalism branched off from it around the Great Depression.

Actually social liberalism branched off way before the Great Depression and this branching off happened in Great Britain and was done by “new liberals” long before Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Great Depression came along. Wikipedia’s entry on social liberalism goes on to note the historical change in Great Britain:

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a group of British thinkers, known as the New Liberals, made a case against laissez-faire classical liberalism and argued in favor of state intervention in social, economic, and cultural life. The New Liberals, which included intellectuals like T. H. Green, L. T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favorable social and economic circumstances. In their view, the poverty, squalor and ignorance in which many people lived made it impossible for freedom and individuality to flourish. New Liberals believed that these conditions could be ameliorated only through collective action coordinated by a strong, welfare-oriented and interventionist state.

I say history provides lessons showing us why words change meaning. The effects of the industrial revolution where workers worked in abusive horrific conditions illustrated that the “liberty” of the capitalist factory or mine owner was at the expense of the liberty of the laborers being abused. The world of industrial capitalism was vastly different from the predominantly agrarian world conceived of by classical liberals and populated by yeoman farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, and small businesses. John D. Rockefeller and his Robber Baron cohorts had new notions of “personal liberty” far beyond the ideas of classical liberals like John Locke or Thomas Jefferson.


Written by joethebohemian

May 26, 2015 at 8:44 pm

Posted in politics

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