American Liberal Political Philosophy

America has always had two dominant ideologies, conservatism and liberalism. The differences between them are probably not as deep as you think. In two articles, I present the classic definitions of conservatism and liberalism. Take a look before you sink back into your polarized conservative or liberal mold; you may find some surprises.

The concept of liberty is integral to the liberal concept. There are, perhaps, two constant hallmarks of the liberal tradition of liberty:

1. John Stuart Mill argued in "On Liberty" in 1859 that it is the burden of those who want to limit liberty with any restriction or prohibition to prove their case. Otherwise, the presumption favors liberty. This is especially true of those who would limit liberty by coercion. Liberals naturally question whether political authority and law are justified. Think of the popular slogan, "Question all authority."

2. Under this presumption, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant maintained that humanity is a state of nature in which people are free and equal; any limitation of this freedom and equality must be justified

3. Since the liberal philosophy holds that all people are free and equal in this state of nature, government must protect the liberty of all citizens equally: the law must be applied equally to all.

Some say the most important idea of liberalism is the protection of individual liberty. However, problems can emerge when economic freedom and social justice come into conflict.

Liberalism values individual rights over traditional values. Personal rights and freedom are valued over state or governmental power, which can only be achieved by the state or government. Liberals, under this classical definition, advocate a free market economy without government intervention; they tend to see government as a necessary evil, whose primary responsibility is to protect people's rights and freedom; this belief necessarily makes government more active to achieve these goals, than conservative philosophy. Classical liberalism supports the belief that the only true freedom is freedom from coercion.

A division in liberal philosophy occurs over private property and market order. For classical liberals, liberty and private property are inseparable.

Classical liberals insist that an economic system must be based on private property which allows individuals to employ their labor and capital as they see fit. A market order based on private property secures freedom. People must be free to make contracts and to sell their labor, free to save their income and invest it as they see fit, and free to run enterprises when they have obtained the capital; without this ability people are not really free.

Based on the above, classical liberals believe that private property is the only effective means of protection of liberty. The dispersion of power that results from a free market economy based on private property protects the liberty of subjects against encroachments by the state.

The classical liberal tradition was centrally concerned with bettering the lot of the working class. However, the goal was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer; classical liberals reject the redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.

Today, liberalism is generally viewed as supporting a wider social and economic role for government, counterbalanced by stronger guarantees of civil liberties. Also known as 'new', 'revisionist', 'social justice', or 'welfare state', modern liberalism challenges the connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order:

1. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the free market appeared unable to sustain prosperity. John Maynard Keynes, in "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" argued that the free market eventually gets stuck in high unemployment.

2. As the modern liberals lost faith in the market, they looked to government to supervise economic life. This reevaluation, to some extent, was in reaction to many democracies developing and the decline of empire in Europe following World War I.

3. Another fundamental development was a growing distrust of property rights, being viewed as generating power in the hands of some, at the expense of the working class; liberals became especially sensitive to property rights that are taken at the expense of any another group.

Another variation of liberal philosophy occurred in the last century: American philosopher John Rawls (1921 - 2002), in his "difference principle," stated it is not enough that an individual is treated equally under the law; all must have the same opportunities in life. This is an altogether different concept than preventing government from treating a group or individual differently under the law than another; this puts government in a much more active role, that of providing the same opportunities to all people.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is considered by many as the founder of modern liberalism in America, in conjunction with American Psychologist John Dewey and British Economist John Maynard Keynes. He then led the United States in the creation of a more elaborate federal government to act as the bulwark of individual liberty, and a new (reformed) capitalism that protected its citizens against perceived excesses.

Some argue that Roosevelt's liberal policies led to an end of the depression, while others argue that they lengthened the depression and it was only World War II that lifted the United States out of the depression. FDR was certainly a controversial figure.

Regardless of his critics, FDR had such a profound impact on American politics, Republicans are still fighting some of FDR's policies 60 years after his death. If his distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt had thrust America into the international spotlight with the Spanish-American War, FDR made America a major player in world affairs with efforts to bolster Europe against Hitler, embargo against Japan, and summit meetings with Churchill and Stalin. America went from isolationism to a position as a leader of the world.

After obtaining a degree in political science, I embarked on a career in insurance and government. For the last 21 years, I have worked for local government and government associations. I have written articles, as well as manuals, assisting local government in effectively managing their activities and exposures. I have also provided training in these areas, been a frequent speaker at educational seminars, and acted as President of an association of governmental employees.

During this time, I continued an interest in the politics that is embedded in government and where politics is leading this nation in the Twenty First Century.


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