So what is “liberalism” to the average American? I bet most people would say a “liberal” is a Democratic Party voter who favors gun control, abortion, wealth redistribution, compulsory public education, government control of almost everything in life, gay rights, belief that human economic activity endangers life on the planet, and so on with a large laundry list of “causes”. Most people would also say that an American “liberal” is the opposite of an American “conservative”. “Liberals” in the U.S. also love to call themselves “progressive”.
Outside of the U.S. there is a different view of what it means to be a “liberal”. Outside America “liberalism” is quite distinct from the modern American definition. Liberalism overseas is in the tradition of Adam Smith, John Locke, and Frédéric Bastiat. Ralph Raico once wrote a wonderful description of the classical liberal tradition which is still close to just “liberalism” is some countries but the very opposite of “liberalism” in the U.S.
Classical Liberalism, or “liberalism” outside the U.S., is the political creed of those who favor liberty over the state, practice peace rather than war, and believe that the laissez-faire market, property rights and voluntary cooperation is the foundation of a just society. They see nothing wrong with wealth accumulation as long as it was accumulated by the peaceful and productive means of voluntary free exchange and not the political means of plunder and government privilege.
Well informed readers will recognize that Classical Liberalism is the forerunner of the modern libertarian movement. There are a few modern Americans who self-identify as “liberals” who still claim the legacy of Classical Liberalism for themselves in spite of the fact that classical liberalism is the direct opposite of the state-worshiping “liberalism” of modern America. The classical liberals believe in individual liberty, distrust government, and believe in decentralization and the self-organizing effectiveness of society. In short, my friends, the very opposite of today’s Democratic Party Liberals who favor tax and spend with total control of our lives by the central government.
I once wrote “I want the term “liberal” back!” and I still do. After all, modern American Liberalism is totally inconsistent with the traditions of classical liberalism and modern libertarianism. The modern “liberal-left” talks about humanitarianism and putting people above profits but they favor the iron fist of government domination over the voluntary cooperation of free individuals. People just don’t do what the modern liberal totalitarians think they should do! Now these statists will usually try to obscure the fact fact they favor total government control by claiming that they do not favor state violence and besides that we all are ruled by government with our consent. (I never gave my “consent”, did you?)
The state is God to the American liberal-progressive mindset while the libertarian (classical liberal) is not looking for a Utopia on earth but just the maximization of freedom, progress, happiness, and material well being through voluntary cooperation.
The American left-liberal joins the American conservative in being soft on the police state and the imperial war machine. Oh, each side will often decry the other’s wars but nothing changes as one side gets power and the other loses. A change in administration in D.C. often does nothing to end foreign wars but rather we often see a renewed fierceness in foreign aggressions with a change in administration. And both the “liberals” and the “conservatives” love the militarized police since the police is to the state as the edge is to the knife.
The classical liberal tradition needs to re-claim the term “liberal” if we can, but more important than terms is the fact we need to recapture the philosophy of the classical liberals. That would be a wonderful first step towards ending the present police state and world empire that is the U.S. After that, perhaps we can move on to overcoming any State rule at all.