Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why I am a liberal

Liberal means favoring freedom.

In 17th and early 18th-century Europe, liberals brought down the Ancien RĂ©gime—a totalitarian alliance of church and state—and (with many false starts and not a little bloodshed) developed their current democratic systems of government. In America, liberals wrote (and fought for) the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

In England and America, especially, liberals favored free markets and strong businesses. Commerce, they believed, was a safer ruler than king or pope, because commerce was based on “enlightened self-interest.” Economic liberalism led to exploration, the industrial revolution, and an increased standard of living for Europeans and Americans.

However, 19th century captains of industry began rivaling 18th-century despots in their opulent lifestyle, and in turning a blind eye to the miserable living conditions of the workers who supported it. Liberals—that is, lovers of freedom—began arguing that freedom is possible only when everyone has access to education, decent housing, adequate food, reasonable working hours, and a safe working environment.

Today, some Americans think that liberals are anti-business and pro-government. Perhaps some who wear the liberal label are, but this is not true liberalism. I repeat: liberalism means favoring freedom. But this does not mean freedom without limits.

As a Christian, I believe in original sin: we all fall short of God’s ideal. I also believe in community: we are individually members of one another, and our enlightened interests must extend to others as well as ourselves. (That is why I am a liberal and not a libertarian.)

Alas, communities of sinful people are rarely better than the individuals who form them, and often—because of the increased power of the group—they are considerably worse. Think of the powerful medieval church, for example. Christ instituted the church for the good of humankind, but “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton, a devout Catholic, wrote that in a letter about the power of the pope.

If power corrupts the church, it also corrupts secular governments and multinational corporations. America’s founding fathers limited religious power by including the first amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. They limited the government’s power by dividing it into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. They did not limit the power of multinational corporations, because even though the Dutch East India Company had been founded in 1602, multinationals were not a huge concern in colonial and frontier America.

Paradoxically, excess power, wherever it occurs, needs to be limited in order to allow freedom to flourish. Another name for freedom without limitations is anarchy, and a frequent result of anarchy is totalitarianism. Untrammeled freedom can destroy liberty.

Given humanity’s power-hungry sinfulness, the best way of limiting one power is often by keeping it in balance with other powers. In the Western world today, our princes are not kings or presidents or bishops, but CEOs and financiers. Tomorrow our princes may come from some other sector, requiring different kinds of limits. The important thing for a liberal is not to be anti-business or anti-government or anti-church, but rather to be pro-liberty, and to seek to limit any power that is dangerous to basic human rights.

One thing is certain: as original sinners, we are powerfully attracted to the god Mammon. Whoever has the power also has the money, and whenever power goes out of control, it enriches itself at the expense of others. If you want to know who needs restraining at any given moment, follow the money.


Marcia Z. Nelson said...

Liberal is a much maligned, and misunderstood, word in public discourse today. Thanks for pointing out its role in history.

Byron Elliott said...

Sorry, Mom. I’ve got a number of problems:

First is the word “liberal” itself. In current, normal usage, whether by those on the right or left, it is completely unmoored from its history, so while looking at historical usage is interesting, it isn’t particularly germane to current political discussions. That’s one reason your post had to be so long. Currently, in a political context, it means “left of center” politics, and nothing else. Would that it did, but it does not. It is a thoroughly debased coin. As a “conservative”, I, quite frankly, claim the “classical liberal” label for myself and argue that “liberal” as historically understood is right of center for US politics. For purposes of discussion, I’ll use the current “left of center” definition (though, of course, that has problems as well).

Second, the need to help others does not define “liberal” or “libertarian”. The distinction would be in how one thinks the help should be delivered. Is it the government that is to be responsible for that or private organizations? Once you agree on the need, the distinction isn’t the goal, but the means. If you want to argue “liberal” vs. “Randian”, that would be stronger.

Third, the classic understanding of freedom and rights in an Anglo-America context are what might be called negative rights – “government shall not infringe on X.” To the extent of that understanding of rights, there is probably no argument with extending that to business, though there might be a working out of details. This wouldn’t be a defining point of “conservative” vs. “liberal”. I think you’re arguing as a descendent of the French Enlightenment, and are arguing from a “positive rights” position – “right to education”, “right to health care”, etc. That may be a better starting point for your definition of “liberal” than the one you’ve chosen.

Fourth, as a nation, we’ve already dealt with this balance of power. We’ve got monopoly laws and collusion laws, among other things. One can argue that there needs to be improvement in those or some other improvement, but we’ve already got these things on the books, and except for very pure libertarians or Randians, I don’t know of anyone who argues about these as a principle. (Specifics of application is another issue.) The solution you seem to propose is government control of business, which actually invites the corruption of both business and government and the loss of freedom that is the opposite you profess to desire. Note how the current administration and member of the controlling party in Congress are working on favoring and entrenching a few VERY LARGE businesses that the politicians can get the business sector do what they want in return for government protection from their competitors (auto industry and banking are two examples, but you are seeing similar things in the energy industry as well.) So, you are getting more power concentrated by more government control, not less.

Fifth, while you have narrowly defined it otherwise, the current “liberal” position is “anti-business” and “anti-church” (and “anti-liberty” for that matter). It’s nice to wish it were some other way, but it’s just not.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and well written. Thank you. I learned a fair bunch!


cas said...

Byron was a little tough on you, I'd say. Richard Heffner, 50+ yr. host of PBS's The Open Mind, defines liberal the same way. Not outdated.

Also, if Byron is a son of some sort, I'd say your dinner conversation must be rich.