Liberal means favoring freedom.
In 17th and early 18th-century Europe, liberals brought down the Ancien Régime—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.