Sunday, July 6, 2008

What Type of Liberalism?

The original wave of liberalism was lead by thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith in the 1700's. This became known as "Classical Liberalism" and emphasized the freedom of the individual. Several centuries later, we are confronted with what is often called "New Left" Liberalism. How are these two sorts of Liberalism different? We will see that the word "Liberalism" can refer to very different schools of political thought.

Originally, liberalism had referred to political and economic liberty as understood by Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. For them, the ultimate desideratum was maximum individual freedom under the benign protection of a minimalist state. The size, power, and role of government were to be kept to a minimum, to prevent it from controlling individuals and thereby reducing their freedom. A free market would be good for the poor, as it offered them opportunities, instead of keeping them locked in poverty. The freedom of association guaranteed that civil society would be a free and open space occupied by voluntary groupings - neighborhoods, clubs, sports teams, political parties, any kind of voluntary gathering - independent associations of citizens who pursue their own interests and ambitions free from state interference or coercion. Classical liberalism saw government as a necessary evil, or simply a benign but voluntary social contract for free men to enter into willingly. Civilized people have disagreements, and those who participate in a parliamentary democracy have arguments: classical liberalism is based on this fundamental insight - individuality is more valuable than unity. An ideology of individual freedom and democratic government - the result of parliamentary debate and majority rule - gave birth to the true civil rights movement in the 1960's, when Martin Luther King declared that we should judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin. Freedom of speech, religion, the press, and thought are part of the package of classical liberalism.

This sounds good. So why would anybody oppose it?

A different breed, the New Left Liberals, arose because of well-intentioned desires to promote "the common good" in society. For example, cigarette smoking is bad, so should we impinge on the liberties of individuals to deter or prevent them from smoking? By doing so, we will, after all, help them to be more healthy, and save the rest of society from paying the medical bills involved. Another example is the economy: people will suggest that the government can alleviate the suffering of the poor by setting maximum and minimum prices for certain products. Certainly we all want to help the poor. Or maybe we can make a more harmonious and peaceful society by asking people not to voice certain opinions.

Out of good desires - for public health, or helping the poor, or reducing hate in society - people are tempted to violate the first principle of civilized society: to protect individual freedom. Even if we know cigarette smoking is harmful, we must allow individuals to do it. Even if we guess that certain economic measures might help the poor, we must allow individuals to make their own decisions with their property and money. Even if holding serious moral beliefs makes some people uncomfortable, we should not attempt to stop those who engage in ethical meditations.

History teaches us about the bad results of good intentions: the Prohibition Era was based on a good desire to prevent alcohol-based problems, but gave rise to more crime. Stalin's Soviet Union wanted to create a classless utopia for workers, but ended up creating artificial famines to start millions of freethinkers to death.

There is no goal which justifies compromising the freedom of the individual. That is the essence of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Classical Liberalism.