On Being A Liberal: A Perspective

Thomas Jefferson engraving after painting by Rembrandt Peale.

The word liberal used to mean something.

It signified someone liberated from traditional modes of thinking; usually those of the church and monarchical state. Classical liberalism was grounded in the Enlightenment tradition. Liberals rejected revealed religion (orthodox Christianity) and monarchical, authoritarian government. Liberals imbibed the Enlightenment values of reason and freedom.  Men like Rousseau, Paine, Jefferson and others were all liberal in orientation.

In the 1930s – during the heyday of the New Deal – being conservative meant conserving the rights of businesses and individuals to live their lives apart from extensive governmental intrusion. Conservatives didn’t like the government telling them what to do or how to conduct their business. Liberals viewed themselves as liberators from the old ways of laissez faire government, and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few. Liberals needed government to check the abuses of private enterprise and big corporations.

Liberals said we should go in a new direction and try something new. Conservatives said we should think about it first, and not forget our traditions.

Big government and the welfare state were liberal ideas in 1933. Things change, though, and so should our terminology.

The modern American liberal is as conservative as Calvin Coolidge. Extensive government intrusion in the lives of individuals and businesses is the status quo. It’s been this way since the New Deal in the 1930s. We’ve had nearly 90 years of big government, big regulations, big spending, big taxes, big handouts, big deficits, and now 20 trillion dollars of debt. Democrats, the putative liberals, encourage it.  Republicans have slowed it down occasionally, but haven’t stopped it; not even close.

Libertarians, however, have built a political philosophy based upon individual constitutional liberties.  If Libertarians ever get enough traction at the polls, they could make a real difference as they’re the only ones who take individual liberty seriously. They are the ones standing in the liberal tradition of Thomas Jefferson.

Unfortunately, the modern liberal conserves big government and doesn’t care about the 20 trillion dollar debt.

Before the recent election, I spent twenty minutes one rainy day studying Hillary’s campaign website. I couldn’t find a reference to the national debt. There was certainly no intelligent analysis of America’s current financial crisis.  Did she care about it at all?

Does she not think it’s a threat to national prosperity and security?

Has she apologized to future generations for the economic albatross the country is wearing around its neck for the indefinite future?

Maybe she doesn’t care. Maybe she hopes for the best; that it will just go away, like a thunderstorm in July. Maybe she thinks we can just repudiate it without adverse consequences to America’s standing in world opinion. Maybe, she refused to acknowledge that the economic policies of FDR, Barack Obama, and the rest of the crew wearing red and blue, are weighing down the Good Ship America and threatening to capsize it.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and their followers are far from liberal. Their creed is that the State should control society, mold society, inform society, protect society, and guide society along to an era of greater enlightenment. They’ve replaced individual responsibility with the State. The only responsibility the citizen has is to obey the state; like obsequious drones living and dying for the queen.

If the Obamas and Clintons lived in New York in 1776 they would be Tories; rendering obeisance to the British crown, bending over, and kissing the King’s ring. One cannot sell one’s soul to the expansion of the State (symbolized by a 20 trillion dollar debt) worship at the altar of the State, and be a liberal. It is a contradiction.

To be liberal used to require the rejection of an overbearing state and an overbearing church. It was to depend upon law and not the pronouncements of priests, popes, kings and queens. To be truly liberal, one must break with the past; break with everything that threatens individual freedom. To be liberal is to liberate. It’s impossible to be liberal and to believe in large, intrusive, expansive government.  Intrusive government is now the status quo in America; but liberals should reject it and work for a better world.

Thomas Jefferson was a liberal. He believed the words he wrote, that:

all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

jefferson-quote-criminals-governmentIn 1776 that was about as liberal as you could be.

Jefferson challenged autocracy and every obstacle to republican government. He believed in small, limited government. More than anything else, he feared the emergence of a national government that would overwhelm individual freedom. He was liberal to the core; he believed in the possibilities of human freedom, but I doubt that Jefferson would identify with liberals today. He would never agree with the federal government shoving healthcare down the throats of free citizens, but this is now the hallmark of political liberalism in America.

Thomas Paine was a liberal.  He wrote:

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”

That was a liberal sentiment in 1776, and still is today.  America needs a resurgence of that kind of common sense today.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a liberal. In his words:

The less government we have the better.

Emerson understood the inherent dangers of the State; Its left hand is always filled with candy and goodies, promising more, promising that every day will be like Christmas. It’s right hand however, is clenched in a fist behind its back – just in case.

Any politician who is committed to the conservation of the entrenched policy of big government, big deficits, and big debt is a political and economic conservative; they are just maintaining the status quo in America.

Any politician who wants to liberate America from big government, big deficits, and big debt is a liberal in the truest and most Jeffersonian sense of the word.

* Ronald Reese Ruark is an attorney in private practice in Michigan where he lives with his wife Nancy.

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