Liberalism evolved very slowly from a society nobody today would call liberal. What we consider the liberal norm today arrived piece by piece, with great difficulty. Until mid-20th century, “liberal” was closer to what Americans consider conservative than to modern democratic liberalism.
The term “liberal” causes a great deal of confusion because even today its meaning in many parts of the world is nearly the opposite of what it means in the US. What do you make of “right-wing liberals”, or “neoliberals”?
Several hundred years ago the European political world consisted of very rich nobility and powerless very poor and uneducated peasants. There was no middle class, and class was forever locked in place. Little by little, social changes brought new liberties and inclusiveness that we have come to accept as permanent and natural.
Conservative thought has had defining figures, particularly Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in England and Russell Kirk (1918-1994) in the US, who have listed conservatism’s salient characteristics. Compared to liberalism, conservatism has changed very little.
Liberal thought had a much more checkered and irregular evolution, and there is no centralizing liberal thinker like Kirk. The important characteristics of liberalism have only stabilized within the past half century or so, whereas conservative concepts such as a belief in the superiority of the rich have remained unchanged for four centuries.
Historically, liberalism has been associated with utilitarianism. It remains utilitarian because government must address the changing needs of citizens. It has also become impossible to disentangle economics from liberalism, because much of the proper role of government centers around the management and distribution of wealth. Social justice must also be included, because the wellbeing of the citizens is of paramount concern, and it also depends on egalitarian economics.
Here’s my take on the subject.
Principles of a modern liberal democracy
- The purpose of democratic government is to serve all the people. To the extent that a government does not serve all the people, it is not a democracy. A liberal democracy is by definition inclusionary, treating the rights and responsibilities of all persons equally.
- Capitalism is an essential part of the modern world, at least until an improved economics evolves, and in general is a positive influence in a democracy. However, capitalism has serious faults, the most significant being that it tends strongly toward control by the few very rich and inequality for the rest, and for that reason alone its excesses must be firmly controlled.
- Equality of opportunity is one of the most important determinants of citizen wellbeing. Economic equality is strongly correlated with many positive social outcomes, including a number that would not appear to be related. For example, rates of diabetes are lower with greater equality. In virtually every case, these positive outcomes save money and create a smoother operating and more peaceful state, and for that reason equality is essential.
- Liberalism is built on a foundation of moral behavior in individuals and institutions. Unlike conservatism, liberalism makes no claim that morality requires religion. It is easily demonstrated that moral behavior does not rely on belief in a supreme being or on religious dogma. Nor do religious beliefs guarantee moral behavior.
- It is essential that equality before the law be absolute. Equality precedes tolerance. We will never banish intolerance completely because it depends on individual attitudes, rather than government. Equality improves tolerance. It is the duty of government to eliminate social inequality; it is the duty of each citizen to cultivate tolerance.
- A liberal democratic society calls for the best from all citizens, to be informed and able to vote and express opinion intelligently, to cultivate honesty and tolerance, and to work for the betterment of self, family, and country. Equality requires government policy and individual action: free and equal public education, public policy encouraging equality and living wage, and an active free press.
How are we doing?
We are failing the first requirement, and much of the reason is because of the lack of opportunity for the poor that is built into our wage structure. Inequality is soaring, yet we are arguing about whether we should raise a minimum wage that is clearly inadequate, rather than establishing a Living Wage like those in other advanced nations. Living Wage would allow every working family to live with dignity and enjoy the blessings of a free and liberal democracy. Minimum wage does not.
Much of the reason we are failing the first element has to do with our failure to properly manage the second, capitalism. Virtually all of the new wealth of the past 40 years has gone to people who have no need of it, extracted from the millions who have desperate need of enough money to survive. The tendency toward inequality is inherent in capitalism, but we have regressed, because protection of worker rights was an important part of conservative politics of 50 years ago. Today’s conservatives, though, continue to honor dogma that says great wealth will create more wealth for everyone, while all evidence says the opposite. Great wealth, in fact, is enormously corrupting, and has brought us laws that heavily favor the richest by extracting wealth from the poorest, thus worsening their condition and weakening the nation.
No one earning inadequate pay has equal opportunity to make the most of her life. Instead, every day is spent scrambling for essentials, with no hope for a better future. The failure to provide equality of opportunity has many negative consequences. The opposite is true for equal opportunity, including many benefits that wouldn’t appear to be related. So, quite aside from universal medical care available in every advanced country except ours, a significant number of important health markers are improved with equal opportunity: less smoking and resulting disease, lower rates of diabetes and several other diseases, less obesity, higher levels of fitness, less depression. Less family violence, fewer homicides, fewer suicides, lower crime levels, less drug use. Higher educational achievement, greater occupational expertise, and so on. In short, there are numerous reasons and powerful motivations for maximizing equality of opportunity.
It goes without saying that moral behavior is essential, both for individuals and for institutions. What is not often said is that religion is not a prerequisite for moral behavior. The church has always assumed it has a monopoly on instruction in morality, but the simple fact is that morality does not depend on belief in a divinity or on religious dogma, and religious observance for certain does not guarantee moral behavior.
The fix we have gotten ourselves into by honoring the conservative creed has meant declining prospects, especially for people of modest means, but even for the middle class. Digging out of poverty is a Sisyphean task that few have the stamina for after working full time for inadequate wages. We have simply not lived up to the promise of equality called for by our founding documents.
In short, we are barely hanging on to a liberal democracy after decades of decline. We are compromised, and corrective action is desperately needed, lest we devolve into something we no longer recognize as democracy at all.