What is liberalism?
Liberalism, properly understood, is the historic advocate of individual freedom. It has promoted the rule of law and private property, with free exchange of goods and ideas. Its opposition to censorship and state economic controls were based on the same principle. Liberalism, as the name implies, is the fundamental belief in a political ideal where individuals are free to pursue their own goals, in their own ways, provided they do not infringe on the equal liberty of others.
As such it is primarily concerned with issues of human rights. Two prominent liberal philosophers put it this way: "Rights are the language through which liberalism is spoken." The entire liberal philosophy revolves around the primacy of the rights of the individual.
Thomas Jefferson put this liberal ideal into one succinct paragraph in his magnificent Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the Governed...."
Liberalism turned the prevailing doctrines of human rights and politics upside-down. For centuries it was assumed that man lived for the sake of the State; that what rights he possessed were gifts, given to him by his King or government. Liberals argued that the opposite was true. People possessed rights first and governments receive their sanction from the people. The government is not the giver of rights to the people but the people are the source for the legitimacy of the government.
The French liberal Frederic Bastiat explained liberal principles in his classic work The Law. Bastiat starts first with the fact that all people are given the gift of life. But he says that life "cannot maintain itself alone." Humans have "marvelous faculties" to produce that which is required for life and man sits amidst "a variety of natural resources." "By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course."
To survive man must apply his rational mind to natural resources. Life requires freedom and if man is to survive he must keep the product of his labour or, in other words, he must have rights to property. Liberals have argued that it is for this reason that legitimate governments are created. Jefferson said the purpose of government is to secure rights already held by the individual. Bastiat explained it this way:
"Life, faculties, production - in other words, individuality, liberty, property - this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that cause men to make laws in the first place."
In a liberal society the primary function of government is to protect the pre-existing rights of the individual. The government grants no rights but merely acts to prevent others from infringing on such rights. Liberalism does not attempt to tell man how to live, or what moral principles to hold. It deals simply with his material well being in this world. It provides a framework in which each individual can find personal happiness or fulfillment according to his or her own values. In his book Liberalism Ludwig von Mises wrote:
"It is not from a disdain for spiritual goods that liberalism concerns itself exclusively with man¹s material well-being, but from a conviction that what is highest and deepest in man cannot be touched by any outward regulation. It seeks to produce only outer well-being because it knows that inner, spiritual riches cannot come to man from without, but only from within his own heart. It does not aim at creating anything but the outward preconditions for the inner life."
The way in which liberalism does this is by establishing a basic principle for how people must interact with one another. This principle is that all interaction must be done by mutual consent. Each individual is thus free to pursue his own happiness in a regime of freedom, regulated only by the equal liberty and rights of others. The proper method of interaction economically is one where individuals trade value for value. Thus, in a truly liberal society, the economy is one of free markets and property rights. Individuals seeking their own well-being produce goods and services for exchange with other individuals who are also seeking their own good. No trade will take place in a free economy unless all the trading partners believe they will benefit. To improve their own life each individual must also improve the lives of others, even if this is not his intent.
In a society where government is limited to the protection of rights, individuals may pursue varying sets of values. Thus liberalism is the only system which allows for pluralism, or the pursuit of contradictory sets of values. The function of the state is not to impose one set of values on everyone, but to allow the free exchange of goods, services and ideas. It protects, equally, every group within the society, but it does not place the values of any one group higher than others. Liberalism respects man¹s most important right: the right to think for himself. It does not seek to control his mind but leaves him free to use his rational faculties to the best of his ability.
Applied liberalism means free minds and free markets. But for man to be free, government must be limited. Most liberals have, therefore, advocated constitutional restraints which limit the powers of government. If the purpose of government is to protect the rights of people then the purpose of a constitution is to limit the powers of government.
Liberalism arose because governments have been the most effective means for the destruction of human rights and human liberties. An all-powerful government - even one motivated by the best of intentions - is a potent threat to human freedom. And liberals believe that without freedom man cannot flourish and prosper. Thus liberals have historically spoken of absolute human rights and limited governments. And this, they believe, is what a constitution is meant to guarantee.
Liberalism does not espouse one over-riding utopian ideal for everyone. It recognizes the diversity of human life and it understands that the pursuit of utopia is far more likely to end up on the road to hell. Thus, it proposes a society based on equal rights and equal liberties. Each man, woman and child, is free to seek their own happiness, provided only that they respect the equal rights of one another. Only in this free society is there the chance for substantial prosperity and only when man is free from hunger and disease is he capable of pursuing his higher values - whatever they may be. Liberalism is not utopian. It seeks a rational framework to allow a diversity of ideas and peoples to flourish.
But liberalism recognises that a society of equal rights will not lead to one of equal results. And a society which promotes equal results, will not be one which has equal rights. Liberalism, properly understood, defends equal liberty. And when all are equally free the results will be vastly different.
Wealth will be created - not distributed. Those who can reach for heights will do so and the rest of us will benefit from their actions though, that was not their motivation. The state will be of limited importance, acting only to protect rights. Those who reach the top in the business world will have done so because they are good at what they do and not because they have political pull or are related to some official. The result, though not the intention, will be an uplifting of the poorest in society. Jobs will be created as a necessary component of the profit seeking of the entrepreneurs.
But when this happens there will be greater and greater economic inequality. But so what? Why should everyone be equally poor? The poor will have their living standards vastly improved and the wealthy will be even wealthier. If prosperity is our goal then why worry about an inequalitiy of results?
And this is the crucial difference between liberalism and socialism. Liberalism, based on an ethics of achievement, advocates equal freedom, resulting in unequal results. Socialism, based on the ethics of envy, demands equal results, which requires limiting freedom. Thus with liberalism we have freedom, prosperity and unequal distribution of wealth. With socialism we have equality, poverty and no freedom. As much as we might want there to be a third alternative, it doesn't exist.