During the course of our telephone conversation I was called both a liberal AND a socialist. Now being called these things does not really bother me. What bothered me was that it is impossible to be both at the same time.
Let us take a look for a moment at these two "buzz words," which have perked up during the election campaign over the past two weeks. Because I am trying to make and important point, this discussion will take place over three different posts.
First, I will start with liberalism. Second, I will turn to socialism. Finally, I will demonstrate how the two are philosophically opposed to each other, and I will reflect on which of these boxes that I belong in.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines liberalism as:
A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. An economic theory in favor of laissez-faire, the free market, and the gold
The Online Etymology Dictionary also discusses liberalism's long history:
c.1375, from O.Fr. liberal "befitting free men, noble, generous," from L. liberalis "noble, generous," lit. "pertaining to a free man," from liber "free," probably originally "belonging to the people" (though the precise semantic development is obscure), from *leudho- "people" (cf. O.C.S. ljudu, Lith. liaudis, O.E. leod, Ger. Leute "nation, people").
Earliest reference in Eng. is to the liberal arts (L. artes liberales; see art (n.)), the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement, not immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed worthy of a free man (the word in this sense was opposed to servile or mechanical). Sense of "free in bestowing" is from 1387.
In order to brush up on my political philosophy, I turned to John Gray's book Liberalism. Liberalism developed as a political philosophy around the mid-1600s. Although many political philosophers debate about any ancient notions regarding liberalism, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is regarded as one of the first. Hobbes's view of human nature, however, is different from the positivist notion that is popular with classical liberal philosophers. Hobbes argues that humans exist in a state of war, but come together in a civil association in order to ensure peace.
What made Hobbes's theory so radical, as well as continues to tie him to liberalism, is his "uncompromising individualism" (Gray 1995: 10). Benedict de Spinoza (1632 - 1677) also placed the individual in the center of his political theory. Gray draws an interesting contrast between the two:
Whereas, for Hobbes, civil society was always likely to fall back into a barbarous natural condition of warfare, for Spinoza the free man would always be a rarity; most human individuals and most societies would always be ruled by passion and illusion rather than reason.John Locke (1632 - 1704) brought together the important elements of liberalism in his Second Treatise on Civil Government. In contrast to Hobbes, he thought humans were more reasonable and tolerant. In a natural state all men are free and have the right to defend his “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This sounds vaguely familiar . . .
Also important to American liberalism was the French Enlightenment, including the works of Montesquieu (1689 - 1755; i.e. The Spirit of the Laws) and Rousseau (1712 - 1778; i.e. The Social Contract). Rousseau's opening line in The Social Contract is significant for many liberals: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."
Essentially, liberal theorists emphasized the individual; that all men are free and equal, and that freedom means freedom from coercion. Therefore, government must be limited in its powers and responsibilities because a strong government would threaten individual rights. I am really condensing a lot of political philosophy here, and I am sure that some of my grad school friends would disagree with me, but I only have a blog here and not a dissertation, so I am trying to keep it short.
As mentioned above, liberalism is also an economic philosophy made famous by Adam Smith (1723 - 1790; i.e. The Wealth of Nations). Liberal economics emphasizes the importance of a free market economy. A lassize-faire economy regulates itself and distributes goods most efficiently when left alone.
As time passed and the industrial revolution and governments of the U.S., France and England got older, liberals got a little worried. When they looked at the world around them, it appeared that perhaps the invisible hand was not so efficient. Although technically free, poverty and inequality were rampant. This led to a strain of liberalism often called "social liberalism." Social liberals believe that some market regulation is necessary in order to ensure the survival of capitalism (i.e. John Maynard Keynes). Furthermore, man can only be free when greater equality exists and therefore governments should promote health care, education, and a minimum wage, which reflects the philosophical influence of the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
I think that it is this strain of liberalism is what McCain is accusing Obama of being. However, as I will demonstrate tomorrow, social liberalism is NOT "Socialism" (please note the big S). Although advocating some regulation by the government, social liberals are still dedicated to the idea of a free market economy and a non-coercive government.
If you read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Federalist Papers, you can clearly see the influence of liberal political philosophy on the founding fathers. All of the founding fathers were liberals. Big ones in fact.
However, the word "liberalism" has gotten twisted within the American media and is now regarded as a pejorative term. Why is being a liberal a bad thing? Liberalism is the basis of the U.S. constitution. If you are pro-America, wouldn't you consider yourself a liberal too?
I will leave you pondering that thought. Come back tomorrow and we will discover whether or not Obama is a socialist and why McCain need to take a closer look at "socialist Europe."
PS One last great quote that I found on the internet:
"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." [Ambrose Bierce, "Devil's Dictionary," 1911]