The Evolution of Liberalism

By Devon Downes


The modern conception of liberalism is most often centered on one idea: The use—and typically expansion—of the state for the benefit of society as a whole. With its attendant focus on social welfare programs, “ humanitarian” wars, and a mixed economy, this modern liberal movement is often the epitome of C.S. Lewis’ “tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims,” unending because it finds hearty approval in the tyrants’ heart.

American conservatives, libertarians, and other anti-statists rightly denounce modern liberals for their expansion of the state. Between the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, and now the era of “Hope and Change,” modern liberalism has done little to recommend itself as a philosophy productive of liberty or equality, whatever its claims to those principles may be. Indeed, on most counts I whole-heartedly agree with the critics of liberalism. Where I disagree, however, is the notion that these policies are liberal.  The garden variety American statist may have laid claim to the liberal title, but he does not possess its philosophical pedigree.

Origins of a Great Tradition

“There was a time,” writes author and activist L.K. Samuels, “when liberalism was the undisputed philosophical underpinning of Western Civilization.”

Consider the first liberal: John Locke’s ideals freed the world from kings and tyrants and their arrogant self-righteousness that assumed the citizenry was put on earth just for them to command. The forces of liberalism changed the authoritarian paradigm, leading people to believe that consensus was more important than accidents of births.

When Locke established liberalism as a quite literally revolutionary philosophy in the late 17th Century, his meaning would never have been conflated with one thing:  Support for a powerful, central government charged with the benevolent management of society.

Indeed, it was exactly the opposite.  Classical liberalism in its simplest sense meant advocacy of limited government permitted only to fulfill its role of protecting life, liberty, and property. Locke’s ideas in this vein were further developed by thinkers such as Adam Smith in the 18th Century and Frédéric Bastiat several decades later.  When these men’s ideas jumped the pond to fuel the American revolution, they were perhaps most strongly supported by Thomas Jefferson, who so despised centralized government that expressed in an 1821 letter that the new American government was already too illiberal:

When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.

From Epiphany to Epithet

So how could “liberalism,” a word representative of so anti-statist a philosophy, come to represent such a very different prescription for government?  How did the term lose its history as a great liberator in the history of ideas and, among many on the American right, become little better than a slur?  Even more significantly, why did this etymological reversal occur?

The answer lies in the development of another new political philosophy:  Progressivism.  As Mises Institute scholar Ralph Raico puts it, progressivism is “a vague term, but one that connote[s] a new readiness to use the power of government for all sorts of grand things.” 

Originating in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, progressivism was soon found in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  Championed by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, it advocated an amalgam of political positions similar in many respects to the platform of the modern liberal.

But American progressivism’s rejection of the classical liberal tradition of limited government would really get its start with Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who welcomed the notion that society could be successfully planned by the political elite with open arms. Wilson won the 1912 presidential election thanks to the Republican vote splitting between former President Theodore Roosevelt (then seeking a third term as the candidate for his Bull Moose Party) and incumbent President William Howard Taft. As the heir to the Hamiltonian cause of a big-centralized government, Wilson shredded the Constitution at every turn.

He set a new precedent of economic interventionism which would later prove so useful to FDR and intervened in World War I without necessity and against the will of the majority of Americans.  (This latter act was especially ironic given that his successful 1916 reelection campaign slogan was “He kept us out of war.”) On the home front, any individual who dared to publicly criticize Wilson’s policies was harassed by the government, and in some cases imprisoned—for the good of society, of course.  Wilson’s newly-revealed progressive internationalism was resoundingly rejected by the electorate unready to abandon their liberal heritage, and Republicans took Congress in 1918 and the White House in 1920 running on an anti-Wilson platform.

But progressivism was nonetheless here to stay.  By the 1930s and ‘40s, as FDR entered the presidency, progressivism had fully infiltrated the ranks of the Democratic Party. The New Deal’s monumental expansion of government scope and scale cemented the fact that Progressivism was alive and well. It was around this time that the adherents of progressivism took for themselves a new name which has stuck to their ideas to this day:  Liberal.  Progressives controlled the terms of the debate, and went on to control the agenda that followed.

As progressive philosopher John Dewey wrote in his Liberalism and Social Action in 1935, “measures went contrary to the idea of liberty” as defined by Locke and Jefferson “have virtually come to define the meaning of liberal faith. American liberalism as illustrated in the political progressivism of the early present century has so little in common with British liberalism of the first part of the last century that it stands in opposition to it.”  This change effectively camouflaged what were in many ways very new ideas (progressivism) in a very old American tradition (liberalism)—and it was a camouflage which would make its wearer stronger.

Yet as Dewey himself admitted, “a small band of adherents to earlier liberalism” still remained.  Among them were libertarian icons Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman.  Refusing to accept philosophy on their progressive opponents’ terms, these economists maintained that their free market views were, and always would be, liberal.  Mises explained in the introduction to 1944’s Omnipotent Government:  The Rise of the Total State and Total War:

[W]hile the humanitarians indulged in depicting the blessings of this liberal utopia, they did not realize that new ideologies were on the way to supplant liberalism and to shape a new order arousing antagonisms for which no peaceful solution could be found. They did not see it because they viewed these new mentalities and policies as the continuation and fulfillment of the essential tenets of liberalism.

Antiliberalism captured the popular mind disguised as true and genuine liberalism. Today those styling themselves liberals are supporting programs entirely opposed to the tenets and doctrines of the old liberalism. They disparage private ownership of the means of production and the market economy, and are enthusiastic friends of totalitarian methods of economic management. They are striving for government omnipotence, and hail every measure giving more power to officialdom and government agencies.

Were Mises alive today, he would find his battle for the meaning of “liberalism” lost in most lexicons.  But though operating under a different name, his fight Lockean liberalism remains alive in libertarians and their philosophical neighbors. In 1975, Ronald Reagan said, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” At their best, these and other anti-statist philosophies share a heart of classical liberalism—a flame of liberty which no amount of renaming can put out.

Devon Downes is a student at Warren County High School and is a member of the Warren County Teen Republican Committee.