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July 7, 2024

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What does it mean to be truly free? In today's polarized world, the definition of liberalism holds the key.


The terms “liberalism” and "liberal" originate from the Latin word "liber," meaning both book and free. Therefore, across many languages, "liberal" consistently describes “believing in or allowing a lot of personal freedom.”


What is freedom?  


Freedom is a complex concept, but at its core, it refers to the ability to make choices and take responsibility for them. Freedom requires tolerance, or the “willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different.” 


Without tolerance, freedom is impossible; intolerant individuals seek to change others’ behavior and beliefs, whereas tolerant individuals aim to protect others’ freedom to think and act independently. Thus, in addition to freedom, the term liberal consistently describes anything “understanding, respectful, and tolerant.”


Liberals and Liberalism


The term liberal also describes an adherent of liberalism: the liberal “political philosophy.” Freedom is the central focus of liberalism, which “postulates individual and social freedom” coupled with limited government intervention, especially in “the economy and culture.” Nearly every political philosophy claims to enable freedom, but liberalism is distinct in advocating freedom and tolerance in culture, the economy, politics, and beyond. 


By contrast, conservatism claims to support robust freedom while pursuing significant government regulation of culture. Likewise, communism claims to pursue economic freedom while severely limiting individuals' financial choices and freedoms. Liberalism stands out for its consistent application of liberty in every aspect of society. 


The Origins of Liberalism


Liberalism emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries as a challenge to the authoritarian rule of absolute monarchies and religious governments. Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau laid the groundwork for liberal thought by articulating principles of natural rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Their ideas influenced revolutions in the Americas and elsewhere, establishing numerous democratic governments.


Democracy and Liberalism


Democracy remains a foundational principle of liberalism and a critical means to protecting freedom. Liberalism, however, tolerates mixed forms of government and has long sought to make peace with traditionally authoritarian forms of government like monarchism by combining “the monarchical principle with the democratic.” Contemporary Belgium and Spain effectively embody the idea of a democratic government mixed with monarchy. 


Limited Power


In addition to democracy, liberalism prescribes “limiting the intervention of the State and public powers” to protect freedom and enshrine tolerance into the law. The key to understanding the liberal outlook on state intervention lies in the word “limited” – as opposed to “widespread” or “nonexistent.” 


At one extreme, anarchism advocates nonexistent government, but at another extreme, fascism supports severe cultural regimentation. Liberalism seeks a middle path between extremes, balancing a belief “that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others” while “also recogniz[ing] that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.”


For example, in liberal societies like Spain and the United States, the police need judicial approval to search homes or detain suspects. This cautious approach ensures individual rights are protected, balancing the need for government intervention with the risk of overreach. While liberals are conservative when delegating power to the government and cautiously contemplate government intervention, they simultaneously view government as a “crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities.” 


The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964

The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 embodies the liberal idea of limited state intervention. Aimed at addressing longstanding racial disparities, the Act empowered the federal government to mitigate racial segregation using financial incentives and lawsuits rather than absolute power, such as directly managing local affairs or using force against segregationists. This approach respected local autonomy while promoting equality.

The Civil Rights Act remains effective and contested today, serving as a model for limited government intervention. A contemporary example involves concerns about parents and adults publishing photos of children online without their consent. Many of these posts are embarrassing and cause lasting distress for the children as they grow older. Liberals are inclined to support government mandates securing the right to delete online posts depicting one's childhood.

Children and adults face a fundamental power imbalance. While liberals support widespread parental freedom, they also recognize that children cannot protect themselves. To rectify this imbalance in the specific context of online posts, a government-mandated right to delete represents limited intervention consistent with liberal principles.

Common Misconceptions 

More often than not, Americans misappropriate the word "liberal" to describe anyone on the political left. In reality, liberals can appear on either side of the political spectrum so long as they support the core tenets of liberalism: freedom, tolerance, democracy, and limited government.

The variation in the use of the term "liberal," despite a precise definition, demonstrates that liberalism incorporates a wide variety of ideas and outlooks. Moreover, freedom and democracy are popular values that liberalism made a reality for millions. Thus, liberalism remains a popular and contested ideology that people on both sides of the political spectrum attempt to redefine daily.

The Future of Liberalism 


While politicians like Javier Milei and Justin Trudeau may seem to have nothing in common, both claim to pursue a liberal society. Even though neither perfectly follows the dictionary definition of liberalism, liberalism unites them and other freedom fighters — from American President Joe Biden to Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te. 


Still, clarifying liberalism's outer limits is essential to achieving its goals. Without a clear understanding of liberalism, politicians from both sides will continue to misappropriate the term to justify limiting freedom and degrading democracy. 


For example, former American Attorney General Bill Barr claims to defend liberalism. At the same time, he generates support for a presidential candidate who refuses to accept election results. As Barr and former American President Donald Trump clarify, circumventing the dictionary definition of liberalism erodes peace. 


Clarifying the outer limits of liberalism is therefore necessary not only for freedom but also for peace. Otherwise, counterfeit liberals like Bill Barr will continue to erode the foundation of liberal democracy.


Those who support liberalism must maintain the integrity of the liberal definition by holding accountable those who misappropriate the term. Understanding liberalism alone is insufficient to accomplish this daunting task, however. Various related terms, from freedom to fascism, must also be clearly defined and understood to safeguard freedom and peace.

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