Liberalism: the quality or state of being liberal, as in behavior or attitude As the non-committal dictionary. com definition above suggests, the term “liberalism” is an elusive term to define. Whose faces are attached to the term? John F. Kennedy? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Barrack H. Obama? Does it evoke thoughts of the New Deal, Civil Rights, and Environmentalism? Or is it to be associated with James and John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and laissez-faire style economic policies? Without clarification, making reference to liberalism can be misleading.
In this examination of the term, an attempt will be made at shedding some light on the origins of and the different meanings of the term liberalism. Milton Friedman, an influential economist and former advisor to President Reagan, had a laissez-faire view of economics and politics. He distinguishes between the “19th century Liberal” and the “20th century Liberal”. In the introduction to his book, Capitalism and Freedom, he makes clear the distinction and in trying to find a “convenient” brand to his viewpoints, he claims that, “the rightful and proper label is liberalism.
According to Friedman, the change in meaning of the term came around the same time as the Great Depression, and in economic policy came to be associated with reliance on the government.
In criticism of those that assumed the title, he wrote: “The 19th century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality. The 20th century liberal regards welfare and equality as either pre-requisites of or alternatives to freedom. Friedman was an individualist, free-market advocate, and his political philosophy and personal character can be better understood by this rebuttal to John F. Kennedy’s famous inauguration speech: In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. ”
It is a striking sign of the temper of our times that the controversy about this passage centered on its origin and not on its content. Neither half of this statement expresses a relation between the citizen and his government that s worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society. The paternalistic “what your country can do for you” implies that government is the patron, the citizen the ward, a view that is at odds with the free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny. The organismic, “what you can do for your country” implies that government is the master or the deity, the citizen, the servant or the votary. To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions.
But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshiped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive. (Friedman) If Milton Friedman represents the economic policies of classical liberalism, John Maynard Keynes is the economist of modern liberalism.
Keynes was a very influential British economist and philosopher who founded the macroeconomic theory known as “Keynesianism. ” Keynesian economics advocates government economic-intervention and argues that the free-market alone lacks sufficient stabilizing factors. Among those influenced by the economic policies and philosophy of Keynes is the father of progressivism (progressive is sometimes interchangeable with modern liberal) and the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The mixed-economy style of Keynes can also been seen in the economic policies of the United States under President George W. Bush and current President Barrack H. Obama. The article, Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism, by the NCPA(National Center for Policy Analysis) seems to argue that the ideas of today’s liberals and conservatives are both drawn from Classical Liberalism, but “they differ in what they accept and reject of their intellectual roots. ” The article goes on to point out that modern liberals strongly defend civil rights and other non-economic liberties, but want economic freedom regulated and restricted.
The modern conservatives, on the other hand, are staunch advocates of economic freedom, but seem to be more willing to limit non-economic freedom, such as freedom of thought and expression. This evaluation of the term usage differs slightly from Friedman’s in that Friedman seemed to view it in an “us versus them” manner, accusing the American/British modern liberals of assuming the rightful label for his views, and in the NCPA’s evaluation the modern liberals and modern conservatives drew somewhat equally from classical liberalism; that they are the offspring, half classically liberal and half something else.
The difference of meaning in the different usages of the term liberalism can generally be cleared up by specifying the era in which it is referencing. Classical liberalism is generally pre-Great Depression and associated with free-market economics and people like John Stuart Mill and Milton Friedman. Modern liberalism is generally post-Great-Depression and can be distinguished by Keynesian style mixed-economy policy and people like Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.