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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

In Defense of Liberalism

Liberalism is Not A Dirty Word
by Michael E. Berumen 9-15-04

I lament the denigration of the word “liberal” and the fashion of using it as a pejorative, something that can be blamed on self-proclaimed liberals who have misused the term, and certain voluble conservatives preferring invective to reason. Liberal democracy is the dominant political system in the Americas, Western Europe, and a growing percentage of the rest of the world. Liberalism is a full-blooded doctrine of many parts, some in conflict with one another; however, political liberalism has several essential principles without which the theory could not be deemed liberal, insofar as liberty, pluralism, and justice comprise its lexical meaning. In contrast, while conservatism can be a legitimate position at any given time, it is not a doctrine. Instead, it is a relational term, one that can be understood only in terms of another doctrine or practice, that is, the things one wants to conserve. An 18th century conservative had a very different idea about what to conserve than a modern one. Liberals and modern conservatives (in the West) even agree on the core principles constituting the sine qua non of liberalism: individual liberty, government by consent, and the right to property. Extremists on the right and left always do serious damage to one or more of these principles; for example, the far right is especially apt to neglect individual liberty, whereas, the far left denies property rights, failing to see the inextricable relationship between both. Most of us do not subscribe to either extreme, and simply place greater emphasis on one or more of these principles without denying the fundamental importance of all three of them.

For most of history, one’s identity was established upon birth, and an individual’s value was preordained as a function of his place in a hierarchy. The notion that individuals have equal worth, and equal liberty to exercise their wills, is largely a product of strange bedfellows, 15th century theology and the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment. Our modern conceptions of liberty and equality were built upon Martin Luther’s idea that all men are equal before God; John Locke’s notion that all men have property in themselves, with no man having property in another; and Immanuel Kant’s view that every man is an end unto himself, and ought not to be treated as merely a means to another man’s ends.

Then there is the equally modern and liberal idea that governments are morally legitimate only insofar as those who are governed give their consent. In no small part, this is a result of the social contract theory of John Locke, which states that the people contract with their leaders for government, and have the power to throw them out. Locke’s ideas are interwoven throughout the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, and inform all modern representative democracies. Of course, Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and others have spoken of the natural tension between liberty and democracy, for majorities can also oppress minorities; this tension speaks to the importance of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments that serve to protect individual liberties.

For most of our history, a man’s property consisted of what he could carry or tend to himself, always at the sufferance of his rulers. Modern conceptions of private property developed largely in the 17th and 18th centuries with the end of feudalism and the advent of a commercial middle class. Locke believed that a man’s labor instantiated ownership in property, the so-called “labor theory of value,” and this led to both capitalist and communist economic theories. Karl Marx mistakenly thought value was an objective aspect of price, when it is completely incommensurable and subjective. Price, itself, is the most democratic arbiter of value in a free marketplace.

Today there are two modern and opposing theories of liberalism rooted in the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment, namely, the end-state theory of John Rawls and the historical entitlement and libertarian theory of Robert Nozick. Rawls said the economically advantaged ought to benefit only insofar as the circumstances of the least advantaged are thereby improved. In contrast, Nozick said this is essentially immoral, for if a person acquires his holdings without violating any moral principles, taking his property to satisfy a pre-conceived pattern of distribution is tantamount to theft.

The liberal principles of individual liberty, government by the people, and private property represent the very values we now seek to protect and promote elsewhere in the world. The fact is, there are liberals on the right, on the left, and in the middle: liberal liberals, moderate liberals, and conservative liberals. The term liberal ought to be restored to its rightful place of dignity in the political lexicon, for it represents the noblest ideals of the Enlightenment. Politicians and shout radio and TV hosts who have come to use it as a word of derision clearly misunderstand its essential meaning. However, absent such a restoration, by any other appellation, these liberal principles , which required generations of effort and sacrifice to realize in our own lives, are sacred and certainly worth conserving and defending.