The word 'liberal' is derived from the Latin word 'libertas,' meaning 'liberty.' Liberalism started in 17th Century Europe as a logical and historical development from Protestantism with its focus on an individual having a direct personal relationship with God. Liberalism is also rooted in the English tradition of individual rights and privileges. John Locke's *Second Treatise on Civil Government* articulated the basic principles of liberalism--limited government, private property, equality before the law, the rule of law (meaning an impartial application and enforcement of the broad-based laws that allow for a wide scope of private discretion), and some democratic influence to restrict those in power. Locke, himself a Protestant Christian, believed people to be naturally sinful and selfish, but rational and social enough so that they could peacefully interact with one another. Laws are needed to maintain order, but largely the State should be restricted only to protecting private property (broadly defined as a person's private sphere), and to enforce contracts. The Founders of the United States were all followers of Locke. Jefferson's *Declaration of Independence* is an American adaptation of Locke's basic political philosophy. Puritan John Milton's defense of free speech in his *Areopagitica* provided the intellectual justification of the First Amendment from a Christian metaphysic.
With John Stuart Mill we find a bridge to another conception of liberty and equality that moves more toward socialism. Mill was highly influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor, who was more of an egalitarian than a liberal. Here we find Mill arguing against classical notions of liberalism. Mill argued, contrary to Locke, that a just law is an encroachment on a person's liberty. He also contended that informal, non-coercive public opinion was a violation the rights of the individual as are traditional prohibitions, say on sexual morality or gender roles. In these moves to conceive of liberty in a broader way that simply overt coercion, Mill started to blur the line between private and public. Mill was also concerned about the distribution of wealth and income in ways that the Founders of the U.S. were not. Mill,at times, argued for a greater role for the State to actually achieve equality of result and actual liberty from others as opposed to a purely formal equality and liberty that the classical liberals sought.
These differences point to a fundamental divergence between classical and modern left liberalism. Another such difference is the basic character of human nature. Locke and the U.S. Founders believed that humans were naturally selfish and dangerous in their exercise of power. For this reason, the U.S. Founders placed explicit restrictions on the State including a Bill of Rights, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. Jefferson's admonition that the power that the State has to do something for you also has the power to do something to you follows from the doctrine of human depravity found in Christianity.
Left liberals tend to view humans as naturally good or malleable. No one is born evil. So, with the proper education and proper social and economic environment, people can naturally cooperate and care for each other. Brutal punishment is inhumane and simply aggravates past injustices making those convicted of a crime even more alienated and victimized by the unequal social order. What is needed to avert criminal behavior is greater inclusion and benevolence. The mechanism that facilitates these moral advances can be the State. Concerns over abuse of power, at least in social welfare legislation and macroeconomic policy, are not only misplaced but can be unnecessary obstacles for social progress.
Classical liberalism took a very different view of what constitutes legitimate State action. Physical punishment is seen as necessary to control those who freely choose to violate the rights of others. The State is needed to contain human evil and establish justice by retribution fairly imposed. Preparation and engaging in war can be necessary to protect a country from the attacks of an international aggressor. In both domestic and international crime, the person(s) who initiate violence forfeit their rights and violence can be justly used against them.
Some adherents of classical liberalism such as Jefferson, Tocqueville, and Benjamin Constant believed that liberty was supported in the indigenous cultures of free countries. All of the Founders of the U.S. believed that a necessary condition for liberty was moral self-control. Religion provided the average person with the moral training and habit to prepare them to live responsibly with their fellows. Leftist liberals in contrast tend to be indifferent or hostile to traditional cultures and traditional religion and morality. Following Mill, they tend to see tradition and religion as restrictions on liberty and hindrances to greater social and political equality.
These leftist liberal theorists would not only include Mill, but T.H. Green, John Dewey, Paul Samuelson, Ronald Dworkin, and John Rawls. These writers combine some elements of classical liberalism with socialism. They fear the power of established economic and social elites believing that their power must be offset by the State actively aiding less powerful groups. In apparently violating the principle of equality before the law, the State can forge a more equitable (i.e., equal in result) society.
More recent advocates of classical liberalism would include F.A. Hayek, Robert Nozick, Richard Epstein, and Milton Friedman. They are considered conservative because they are trying to conserve or preserve the original liberal tradition that can be traced back to Locke and the U.S. Founders. They clearly reject an active role for the State in achieving actual equality because such extensive and intrusive actions by the State violate individual liberty and place social planners over average people in power relationships.
What is liberalism coming to these days? It has been taken over by social democrats on the Left and libertarians who are nihilists masquerading as defenders of liberty.
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