Modern liberals don't hesitate to trade individual liberties for the perceived benefits of whatever "cause du jour" they come up with. In fact, they go out of their way to expand the power of the state, erode protections of our inalienable rights (such as property), abolish Christianity, and crown the government bureaucracy as appropriator of all rights and privileges. In other words ... totalitarianism.
That, my friends, is what a classic liberal is not.
Up until the turn of the twentieth century, classical liberalism was the predominate political philosophy in America ... though it wasn't known as classical liberalism, it was simply called liberalism.
It may seem surprising, but the original "liberals" were people who actually DID believe in freedom!
At the turn of the 20th century, the collectivists began gaining popularity for the first time in America. As part of their propaganda, they hijacked the word liberal, and claimed it as their own. So the word "classical," was eventually added, so as to draw a distinction between the modern liberals (the socialists), and the original liberals (the founders of the USA).
To understand classical liberalism, the best place to start is by assessing the characteristics of rights. We need to know what rights are, and where they're from.
For the purposes of this post, I'll provide a brief overview of rights. We'll get more specific about rights in future posts.
- Rights are inalienable. This means your rights cannot be given or taken away, nor bought, sold or traded. Your rights may get violated. But even in violation you retain your rights, because they are inherent to you.
- Rights express negative obligations. Your right to life, obligates myself and others not to kill you. My right to private property (this computer), obligates you and others not to steal it. The right of free speech, obligates the government not to interfere with my blogging.
- Rights are relational. Each individual is a sovereign realm, of whom authorizes his/her own choices, made by their own conscience, absent the interference of others. People are free to do what they want, so long as they do not violate the rights of another. Rights are therefore, the moral responsibilities that we have towards one another as people.
- Rights do not come from government. From the classic liberal point of view, the truth is the exact opposite! This is because legitimate governments are created by individuals for the specific purpose of defending rights. In other words, because we have rights, a government was created.
- Rights are compatible. Each person's rights are congruent with everyone else's rights. Since I have the right to free speech, you can't also have a right to shut me up. Rights exist equally among all. One person cannot have a right, that others don't possess also.
Based on this, we can conclude that each individual owns him/herself, and thus can "pursue the happiness" of their own. The reverse of this is then also true. One cannot be obligated to "pursue the happiness" of another. To do so, would violate the rights of the person shouldered with the obligation. This person then ... becomes a slave.
It's going to take many posts to get through it all, and to cover more detail. In an effort to keep my posts a little shorter ...
A summary ... Rights exist prior to government. This is because rights are natural. They are inalienable to you by virtue of being. Legitimate governments get their power and authority from the people (individuals). They are granted (read that word again) these limited powers, for the sole purpose of helping to protect our rights. The government has only one tool in its expertise. That tool is force.
And THAT RIGHT THERE my friends ... is why you want keep the government limited.
There was a time, long ago, when the average American could go about his daily business hardly aware of the government — especially the federal government. As a farmer, merchant, or manufacturer, he could decide what, how, when, and where to produce and sell his goods, constrained by little more than market forces. Just think: no farm subsidies, price supports, or acreage controls; no Federal Trade Commission; no antitrust laws; no Interstate Commerce Commission. As an employer, employee, consumer, investor, lender, borrower, student, or teacher, he could proceed largely according to his own lights. Just think: no National Labor Relations Board; no federal consumer "protection" laws; no Security and Exchange Commission; no Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; no Department of Health and Human Services. Lacking a central bank to issue national paper currency people commonly used gold coins to make purchases. There were no general sales taxes, no Social Security taxes, no income taxes. Though governmental officials were as corrupt then as now — maybe more so — they had vastly less to be corrupt with. Private citizens spent about fifteen times more than all governments combined.
Those days, alas, are long gone.
- Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987), preface.