A liberal friend recently pointed out that liberals have generally been on the right side of history. Liberals, she said, have led the fight for freedom – freedom for slaves, freedom for women and minorities to be treated as full-fledged citizens, freedom for gay people to marry. And conservatives, she said, have always been the ones opposing those liberal efforts.
But are those who call themselves liberals today still part of that liberal tradition? In many ways, modern liberals are anti-liberal.
Who wants to shout down and ban speech on college campuses and elsewhere? Liberals.
Who wants to discriminate on the basis of race and sex in the name of “affirmative action”? Liberals.
Who wants to restrict charter schools and vouchers that would expand education choices for poor parents? Liberals.
Who wants price controls, from raising the raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, to wide-ranging rent controls? Liberals. (To address a shortage of affordable rental housing, liberal Oregon recently enacted the nation’s first state-wide rent controls. But as anyone familiar with how supply and demand works could tell you, the new law will have the opposite result, and will soon worsen the shortage of affordable housing. Venezuela imposed price controls on food with the goal of increasing the amount of affordable food. Curious liberals should Google “Venezuela price controls” to see how it’s working out.)
Liberals are even trying to shut down Uber, a service bringing drivers into poor neighborhoods where cab drivers often refuse to go.
In short, many who today call themselves liberal do not actually support liberalism. They support governmental control over freedom, group rights over individual rights, and equal outcomes over equal rights. They are not, in fact, liberals at all.
This is not a new phenomenon, actually. Here is Ludwig von Mises, leader of the “Austrian School” of economic thought, in 1962 – and notice especially the last 2 sentences. Was he not eerily prescient about today’s violent “Resistance” movement?
The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities, i.e., socialism. . . . Every measure aiming at confiscating some of the assets of those who own more than the average or at restricting the rights of the owners of property is considered as liberal and progressive. Practically unlimited discretionary power is vested in government agencies the decisions of which are exempt from judicial review. The few upright citizens who dare to criticize this trend toward administrative despotism are branded as extremists, reactionaries, economic royalists, and Fascists. It is suggested that a free country ought not to tolerate political activities on the part of such “public enemies.” (italics added)
The Economist magazine, in its recent 175th anniversary edition, presented a “Manifesto for Renewing Liberalism,” noting that many of today’s liberals are actually in the “illiberal” camp:
We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism – not the leftish “progressivism” of American university campuses . . . but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.
So if today’s liberals are not really liberals – if modern liberals are actually leftish advocates of an anti-liberal authoritarianism – where are the true liberals?
As surprising as it may sound, the liberal tradition is being carried on by those now classified, somewhat inaccurately, as a segment of the “conservative” movement. The true liberals today are the “classical liberals,” the libertarians. They are the ones supporting the essence of liberalism: freedom. They join today’s “liberals” in such “socially liberal” causes as supporting freedom to marry who you want (Milton Friedman, in fact, supported gay marriage long before Barak Obama and Joe Biden did). But their liberalism extends to free markets and free trade (which puts them at odds with both Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left) and free speech, areas where the so-called liberals of today often seek governmental restrictions and control.
Properly understood, classical liberals are not “conservative.” Classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek, in fact, wrote an essay entitled “Why I am Not a Conservative.” Ludwig von Mises always insisted he was liberal. Milton Friedman called himself a liberal throughout his career. A few years ago, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan caused a spluttering hubbub when he claimed he was more of a “classical liberal” than a conservative.
Mises, Hayek, Friedman . . . these were the intellectual inspirations to “conservative” Ronald Reagan, and to such “conservative” thinkers today as Thomas Sowell, George Will, Charles Murray. In fact, all of these “conservatives” are more accurately described as classical liberals. It turns out, the liberal tradition lives on. It has simply been rebranded, so to speak, and now goes by the name classical liberalism.
So when my liberal friend spoke proudly of the history of liberalism, I should have replied: “You are right. Liberals have been on the right side of history. Would you like you join us?”