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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/10/13

Is "Liberalism" Still a Useful Term?

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OpedNews asserts itself to be 'Liberal' in its logo, next to where it says 'Progressive' and 'Tough,' and right above where it says it covers News and Opinion.

No one will argue that being Tough is an attribute you want in any journalists who cover important news. For the people who hang at this site, I'd also be surprised if "progressive" wasn't a trait most of them like to use to describe themselves.

Progress seems by definition to be a good thing. A conservative mentality can be useful to prevent overly rapid change from destroying societal glue, but overall, I suspect most of us want to be seen publicly as advocating positive and necessary change and growth. This is especially true of the change our species is always undergoing in terms of the respect it shows for its minority elements, whether of gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. If progressivism means allowing more people into the societal decision-making process, it seems positive to me. For those who argue that diversity is dangerous, and believe Sharia Law will conquer society if you allow Muslims into it, just remember: The misogynistic, homophobic version of Sharia Law is incompatible with progressivism as well. Stick to the laws of maximum inclusion, and any mentality that tries to oppress another is automatically seen as illegitimate from the start. 

Still, I find myself wondering about something: Is liberalism still a trait that runs parallel to progressivism? Is it something progressives want?

From what I remember of my political science studies, US liberalism is mostly based around John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and on the  Founding Fathers who read them. John Locke believed in limited government intervention, whether social or economic. John Stuart Mill had a similar view. Let people make their own mistakes and don't spoil them with social programs that may destroy their work ethic. Government interference should only involve protecting people's bodies and possessions from the violence of others, whether physical or emotional. Essentially, liberalism was what libertarianism is today, except that Jon Stuart Mill also believed cruel words are a type of punishable aggression, an idea I doubt many libertarians would accept today. Since none of the fathers of liberalism are around today, we can't really know what their thoughts would be on whether corporate oppression is more dangerous than government. All we know is they didn't like state oppression.

In any case, looking at the politics of different countries gives you a pretty immediate sense that people use the term "liberalism" in different and often contradictory ways. I'm from Canada. Originally, the Liberals there were essentially a western farmers' party who wanted to be left alone by the government and by the moneyed classes of the eastern aristocratic conservatives. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were originally state-founded and controlled, and represented the old aristocratic system and the strong commercial interests associated with them. The Liberals believed in maximum freedom from government, and the Conservatives believed in a much more structured society where neither social nor economic activities were free from elite control.

Since their beginnings, however, Liberals and Conservatives in Canada have done some shape-shifting. Liberals have come to represent the eastern provinces, welfare government, minimal social interference, and a a relatively low level of interference with business. The Conservatives have come to mostly represent the western energy provinces, more social interference, a reduced welfare state, and limited interference with capital.

Looking at the US, we also find a significant evolution in what the political parties stand for. Today, the Democrats line up with modern liberals and the Republicans with modern conservatives. The two parties differ in degree, but in general seem to "sync up." Both demand economic freedom for big capital, while allowing people to argue and vote over social issues. Both party Republicans and ideological conservatives draw support from the industrial sector, and are willing to use social antagonisms over things like abortion and gay marriage as wedge issues to further advance their corporate-favoring agendas.

It occurs to me, however, that in both Locke's and Mill's times, it was the government, not capital, that was most capable of controlling people. Liberalism meant protection from the whims of often unelected rulers. It's easy to see, though, that in the US the emphasis on protection from government has left the citizens open to assaults from capital. It has led to pollution, government corruption, the stripping of resources, financial concentration, boom-and-bust ghost towns, economic crises, etc. Overly powerful business, and the messed-up incentive structure it has helped shape, have caused a good number of problems in the country.

The pundit rhetoric on MSM news in the US describes every event that is "left-wing," "welfare state," "politically correct," "government-driven," etc as liberalism. That's not what liberalism means, though, at least not in its original, or classical, sense. Being forced to wear seat-belts is the opposite of liberalism. Having to buy health care under Obama's plan is the opposite of liberalism. Having the government force you to do anything is the opposite of liberal.

Personally, being from Canada, I believe in laws like mandatory seat-belts, because they allow us to maintain our national healthcare system more cheaply. This means I'm not a liberal by the traditional definition. In the US, both parties are economically liberal, and the Democrats tend toward "classical liberalism," in that they allow social freedom as well. What I'm suggesting is that, in supporting liberalism by the name liberalism, you are also supporting corporate freedom. If you've been seeing the same world I've been seeing for the last decade, corporate freedom is the most dangerous thing facing humanity.

I think it's time to throw the label "Liberal" out of the OEN logo. Economic liberalism outsources manufacturing jobs, and allows the hiding of funds in pretend banks on the beach, forcing us into a race to the bottom to pick up the scraps. This is not to say that the market and its incentive structure don't have their place. They do, and some Scandinavian countries have demonstrated how to use them properly. Still, you'd be a fool to say our current neoliberal market world economy is creating maximum benefits for all in a sustainable fashion. Social liberalism remains a good thing, but it is tied to economic liberalism, which we cannot afford anymore. Being a Progressive properly acknowledges this, since progressivism claims only a social liberalism.

Let's be Tough Progressives. In being so, nothing is off the table with respect to increasing human rights. These human rights, however, must not be of the kind that create groups unable to care for themselves due to excessive welfare and zero expectations. Programs that promote such results are in fact an assault on human rights, not a furtherance of what should be every progressive's number one goal: getting all people on an equal standing.

Anyone who perceives the freedom of capital today, and the simultaneous limits placed on labor, understands that the two sides are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Corporations can no longer pretend that moving capital around in ways that destroy both individual lives and communities is a basic freedom that our forefathers, in their love for liberalism, would have approved of.

The world is finite. Communities will have to make decisions that favor their own interests, even if it means abridging the freedom of capital. John Locke admitted that his justification for private property only works if there is "as much and as good" for everyone. There is not as much and as good for everyone anymore. It's time to fight for human rights first. Property rights must come second.
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25 year-old Canadian student, currently attaining my masters in political science. Work with mentally disabled individuals for employment. Try to be politically involved. A card-carrying member of the provincial and federal green parties of Canada. (more...)
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