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Liberals aren’t

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Thus succinctly proclaimed the bumper sticker on the back of my old car. It was a message that boggled the minds of conservatives and liberals, both of whom would stare blankly with the “I don’t get it” expression on their faces.

Liberals aren’t.

Rush Limbaugh will forever be cemented in my memory, declaring on my grandparents’ radio that “the liberals” were taking over the country. In recent decades, the word “liberal” has become synonymous with big-government “progressives” who believe that expanding the power of the federal government is “progress.” However, the word “liberal” did not always mean what it means today. In fact, “liberal” used to mean something completely different.

The word itself is defined as “broad-minded; tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others.” Thus, a liberal was someone who was, above all else, tolerant: a person whose principle goal in life was to live peacefully and let others do the same. The liberals of the 19th century, now referred to as “classical liberals,” held a political and ethical philosophy that was grounded in the Enlightenment; they believed in individual liberty, minimal government, private property rights and free trade.

Liberals were, for all intents and purposes, libertarians.

Today, “liberal” is the term the Left has commandeered to sanctimoniously describe itself. Liberalism in the modern western world connotes an almost worship of the centralized welfare state: of “progressive” social engineering in the form of expansive federal power and economic interventionism at all levels. “Liberal” no longer means “tolerant,” it means “left-wing.”

It is not uncommon for right-wing conservatives to bemoan the criticisms of the Left, which often pigeonholes the Right as intolerant and dogmatic. The conservatives usually retort that the Left is not as tolerant as they would have us believe. Of course, this is a terrible defense on the conservatives’ part, but it is also true.

For example, at Cornell University, a right-wing newspaper recently published an article about race and crime. Shortly thereafter, the paper was condemned by individuals in the administration and many left-wing students filed “bias reports” in order to censor the paper. I should also mention that many left-wing students collected up another conservative newspaper in 1997 and held a Nazi-style mass burning. The administration, which condemned the free speech of the right-wing newspaper, remained silent.

Is that “liberal”?

It has become a goal in my life to reclaim this abused word from the clutches of the Left. The word “liberal” should not connote pseudo-socialism. It should not convey the belief that the government – that wonderful creation that has brought us such gems as slavery, women’s non-suffrage, war and the Postal Service – should control health care, gas prices, retirement, the War on Poverty, and whatever else. These insidious “progressive” institutions have no place in a true liberal society; and yet, alas, here they are.

Because no grand social programs could exist without the threat of state intervention, today’s liberals are content to ignore the fundamental reality of “progressive” government programs: for example, income taxation – enforced by the Internal Revenue Service – is unyieldingly compulsory, and with coercion comes aggression.

True liberals condemn the growth of aggression, whether committed by individuals, corporations or governments. Left-wing liberals, however, often do the opposite: they call for more spending, more regulation and more government power.

The 19th century classical liberal Lysander Spooner, a brilliant man and American abolitionist, said it best: “[T]he real motives and spirit which lie at the foundation of all legislation – notwithstanding all the pretenses and disguises by which they attempt to hide themselves – are the same today as they always have been. They whole purpose of legislation is simply to keep one class of men in subordination and servitude to another.”

This statement perfectly sums up the fundamental principle of today’s modern liberalism: liberals embrace rhetoric about civil rights and social justice, all the while compelling their fellow citizens to support corrupt and ineffectual government programs.

The irony is, of course, that most liberals truly believe that their beliefs would lead to a better world, despite the violence that is inherent in their post-New Deal philosophy. The U.S. Constitution has morphed into a “living document” within the circles of today’s liberal intellectuals, which is a feeble attempt to legitimize the mixed socialist system now entrenched in this country. The Constitution is not perfect, but if it truly is some kind of “living document,” it should “live” to even further restrict the government’s powers to meddle. Unfortunately, we are headed in the wrong direction.

Someday, the word “liberal” will again mean what it should. The “liberals” of today will eventually have to recognize that tolerance does not ground their ideology; that they implement their political will through the barrel of a gun, whether they want to admit it or not.

Someday, liberals will finally realize that they aren’t.

Scott Wagner is the president of the brand new College Libertarians Club and writes political satire for the Web site The Enduring Vision. He can be contacted at swagner1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.