Why Modern Liberalism Is In Retreat
Tibor R. Machan
Liberalism was once a radical social philosophy because it championed
liberty, in particular, the right to individual freedom in civil and
economic affairs. In time, however, the term ?liberal? was hijacked by
those who were actually advocating a return to extensive government
interference, championing this now as necessary so as ?to make people
free.? In fact, however, what they proposed is the paternalistic state
whereby adult human beings would once again be treated as if they were
children, dependents, in constant need of being regimented by superior
leaders so they would live successfully.
So the radical liberalism that meant freeing adult individuals from
government became classical liberalism and, later, libertarianism, at
least in the United States of America. (Throughout the rest of the world
?liberal? still calls to mind the original radical meaning.) Yet the
debate isn?t only about words.
Modern liberals?or what elsewhere is referred to as social democrats or
out and out socialists?do have a different idea of what human beings are.
They think they are helpless in the face of the challenges and adversities
of nature and society. Classical liberals generally viewed people as
capable of taking the initiative, if only other people and governments
didn?t put chains on them, didn?t stop them from helping themselves.
Certainly people would have different starting points in the effort to
advance themselves?some would have more fortunate beginnings than others,
would start off healthier, more appealing or talented, born to wealthier
parents, than others. But, all in all, they could put their shoulders to
the task of improving on their lives, whatever their original situation.
And a free society, one championed by classical liberals or libertarians,
would then afford the best chance for them all to succeed at their diverse
Modern liberals, however, embraced a different view of human nature. They
held that we are basically moved by impersonal forces and have no capacity
to initiative any improvements on our lives. Any such improvement would
have to come from the outside, and government, with its concentrated and
massive coercive power, was the most promising candidate to bring about
such improvement. This is, in fact, the intellectual source of the switch
from the basic idea of individual rights of the American Founders versus
the idea of positive rights or entitlements that came to be the substance
of FDR?s ?Second Bill of Rights.?
Of course, many other factors influenced the change, including various
special interests parading as the public interest, but all rested,
fundamentally, on the switch from understanding people as self-starters to
seeing them as passive participants within a society. So the issue is
really about human nature?are we at heart self-governing living entities
or are we being moved about by impersonal forces and in constant need of
help from government?
Yet, as should be evident, the modern liberal?s approach to advancing the
lot of human beings is paradoxical. While denying that individuals can
help themselves if left to their own resources and to voluntary
cooperation, they affirm that governments?which are, after all, composed
of individuals?can take the initiative and come up with adequate solutions
to human problems. How is this possible? Either we are helpless, in which
case so is the government, or we can help ourselves, in which case it is
best, in most cases, to leave us free to find our own solution to
problems. Moreover, if we can take the initiative, then those who know the
problems they face, who have access to what has come to be called local
knowledge?which is where solutions most often lie?are in a far better
position to address challenges facing them than far off agencies of
So what has stymied the full development of the classical liberal,
affirmative view of human individual capabilities of free men and women?
It is, first, that the idea was simply very radical and unfamiliar to most
and, second, that those who had taken advantage of the opposite idea (that
rulers need to run everyone?s life) didn?t wish to yield power.
The modern liberal, in point of fact, turns out to be a reactionary, one
who still clings to the old idea that people in the main are inept and
require some supreme ruler to run their lives, to take care of them. That
is what supported the idea of feudalism and monarchy, with tsars, Caesars,
kings, queens, pharaohs, and other chiefs ruling the realm and the rest
relegated to the position of subjects required to follow the leaders? will.
In time, one may reasonably hope, the classical liberal?s radical but
very sensible insight about human nature?that it is fundamentally creative
and productive and needs liberty to flourish?will reemerge, having
overcome the bad habit of dependency on government. But this cannot be
expected to happen automatically?eternal vigilance is its price, indeed.