Fun with Political Theory: Liberalism

At some point in politics and political theory, certain terms start to get bandied about, and like Inigo Montoya to Vizzini in The Princess Bride, you start to wonder if those words mean what they think they mean. You might think the same, so let’s have some fun with political theory and look at liberalism.

I’ll kick this off with a quote from John Stuart Mill: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Put simply, liberalism puts the individual at the center of it all with the goal of having her live as she chooses. The obstacles to this can be laws and customs that block individual choice. While the term “liberal” didn’t show up until the early 19th century, its principals got their start in the 1600s with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Locke and Hobbes are the giants of liberalism, and they both present two very important concepts: the state of nature and natural right. The state of nature assumes no government and is where everyone is equal, which was a pretty novel concept at a time when class meant everything. This is why liberalism is such a neat ideology: it, like the American Dream, assumes anyone can make it, regardless of who they are in society.

In the state of nature, people have a natural right to do as they wish. Hobbes’ state of nature, as many of you may know, is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short,” because people are assholes. So they enter into a social contract to provide for security. In contrast, Locke’s state of nature is merely “inconvenient,” because people are still assholes, but they’re nicer about it. Locke establishes government less as protection from harm and more to protect our natural rights. Hobbes’ government has more reach; Locke’s is more limited.

The United States took these concepts and ran with them. The Declaration of Independence and the writings of Thomas Paine both borrowed much from Locke’s Second Treatise. As a result, Locke et. al.  influenced how Americans think of themselves as individuals. Indeed, I once had a professor declare that everyone in the United States is in some form a liberal, and while I’d never say everyone, I would agree that our two major parties do follow some form of traditional liberalism.

In the United States, liberal ideology has taken three main branches, which is probably why the term is so darn confusing, and also why most people in this country do get their general idea of what a government ought to do from liberal principals. I’ve drawn a chart (thanks sumopaint!) that I can’t take credit for – it’s from a handout given to me in grad school with no attribution. I think it was originally made on a typewriter.

A chart describing the evolution of liberalism
The three main branches of liberalism.

To explain: at some point, liberalism is concerned with one of three things. Political things, that is to say rights like free speech and freedom of assembly, hence the link to the A.C.L.U. Spiritual things, which is a rather trite way of saying that one is concerned with protecting everyone’s rights even when they slip through the safety net, thus the link to the New Deal. And then there is economic liberalism, your standard keep-government-from-taxing-my-shit laissez-faire perspective. What these all have in common is the idea that the individual is important, that we form a government to protect our natural rights, and that government should be limited to certain roles. Where they disagree is where government should be limited, such as whether government should tax us so we can have a safety net or whether government shouldn’t tax us because our property is damn important.

I have another chart on the American political spectrum that shows this another way. In the middle is liberalism-that-is-easy-to-understand. In other words, it isn’t muddied by terms like laissez-faire and welfare state. On the far right and left are ideologies like socialism and conservatism. In between those and liberalism is where the waters get muddied, but ultimately, the large majority of how we think as Americans includes a degree of liberalism.

The American Political Spectrum
Most of us are liberal somehow, so why can't we get along?

So that’s liberalism in a nutshell. A nutshell, people! I realize it’s a big topic! Let me stay in my nutshell, but feel free to help expand the nutshell in the comments.

Next time, I’ll talk about conservatism and we can get down with Edmund Burke’s little platoons.

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[E] Sally Lawton

My food groups are cheese, bacon, and hot tea. I like studying cities and playing with my cat, Buffy.

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