Liberalism has been the most powerful philosophical force in the “Western” world for the last 400 years. Liberalism, as a term, is thrown around often as an epithet by “conservatives” and proudly worn by those who see liberalism as a driving force for progress and “enlightenment.” Like other political philosophies, liberalism often is used in a vacuous sense in today’s world with little meaning, substance, or understanding by those who wear the term proudly or hurl it derogatorily.
What is a liberal? We should begin by noting its historical roots. Liberalism, as a philosophical system and anthropology, emerged in the seventeenth century with the writings of certain “Enlightenment” philosophers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Baruch Spinoza, as well as their heirs in France (the French materialists). As philosophy liberalism has two branches: One anthropological, the other political. We must address both to understand liberalism since the political conception of liberalism emanates from its anthropological claims.
The fundamental liberal claim is that man, by nature, is not a social animal but a solitary economic animal moved by self-preservation. Man joins “community” only to improve himself economically—it is not motivated through want to help others but need to improve oneself. The claims that liberalism is about “freedom” (as if the world prior to liberalism didn’t have “freedom”), “rule of law” (perhaps read the Code of Hammurabi or the Book of Deuteronomy or Cicero’s The Laws), and “separated government” (perhaps read the ancient political philosophers and the distinctions they made between the three common forms of government), or even property, are demonstrably false by anyone with a scant knowledge of history and philosophy. Not falling into the Whig trap that preys on ignorance, we can move on to address the real heart of liberalism as found in its classical liberal fathers: Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza (especially these latter three).
As a solitary man moved by self-preservation (conatus), man is equal with other men in the state of nature; hence there exists in original condition an original equality. Therefore, nature is egalitarian and not hierarchal. This is affirmed in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza who all agree, in their own ways, that nature is egalitarian. What motivates the drive for self-preservation? Fear of harm or painful death. What is the cause that liberalism therefore serves? A world of non-harm and non-conflict (since conflict is bad and causes bodily harm) moved to this conclusion by fear of harm, poverty, and death. Bodily absence of harm, or bodily pleasure, is the highest good conceived in liberal philosophy.
Freedom from harm is the true liberal cornerstone; Jason Andrew Cohen explained this magnificently in his book Toleration and Freedom from Harm: Liberalism Reconceived. In On Liberty, while Mill defends “free speech” (the first prominent liberal to do so), he prefaced his entire work by acknowledging that anything that causes harm to individuals has the right to be regulated by the state. Mill writes, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” In fact, even Locke affirms the regulatory right to property in Two Treatises, “Political power, then, I take to be a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property” to prevent conflict.
Sorry Bill Maher, “liberal” principles do not include the right to offend (harm) because offending someone causes them harm and freedom from harm is the real liberal principle once you understand philosophy and, more specifically, metaphysics (first principle/s). There is a well-established principle of regulation to prevent harm, or conflict, already established by the classical liberal philosophers.
Furthermore, liberalism defines freedom as free choice (of consumption) and unimpeded motion (movement). Anything that becomes a barrier to free choice and movement is therefore constrictive to “freedom” in the liberal conception. As Leo Strauss noted back in 1953—in Natural Right & History—the internal logic of liberalism is to create a global world state because the world of nations and national economies, as well as national boundaries, will eventually be seen as barriers to free choice and unimpeded movement and an order of nations may result in conflict between nations and such conflict between nations (war) is bad and needs to be avoided at all costs. Fear of harm drives man into the arms of a supranational entity that bans war and provides stability and welfare to the people. All of this is already embedded in the writings of the so-called “classical” liberal philosophers.
Additionally, liberalism takes these views from the mechanical view of science (and thus the materialist view of nature). This should not be surprising for students of the history of science. The “Enlightenment” conception of science was not biological but mechanical. Hence the declarations from Hobbes that man was an artificial machine brought to life that follows the laws of motion; Mettrie’s declaration that man was a machine, or Baron d’Holbach’s denial of free will as man could only be an effective manifestation of the causal mechanical laws of the universe. Man is nothing more than an artificially put together mass of matter in motion to paraphrase Hobbes; “For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joints, but so many Wheels, giving motion to the whole Body,” Hobbes writes in his introduction to Leviathan.
Politically, political liberalism is the instrument to man’s end as conceived of in the state of nature. As Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza all state, man forms a political commonwealth only to advance his desire for self-preservation because the state of nature is either nasty, brutish, and short, or, per Locke, descends into a state of war where our primary task is to execute the law of self-preservation in a confrontational manner (which we would prefer to avoid or not have the responsibility of doing). Thus, political liberalism seeks to advance man’s material welfare (since poverty is harmful), prevent conflict between men (since conflict is harmful), and increase as much as possible man’s economic choices for consumption (since consumption advances self-preservation) and man’s ability to freely move as he sees fit for his self-preservation and material empowerment (originally manifesting itself in the idea of “free trade” and now in the “right” to migration).
Therefore, liberalism seeks to liberate the individual from all constrictive ties that impede individual choice, movement, and material prosperity. Moreover, society is not first in the liberal doctrine—anyone who has read and properly understood the classical liberal arguments of the state of nature will realize this. The state comes first; society emerges after the imposition of the state through the social contract. Furthermore, all political rights are conventional rights—decided upon by the new commonwealth to grant to its subjects.
In the question of whether we are born to particular peoples, with particular histories, and identity, liberalism does not necessarily deny this but rejects that this be the order of things. Instead, if it is true that we are born to particular peoples, with particular histories, and particular identities, liberalism ought to liberate the individual from these people, histories, and identities because this would maximize the liberal understanding of freedom (unimpeded choice and movement). If the individual comes first all the better (as the classical liberal philosophers tried to prove through their arguments concerning the state of nature).
Unlike Dave Rubin, or other YouTube purveyors of “Classical Liberalism,” there is no meaningful distinction between classical and modern liberalism in political philosophy in the sense that the two are incompatible or that modern liberalism rejected classical liberalism. On the contrary, as hitherto highlighted, classical liberalism provided the foundations for modern liberalism. As Karl Popper wrote in his seminal work of liberal political philosophy, The Open Society and Its Enemies, “Liberalism and state-interference are not opposed to each other. On the contrary, any kind of freedom is clearly impossible unless it is guaranteed by the state.” The intra-liberal battle between the mainstream Left and Right, in the post-1945 and especially post-1989 world, is between which instrument best achieves individual liberation and maximization of the liberal conception of freedom: The Market or the State.
“Conservatives,” who are really the heirs of classical liberalism and therefore not genuine conservatives, see the economic market as the main instrument to man’s liberation and freedom. “Liberals,” who are the inheritors and natural progression of the classical liberal tradition augmented to fit the modern world of urbanized, industrialized, financialized, and globalized society, see the State as the main instrument to man’s liberation and freedom. Neoliberals, who are sometimes considered “Centrists” in political science jargon, see the State as establishing and engineering the most equitable economic outcomes thus combining the classical liberal and modern liberal means together for the same end sought by classical and modern liberals. The battle between Left and Right in mainstream establishment politics is between the means to the same end.
What is a liberal?
Philosophically, a liberal is someone who places the individual above family, community, and nation; it is the primacy of the atomized and self-making and self-choosing individual before everything else. The liberal is also someone who accepts the mechanical, and therefore material, rather than biological, view of science (funny how this has manifested itself in a very visible way in the 21st century). The liberal also believes that freedom entails the freedom from harm (which manifests itself economically as poverty and hunger bring the greatest harm to the individual as the human is nothing more than a bodily mass of matter) and the right to unimpeded choice and movement. Furthermore, liberalism views nature as universal, homogenous, and most importantly, egalitarian.
If you wish to keep the “Left-Right” paradigm within the purely liberal framework, we would say that a left-liberal believes that the State is the best instrument to man’s liberation while the right-liberal believes that the market is the best instrument to man’s liberation, with “moderate liberals” or “centrist liberals” seeking an equal balance of state and market activism to achieve the individual’s liberation and maximization of choice and unimpeded movement. At the end of the day liberals are egalitarian individualists pure and simple. If this is not the order of nature then the task of political liberalism is to make egalitarian individualism a reality (hence the social engineering impetus in liberal thought).
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Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
John Locke, Two Treatises on Civil Government
Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus
Andrew Jason Cohen, Tolerance and Freedom from Harm: Liberalism Reconceived
Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed
Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies