Liberalism as a political philosophy is historically a very American ideology. Its foundational framework, espoused by Enlightenment Thinkers such as John Locke, holds that government’s role is to protect the natural rights of the people, rights such as life, liberty, and property. If government does not uphold this responsibility, the people are justified to throw off such government. Sound familiar?
…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.– That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,– That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government….
— The Declaration of Independence
As a political theory, liberalism developed precisely in response to tyrannical, absolutist governments depriving individuals of their freedom. It was Locke’s ideas that were the cause of the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution. The most fundamental values of our American Democracy outlined in the constitution and Declaration of Independence such as freedom of religion, speech, self determination, equality, all stem from the liberal tradition.
Likewise, modern liberalism still puts forth human freedom and individual rights as all important. Many conservatives might be apt to disagree with this statement, but perhaps we should consider the evidence. What is the basis behind the modern rallying cries of: the right to marry whomever you want, the right to choose your own gender, the right to health care, the right to physician-assisted suicide, the right to euthanasia, the right to a living wage, the right to unionize, and the right to choose abortion. Are these not all calls for human liberty and autonomy? While we may disagree on the morality of some of the above mentioned, they are all based on some notion (whether correct or incorrect) of freedom. In this sense, liberalism has not strayed from its historic emphasis on liberty.
What is undeniable is that modern liberal policies look far different those of 17th and early 18th century. Physician assisted suicide, abortion, and gay marriage in America are products of the 20th century, not before. This begs the question, if the source of liberalism and its emphasis on freedom has not changed over the past 200 years, why does its application look so different?
For starters, the basic view of the effectiveness of government has altered drastically. To the classical liberal such as Locke, government was the barrier to human freedom. Thomas Paine, a liberal in his own day, famously penned, “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.” However to the modern liberal, government is the answer, a vehicle through which individual liberty can be attained.
Despite the truth of this change in the view on government, I would argue it is not the cause for the difference, but rather a symptom. The source of the division between the classical and modern liberal is a changing opinion on the nature of the universe. Classical liberalism in the American tradition held that a creator “endowed” men with rights. It held that there was a designed order to our universe, better known in Catholicism as Natural Law. The definition of human rights and freedoms, while capable of being discovered through human reason, was not a human invention. They were created by God, and thus no one person or government had the right to take them away. To the Classical American Liberal, human freedom was justified through an appeal to natural order of the humanity established by the Creator.
The modern liberal philosophy, on the other hand, does not appeal to a standard independent of mankind. Instead, the modern call for freedom is an appeal of the emotions. Rather than individual rights being endowed from an unchanging being (God), the source is human desire for absolute autonomy. The problem herein is if we accept human emotion and desire as the standard of defining individual freedom, then we are forced to accept a wavering standard. And if our standard is constantly changing, it is quite logical to conclude there can be no progress. It is heroic to dedicate oneself to protecting human freedom, but how can one protect an idea that is constantly changing.
The recent events surrounding Charlie Gard, the now famous 7-month old child that has been condemned to die by European courts, illustrate this point perfectly. Here, we see an invented right, the right to die, in conflict with the natural right to live. Is this an advancement of liberty? As Chesterton put it, “ Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision” not changing the vision to suit the world.
The above is not meant to question the authenticity of any general liberal beliefs, either in policy or religion. I do not mean to claim liberals do not believe in God. What I do intend is to highlight a fundamental logical flaw in Modern American Liberalism. To claim oneself as a progressive party, one must in fact claim a standard, an ideal to which all progress is aimed. Without an unchanging standard, the question is to where are you progressing?