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Op-Ed

The Left Hijacked the Word 'Liberal'

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“Liberal.” It’s time to set the record straight where this word came from, and how its meaning was stolen and twisted into the exact opposite of what it was supposed to represent.

I’m a liberal. Saying that today to most of the people who know me would probably result in laughter. And that makes sense, because to a majority of people today, the word “liberal” is associated with SJW’s on college campuses, hiding in safe spaces, and rabid feminists marching around with their pink p—- hats screaming at the sky about oppression and the gender wage gap.

It’s unfortunate for me and others who in the past proudly proclaimed themselves as liberals, that the term which once represented an ideology of freedom and individual liberty and played such a vital role in the American founding has been twisted.

However, the word has been so brutally warped that those who hold the title now are some of the most illiberal, intolerant people in the United States.

Let’s Set the Record Straight

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Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines liberalism as “a political philosophy based on belief in progress; the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.” Ah yes, the original meaning of the word, placing importance on the autonomy of the INDIVIDUAL – which, has no resemblance to the collectivist nature of the modern left today. So what happened? A brief history will be necessary to further explain this.

The liberals, commonly now known as “classical liberals” today to distinguish from the modern left, drew their core beliefs from those such as Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and David Hume. The liberals believed in individual rights that were negative in nature, meaning the right to be free from coercion by others; as opposed to positive rights, which are the rights to do something specifically (i.e. the right to health care, the right to a living wage, etc.). Liberal ideology was based on natural law and that only a minimal government was necessary to protect individual rights and services that could not be provided by the free market. All other intrusions were considered an unnecessary violation of one’s individual right to liberty.

Liberal ideology was ever-apparent in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. For instance, our Constitution was law solely for the purpose of restricting government. Our Bill of Rights uses terminology such as “shall not be infringed” which shows the Founders believed that individuals had God-given natural rights and that government could not intrude upon an individual’s basic individual liberties.

Of course, the most famous example of liberal thinking was in the Declaration’s “Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness” which was taken from Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property” in his “Two Treatises of Government.” In using this phrase, Jefferson emphasized the commitment to rights that were so important that they even boldly proclaimed that “These Truths” were so fundamental that they were “Self-Evident” in nature.

So What Happened?

In the aftermath of the American Revolution and into the early 19th Century, liberalism was seen as “progress” and the way of the future. While conservatism at that time reflected tradition and more monarchical roots. Liberals then saw the world moving further and further away from government control and more into the concept of individual liberty and autonomy as the way forward. This was seen in Europe as well from works of authors such as Frederic Bastiat and Alexander de Tocqueville.

However, in the late 19th Century, progressivism started to take root. Progressives valued egalitarian principles over individual liberty and autonomy. Unlike the classical liberals, the progressives saw the state as the answer to society’s problems and believed it was the government’s responsibility to create a fairer and more equal society.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first big players in the progressive movement. Soon, the progressives would be ever-increasing the size and scope of the federal government to achieve whatever program they thought necessary to better society and right what they perceived as injustices.

While the progressives hijacked the liberal name, the classical liberals would then be joining forces with conservatives in trying to fight back at the ever-growing oppressive bloated government that kept chipping away at liberty. Out of this combination would grow modern conservatism, as well as libertarianism.

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As the 20th Century wore on, the progressives ended up getting their way. The policies of Woodrow Wilson and FDR included a massive welfare state, federal income tax, and a large bureaucratic and technocratic centrally-planned government that would have the Founding Fathers rolling in their graves.

And the Rest Is Just History…

Well, we know how all that played out. Today we have a bigger welfare state than ever. The federal government is intruding into our civil liberties and individual autonomy whether that be in schooling, religion, speech or mass surveillance. The progressive liberals value the collective over the individual, identity politics and egalitarianism over meritocracy, and victimhood over strength and virtue. Do any of these things being practiced and advocated for by modern “liberals” sound like the aforementioned liberalism discussed earlier?

I didn’t think so either.

The modern, progressive “liberals” are not liberal at all. In fact, they are illiberal in that they restrict freedom of thought and behavior, and that they in no way, shape or form celebrate the liberty of the individual like the classical liberals did. It’s time we did this word justice and stopped referring to the modern progressive left as “liberal.”

We’d like our word back. Please and thanks.

The views expressed in this opinion article are those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by the owners of this website. If you are interested in contributing an Op-Ed to The Western Journal, you can learn about our submission guidelines and process here.

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Daren Wiseley is a graduate from Indiana University Maurer School of Law and has worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney and real estate professional.




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