Is the Right Kind of Liberalism Coming Back?

Many folks tend to know this'the label 'liberalism' or 'liberal' has been hijacked over the last century so that now it means something that's a 180 degree opposite of what it originally meant. This is why 'libertarianism' or 'libertarian' had to take over, because the former somehow managed to come to mean 'welfare statism' or 'welfare statist' in American political parlance.

The reason may have been that there has always been a sense of 'liberty' or 'freedom' that didn't concern not being forcefully subjected to another's will but rather removing any obstacles from one's path. 'I am now free to go to Europe' begun to mean 'I have the means for getting to Europe' instead of 'None is preventing me to go to Europe.' The old sense of 'liberal' focused on this latter meaning of 'freedom' or 'liberty,' while the new one on the former.

That itself has a philosophical story behind it. When liberalism of the original sort got prominent in Western political theory, it was generally taken to be any normal person's capacity to take the initiative in his or her life for purposes of making something of it. The main obstacle to using this capacity was seen to be other, usually politically powerful people or out and out thugs, both group bent on violating people's rights. Once freedom or liberty had been achieved, these intruders would be contained and their potential victims could proceed to make their usually potent efforts to get on with their lives. They would, in short, be free! And that was pretty much what they needed to flourish based on their own initiative.

In time, however, a different idea of human nature caught on. This idea saw us all as being moved by impersonal forces, those that were taken to compel our actions'or rather, our behavior. The concept 'action' presupposes that the acting agent is capable of self-direction. You think up a course of behavior and then do it, the package being termed your action or conduct. Behavior, a term of art in classical physics and the social sciences, is what something undergoes, not something one brings about.

With the rise of the belief that we humans behave in response to various forces moving us about, it made no sense to expect that we would get on with our lives well enough, all things considered, once the intrusiveness of other persons abated. This is what is meant by the view that someone who is poor or ignorant or otherwise lacks provisions is not really free at all. Only those who are provided with the needed props in life'jobs, health care, education, social security and the lot'are truly free, liberated.

This, of course, is the Hegelian-Marxist idea of what liberty involves and with its popularity came the notion that mere bourgeois liberty is impotent to do us much good. American liberalism with such influences was transformed from a libertarian sort to a near-socialist one. Except in one area!

This is in some discussions of other societies. A case in point, replete with the original use of 'liberal,' is the wonderful essay 'The Opening of the Wahhabist Mind,' by Elizabeth Rubin, in The New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2004. Rubin gives a detailed account of the struggles of one Mansour Al-Nogaidan, a Saudi Arabian young intellectual and persistent political activist, calling the young man and his ideas 'liberal' and the condition he is aiming for 'freedom' all through the piece.

Consider this sentence: 'Mansour has chosen to keep his voice alive through the Western media'both as a matter of liberal principle and as a safeguard against being forgotten and left to languish in prison.' Or these: 'An unlikely group of onetime religious jihadists have recently stepped into the midst of this debate. They belong to a large circle of liberal intellectuals, professors, former Wahhabi scholars, judges and even women who are discussing subjects in the media that were taboo before 9/11 . . . .' References abound to ''the liberal port city of Jidda,' and 'the liberal novelist Turki,' and, again, to 'human rights' and to 'think freely.' There is even a quote from Mansour in support of the separation of state and mosque that is most characteristically classical liberal'as distinct from the wishy-washy modern liberal sentiment of unlimited tolerance''As Voltaire said, 'No freedom to the enemies of freedom.''

It isn't of course that this essay is self-consciously libertarian. Yet the way it deploys the relevant concepts shows pretty unambiguously that what Mansour Al-Nogaidan is all about isn't the liberalism of Senator Ted Kennedy as he battles Saudi conservatism. Rather it is the liberalism of times past, when a good liberal was an anti-statist and worried mainly about removing all kinds of bondage from people imposed by other people. Once that's done, all could proceed to make something of themselves.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.