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Defining "Liberalism" Down By: Jon Sanders
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Just in time for the frenzied last month of an election season, the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday published an essay by University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone entitled "What it means to be a liberal." In it, Stone, the author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, posits 10 propositions that to him "define 'liberal' today."

Stone's essay would have been more convincing if it had been titled: "What it should mean to be a liberal." For example, Stone's first two propositions include such corkers as "Liberals are skeptical of censorship and celebrate free and open debate" and "Liberals believe individuals should be tolerant and respectful of difference." One wonders if Stone has in mind the same "liberals" who championed academic speech codes, cheered the flouting of the First Amendment under the rubric of “campaign-finance reform,” and spent the last six years demonizing President Bush as a Nazi or worse.

Where did Stone go wrong? He started by defining "liberals," in opposition to Republicans, as a proxy for Democrats. That illustrates a fundamental misconception of liberalism (one that, in Stone's defense, is shared by many conservatives, too). A true liberal would be perplexed by today's self-professed liberals. He might ask, in the words of Herbert Spencer, "How is it that Liberalism ... has grown more and more coercive in legislation?"
 
Someone who still holds an Enlightenment ideal of liberalism, rather than the nanny-state vision of today, would want a better set of propositions than Stone's. They would address themselves to those on the political Left; i.e., socialists, statists, paternalists, and others who favor more and more coercive legislation.
 
The following 10 propositions take their starting points from Stone's but are conformed to the actual practices of "liberals," which is to say, leftists:
 
1. Leftists believe paradoxically that there is no such thing as objective truth but that truth is relative. From this belief leftists will say silly things such as "your truth" and "my truth," and then they will choose whichever "truth" serves the "public good" (i.e., leftist "truth") at the moment. This is why their "truth" today frequently contradicts their "truths" yesterday. Leftist "truth" also holds that they are "skeptical of censorship and celebrate free and open debate" — but the truth is, they are happy to resort to censorship and stymie debate when the discussion counters their "truth." When they do so, they say they are making the discussion “more free.”
 
2. Leftists believe individuals should be forced to respect them and their ideas. Leftists will use the government to prosecute "hate speech," which is how leftists define intolerant speech that offends them. Such speech inevitably comes about during truly free and open debate. Leftists also believe religious expression is by its very nature intolerant. Leftists do not believe that the best counter to offensive speech is more speech; even though Justice Louis Brandeis observed that "Sunlight is the best disinfectant," leftists believe some ideas should not be allowed to see the light of day.
 
3. Leftists believe people have an obligation to — that is, they should be forced to — fund public social-welfare programs. Leftists believe people should be on the hook not only for the political schemes by elected politicians, but also they should be made to pay for the political campaigns of all kinds of aspiring scheming politicians. Leftists believe that forcing private individuals to fund extremist politicians who could never garner private donations on their own is a way to improve elections. Then leftists believe that private donations to campaigns ought to be severely limited and that campaign advertisements should be, too.
 
When leftists curtail liberty like that, they have to resort to euphemism to try to put it in a positive light. So they call those things creating "a more vibrant freedom of speech."  Just like the "most vibrant" people can be found in cemeteries.  
 
4. Leftists believe that "the people" are objects to be governed by leftist elitists, according to leftist "truths." As for protecting individual privacy, leftists believe individuals are harmed when they privately enter into voluntary wage contracts with employers and think that they should be forced into unions led by leftists to negotiate their wages for them. Leftists think that individuals cannot protect themselves from other individuals' exercise of their freedoms — whether those individuals freely express their religion, freely express their opinion, freely support political campaigns, freely own a firearm for safety or recreation, freely take a job at Wal-Mart, freely purchase a cigarette or a hamburger, freely enjoy their property, freely choose private or (worse) home-school education for their children, freely own and operate an SUV, freely support private charities with income not having been confiscated for "government charity," and so forth. Naturally, when leftists intrude in all these private concerns, they say that they are "defending freedom."
 
5. Leftists sort individuals according to groups, and they believe that government must discriminate in the favor of pre-determined favored groups, such as individuals of certain races, gender, creeds, criminal status, or politics. Leftists pretend to champion "political dissidents" so long as the "dissident" agrees with leftist ideas; they try to silence those who disagree with them on abortion, racial preferences, confiscatory taxation, religious expression, etc. Leftists will even allow those who speak in opposition to leftist ideas to be shouted down, harassed, and even physically attacked, but they will subsequently defend the "rights" of those who attacked the speaker. To leftists, a pie or even a fist in the face of a speaker opposing leftism is "more vibrant" free speech, but a word of criticism in reaction to a leftist speaker is "chilling speech."
 
6. Leftists believe that a fundamental role of government is robbing productive individuals of their hard-earned rewards and giving it to those who are disinclined to work. It is leftists who support growing all kinds of government social programs designed to take resources away from people who have made it on their own. It is leftists who are astounded when people who get government handouts for doing nothing continue to do nothing. It is leftists who scramble to blame the productive people for that, too.
 
7. Leftists believe government should never allow any expression of faith within earshot of the faithless. Leftists believe that a passer-by is irreparably harmed when he encounters phrases like "Merry Christmas" or "God Bless America." It is leftists who have worked very hard to make public school administrators, teachers, students, and students' parents believe that the First Amendment calls for a "separation of church and state." It is leftists who won't discuss that the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion.
 
8. Leftists believe courts have a responsibility to establish special liberties for certain groups. Leftists will tell themselves that they preserve freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc., even while talking about ways to oppose, for example, advertisers' and religious individuals' expression and limiting judicial protection for some, such as "the wealthy," the unborn, and members of unfavored races, gender, or creeds.
 
9. Leftists believe people are incapable of thinking and acting in their own best interests and therefore need government to be their Big Brother to keep them safe. Leftists suspect that any agreement between an individual and a corporation is unfair, and they will exploit the involuntary arrangement between individuals and government to interfere with voluntary arrangements between private individuals.  

10. Leftists believe it's government's business to prevent individuals from making private choices that leftists dislike. Leftists agree that government should protect their rights to make private decisions that might offend others. To keep freedom "more vibrant," of course, leftists would prefer not to extend those rights to the others.

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Jon Sanders (jsanders@johnlocke.org) is a research editor at the John Locke Foundation.


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