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Friday, February 25, 2005

What's a Liberal Anyway?

I spoke briefly with my brother in Kansas City about my new blog and he asked me for a working definition of “liberal”. Like many words nowadays, it is tossed around without much thought of what it means. Too often, it means “someone I don’t agree with” and is equated with socialism.
Liberalism, as a political ideology, is based on a belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, the autonomy of the individual, and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties – at least according to Merriam-Webster. There is also a spiritual component, generally rooted in Protestantism that emphasizes intellectual liberty and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity. Neither of these is really of use, unless you really just want to sound like an obnoxious prig.
When I speak of being a liberal, I speak of it in a political sense. It looks at everyone as being equal before the law – regardless of sex, color of skin, ethic origin, or pretty much anything else. It defends this equality as the basis of individual freedom and moves to ensure this status is preserved, or at very least is maintained as a goal worthy of progress towards. When possible, it is done through the simple respect of one individual towards another. When conditions merit, it condones collective action through peaceable means to bring about civil change.
Collective action means democratic government as well as civic organizations. A democratic government is the acting representative of the individual voters and is a legitimate vehicle of action for efforts aimed at greater equality. It sees individual rights as bearing individual responsibilities and governmental action is a legitimate response to widespread or dangerous irresponsibility.
It is not a collectivist ideology that defines equality as meaning that everyone has exactly the same amount of everything. Communities are made of individuals of varying levels of wealth, education, and various other characteristics. Honoring the communal attachments does not mean that these characteristics must be left behind – as a collectivist ideology would hold. In fact, community honors diversity and seeks to find similarities among the differences that can more firmly bind us together as a people. “Equality before law” and “equality” are not the same thing. “Equality before law” only seeks to give everyone the same opportunities and allows individuals among the community to make choices according to the dictates of their conscience and to live with the consequences of those decisions – good, bad, or indifferent.
While liberalism recognizes and honors the individual, it does not worship individualism. No man lives in a vacuum and each of us in effected by the decisions made by those around us. We each have a right to speak towards others’ actions only to the extent to which they impact our individual lives. We may not approve of someone else’s actions, but until they threaten our own livelihood we have no right to compel them to behave differently. Even in those cases where individuality does need to be over-ridden, it should be done only so much as to rectify the adverse effect to others.
Liberalism means that government exists as the congregate will of the people, and that it has only as much power to accomplish those tasks given to it by the people. The object of government is to preserve the liberty by promoting equality before the law. This balances the individual with the community, providing maximum freedom for all without oppression of any. Government is not the enemy of the people, but the aggregate expression of the people’s desires.
These are broad concepts. Part of the reason for this blog, and the dialogue I hope to be a part of, is to agree on broad concepts that can then be whittled down to individual cases and issues. The broad strokes here are open for re-direction and discussion. Liberalism is a living, evolving concept and it must remain so. If it becomes closed off, then it will enslave us and forget that ideologies are derived for the benefit of people and not people who are derived to fit ideologies.

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