The term “liberal” has become a very bad word in some circles. Many conservatives today do not see Liberal as just another political viewpoint, but as an evil philosophy. Simultaneously, many who call themselves “liberal” today seem to have forgotten what liberal really means. We all need to revisit this important concept.
“Liberal” derives from the mid-19th century concern with “liberty.” The British liberals stood for freeing much the economy from government control, which was heavy handed in Europe since the advent of monarchy. Today’s conservatives want government out of everything, except for those sexual and religious preferences that they want enforced by law.
Liberal Democracy. Words do change over time. However, in some cases, these changes get us into trouble. The word “democracy” has come to mean voting, universal popular participatory government. Missing, however, is the word “liberal,” which, when used with “democracy,” goes well beyond voting. A “liberal democracy” means a participatory system with rules and limits. It must protect minority rights, gender equality, separation of church and state, checks and balances within the government (independent judiciary and shared power of administration and legislature), independent press, and a concept of personal property rights. It also requires a population with at least 50% literacy, including women.
Liberal Education. We often hear about the “educated” populations in many non-Western countries. Literacy rates are quoted, and we are supposed to believe that this means the ability to think and reason. The missing word here is “liberal” education, a term that means not only mastering a body of information, but learning a process called “critical thinking.” Critical thinking means understanding how any information should be questioned and understood. Students need to be free to question, to ask “how do we know that,” or “is this information reasonable?”
In many parts of the world, children learn early never to question their parents, their religious leaders, their teachers, or their governments. There is no way to evaluate this information. We see this in action in the almost universal belief in all rumors and conspiracy theories circulating in such closed cultures. It also accounts for the failure of a religious reformation to happen in these places, unlike in the Western world, where even the threat of dire punishment could not extinguish the questioning that was part of our liberal educations, going all the way back to ancient Greece.
Today’s American Conservatives. Our former educated conservatives used to have a social conscience along with a prudent, fiscal conservatism. The greatest philanthropists of the 19th century started out as unabashed financial libertarians, fighting tooth and claw against government control over their activities. However, they were happy to have government provide railway barons with thousands of acres of government land for right-of-ways, and to provide defense, both domestically, and in wars overseas. They also supported government land grants to be used to build colleges and universities. They certainly believed in liberal education.
As pragmatic and seemingly self-engrossed as these robber barons were, they were aware as they grew older that many people needed services that only great money could provide: charities, libraries, museums, concert halls. All of these institutions were intended for the education of the public, from childhood through old age. Congressional conservatives seem to have forgotten these values in wanting to cut all funds from such institutions.
Today’s American Liberals. Old style liberals believed that government had a function in the betterment of life. They supported such institutions as Social Security, the Voting Rights Act, building dams and protecting natural resources, and protecting the civil liberties of everybody. Western liberals used to ferociously protect the rights of women and minorities, and oppose government when it was too heavy-handed in activities they did not like.
Today’s liberals are mired down in concern about “underdogs,” no matter how those underdogs oppress women and persecute minorities (the current love affair with Islamists). And many have misunderstood critical thinking to mean criticism of everything Western. America is bad, they say, and the Third World good. This is nonsense.
Liberal is a good word and should be better understood and revived by both parties.
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of How Do You Know That? You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.