Liberalism's Metamorphosis

Above: John Locke in 1697, by Sir Gotfrey Kneller

By Chris Salazar

The bedrock of Classical Liberalism has weakend since its inception during the Enlightenment. But despite the drive toward sentiment over first principals, individual liberty, equality and economic freedom continue to hold intellectual and political influence.

As the tides of Trump’s presidency rise, and the global wave of populism drowns the geo-political order, the intellectual legacy of our liberal forefathers offers an interesting take on the present state.

Both liberalism and conservatism in their contemporary form owe their lineage to Classical Liberalism, to the specter of John Locke and his intergenerational, philosophic brood who established The Enlightenment. Human history, until very recently, was characterized by misery and tyranny. And John Locke’s theory of natural rights usurped centuries of political servitude: government’s only legitimate role is to protect natural rights, not create them.

History is the lengthy narrative of children rebelling against their parents, of a Hegelian dialectic where a thesis wrestles with its antithesis, only to synthesize like two lovers entangled in complex web of emotions. And the process continues ad infinitum because emotion is conflict incarnate. In this vein, the historical compositions of the 19th and 20th centuries were bifurcated. The nineteenth century was a period of Classical Liberalism typified by flourishing economic and political liberty, relative price stability and international peace, supported by a burgeoning economy. But the 20th century abandoned the tenets of Classical Liberalism. Partly for that reason, individual liberty, equality and economic freedom diminished as dictatorship, war and depression left the world disillusioned with the promise of liberal ideals.

The fundamental issue is the dichotomy between individualism and collectivism, between freedom and obligation. And as contemporary liberalism and conservatism diverged from their parent ideology and the bedrock of first principles, they quickly devolved into sociological constructs subject to sentiment. So, need becomes a claim. To the communists, the needs of the proletariat becomes a claim against every individual. And to the designers of the welfare state, the needs of society writ large become a claim. The underlying implication is, to varying degrees, that individuals are indebted to the state.

But that’s antithetical to our Lockean constitution: governments are both created and dissolved by individuals.

The import at the heart of the dizzying political landscape is recognizing that the growth of populism is a product of ever greater paternal intervention. As government encroaches on the market, distortions weaken the economy—the foundation that supports our political infrastructure. And, the degree to which a society enjoys political freedom is the degree to which the economy can act as bulwark against political power. Without economic freedom, political freedom cannot survive.

President Trump, like all politicians, makes promises. And, like all politicians, he is vulnerable, fallible: In a word, human.

The world is changing. That’s nothing new. It’s always in flux. And while the liberal order is fraying at the ends, for better or worse, it’s a mistake to claim that the problem is insoluble. To claim that humans cannot overcome the lesser angels of our nature belittles the tenacity of the intellectual giants who entrusted us with the tools to check political power.