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One of the more frustrating aspects of American politics is our misuse of ideological labels, including the tendency to reflexively refer to everyone on the political left as "liberals" even when they hold views bearing little resemblance to liberalism, properly defined.

The idea that everything on the left is "liberal" is inherently nonsensical, suggesting that among the most liberal societies on earth were Stalin's Soviet Union and Chairman Mao's China.

In reality, the "classical liberal" tradition developed out of the ideas of David Hume, Adam Smith, John Locke and the broader European (more precisely, Scottish) Enlightenment. It decisively influenced the American founding and guided the spread of freedom and self-government to all points of the globe, defeating illiberal challengers like monarchy, fascism and various strains of communism along the way.

The movement away from this form of liberalism in the first nation founded explicitly upon liberal principles has been a gradual one, but has now produced what is in many ways the antithesis of the original thing.

The differences can be seen along four key dimensions:

• In views of freedom and equality. The quintessential classical liberals, the American founders, considered "liberty" to be the highest political value, defined as the right of people to live as they pleased so long as they respected the right of others to do the same.

Contemporary liberals place much lower emphasis upon such a form of freedom, preferring to subordinate it to newer, more radical conceptions of equality. Although classical liberals insisted upon equality before the law and in terms of rights, today's liberals increasingly embrace equality of outcome or result drawn from socialist rather than liberal thought.

In many ways, the more free the society the less "equal" it becomes, at least in terms of the forms of equality most valued by the left.

• The role of government/the state. Whereas classical liberalism was distinguished by efforts to diffuse political authority and thereby limit the power of the state (in order to prevent the kind of tyranny that threatened liberty), contemporary liberals wish to centralize political power in order to pursue increasingly egalitarian policies.

The "natural inequalities" which the founders saw as the inevitable consequence of the exercise of freedom are for contemporary leftists to be eradicated by abridging freedom, even if doing so removes the constraints upon state power historically undergirding liberalism.

• In attitudes toward private property and capitalism. Classical liberals felt that the protection of private property, the essence of what Karl Marx called "capitalism," was crucial to liberty. In James Madison's formulation, the protection of such property, which flowed from the inevitable diversity of human ambitions and "faculties," was the "first object of government."

For the contemporary left, such property rights present an obstacle to the desired redistribution of wealth by an all-powerful state. The pursuit of equality of result/outcome thus requires the replacement of market economic arrangements with collectivist and statist approaches.

• The basis of rights. For classical liberals, "unalienable" rights inhered in us by virtue of our shared humanity, not as members of groups based on race, ethnicity, or gender. The very notion of "group rights" was thought to be an illiberal derivative of pre-liberal feudalism with its rigid class hierarchies.

Ironically, given the historical role that liberalism played in replacing group with individual rights, contemporary liberals now assign rights and opportunities for political participation purely in terms of such "group" identity and membership.

For the "intersectionality/identity politics" left, rights are granted or (withheld) not to individuals but according to the degree to which they can demonstrate membership in the right racial, ethnic, or gender groups along precisely the kinds of rigid hierarchies that once characterized medieval life; with "right" defined by their capacity to claim victim status at the hands of the "patriarchy" or "whiteness."

Race, ethnicity and gender determine political status because everything else in life is assumed to be determined by race, ethnicity and gender.

These inversions of classical liberalism help us to explain much about the contemporary left, including its rejection of due process and presumptions of innocence (the Kavanaugh hearings), the discarding of constitutionalism ("living constitution" jurisprudence, which is actually little more than a grant to impose leftist values without formal constitutional amendment), and the embrace of the "administrative state" (with roots in the progressive vision of impartial "experts" managing an increasingly complex society, and which endorses centralized power without accountability).

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, leftists have now abandoned the core liberal principle of freedom of speech and expression enshrined in the First Amendment, even to the point of demonizing those who support it as defenders of "hate."

But enforcing speech codes, silencing dissent by "de-platforming" speakers, and imposing rigid forms of (leftist) orthodoxy under the guise of political correctness doesn't come from liberalism. They come purely from totalitarianism.

The problem with contemporary liberalism isn't just that it isn't very liberal, but that it also represents in so many ways everything liberalism opposes.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 12/03/2018

Print Headline: Our illiberal liberals

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  • GeneralMac
    December 3, 2018 at 10:02 a.m.

    Great column.

    It will go right over the head of the "usual suspects".

  • Packman
    December 3, 2018 at 10:26 a.m.

    Hats off the Dr. Gitz for an enlightening history lesson on liberalism. The best example is the 1A and the left's insistence of stifling "hate speech" so long, of course, as the left gets to define that particular form of speech.

  • Delta123
    December 3, 2018 at 10:34 a.m.

    My favorite “liberal” notion, stated right here in this comment section, is that only white people can be racist.

  • RobertBolt
    December 3, 2018 at 10:58 a.m.

    Fortunately, the strawman fantasies of wingnuts serve as amusing prattle but have no definitional value.

  • hah406
    December 3, 2018 at 11 a.m.

    I agree it is a very good column, especially on equality. I absolutely espouse the need for equality before the law, and equal opportunity. However, there is no way that we can or should strive for equal outcomes. Outcome is determined by the individual if the first two equalities are in place.
    I do find it enlightening that Gitz talks about liberals today wanting to centralize political power, in light of the fact that Trump speaks more like a dictator who wants all power to be his.

  • GeneralMac
    December 3, 2018 at 11:24 a.m.

    Over 200 professors/educators at Univerty of Missouri signed a letter in support of that female , liberal, carrot cuff professor.

    The letter stated..." Her freedom of speech allows her to squelch others' freedom of speech"

    Liberals are so tolerant !........SARC

  • Dontsufferfools
    December 3, 2018 at 11:43 a.m.

    The problem I see with a society built on the rights of the individual to do what he wants as long as he respects the rights of others to do what they want, is what do you do when you need a couple hundred thousand troops to fight the British, or WWI, or WWII, or China in N. Korea? I guess it means only those who agree to serve, serve, right? Sometimes being a member of society means you give up certain rights to gain other rights and privileges. As for identity politics, the left defends gays when they are attacked by the right, or women when the right would strip them of rights, or immigrants when neo-Nazis demagogue on them. It's generally the right that drags identity politics into the political marketplace, and it's the left that responds to these attacks on, well, liberalism.

  • Packman
    December 3, 2018 at 11:54 a.m.

    Hey GenMac - And Rider University refuses to tolerate Chick-fil-A in the name of tolerance. If nothing else, modern day liberalism is the epitome of hypocrisy.

  • mozarky2
    December 3, 2018 at 12:27 p.m.

    robertbolt, can you point out any fallacies in Gitz' column?
    Didn't think so...

  • Pobucker
    December 3, 2018 at 12:40 p.m.

    Professor Gitz should publish more of these lessons.
    Slak says, "Proglib." The Professor corrects him with "...contemporary liberalism..."
    Hell yeah! It's Conlib for sure! LOL.
    Yesterday, the Conlibs announced their latest plan to fundamentally change America. The Conlib speaker, Nancy P, stated she supported the plan as long as she was in charge.
    Sounds right, doesn't it. You know exactly what the hell that is on so many levels, lol! Conlibs.