Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

What is Liberalism?
by Luke J. Morris

Liberalism is a political philosophy, a set of convictions about the nature of government and social organization. In its original and true form, liberalism upholds the individual’s right to his own life, liberty, and property, and his right to be free from physical coercion in his personal and economic activities. These rights are subsumed under the principle of non-initiation of force. This principle states that one may do whatever he wishes with his own person and property, as long as he doesn’t violate another’s right to do the same -- that is, as long as he does not initiate force against anyone else.

The principle of non-aggression sets strict limits on the powers of the state. The state is the ultimate coercive body in a given geographic area -- it monopolizes the use of retaliatory force. Through the law of the land, the state acts to protect the citizens within its borders from the initiation of force. In the words of nineteenth century French economist Frederic Bastiat, the state is “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.”[1] The government’s proper function, then, is to protect its citizens from force outside the country, via the military; to protect them from force within, via the police; and to protect from fraud their right of contract, via a system of courts and objective law. As political economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill says, “[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection.”[2] When the state steps beyond these bounds, it necessarily violates the rights of individuals. In a democratically organized society, this involves the majority using the machinery of the state, its laws and its weapons, to impose its will upon any minority from which it has something to gain.

In the long run, though, nobody gains by violating the rights of others. When the government imposes income taxes, welfare programs, corporate bailouts, tariffs, antitrust regulations, minimum wages, or rent controls, some people benefit at the expense of others, in the short term. However, the unseen effects of such policies are destructive to everyone -- redistributing wealth and sending false market signals diminishes productivity and decreases the total wealth in society. Progress is stilted, and we all become poorer, or at least less rich than we might have been. As economist Gene Callahan writes, “Private enterprise is fully capable of awful screwups. But both theory and practice indicate that its screwups are less pervasive and more easily corrected than those of government enterprises, including regulatory ones.”[3] Simply put, we all become better off by operating in a sphere of free action and unregulated exchange.

Economic and utilitarian considerations do not provide the only reason to support liberty, however; we find the real foundation for a liberal society in a philosophy of natural law, which bases man’s rights on his nature as a rational being. The English philosopher John Locke states that, “The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will.”[4] Thus man, by his identity as man, by his rational nature, possesses the natural right to do as he sees fit, so long as he does not trample on another’s right to do the same. What makes the classical liberal, laissez-faire capitalist system a good political ideal is not only that it allows for economic efficiency and the greatest total social happiness, but that it is necessary to the nature of man as an individual and a social being. As philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand puts it, “The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.[5] Justice lies at the heart of the liberal ideal.

Liberalism, then, is not what “liberals” and “conservatives” today might consider it to be. A truly liberal political-economic system does not involve regulations, subsidies, and redistribution programs; it is not a mixed-economy or socialist democracy in which the government controls business and personal affairs for the sake of the “common good.” On the contrary, liberalism holds that only through voluntary association and trade with others can each person create the best life for himself. The essence of it is that every person is an individual, endowed with the power to reason and create. This human nature, the actualization of human potential, demands that a man be free from the threat of physical force from others; thus man, when he associates with other men, possesses the right to have his life, liberty, and property respected. Government’s sole function is to protect that right. Our main purpose, as liberals, is to see that the government does just that -- and only that. Then each person will be free to live his life, keep his stuff, and find his own road to happiness. 

[1] Bastiat, The Law 2
[2] Mill, On Liberty 9
[3] Callahan, Economics for Real People 252
[4] Locke, Second Treatise of Government 35
[5] Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal 20

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