The Radical Center
Published in

The Radical Center

The Essence of Liberalism

Liberalism is the philosophy of liberty.

Why liberty?

Simply put: liberty works and liberty’s right.

Strictly speaking I could sit down now. I flew all the way here so I won’t, that would seem like a waste. So let me expand on liberalism.

I’d like to use one source to explain these ideas. I think the source a rather unimpeachable one as far as classical liberalism goes.

I’ll be preaching to you from the book of Thomas — Thomas Jefferson that is. And, for the main text, I’d like to use his stirring words from the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That when ever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it….”

Our allies on the Left love the first part of Jefferson’s sentence where he said “all men are created equal.” The egalitarian impulse is so strong many are willing to distort these words to give substance to their flimsy philosophy.

Could Jefferson have meant some sort of equal results?

Not if you take him at his own word.

He said that “A right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means by which we are endowed to satisfy those wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the equal rights of other sensible beings.”

The right to property is restricted only the equal rights of others. But is inequality of wealth a violation of equal rights?

Jefferson said it wasn’t. For instance he wrote: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.”

In his Second Presidential Inaugural Address he said his presidency promoted “equality of rights” and the maintenance of “that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry, or that of his fathers.”

In Jefferson’s view the equality of rights might, and probably would, lead to an inequality of results at the extreme, but it would also lead to general equality of results for a larger middle.

This is a point that FA Hayek made so well in The Constitution of Liberty: “It is just not true that human beings are born equal; . . . if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual positions; . . . [thus] the only way to place them in equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are, therefore, not only different but in conflict with eachother.” [p. 87]

Because there is no equality of ability, equality ofrights must lead to inequality of results.

Conversely this means to obtain equality of results a state must abolish equality in rights.

Imagine the Olympics conducted on such principles. Each runner in the marathon must finish at the same time. How? Perhaps by the imposition of added burdens on faster runners. Or maybe slow runners can use bicycles. We end up with the nightmarish society that Kurt Vonnegut described in his short story Harrison Bergeron. Vonnegut begins his story:

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than everybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the Handicapper General.”

In this foreboding future a ballet is conducted with the best dancers weighted down with lead. The intelligent wear headpieces that periodically scramble their brain waves to disturb their ability to think. The greatest crime is to be under-handicapped.

Surely this was not the type of philosophy Jefferson had in mind.

It wasn’t. Jefferson knew different abilities would lead to different results.

He was aware there were various levels of wealth and property. Left floating out of context the term “created equal” is meaningless.

But, Jefferson did not leave it floating. He immediately stated precisely what the phrase meant. It’s all part of the same sentence — “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

It was this equality of rights that Jefferson was speaking about, not equality of results.

This idea of equal rights is not hard to understand. Jefferson wrote about it often. In one letter he wrote: “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him…”

In another of his copious correspondence he wrote saying good legislation banishes “all arbitrary and unnecessary restraint on individual action” and “shall leave us free to do whatever does not violate the equal rights of others.”

In 1819 he wrote: “rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”

Note Jefferson argued these rights were part of human nature not the result of legislation at all. Governments do not grant rights. Rights precede and are superior to government.

In the Declaration of Independence he originally wrote individual rights are “inherent & inalienable.” In the editing process, through the US Congress, this was simplified. Jefferson’s idea that rights are inherent is a better way of looking at it in my view.

Human rights are human rights because we are human not because we are subjects of any state. Since we are all equally human then all human rights must be equal. This was a primary principle of liberalism. It still is. Such rights don’t end at the border, nor do they start their either!

Jefferson was arguing that rights precede the state and the justification for government — the sole justification — is it protects these pre-existing rights. As he put it “To secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men.”

Government is not there to make us wealthy. It is not there to make us nice. It is not there to educate us, feed us, coddle us, caress us, harness us, or change our diapers when we need it. It is there for one primeary reason—“to secure” the rights which all people have equally.

Jefferson then noted a truly radical principle of liberalism. Let me quote his entire sentence: “That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men — deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The old order believed what rights people held were grants given them by the King, who received his power through a Divine Right bestowed by God. Jefferson took a radical new approach. In the New World of liberal America, governments did not grant rights and did not exist because of Divine will. The source of the legitimacy of the state is the people themselves.

Each individual legitimately could defend his own rights with whatever was necessary to do so. This was the state of nature.

By creating governments men created an institution with the function of protecting their rights. That institution can’t grant rights as it has none to grant. It can only do what the individual can do. I can neither give you rights nor strip you of them. Neither can the state. Collectively we can work to protect those rights but not control the lives of others.

Jefferson spoke of the “just powers of government” which was his way of saying there are also unjust powers ofgovernment.

A just power is derived from the consent of the governed. People, not a Divine Being, are the source of the power of government. And people can only give to government what powers they themselves hold.

Now, ask yourself what rights you have? Do you have the right to ransack the library of your neighbor censoring texts you find offensive? Can you tell him what wages he must pay his employees? Do you have a right to control his love life, tell him what color to paint his house, or what values to teach his children? If you as an individual do not have such rights how can you delegate these rights to the government? You can’t.

If government derives its just powers from the governed it can only receive from them the rights they held before the government was formed. The more authoritarian-minded argue when man left the state of nature for the artificial state of government he surrendered his natural rights. Jefferson thought that a dangerous delusion. He said “the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.”

Another attempt to strip people of their rights was the argument that the rights of the collective we call society somehow were greater than the rights of the individual. This is another idea that finds much favor with both Left and Right collectivists. Jefferson said quite bluntly: “The rights of the whole can be no more than the sum of the rights ofindividuals.”

Classical liberalism today is primarily known for its advocacy of economic freedom. Yet during its infancy liberalism was most concerned with freedom of the mind. With centuries of religiously-sanctioned genocide and war fresh in the minds of the great liberals they argued only when people are free to think and to express that opinion can peace be secured.

To restrict speech in the name of peace or social harmony is to guarantee conflict. Liberals knew this.

Today, with organized efforts being made to imprison the minds of men and incarcerate their voice, it is important to see how Jefferson saw this issue.

He wrote: “[John] Locke denies toleration to those who entertain opinion contrary to those moral rules necessary for the preservation of society. It was a great thing to go so far… but where he stopped short, we may go on.” Jefferson said that God, keep in mind he was a Deist, not a Christian, “created the mind free” and that “all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burdens or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are adeparture from the plan of the holy author of our religion.”

He ridiculed rulers for “setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.”

Just in case people were unclear, Jefferson said quite bluntly: “The opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.”

The expression of even odious opinions, is not an object of the government. Why? Go back to the foundations of the liberal order to find out. No individual has the right to control the opinions of others. Thus no individual can give that right to the government. Since all government power is derived from the consent of the governed and since the governed have no such rights they can’t delegate this power to the State. Even if a majority of the people supported shackling the tongues of heretics, no such power can be granted the state because the rights of the group are merely the “sum of the rights of individuals.”

Liberals saw the moral issues of how each lives their own life as belonging to the private sphere. The public sphere were those actions where one directly violated the life, liberty or property of others. Church and state were separate because, as Jefferson put it, “the life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.” This is inherently a private concern of the individual not a public concern of the state. He said: “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself…”

Jefferson said “Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them, the rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.” “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

The mind of the individual is free to think as they wish. Each is equally free to express those thoughts. No matter how offensive That opinion “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” I have a right to my life, to my liberty and to my property. But there can be no such thing as a right to live unoffended by others. As Jefferson told the Danbury Baptists, in that famous letter where he coined the phrase “a wall of separation between Church and State, “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions…”

Jefferson was passionate about the ability of human reason, when left free, to deal with evil. When he established the University of Virginia he said that it “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

We should remember Jefferson himself was a victim of a concerted smear campaign by the authoritarians of his day. His liberalism was too much the conservatives of his day. And they were incensed when he allowed Thomas Paine, who Teddy Roosevelt infamously called a “filthy, little atheist” to stay in the White House. The conservative press smeared him with tabloid style articles. The pulpits were filled with preachers railing against Jefferson and claiming his views would destroy all civilization and were contrary to the word of God.

Yet in the midst of this Jefferson said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Of course, the opposite of Jefferson, would say the opposite of that. He would stand in his bully pulpit claiming how “fake news” should give him the power to control the media. That is what the anti-Jefferson would and does advocate.

Liberalism was first and foremost a philosophy that advocated the unchaining of the human mind. It was the right to believe and to express that belief, that compelled liberalism. The principles that justified freedom of conscience were the same principles that later justified freedom of commerce. This is why so many who damn social freedoms ultimately become blatant advocates of economic centralism and wage war on markets and free trade.

Liberals did not embrace free markets first and then attach social freedom to the mixture. It was social freedom that first compelled them and the consistency of their arguments caused them to adopt free markets in later battles.

Historians Isaac Kramnic and Laurence Moore noted this.

“We have seen that the very same people, the very same English and American liberals calling for an end to the role of the church in the state with the cry of individual freedom of conscience and a limited state, were calling for an end to the role of the state in the economy, again in the name of individual freedom. Such was the nature of the victory that laissez-faire liberalism sought and achieved. In the name of individualism and freedom, all restraint, be it religious, political or economic, was deemed tyrannical.”

These historians say that “no one better captured this moment of liberal ascendance when religious laissez-faire went hand in hand with the triumph of economic laissez-faire than Jefferson did.” (The Godless Constitution, p. 85.)

The French laissez-faire economist de Tracey, wrote: “Commerce, far from being evil, is the ‘author of all social good.’” The industrious man “does more good to humanity, often even without knowing it, than the most humane idler, with all his zeal.”

What many people don’t know is that the man who translated this free market book from French into English was Jefferson himself. He embraced markets as fervently as freedom of conscience. He told Americans: “Let the general government be reduced to foreign concernsonly, and let our affairs be disentangled from those of all other nations, except as to commerce, which the merchants will manage the better the more they are left free to manage for themselves, and our general government may be reduced to a very simple organization and a very unexpensive one — a few plain duties to be performed by a few servants.”

Liberalism means liberty in all spheres of man’s life. It includes his private and public life. In includes the boardroom and the bedroom; conscience and commerce; the mind and the market. This, Jefferson, said was the reason for limiting the power and scope of government.

This was and is the essence of the true liberal tradition.

Our one source of income remains payment or donations for the columns that you see here. Please consider either making a one time donation or a monthly donation to help sustain them. The link is below.

Your support to fund these columns is important, visit our page at Patreon.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.