In the recent political upheaval, there is much confusion and consternation over political labels. The classical liberals don’t like the progressives, who don’t like the conservatives, who don’t like the libertarians, and then there are the neoliberals who nobody seems to like (or truly understand). But exactly what ideology do these all these labels describe, and do some of them actually have more in common than they think? In describing these various labels, I will show that most of these labels are mostly redundant, and that their various adherents actually have a common cause.
Classical liberalism once simply known as liberalism, is a political philosophy grounded in liberty. It is the idea that the government’s duty is to protect the liberty of its citizens, i.e. to protect them from tyranny. Core to classical liberalism is the idea that each citizen is endowed natural rights, not by the government, but by their Creator, meaning the government, or any man, cannot take them away. The concept of natural rights has been around since classical antiquity, but it wasn’t truly explored and codified until John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, where he asserts that all men have a right to life, liberty, and property. Locke’s ideas were a major influence on the American Founding Fathers, who crafted the U.S. Bill of Rights around the idea of natural rights. Classical liberal is the parent ideology of most of the rest of the ideologies on this list.
Progressivism is, as its name suggests, is a political philosophy centered on the idea of progress. It is the idea that the government’s primary duty is to advance civilization; protecting rights come secondary, as they may be sacrificed for the “greater good.” Theodore Roosevelt, one of the first and most celebrated Progressive Presidents, said this in his New Nationalism speech in 1910:
“The object of government is the welfare of the people. The material progress and prosperity of a nation are desirable chiefly so long as they lead to the moral and material welfare of all good citizens.”
It is a departure from liberalism: a liberal government’s aim is to simply protect its citizens’ rights, but progressivism charges government with the duty to create a better world, otherwise known as utopia. The ideology of modern American liberals descends from progressivism, not from the classical liberalism of the Founding Fathers. In the 1930’s, to make government interventions into the economy more palatable to Americans, progressives co-opted the term “liberal,” often justifying it by asserting that a man cannot be truly free if he is financially destitute, so government must redistribute wealth to make men free. Due to its utopian nature, progressivism has made common cause and has been combined with other utopian ideologies such as eugenics, fascism, and Marxism.
Libertarianism in America is a political ideology which wishes to reduce the size of the state. In some cases, as with the anarcho-capitalists, they wish to abolish the state altogether. Libertarians use as the moral basis of their ideology the non-aggression principle, commonly referred to as the NAP, which asserts that the initiation of the use of force is illegitimate. This serves as a distillation and an internalization of the concept of natural rights from classical liberalism. The difference between the NAP and natural rights is that many argue government is not necessary to prevent people from violating the NAP, and many argue any government by definition violates the NAP, as it needs taxation to function, which is the forceful confiscation of property. Libertarians are perhaps more well known for making the practical case for small or no government: the works of free-market economists such as those from the Austrian School of Economics including Ludwig Von Mises, Freidrich Hayek (whose opus, Road to Serfdom, should be required reading for everyone, by the way), and Murray Rothbard all make powerful cases against strong governments by showing ways they impede economic growth (and pervert morals).
Neoliberalism is a term used to describethe political philosophy Milton Friedman espouses in his book Capitalism and Freedom. Neoliberalism and neoliberals, are boogeymen to both the left and the right. To the left, neoliberals are warmongering corporatists who support dictators like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. This view is promoted by Naomi Klein in her book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. To the right, neoliberals are globalists who support a one-world government. Who is right? Here is what Milton Friedman himself actually said, from the introduction of Capitalism and Freedom:
“I’m not a Conservative, a conservative is someone who wants to keep things the same as they are, I am a liberal in the truest essence of the word. The modern liberal is only liberal with other people’s money. The word liberal, means of and pertaining to freedom, a true liberal is somebody who believes in freedom.”
Essentially, Friedman wanted to reclaim the world “liberal” from the progressives. We can safely say that neoliberalism and classical liberalism are the same ideology, though it is easier to ascribe spooky connotations to the former.
Conservatism is a political philosophy based around conserving something from the past, namely tradition, institutions, and culture. In Europe, conservatives are typically big-government, as what they’ve traditionally sought to conserve are institutions like strong monarchies. In the United States, however, conservatives seek to conserve the principles of the founding fathers, i.e. classical liberalism exemplified by the U.S. Constitution. This is why most conservatives in the United States support small-government policies.
Many self-described libertarians and classical liberals recoil from the term “conservative” because of its connotations with the neoconservatives (commonly known as neocons, big-government hawkish republicans such as the Bushes) and Christianity. The conservative connection to neocons is unfair: neocons are another modern iteration of progressives and only actually get lumped in with conservatives because they share a political party, the GOP. However, it is true that conservatives are more religious than other political groups and that is in large part due to the fact that Christianity is a traditional part of the American culture that conservatives seek to conserve. In my opinion, it is also in large part due to the “Creator” which endows Americans their “inalienable rights” in the founding document of the country. Because conservatives wish to preserve and follow the constitution and are concerned with individual liberty above all else (in most cases), we can safely say that American conservatives are classical liberals.
It is important for classical liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and neoliberals (if there are any out there) to realize that they are all merely different flavors of the same ideology. They have a common cause to reduce the size and scope of government, and if any of these groups are to be successful it is important that they stop dividing themselves and endlessly labeling one another.