TBT #3: Modern Liberals and Classical Liberals

Liberalism. What does that word conjure up for you? More than likely you think of people with a “Change” bumper sticker on their Prius and a habit of being “tolerant” except when people believe differently than them. But that is not what the term means. Liberalism is a political philosophy founded on the principle of liberty and freedom. One has to ask if the “modern” liberal is actually an advocate of that or in fact an advocate of Statism which is always in opposition to liberty. Ludwig Von Mises in his book entitled “Liberalism” lays out the classical liberal position.


“Liberalism has always had in view the good of the whole, not that of any special group… Historically, liberalism was the first political movement aimed at promoting the welfare of all, not that of special groups.”

But when has the modern liberal actually advocated for the well being of all and not that of special interest groups? Today we see liberals advocating for fast-food workers, minimum wage, and “the other 99%”.  Henry Hazlitt, on of my favorite authors, said “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” Modern liberals never do this. They fix prices, look to the original sub group they wanted to help, see if it helped them and then move on. They never look at the broader economic field to see what their policies have done. They beg for government intervention and give government more power in order to “help” one group of people. They only look to see if that group is being serviced and never to what government is doing with the new powers they just gave it in other areas (and when they do notice abuse, they blame someone else).

Classical liberals like Bastiat were against government intervention. Mises said “Imagine a world order in which liberalism is supreme . . . there is private property in the means of production. The working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want.” Now we see the opposite view from liberals. They want a world where there is no private property in the means of production. They want the workings of the market to be highly regulated by Government. They support tariffs and trade barriers under the guise of “protecting American jobs.” And they definitely do not support men living and working where they want. So how did liberalism get hijacked by the very ideology it opposed?

There were a string of Presidents that saw Federalism as something that was in the way. They were the progressives. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are the main culprits of mixing the ideas of the progressives with that of liberals. Ludwig Von Mises said of the American Liberals:

“In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities, i.e., socialism.”

 Mises accused the socialists of hijacking label after label in his book socialism.

“The socialist movement takes great pains to circulate frequently new labels for its ideally constructed state. Each worn-out label is replaced by another which raises hopes of an ultimate solution of the insoluble basic problem of Socialism—until it becomes obvious that nothing has been changed but the name. The most recent slogan is ‘State Capitalism.’ [Fascism] It is not commonly realized that this covers nothing more than what used to be called Planned Economy and State Socialism, and that State Capitalism, Planned Economy, and State Socialism diverge only in non-essentials from the ‘classic’ ideal of egalitarian Socialism.”

So it was the socialists and progressives and fascists that have hijacked the label of “liberal.” At one time, the true liberals wanted the label back but of course that never happened. Now the term is so tainted with government and state worship I’m not sure true liberals want it back. The freedom movement advances though and new words and labels are made for those that truly believe in freedom. Libertarian, Anarchist, Voluntaryist are just some of the terms used by the freedom movement that embody the ideals of the classical liberal. Always keep in mind though when modern liberals call themselves “liberal”, they stole that term and use it inappropriately to mask their Statism.

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