Friday, February 12, 2010

Why Liberals Should be Liberal

What is Liberalism, anyway?

We can’t have an edifying discussion about liberals and liberalism without defining these terms, otherwise confusion could result. So I’ve looked up a couple of terms from a number of sources, and here are some definitions that I’ll use:

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of individual liberty.

Classical liberalism refers to a political philosophy that is committed to liberalism: to the ideas of limited government and liberty of individuals including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly, and free markets.

Liberal refers to a person who believes in liberalism.

These definitions fit well together. Liberalism is a belief, and classical liberalism is a political philosophy that reflects this belief. A liberal is a person who believes in liberalism, and would seemingly embrace classical liberalism as a political philosophy. But some people who consider themselves to be liberals do not embrace the political philosophy of classical liberalism. The purpose of this post is to convince them to do so.

Just to be up front about it, using these definitions I am a liberal. And my political philosophy is that of classical liberalism. Today, the term libertarianism is more often used than classical liberalism.

Also, it is very important to note that individual liberty does not mean that a person can do anything he or she wants to do. Rather it means that a person can think what he wants, and can do what he wants as long as this action does not infringe on the individual liberty of others. Usually, this means that actions that cause another person harm are not part of the concept of liberty. To put it another way, liberty implies that actions that affect others be voluntary and informed. So murder, rape, theft, and assault are not voluntary, and so violate liberty. Similarly, fraud, patent violations, and incomplete disclosure of relevant issues are a form of theft, and thus also violate liberty. On the other hand, playing football in the NFL may well cause harm, but players are playing the game voluntarily, so this would not violate liberty.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many people in America, who call themselves liberal, are, in many ways, not liberal. That is to say, they do not seem to foster individual liberty.

To give some examples, let’s first consider public education. There are two components to public education and it is important to distinguish between them. One component is that government subsidizes education. The other component is the government decides how students are to be educated. These are quite different, but frequently this difference is not made explicit.

Most of us agree that the government should subsidize education.

On the other hand, it seems to me that anyone who calls themselves a liberal would allow this government-subsidy of education to be controlled by the parents of the child getting the education. They are responsible for their children, and should be free to choose whatever school they wish for their child using this subsidy. It would be a substantial violation of liberty for a government to only subsidize the schools that it runs, for then it can teach whatever it feels is best, even if some of what is taught violates the beliefs of the parents.

One can argue that if parents don’t like their public school, they can send their child to a private school. But this is only possible if the parents have enough money to do so. In practice, this means that the well-off get to choose their child’s school, but the not-so-well-off don’t. And since we all pay for schools, all parents should be free to choose how their children get educated.

This is not the place discuss the details as to how this would be implemented, but one thing I would do would be to take all of the education money a state has collected (in Texas this is around $9,000 per student) and give parents an educational voucher worth this amount for each school-aged child they have. They can use this voucher to send their child to any accredited public, private or parochial school of their choice. The freedom to educate one’s child as parents see fit ought to be the foundation of liberalism.


Another example has to do with government spending. Virtually everyone wants government, and everyone wants government to pass laws that protect individual liberty – the right of individuals to lead their lives as they wish, as long as they allow others to do the same. At the same time, most of us do not want government to pass laws controlling what we think, we our religion should be, where we work, etc. This can be summarized by saying that we wish a limited government that protects our right to be free. And our Constitution (which includes all of the amendments to it) does this by enumerating the powers of Congress and the President.

Unfortunately, the part of the Constitution that limits what Congress can do has received scant attention for decades now. From Social Security to Medicare to laws that prohibit the use of certain drugs, the Constitution does not give Congress the right to implement these. For instance, Social Security was passed in 1935 during FDR’s administration as part of a package we call the “New Deal.” In 1937, the Supreme Court struck down many of the provisions of this package as being unconstitutional, because no authority was given to Congress to pass such laws. FDR threatened to pack the court with more Justices that he would pick, and eventually the Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that the New Deal package was constitutional. If the gentle reader is in doubt about whether these items are permissible according the Constitution, I invite him to read the enumerated powers and see if any of these are there.

This started a trend, which has been increasingly exacerbated over the decades, such that Congress essentially ignores the enumerated powers clause. For instance, you are probably aware that the Constitution was amended to prohibit the sale and use of alcohol, commonly called prohibition. Amending the Constitution was the right thing to do since Congress had no constitutional authority to prohibit the use of alcohol. It was a terrible amendment, and was repealed, of course, but at least they didn’t ignore the Constitution. Since then, Congress has passed many laws prohibiting the use of many substances. Do you remember when the Constitution was amended to allow them to do so? Neither do I.

So what are some of the results of these extra-constitutional incursions? For one, it is estimated that Social Security and Medicare are underfunded by around 50 to 70 trillion dollars! This means that the money we are currently paying for them, the FICA taxes, are not enough to cover the promised benefits by this amount. Worse, these entitlement programs, along with the interest on the national debt are expected to consume the entire federal budget within a few decades unless some drastic steps are taken. This would leave no money for the things like defense or anything else that are actually authorized by the Constitution.

Just the interest on the national debt in fiscal year 2009 was about $3,500 per family. In 2010 it is expected to be over $4,000 per family, and will keep growing each year for the foreseeable future.

What does this have to do with liberalism? To be a liberal means to believe in freedom. And you can’t be free without money. With the astounding growth of the federal government, more and more of the money we earn is being taken, and more and more is used just to pay for entitlement programs and interest on the national debt. This means that each year we are less and less free to live as we wish. The solution? Amend the Constitution to require Congress to balance the budget, and to limit its spending to, say, 20% of Gross Domestic Product. It would take time to get to do this, but once we do, we’d start being more prosperous, and thus freer than we have been for a long time.


A final example of what it would mean to be a liberal has to do with the United States becoming the world’s policemen. We have over 360,000 troops stationed in over 150 countries. I can’t even name 150 countries, but go to one of them and you’ll find American troops. What does this have to do with liberalism? It is not our duty or right to police the world. It creates enmity toward us, and likely doubles the cost of our military. We could bring our troops home, reduce their number, protect our ports and borders, train them in disaster management and emergency medical care, and give them a raise. The result is a more protected country, less enmity from others, and less defense expenditures. We would still have the best military in the world by far, and would likely be safer than we are, since many of our enemies don’t like us in their countries. At a far lesser cost, we could just do intelligence gathering overseas in order to attempt to root out those who intend to harm us. Less cost and a safer country means more freedom for us.


Those are just a few examples of what we liberals should want. One could fill a 100 gigabyte hard drive with other examples, but mine is only 80 gigabyes.

“Power to the people” is what a true liberal wants. “Power to the government” is what the communists want. And we know where that leads.


Tim Farage is a Senior Lecturer in the Computer Science Department at The University of Texas at Dallas. You are welcome to comment upon this blog entry and/or to contact him at



Albert Brenner said...

My Dear Friend,
Your definition of liberalism is spot on. However, I do not agree with your argument that government programs such as social security and medicare are contradictory to the fundamental principle of liberalism as you have defined it - the primacy of individual liberty and freedom.

I see two problems with your argument. First, the U.S. Constitution is not the perfect expression of liberalism, so I would not rely on an argument that says that something inconsistent with the Constitution is anti-liberal. We must use philosophical arguments, otherwise the Constitution will not evolve as it should. Remember, we were a nation that denied the vote to women for generations and kept more than 10% of its inhabitants in slavery and then in second-class citizenship until our lifetime.

The second problem is that the maximization of individual liberty cannot occur at the expense of that liberty. This problem is as old as democracy and has been addressed by many of the world's greatest political philosophers. I believe programs such as social security and medicare (although perhaps not in their present form) are necessary for the maximization of individual liberty. John Rawls has articulated the case for this better than anyone in A Theory of Justice or Justice as Fairness. I cannot be fair to his argument by trying to recap it here, but his argument that a liberal democracy requires the basic safety net provisions of the welfare state is an argument that must be met by any political philosopher or commentator to follow him. Agree or disagree with Rawls, there is no denying that he is probably the greatest political philosopher since J.S. Mill and one of the greatest in the history of western philosophy and politics. You must speak to Rawls' arguments before making the claim that income transfer programs such as social security and medicare are inconsistent with true liberalism.

Tim Farage said...


I pretty much agree with your comments. I do think that government-subsidized education is a good thing to do, although I would let parents decide what school to send their children to with this money.

I would also like to see basic health care for all. But there is a big caveat here. First, I'd create a health savings account for all Americans, and put around $600 per month per adult in this account. Each adult would be required to buy a high-deductible insurance policy for about half of this, leaving about $300 per month as health-care cash. Furthermore, the amount would go up with inflation, and would have to be paid for without deficit spending.

This would replace Medicare, Medicade and all other medical subsidies, and still provide people the freedom to choose their own doctor, etc.

In place of Social Security, I would require everyone to invest around 15% of their income for retirement and disability insurance. Of course, a long transition would be needed, but at least each person would own their own account, and there would be no unfunded liability.

I would have one more subsidy: a natural resource dividend that would be paid to every American adult. It would be the same idea as Alaska's Permanent Fund Dividend. I'm not sure of the amount but it would likely around $600 per adult per month.

And then I would not have any more subsidies at all.

Related to the Constitutional side of this, I would amend the Constitution to allow Congress to provide a health-care subsidy and a natural-resource dividend. I would also amend it to be able to tax the use of natural resources, and the remove the amendment that allows Congress to tax income, sometimes called "The Evil Amendment."

To be clear about my what I was trying to say about the Constitution. It is not that it shouldn't be amended, but that we should follow it as is, with the current amendments. If we wanted something like Social Security, it should have been amended to allow for it.

If we treat the Constitution as something whose meaning can change over time, that means that the Supreme Court is writing the Constitution and not interpreting it. At that point, it is virtually meaningless.

Two-Thirds of Congress, and 3/4ths of the States, made up of a bunch of white guys, voted to amend the Constitution to stop denying blacks the right to vote. And a bunch of other guys voted to stop denying women the right to vote. This was done as it should have been, and that is all I ask for the future.

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