Liberals and conservatives might both be surprised to read in the World Book Encyclopedia that “liberalism is a confusing term, because its meaning and emphasis have changed considerably over the years.” The definition of liberalism has shifted dramatically over the past several centuries. (1)
Fundamentally, liberalism is a political and economic philosophy that emphasizes freedom, equality, and opportunity. However, freedom can be understood in more than one way, with the emphasis either on freedom from specific restrictions, or emphasis on the freedom to have opportunities. (1)
The liberalism exemplified by the revolutions of the 18th century (American, French) emphasized curtailing the ability of governments to restrict the individual freedoms of citizens. In the 21st century, however, liberalism has come to mean the use of government to assure many opportunities for some citizens at the expense of other citizens.
These two perspectives on freedom are at odds with each other. The more a nation frees itself from governmental restriction of citizens, the more the number of government-created opportunities shrink. Conversely, the more government “guarantees” or creates opportunities, the more mandatory restrictive legislation (which encroaches on individual rights) must be passed.
Never has this been more obvious than in the present Obama administration. Present day liberal Democrats seem to define freedom primarily in terms of access to opportunities – such as health care, education, immigration, and sexual freedom. However, as more legislation is passed to guarantee these “freedoms,” more money must be spent, and those footing the bill become more irate and feel less and less “free.” The liberalism of 2010 boomerangs, and begins to be viewed as tyranny by citizens who must pay the taxes.
In 2010, 47% of Americans will not pay any income tax at all. These non-tax-paying Americans collect numerous benefits and are entitled to numerous opportunities. Credits for middle-income families have grown so much that millions of people earning more than twice the poverty wage pay no federal taxes at all. The remaining 53% of Americans, who are actually paying the bills for the benefits, and whose taxes are rising astronomically, feel that they have lost their freedom, the freedom to enjoy the fruits of their labor, their paycheck. Thus, the Tea Party movement is born, and citizens who were previously politically unengaged decide “enough is enough,” and band together and rebel to win freedom from excessive taxation and governmental control. Liberal attempts to increase freedom boomerang and result in decreased freedom for many, as well as encroachment on the right to own property.
Liberalism in the extreme can also encroach on freedom of religion. The bill-paying half of the American population is now forced to pay for services which they consider to be morally reprehensible — abortion, contraception, and state-mandated Planned Parenthood sex education (or promiscuity education!) in public schools. When 67% of our citizens oppose the government funding of abortion, but they are forced to pay the taxes which provide abortion for others, it becomes difficult to call this liberalism—instead, it resembles totalitarianism.
Now, it becomes the conservatives who must become the revolutionary activists and must lobby for change. They are lobbying for liberation from oppressive taxation and oppressive legislation. Thus, in 2010, the conservatives have become the new “liberals.”
This system reversal has a darker side, too – the more unrestricted “freedoms” become guaranteed for all (such as free health care), the higher the cost, and ultimately, rationing becomes a necessity, as admitted by President Obama . Ironically, the initial goal of the government health care plan was to include all, not to ration health care. But now, rationing will simply change which group must forgo health care—for example, shifting from the jobless doing without health care, to the aged forgoing health care.
Escalating costs of health care also motivate modern “liberals” to use distorted logic. The Speaker of the House recently represented abortion as cost-saving– saving the cost of birthing, raising and educating extra human beings. However, the killing of preborn humans is suicidal for our society, and extreme liberals do not seem to realize that a future without children is a future without workers and without tax revenue.
Ultimately, “freedom” is an elusive commodity, and what creates freedom in one sphere generally also reduces freedom in another sphere. It is not possible to guarantee all freedoms for all people at all times, since our freedoms impinge on each other. As the two factions of our society battle out their preferred freedoms, the pendulum of history (and of the definition of liberty and of liberalism) swings back and forth and makes adjustments.
In 2010, by my estimate, we have gone full swing.
Conservative is the new liberal!