What do modern and classical liberals share?
A lot of conservatives are saying that even the word “liberal” is an insult. They think it’s an insult not because it makes liberals look bad. Instead, they say it’s an insult to conservatives because the classical meaning of liberal is actually somebody who wants less government activity in everyday life. They would be absolutely correct because when you look at classical liberals like Adam Smith, for example, they believe in less government interference and more open platforms. They believe in comparative advantage which is made manifest through free trade and free flow of goods and services.
Modern liberals, on the other hand, believe that the state is necessary to make the future happen. The modern state is needed as the collective recipient of all of America’s great resources to solve problems in people’s daily lives. Whether it means making sure that babies don’t go hungry at night or people from other countries without proper immigration documentation not being kicked back out into the cold or Muslims being treated fairly, liberalism looks at the government as the solution.
Conservatives and other self-proclaimed heirs of classical liberals take a completely different position. In fact, it’s a black and white position. It’s the polar opposite. They go 180 degrees the other way. In their view, government is the problem. This is not just a summation, mind you. This is an actual quote from one of modern conservatism’s biggest heroes, Ronald Reagan. He said that oftentimes government is the problem.
Of course, the government is the problem only if he is looking at costs. But he doesn’t look at the meaning of that cost. He doesn’t look at the fact that somehow someway America at least made inroads in fixing the problem because the alternative is simply unconscionable and unacceptable. What is this conservative alternative? It never really changes. It is the same now as it was in the past. So, what is that decision? What is that policy, prescription and recommendation? Very simple. Do nothing.
That’s the big conservative contribution to American historical progress. They provided that non-answer during the height of the Civil Rights movement. That’s right. When police dogs were biting the legs of peaceful Civil Rights marchers, they said do nothing. They provided the same non-answer during the labor disputes of the 1930s. When vast armies of laborers who just wanted to be paid a fair wage were manhandled, beaten or even shot at by the goons of business owners, conservatives were there with their ready answer: do nothing. When America was forced to make a decision to enter World War II or to stay out, the conservatives were ready, eager and able to say do nothing. We cannot go back to that attitude.
Modern and classical liberals do share one thing in common. Government can provide and answer. The problem is whether they would like the answer or not. Classical liberals would say no. Modern liberals have to say yes. The reason why we have to say yes is because this is what experience has taught us. It may not be a preferred answer. It may not be the ideal answer. Definitely, it may not be least costly alternative but we have to do it because doing nothing is not an option.
That is the big difference between modern and classical liberals. We still share one narrow point but the difference really is like day and night. Please keep this in mind because there are all sorts of lies being peddled out there but the choice now has never been more stark than at any point in US history. The effects of such choices are more monumental now than ever.
So, we need to choose wisely. We know where the future lies and it is not in the past. It’s not in doing nothing. It’s not in the narrowness and superficiality of easy solutions. Conservatives is only good at predicting today’s winners but that’s what’s so awesome about liberalism. It’s open-minded and optimistic enough to focus on winning future victories for those left behind.