Monday, December 27, 2010

Liberals – Philosophy part X 116

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, "of freedom") is the belief in the importance of individual liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutions, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, free trade, and the separation of church and state. These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.
Liberalism first became a powerful force in the Age of Enlightenment, rejecting several foundational assumptions that dominated most earlier theories of government, such as hereditary status, established religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The early liberal thinker John Locke, who is often credited for the creation of liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition, employed the concept of natural rights and the social contract to argue that the rule of law should replace absolutism in government, that rulers were subject to the consent of the governed, and that private individuals had a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property.
The revolutionaries in the American Revolution and the French Revolution used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of tyrannical rule. The nineteenth century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, Latin America, and North America. Liberal ideas spread even further in the twentieth century, when liberal democracies triumphed in two world wars and survived major ideological challenges from fascism and communism. Conservatism, fundamentalism, and military dictatorship remain powerful opponents of liberalism. Today, liberals are organized politically on all major continents. They have played a decisive role in the growth of republics, the spread of civil rights and civil liberties, the establishment of the modern welfare state, the institution of religious toleration and religious freedom, and the development of globalization. Political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote, "liberalism is the answer for which modernity is the question".

[Thus liberalism led to the United States of America, now the world's oldest revolutionary republic, and to the French Revolution of 1789, a failure that led to the military government of Napoleon Bonaparte. These critical revolutions of the late 18th century set the tone for the upheavals of the next century.]

Children of revolution

Liberals in the 19th century wanted to develop a world free from government intervention, or at least free from too much government intervention. They championed the ideal of negative liberty, which constitutes the absence of coercion and the absence of external constraints. They believed governments were cumbersome burdens and they wanted governments to stay out of the lives of individuals. Liberals simultaneously pushed for the expansion of civil rights and for the expansion of free markets and free trade. The latter kind of economic thinking had been formalized by Adam Smith in his monumental Wealth of Nations (1776), which revolutionized the field of economics and established the "invisible hand" of the free market as a self-regulating mechanism that did not depend on external interference. Sheltered by liberalism, the laissez-faire economic world of the 19th century emerged with full tenacity, particularly in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
Politically, liberals saw the 19th century as a gateway to achieving the promises of 1789. In Spain, the Liberales, the first group to use the liberal label in a political context, fought for the implementation of the 1812 Constitution for decades—overthrowing the monarchy in 1820 as part of the Trienio Liberal and defeating the conservative Carlists in the 1830s. In France, the July Revolution of 1830, orchestrated by liberal politicians and journalists, removed the Bourbon monarchy and inspired similar uprisings elsewhere in Europe.
Frustration with the pace of political progress, however, sparked even more gigantic revolutions in 1848. Revolutions spread throughout the Austrian Empire, the German states, and the Italian states. Governments fell rapidly. Liberal nationalists demanded written constitutions, representative assemblies, greater suffrage rights, and freedom of the press. A second republic was proclaimed in France. Serfdom was abolished in Prussia, Galicia, Bohemia, and Hungary. Metternich shocked Europe when he resigned and fled to Britain in panic and disguise.
Eventually, however, the success of the revolutionaries petered out. Without French help, the Italians were easily defeated by the Austrians. Austria also managed to contain the bubbling nationalist sentiments in Germany and Hungary, helped along by the failure of the Frankfurt Assembly to unify the German states into a single nation. Under abler leadership, however, the Italians and the Germans wound up realizing their dreams for independence. The Sardinian Prime Minister, Camillo di Cavour, was a shrewd liberal who understood that the only effective way for the Italians to gain independence was if the French were on their side. Napoleon III agreed to Cavour's request for assistance and France defeated Austria in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, setting the stage for Italian independence. German unification transpired under the leadership of Otto von Bismarck, who decimated the enemies of Prussia in war after war, finally triumphing against France in 1871 and proclaiming the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, ending another saga in the drive for nationalization. The French proclaimed a third republic after their loss in the war, and the rest of French history transpired under republican eyes.
Just a few decades after the French Revolution, liberalism went global. The liberal and conservative struggles in Spain also replicated themselves in Latin American countries like Mexico and Ecuador. From 1857 to 1861, Mexico was gripped in the bloody War of Reform, a massive internal and ideological confrontation between the liberals and the conservatives. The liberal triumph there parallels with the situation in Ecuador. Similar to other nations throughout the region at the time, Ecuador was steeped in turmoil, with the people divided between rival liberal and conservative camps. From these conflicts, García Moreno established a conservative government was eventually overthrown in the Liberal Revolution of 1895. The Radical Liberals who toppled the conservatives were led by Eloy Alfaro, a firebrand who implemented a variety of sociopolitical reforms, including the separation of church and state, the legalization of divorce, and the establishment of public schools.
Although liberals were active throughout the world in the 19th century, it was in Britain that the future character of liberalism would take shape. The liberal sentiments unleashed after the revolutionary era of the previous century ultimately coalesced into the Liberal Party, formed in 1859 from various Radical and Whig elements. The Liberals produced one of the most influential British prime ministers—William Ewart Gladstone, who was also known as the Grand Old Man. Under Gladstone, the Liberals reformed education, disestablished the Church of Ireland (with the Irish Church Act 1869), and introduced the secret ballot for local and parliamentary elections. Following Gladstone, and after a period of Conservative domination, the Liberals returned with full strength in the general election of 1906, aided by working class voters worried about food prices. After that historic victory, the Liberal Party shifted from its classical liberalism and laid the groundwork for the future British welfare state, establishing various forms of health insurance, unemployment insurance, and pensions for elderly workers. This new kind of liberalism would sweep over much of the world in the 20th century.

Now this history of the liberal philosophy is not new knowledge. There is a very straightforward, mostly English, history involved. Kings used to have “divine right,” meaning they were selected by God and could do no wrong. Even a notably “bad king” deserved the power of divine right, because he was the instrument punishing the people for disobeying God! This cozy and arrogant philosophy came under fire after the Anglo-Norman king murdered the disobedient but beloved Archbishop, Thomas a Beckett. Two score and four years later the subsequent king had to sign Magna Carta (a document which had the support of the rebellious barons and the tradespeople and even the serfs). The 1297 version of Magna Carta changed history. It also informed the archbishop, Cranmer, who officiated over the breakout of the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Cranmer was burned for his defiance of Catholic authority, but his argument has won the day, and his elegant prayers, written for the Book of Common Prayer, are still in use. Government power was further limited by the restoration of William and Mary in 1688, which was immediately followed by John Locke's political writings.

Locke's writings were the philosophical basis for classical liberalism, the American Revolution, the reworking of the Articles of Confederation into the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and the many republics created in the nineteenth century. The central notion is due process, rule of law, limited power by the central government, and representative government. The importance of a stable currency and the freedom of tradesman to invent their own contracts and market their own inventions was added in 1776 with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations.

None of the basic ideas here have been successfully refuted, either in geopolitics, economics or philosophy. The best and closest effort was probably the defiance of the South in the American Civil War, in which the southern states adhered to their constitutional right to leave the union, demanded a continuance of slavery indefinitely into the future, and established a government significantly re-inventing features of the Articles of Confederation. This effort barely failed; the North prevailed, partly by cracking and weakening its own Constitution, a series of acts which remains very much topical.

Conservatives, as has been noted in this blog in the many posts on Christian conservatism, have the basic job of conserving Locke's revolutionary ideas (which themselves were very leading-edge and profoundly unconservative at the time). However, modern American conservatives have invented preposterous fairy tales to underpin their position: the piety and almost Baptist, evangelical Christianity of the founding fathers, who themselves tended to be Lockean empiricists and anti-Utopians (especially the Virginia Anglicans so central to the revolution and Constitution). The blog author has contended that modern conservatives are dangerous to the Constitutional guarantees of the nation toward which they profess “patriotism.”

The blog author also contends that something pernicious and destructive happened to Liberalism from the mid-nineteenth century forward. That in becoming modern liberalism, it has morphed into something destructive and typically dishonest. We shall look a bit at what it says about itself and then take a look at how modern liberals talk and think when in the trenches of logical argumentation.

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