PROSPECT HARBOR — Liberalism has taken a beating in recent years from both conservatives and progressives. Conservatives regard liberalism as wishy-washy; progressives see it as retarding social reform. In fact, liberalism is the ideological antecedent to both. It is also the antecedent to Black Lives Matter.

Liberalism was historically a British economic doctrine that posits freedom of commerce and a small state with minimal regulations, which makes it similar to, if not the same as, American conservatism in the pre-Trumpian era.

The Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal response gradually redefined the meaning of liberalism into a doctrine that stands for intellectual openness, equal economic opportunity for all, transparency in government, equality before the law and social tolerance of racial and ethnic difference. In this American form, liberalism became firmly attached to democratic practices already long in existence but that were nonetheless discriminatory and especially intolerant toward black Americans. Yet by linking individual liberty to notions of democracy as a public good, Americans set into place an ethos that defines what is truly distinctive about America’s governing principles.

John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher, in his famous 1859 essay “On Liberty” cleared the way for the economic doctrine to expand into a moral and social philosophy that takes democratic institutions into account. Mill asked about the legitimate limits of state (that is, government) power over the individual. The Founders of our nation had answers that would not have displeased either Mill or modern American conservatives: The Bill of Rights creates “inalienable” rights of citizens against state interference. The Founders’ presumption was that the state can become the enemy of citizens unless its power is curtailed.

But therein is the first rub. Only a small percentage of Americans were citizens in the late 18th century – white, male landowners who, not by chance, occupied the highest offices of the government and were wary of sharing their exclusive governance powers with indigenous peoples, women, blacks and immigrants. What opened the way for dispossessed persons to participate more fully in American democracy was the liberal notion that all people “are created equally.” At several junctures in our history such groups had to protest for the expansion of the franchise in order to weaken the stranglehold that governing elites had over our democracy. In several respects, today’s Republican Party’s voter suppression tactics remind us that the right to vote is a battle yet to be conclusively won for minorities.

The second rub is one that will always plague American liberal democracy: government regulations to protect individuals and groups from conditions that threaten their well-being. Liberalism demands both freedom of the individual from government intrusion and at the same time government protection against noxious social and economic ills. For instance, 200 years ago when Maine separated from Massachusetts to become a state, Maine’s new constitution regulated banks, meat processing, contagion, fences, fishing and a host of other nettlesome public practices in order to protect the citizenry. It also banned interracial marriage (a prohibition that wasn’t lifted until 1883). Today’s seat belt laws, labor laws, gun laws and so on deny some freedoms to individuals for the sake of the public good. Liberals, after all, understand that freedom for the shark means death for the minnow.

Our republic has proven its durability over 230 years, while our democracy is still undergoing transformation. Black Lives Matter reminds us how far we have come, yet also how far we have to go.

 

 


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