To the modern ear, the word “liberal” is virtually synonymous with Democrat, progressive, or leftist. But this association is the result of a linguistic definitional change over decades and even centuries. The political spectrum has shifted dramatically, and as a result, the word “liberal” has just about lost its meaning entirely.
Liberalism, in its original classical iteration, represents an entirely different philosophy from the neoliberalism we think of today. Classical liberalism can be defined as a political ideology that advocates for individual freedom by limiting the power of government. This strain of thinking arose in the 17th and 18th centuries from the pens of thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, among others.
They prioritized the protection of individual rights, such as economic freedom and free speech, at all costs and saw government intervention in individual affairs as the greatest threat to liberty. As such, classical liberalism is at the very foundation of the American rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the philosophical lifeblood of a free nation.
But this aforedescribed philosophy is more reminiscent of modern libertarianism and some strains of modern conservatism than today’s so-called “liberal” ideology. As these brilliant classically liberal philosophers have taken a backseat in our culture and our classrooms, neoliberalism has betrayed the essence of its ideological predecessor.
The modern left, which tends to fall under the umbrella term “liberal,” in fact, often is the very opposite. Rather than promote economic freedom, the left favors interventionist policies, thus implying that government holds the keys to economic justice, not the individual.
Rather than promote freedom of expression, the left encourages policies that stifle debate and healthy dialogue. As champions of safe spaces and cancel culture, the left places intense social taboos and even outright bans on certain expression. In doing so, they betray the classical liberal ideal of free speech by insisting that the only protected ideas are the “right” ones.
As such, the neoliberal no longer even vaguely resembles the classical liberal. In fact, classical liberalism has been replaced by illiberal leftism. And the left’s mounting efforts to stifle freedom can only be countered by a restoration of the classical tenets of liberalism.
Anyone with an allegiance to individual freedom is, indeed, a classical liberal. And, although the illiberal left is gaining power and influence, champions of free speech, economic liberty, and the sanctity of the individual still abound.
Because such true liberals come in many shapes and sizes, classical liberalism has the power to unify across the political spectrum. There are plenty of true classical liberals on both the left and the right. While this may require that we put aside partisan differences, we most certainly should when personal freedom is at stake.
It’s perhaps more important now than ever before that we unite in reclaiming classical liberal ideals. We must fight back smarter in defense of liberty. In the words of Ludwig von Mises: “Against what is stupid, nonsensical, erroneous, and evil, [classical] liberalism fights with weapons of the mind.”
Rikki Schlott is a writer and student based in New York. As a young free speech activist, her writing chronicles the rise of illiberalism from a Generation Z perspective. Schlott also works for The Megyn Kelly Show and has been published by The Daily Wire and The Conservative Review.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.