The present condition of liberalism might be likened to an ill-fated ship that has lost its course and fell upon the windless doldrums of apathy. However, (classical) liberalism itself is not the cause for its current stagnation and decay.
The philosophy that has largely stood the test of time these past 400 years, owing its position at the forefront of Western political theory to the writings of such profound intellectuals as Adam Smith, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, has not been a failure. Rather, the so-called failings of liberalism lie with its very own proponents. For two and a half centuries, liberalism was defined as an ideology that celebrated self-sovereignty and what would later come to be known as laissez-faire economics. It is these very principles that guided our Founding Fathers to protect such individual liberties as speech, expression, assembly, private property and the bearing of arms, etc.
It is only in the last hundred years that liberalism has lost its true meaning and become a synonym for leftism in American politics. An incremental subjugation of individual sovereignty and the free market in the name of civil rights and social progress has chipped away at the very foundation of liberalism. Modern liberals have taken on the moniker, as they have unhesitatingly tread on the tenets of the label they so proudly bear. Meanwhile, those who actually espouse “true” aka classical liberalism have stood idly by as their rights bestowed by natural law have been eroded by this not-so-subtle subterfuge.
Hobbes, whom any well-read classical liberal is keen to quote, believed that private property was essential to liberty. His views on “absolute property” were seen as radical at the time, but men such as George Washington and James Madison saw wisdom in his words, and put to practice many of his ideas in their framing of the Constitution. Absolute property is a form of ownership without limitation.
This kind of ownership denotes that any use imaginable is licit. I am free to smash my luxury sports car with a sledgehammer or drive it into my private infinity pool. I can fill my hot tub with a $20,000 bottle of Scotch, without savoring a single-malt drop. According to an absolute theory of property, I own these things in a way that means I have a right to use them in any way I deem fit, however strong your moral repugnance at my decadence might be. It is a form of ownership grounded in a radically individualistic philosophy. For me, alone, this property exists and I, as master, may use it however I want. Any attempt to coerce me to use it otherwise is impermissible.
Locke, however, believed adamantly in teleology, the idea that property should serve a purpose. Teleology, being derived from the Greek telos (end, goal, purpose) and logos (reason, explanation). Property’s purpose is an extension of the telos of nature. The natural environment is meant to sustain humankind:
Men, being once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence.
Locke’s account of property explains how this end can be furthered and not hindered by property. By mixing one’s self, that is, one’s labor, with the natural environment, a man or woman can acquire property. This is the same kind of logic that is used to ignobly justify squatter’s rights or even, later, to allow Karl Marx to make a significant philosophical stretch in his example of a worker being alienated from his labor. Labor is a way to extend one’s self into the natural world. To take that labor without just compensation is tantamount to kidnapping a part of a person. It is abduction of the product of that labor, and, by extension, a part of the rightful owner.
Far from absolute property, Locke warned that anyone who possessed in a wasteful way “offended against the common law of nature, and was liable to be punished.” For in wasting, “he invaded his neighbour’s share, for he had no right, farther than his used called for… and [his property] might serve to afford him conveniences of life.” “Nothing,” Locke insists, “was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.” This statement, when read in secularity, as opposed to a religious context, paved the way for Marx to argue that absolute property is wasteful, which he believed was morally wrong when others would go for want. Locke is not far off from his Vatican muse, Thomas Aquinas. Thomas’ decree in the Summa Theologiae that “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.”
Hobbes, a veritable titan of the Enlightenment, dismisses in his Leviathan what he takes to be the dead-weight of teleology: “there is no such finis ultimus (utmost aim), nor summum bonum (greatest good), as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” Hobbes speaks in absolute certitudes and morality is too contested to be scientific, leading Hobbes to conclude that morality claims are nothing more than claims about desires and repulsions. The only telos, if something so meager can be called that, is that every individual is concerned with his own self-preservation. Next to Hobbes, Nietzsche appears drably unoriginal.
The Founding Fathers, having pored over these ideas and debated them at great length, perhaps predicted the rise of Marxism, and decided the potential “waste” and varied economic outcomes that are associated with absolute property were a far better risk than allowing the government to progressively belittle and delegitimize private property under the guise of equality.
In more recent years, liberals have attacked individual property through legislation which has allowed for the regulation of private property, thereby making it permissive, instead of absolute. This can be seen in examples such as over-reaching zoning ordinances, regulation of firearms and their accessories, the demonizing of offensive speech and the proliferation of licensing restrictions as a pretext to operating certain properties. But nothing has perhaps been more pivotal in the delegitimization of private property than property tax. How is any man to be truly free, beholden to none, if the very land he inhabits can be stripped away from him?
Liberalism’s fatal flaw is not in its own design, but in the lack of self-responsibility and self-reliance that is prevalent in modern society. Free markets and individual rights require that citizens take on responsibilities and actively participate in the democratic process, so as to prevent the state from encroaching upon the same due to an inability of the citizenry to take care of themselves. Governments only know how to grow, not shrink. Therefore, with every responsibility we the people shirk, the government will surely grow in order to fill the vacuum.
Neither modern “liberalism” nor conservatism meet the liberties bestowed by the philosophy of our Founding Fathers. Liberals are all too quick to sacrifice economic freedom in the name of social “progress,” and conservatives are quick to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of big business. Liberals sacrifice rights upon the altar of egalitarianism, while conservatives regulate rights in the names of morality and security. Both lead to big government, the only distinction is the path they take to achieve it. Classical liberalism could best be described as Conservatarian (Conservative + Libertarian), favoring fiscal responsibility, while solidifying civil liberties as absolutes. Moral and intellectual decay is the cause of every failed empire, but the Founders placed great faith in the American spirit, hoping that principled men would stave off corruption and decadence. May we yet prove their faith was not ill-founded, and right the ship before all that remains is the wreckage of a great experiment.