Liberals? That’s the last thing they are

May 8, 2018 by

by David Kurten, TCW:

Liberal is one of those words whose meaning has morphed into the exact opposite of the original. Just as those who grew up in the eighties and nineties may remember using the word ‘wicked’ to describe something innovative, exciting and worthy of hyperbolic praise rather than something evil and diabolical, so ‘liberal’ has come to mean ‘illiberal’.

It wasn’t always thus. Liberalism, in its 18th century day, meant freedom of conscience and religious belief, and the freedom to use one’s own intelligence and reason to discuss and debate openly and freely in the Socratic tradition. We still speak of living in a liberal democracy, where there is freedom of speech and thought, people may trade or not trade as they see fit without interference by the state, and all are equal before the law.

The British tradition of law is inherently liberal in its true sense: everything is permissible unless it is specifically prohibited. This is the opposite of the Napoleonic code from which European law stems, where nothing is permitted unless the state has passed a regulation to allow it.

British classic liberalism – democracy, free speech and equality before the law – is something to be cherished and conserved. If it is eroded and dissolved, it will not easily be re-created. Some of the confusion as to what liberalism actually is arises because the 18th century Enlightenment, in which reason and free thought were encouraged, followed very different paths in Great Britain and France. Indeed, it could be argued that there were two enlightenments.

In Britain, it was guided by conservatives such as Edmund Burke, who were grounded in Judaeo-Christian belief and culture. In France, it was both an economic and a cultural revolution. The economic aspect is clear: the proletariat rose against the bourgeoisie and took power, but the key cultural aspect of this revolutionary ‘enlightenment’ is often overlooked: secularism overthrew Christianity.

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