We Need a Rebirth of Traditional Liberalism

Why is the word liberal in liberal arts good but using it in other contexts is not?

Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman put it this way: 

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, and especially after 1930 in the United States, the term liberalism came to be associated with a very different emphasis, particularly in economic policy. It came to be associated with a readiness to rely primarily on the state rather than on private voluntary arrangements to achieve objectives regarded as desirable. The catchwords became welfare and equality rather than freedom. The nineteenth century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective was to promote welfare and equality; the twentieth-century liberal regards welfare and equality as either prerequisites of or alternatives to freedom. In the name of welfare and equality, the twentieth-century liberal has come to favor a revival of the very policies of state intervention and paternalism against which classical liberalism fought [founding fathers against England].

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

Friedman goes on to say that due to the evolution of the traditional definition, what was once known as liberalism is now better understood as conservatism. But the most important point to extract from Friedman’s teachings is that the liberal was a man who was free. And freedom was both the precursor and the key to equality and welfare.

There from the start

The doctrines of traditional liberalism or freedom were laid down in the Declaration of Independence as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the Founders fought to liberate themselves from what they perceived as tyranny and despotism against those very rights. Their grievances were laid down in the second part of the Declaration of Independence as violations against the abuse of the three powers to rule, namely: legislative, executive, and judicial. Those rights were then protected by a new document, the Constitution, to protect and promulgate traditional liberalism, or self-government, in the form of a natural aristocracy informed by moral virtue and education in a robust democratic republic where citizens had enough knowledge and wisdom to be self-governing. While the Founders did not claim to have invented these ideas, they wanted to restore the ancient principles of freedom as established in Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. 

The question as postulated by James Madison in Federalist Paper, No. 51 is still applicable more than ever today: Is there enough virtue in the people so they can govern themselves? 

If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

James Madison, The Federalist Papers, No. 51.

Absent this type of virtue, which we find ONLY in a Classical Liberal Arts education, we are left to what was feared by Alexander Hamilton and written about in Federalist 1, “It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

It’s about freedom

Jefferson wrote something similar in response to an invitation to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of the Declaration shortly before his death on July 4th, 1826. Jefferson had a deep understanding of traditional liberalism and he used the power of metaphor to emphasize the God-given right of our country’s citizens to be free and self-governing.

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. …

Thomas Jefferson, Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman

The liberal in liberal arts is not about political parties but about liberating man in the traditional sense through a liberal arts education. Thus, making him a self-governing sovereign and FREE

Traditional Liberalism unshackles man from saddles, spurs, and boots of a self-appointed bureaucratic aristocratic government that desires to own and control him.

Use your enlightenment, move into action

Revolution in Education has multiple aims, one of which is to show you that the enlightenment of your own soul and mind is in your own hands. It will not come to you without your conscious decision to move out of “the cave,” as we have previously discussed. Every step we have taken together so far is to shine a light on the importance of freedom, and the risks of allowing them to slip away without a fight. Another aim is to inspire you, once enlightened, to ensure that the next generation is as well-equipped to protect their own rights and freedoms.

It is time to reclaim, and restore, the traditional definition of liberalism. This is not as overwhelming as it sounds.  It starts with an individual, then a family, then a community, and so on. The ties between education and freedom have been built into the fabric of our country from the very start. How can we together make sure those ties, and our rights and freedoms, are as strong as ever?

Published by Dean Forman

I am co-founder and CEO of the John Adams Academies, an institution that is perhaps the most unique charter school system in America today. The Academies’ curriculum is designed to give its students an American Classical Leadership Education®. This is an education that pursues truth, beauty and goodness and turns its scholars outward in search of those whom they can serve in becoming servant leaders. This website is dedicated to sharing the concepts of an American Classical Leadership Education with its readers so that more citizens can benefit from the truth, virtue and wisdom of the past. The thoughts and opinions I share on this page are my personal views.

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