History: By the 17th century, events such as the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and England's Glorious Revolution had given rise to a new ideology that prized the rule of law over absolutism in government. Championed by the philosopher John Locke in his 1690 work Two Treatises, this movement, which would come to be known as "liberalism," insisted that private individuals had a fundamental right to life, liberty, and property. "Liberals" were thus people who opposed tyranny, defended individual liberties, and pushed for the expansion of civil rights, free markets, and free trade. The American and French Revolutions, so different in other ways, both shared the goal of freedom from governmental coercion and other external restraints. By the time of the Great Depression, however, political and economic theorists were insisting on increased involvement by the state. The economist John Maynard Keynes, in particular, argued that the free-market system was no longer viable, prompting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to launch the New Deal—so-named in part because it represented a departure from classical liberal thinking. Roosevelt's new "social liberalism," as it came to be called, sought more governmental involvement not only in economic matters, but in any area favorable to progress, reform, or tolerance. By 1960, when President John F. Kennedy described a liberal as "someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, [and] someone who cares about the welfare of the people," the term "liberal" had come to have nearly the opposite of its historical meaning.
Etymology: The word "liberal" is derived from the Latin word liberalis, meaning "courteous, generous, gentlemanly." The term was incorporated into Old French in the late 14th century, where it similarly meant "befitting free men, noble, or generous." It entered the English language in the early 15th century, first meaning "free in bestowing" and then later taking on negative connotations with the definition "free from restraint in speech or action." Shortly after the Enlightenment, "liberal" became again a positive description of someone who "tended in favor of freedom and democracy," and by 1823 it meant "free from prejudice in favor of traditional opinions and established institutions." In England just 83 years later, however, a political faction culled from Radical and Whig elements and calling itself the Liberal Party was elected to Parliament and began establishing the British welfare state. Consequently, when the New Deal was instituted in 1933, there were already some who were using "liberal" to mean "favorable to government action to effect social change." The enormous popularity of Roosevelt resulted in a large number of ideological converts, and by the 1960s the new "social liberal" had become a permanent component of the world political scene.
Effect: The irony here is obvious. Where liberals once feared big government, finding it a threat to freedom, today they believe that it is the solution to most economic and social problems. In itself, this conviction, while naïve, is not the worst viewpoint ever to come down the political pike. When combined with the modern liberal commitment to tolerance, progress, and reform, however, it represents a serious challenge to liberty. Modern governmental intrusions into marriage, religious expression, life issues, and other matters are all predicated upon the belief that one of the purposes of government is to enact social change. Of course, the nature of that change—increased moral relativism under the guise of compassion and broadmindedness—is likewise determined by today's liberal policymakers. Perhaps this is why the American political commentator Thomas Sowell describes liberalism as "totalitarianism with a human face." A far cry from their 19th-century namesakes, not to mention from the very meaning of their shared moniker, contemporary liberals would gladly use the government to curtail any freedom that stands between them and their progressivist agenda. •
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