What Is Liberalism?

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Kyle Williams
05/30/2010
Composition II
Thomas Zimmerman

liberalism: the quality or state of being liberal, as in behavior or attitude As the non-committal dictionary.com definition above suggests, the term “liberalism” is an elusive term to define. Whose faces are attached to the term? John F. Kennedy? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Barrack H. Obama? Does it evoke thoughts of the New Deal, Civil Rights, and Environmentalism? Or is it to be associated with James and John Stuart Mill, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and laissez-faire style economic policies? Without clarification, making reference to liberalism can be misleading. In this examination of the term, an attempt will be made at shedding some light on the origins of and the different meanings of the term liberalism. Milton Friedman, an influential economist and former advisor to President Reagan, had a laissez-faire view of economics and politics. He distinguishes between the “19th century Liberal” and the “20th century Liberal”. In the introduction to his book, Capitalism and Freedom, he makes clear the distinction and in trying to find a “convenient” brand to his viewpoints, he claims that, “the rightful and proper label is liberalism.” According to Friedman, the change in meaning of the term came around the same time as the Great Depression, and in economic policy came to be associated with reliance on the government. In criticism of those that assumed the title, he wrote: “The 19th century liberal regarded an extension of freedom as the most effective way to promote welfare and equality. The 20th century liberal regards welfare and equality as either pre-requisites of or alternatives to freedom.” Friedman was an individualist, free-market advocate, and his political philosophy and personal character can be better understood by this rebuttal to John F. Kennedy’s famous inauguration speech: In a much quoted passage in his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can...
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