I’ve been examining my own political stance these days—especially since anyone who believes in personal freedom, personal responsibility, and free-market capitalism while being opposed to big government, statist solutions, and socialism is now considered by some to be a “racist, misogynist, homophobic Nazi.”1 I have decided that what I am, other than a stick-in-the-mud, Eisenhower-era Republican, is a classic liberal.
What are the principles of this kind of liberal, as opposed to the more modern kind?
First, I believe in your personal freedom as much as mine. Your rights to free expression, physical movement, occupation of space, and use of time are yours to exercise and govern, as mine are my own. The province of your right to these actions extends up to about an inch from the tip of my nose, or whatever else defines personal space in our culture. If you violate my space and my time, there will be consequences—and I’m prepared to initiate them. But other than that definition of pre-existing physical and temporal limits, I am not going to prejudge you or prescribe the limits to be placed on your speech, actions, and intentions. Go your way and don’t interfere with me, and we can be trading partners, potential allies, and perhaps even friends.
Second, I grant you provisional respect and allow for your personal dignity. In my heart, I want the world to be populated by—in that old phrase—“men (and women) of good will.” I want to live in a society where people can be—and do become—productive and self-sufficient in their lives, caring about their own and their families’ and their friends’ futures, and confident and comfortable in their own skins and with their current situations. This is not always possible—sometimes through personal frailty and failure, sometimes through societal lapses—but I want people to have this chance at personal happiness and dignity. And so, if I want the world to be like this, I must grant in my own mind that such people exist and that you may be one of them. I must refrain from prejudging you as a person of gnawing envy, grasping ambition, bad habits, faulty decision making, and other personal failings that can lead to chronic unhappiness. I leave it up to you to prove me wrong in this. Please don’t disappoint me.
Third, I grant your personal agency and responsibility for your current state of being. Unless I can see and detect some congenital or acquired disability in you, such as blindness, deafness, missing and frozen limbs, or—after five minutes of casual conversation—some deficit of wits, emotional stability, or active and inquiring mentation, I will presume that you are a fully functioning human being with two legs to stand on, two hands to shape the world around you, and a capable brain to guide them both. As with your right to freedom, I believe in your ability to live as you want and operate in the world. I would hope you will grant me the same and not wish to place barriers to my developing and exercising my full human potential.
You will note that these attitudes apply personally rather than to any group. I prefer to deal with people as individuals, unique beings, and not as indiscriminate members of a race, class, gender, or other aggregate. Economists and Marxists may prefer to deal with large groups—economists by their profession, and Marxists by their obsession—but I would rather follow the rule of Sergeant Buster Kilrain: “Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit.”2 Marxists will find this attitude hopelessly bourgeois, and so be it. I was born to the middle class and raised to be private, diligent, industrious, and resilient—not a bad way to operate and view the world, in my opinion.3
Being a rabid individualist, jealous of my rights and expectations, dealing with other people as individuals, and granting them the freedom to do and become what they want, I tend to despise one-size-fits-all prescriptions and social engineering. I understand that proponents of big government and statist solutions must, as a matter of logic and fairness, strive to treat everyone equally. And socialism by design must treat all citizens as economic cogs in the great machinery of their proposed social organization—except perhaps for those enlightened experts who are doing the designing and taking control of the command-and-control economy. While I grant that some effort must be made at social cohesion if a village, a state, or a nation is going to function, I want to see the choice to join and function—and of who will be doing the deciding—made individually and democratically. Treating people as mere numbers or as “meat robots” devalues their thinking capability and their human potential.
While I believe we should all work together as a society and function in an open economic system, I take the position that I am not responsible for your health, wealth, happiness, or well-being. That is your responsibility and not mine. If you approach me as an individual and ask for help—whether you have your hand out with a cardboard sign at a street corner, or you are wandering dazed and confused after a disaster, or you are a friend or family member in need of support—it is my choice and not my responsibility to respond positively. I am the sovereign of my time, my effort, and my purse, as you are over yours. How I choose to spend them is a matter between me and my conscience or my god—if I have either one.
Note also that these are my personal and individual guidelines, attitudes, and approaches. They are not rules prescribed for me by someone else. They are subject to revision and revocation, and I can change my mind as I see fit.4 I can be flexible without worrying about my own inconsistency, based on my previous experience with similar situations and my new experience with each person. You can’t shame me by pointing a finger and exclaiming, “Aha!”
I am not a big proponent or follower of rules and regulations, policy statements, and firm positions. I deal best with people who have and practice a personal religion but who don’t make an issue of it or expect me to believe in and follow its rules myself. I am humble enough to know that I might be wrong, and not ashamed of admitting a mistake and moving along. I trust others to have the grace to do likewise. After all, life is a still-unfolding mystery. The universe is huge beyond our wildest imagining. No one has all the answers. And we are all just finding our way.
1. And the people who believe that really ought to examine their historical referents.
2. Kilrain was a fictional character in the book The Killer Angels, later made into the movie Gettysburg.
3. As opposed, I image, to being a member of the aristocracy, expecting undue deference, and looking down on everybody else. Or a member of the proletariat, or underclass, or whatever the opposite of an aristo is, and looking upward with hatred and envy at anyone better situated, more industrious, or better educated. The middle is not a bad place to be.
4. I live by the dictum that no rule is universal; there are always exceptions; and no one rule can be tailored to fit all situations. Our minds were given flexibility for a reason.