The word “liberal” is often flung as an epithet, but it encapsulates ideas that even most conservatives embrace. (More)

What’s in a Name? Part I: Liberal

This week Morning Feature explores the terms “liberal” and “progressive,” and why they are not merely synonyms. Today we begin with the history and core tenets of liberal ideology: liberty, equality, and the social contract. Tomorrow we’ll look at the history and development of the progressive movement: the rise of science and the search for effective solutions to societal challenges. Saturday we’ll conclude with how “liberal” and “progressive” overlap, and how they differ.

Contested Concepts

Although I’ll cite sources in these essays, I do not presume to declare The One True Definition for either “liberal” or “progressive.” No such definitions exist, as both “liberal” and “progressive” are what philosopher and political scientist W.B. Gallie called contested concepts:

… concepts the proper use of which inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of their users [that] cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic alone.

Simply, people disagree about what “liberal” and “progressive” mean, and none of us can prove that his or hers is The One True Definition. As a result, we often avoid the discussion entirely, assuming others understand a contested concept to mean what we intend, while they assume we understand those words to mean what they intend. More recently, cognitive linguists have explored contested concepts in the context of frame semantics:

The crucial intuition of frame semantics is that words are defined relative to a frame, and highlight certain other concepts and structures of the frame. The word “cost”, for example, is defined relative to the COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION frame, and highlights the PRICE paid by the BUYER for the GOODS. [Original emphasis.]

That is, we define words relative to other ideas that come to mind when we hear, read, or think about them. Those other ideas form the “frame” within which we find meaning for a word. Both “liberal” and “progressive” exist in the POLITICS frame and – in the U.S. – both imply opposition to “conservative.” Add to that the fact that conservatives have for decades used “liberal” as an epithet, and many people have come to believe that “progressive” is simply a euphemism for “liberal.” But those two terms have different histories and hallmarks.

From Divine Right to Social Contract

The history of liberalism arguably extends to the birth of democracy in ancient Athens, but most historians point to its rise as part of the Enlightenment. For millenia, the prevailing view held that leaders ruled by divine right, that this was an inherited privilege, and that others in society inherited different sets of duties and privileges, with the duties and privileges for each class defined by religious dogma. Your father was a peasant, thus God intended you to be a peasant, unless you do something exceptional and the local lord promotes you, in which case that too was God’s will. And if your life as a peasant seemed unbearable, a local priest might remind you that God will reward your faithful obedience to the local lord … after you die.

Among the first to challenge that was John Locke who proposed the concept of the social contract. In Locke’s view, leaders held office not by divine right but by the consent of the governed. In a very practical sense, you were the local lord because your people had not (yet) risen up in rebellion. If you wanted to keep your lofty perch, you should keep them happy, or at least docile.

But Locke took that a step further. Keeping your people content was not simply a practical interest (to avoid rebellion) but a contractual duty. The people agreed to obey your laws, but only if your laws also served their interests. If your laws served their interests, then breaking a law broke the social contract and you had a right to punish that person. Conversely, if your laws did not serve the people’s interests, you had broken the social contract and no longer had a right to rule.

Liberty and Equality

Locke’s social contract remains a hallmark of liberal ideology, largely unchanged since from his original concept. But two other Enlightenment-era liberal hallmarks – liberty and equality – have changed dramatically.

In its original formulation, liberty meant simply freedom from unreasonable interference in pursuing your goals, what theorists now call negative liberty. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with theorists like John Rawls, liberty came to also include having access to the basic resources needed to pursue your goals, what theorists call positive liberty. For example, negative liberty says that other people should not unreasonably interfere with your dream to become a doctor. Positive liberty adds that you should have access to at least a basic education, so that you can pursue your dream to become a doctor, if you have the talent and commitment to follow through.

Similarly, the concept of legal equality was at first still embedded in class hierarchy. An adult male peasant should have equal rights and duties under the law, as other male peasants. Female peasants and children had different rights and duties, as did the aristocracy. The English right to a “jury of peers” meant a panel of jurors from your social class. Thus could Thomas Jefferson boldly write “all men are created equal” … while owning slaves and accepting a society where women were little more than chattel.

In the centuries since, and particularly in the 20th century, the liberal concept of equality began to reject class- and gender-based distinctions. Rawls’ idea of positive liberty – access to the basic resources needed to pursue your goals – also added the concept of equality of opportunity.

Yet contrary to conservative talking points, the liberal concept of equality has generally not included “equality of outcomes.” Locke’s social contract implies that some people will pursue and achieve positions of leadership, and that they have the authority to make laws, subject to terms of the social contract. Alongside that runs the liberal idea we should reward excellence to encourage others toward excellence. The debate among liberals has more often focused on how we identify “excellence” – does mere wealth prove excellence? what roles to luck and social status play in success? – than whether excellence should be rewarded.

Of course this is only a thumbnail sketch of the history and hallmarks of liberal ideology. The key, for purposes of this week’s discussion, is that liberalism is a set of ideals. As we’ll see tomorrow, the progressive movement emerged as a search for solutions to the challenges of meeting those ideals.


Happy Thursday!