All Commentary
Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Who Is a Liberal?

Calling Someone a Liberal Does Not Make it So

Liberals have it tough. I mean the real liberals. Not the modern watered-down socialists who call themselves liberals, but real, honest classical liberals. There is so much confusion over the term “liberal,” and real ones have allowed fake ones to get away with this subtle destruction of the language.

Recently I was reading two different books from two different perspectives. One was J. Salwyn Schapiro’s Liberalism: Its Meaning and History,1 and the other was the Suicide of the West by the conservative writer James Burnham.2

I would assume that both these men were highly intelligent and that they wouldn’t allow this purposeful distortion of the meaning of “liberal” to continue. I at least expected they would acknowledge how the term had been distorted and then explain what liberalism actually stands for. But they didn’t. In fact, both of them supported this destruction of meaning.

After listing the libertarian principles of liberalism, Schapiro spoke of the evolution of liberalism into something entirely different. His readings on liberalism include works by Hegel, Bismarck, and Franklin Roosevelt. Schapiro seems to assume that simply using the label “liberal” is enough to make one a liberal. If a farmer had a herd of goats and named them Fido, Spot, and so on, these goats wouldn’t suddenly become dogs. Yet Schapiro includes anti-liberals as liberals because these opponents of liberalism used the name to disguise their illiberal programs.

Burnham was even worse. His book is supposed to be a classic of conservative thinking. If this is true then I had no idea how bad conservative thinking is. Burnham argued that we can’t know what liberalism is until we know who is liberal. He didn’t mean who originated liberal thinking and what principles they held. He meant who was called a liberal at the time he wrote his book.

Behold his logic: “The plain common-sense fact is that everybody knows Eleanor Roosevelt was a liberal, just as everybody knows that Fido, who runs around the yard next door, is a dog. We all know that Mrs. Roosevelt was a liberal even if we have no idea what liberalism is. Whatever liberalism is, she was it. That’s something we can start with” (pp. 28–29).

But neither Fido nor Eleanor was the first in their class. The category “dog” and “liberal” existed before either of them. And those categories had specific definitions by which both Fido and Eleanor could be judged. Let us assume that Fido had long skinny legs and a long neck, which was used to reach leaves from the top of trees. If I told you he was yellow and brown and spotted, you might point out that I’m not describing a dog at all but a giraffe. And calling that giraffe “Fido” won’t change a thing.

Burnham seems to have had things backwards, and he calls this common sense. Fido is a dog because everyone knows he’s a dog and not because he meets some objective criteria. And the illiberal Eleanor Roosevelt was a liberal simply because everyone knew it. Burnham then listed an honor roll of illiberal liberals to support his Roosevelt thesis. This is followed by his announcing that there are no clear-cut principles on which to pin the term “liberal.” Thus it’s a fluid term, but he had another common-sense way to decide who is or is not liberal.

Burnham listed 39 statements and said that liberals will agree with “every one, or very nearly every one” of them. A good conservative, of course, will disagree with nearly every one of them. But Burnham failed to recognize that many true liberals would probably agree with about half of his sentences.

Earlier in his book he said that a good nonliberal professor was Milton Friedman, though Friedman calls himself a true liberal. To judge Burnham’s test for accuracy, I examined the statements from Friedman’s point of view as best as I understand it. A few of Burnham’s statements are confusing and hard to answer. But I calculate that Friedman would agree with about 15 of the statements. Yet as a nonliberal he was supposed to disagree with the overwhelming majority. There was something clearly wrong with Burnham’s thinking.

Freedom of Speech

Burnham, for instance, lists several statements that imply that liberals support freedom of speech and conservatives oppose it. Burnham’s conservatives would oppose the following (pp. 40–42):

  • freedom of opinion and expression;
  • freedom of thought and conscience;
  • equality of political rights without distinctions such as sex, race, color, birth, status, social origin, and so on; and
  • respecting the religious beliefs of others.

And Burnham had good conservatives supporting the following:

  • some racial segregation and discrimination;
  • political, economic, or social discrimination based on religious belief;
  • using “methods of torture and physical terror” during “political or military conflict”;
  • colonialism and imperialism;
  • stripping communists of the right to express their opinions; and
  • congressional investigating committees.

This list exposes Burnham’s apparent ignorance of the tradition of classical liberalism. Burnham could not explain how many people can support free speech and oppose colonialism and torture, while still opposing mandatory unionism, socialized medicine, and equal-pay laws, also on his list. If Burnham’s framework has no room for such people, the problem is with Burnham’s framework.

He lamented that no books existed which explained what liberalism stood for “save for that one modest and rather superficial little volume by Professor Schapiro, whose name is not elevated enough to count very much on those loftier planes where our opinions are made and remade” (p. 144). Two centuries of liberal writing were ignored so that Burnham could prove his point. But even with the faults previously mentioned, Schapiro’s book gives some excellent explanations of liberal principles.

Here are some of the basic tenets of liberalism, according to Schapiro:

  • “What has characterized liberalism at all times is its unshaken belief in the necessity of freedom to achieve every desirable aim. A deep concern for the freedom of the individual inspired its opposition to absolute authority, be it that of the state, of the church, or of a political party” (p. 9).
  • “Liberalism has proclaimed the principle of equality for all human beings everywhere. It must be borne in mind, however, that equality does not mean that all have equal ability, or equal moral perception, or equal personal attraction. What it means is that all have equal rights before the law, and that all are entitled to civil liberty” (p. 10).
  • “In the liberal view the chief end of government is to uphold liberty, equality and security of all citizens.” Schapiro says that government must respect the rule of law, that all power rests on the consent of the governed, and that “liberalism has placed highly important limitations on the power of government” (pp. 10–11).
  • “Of all civil liberties, the most prized has been liberty of thought and expression” (p. 11).
  • “The stress placed by liberalism on intellectual freedom derives from the conviction that man is essentially a rational creature—not indeed that he is always reasonable, but that he has the faculty of being so” (p. 11).
  • Since liberalism was fundamentally rationalist it viewed religion from a secular perspective advocating freedom of religion but the separation of church and state (pp. 11–12).
  • Liberalism, because of its secular perspective, “adopted a dynamic view of life, envisaging progress for mankind” (p. 12).

These ideas can, of course, be found in the writings of such great liberals as Thomas Jefferson, Frédéric Bastiat, Richard Cobden, Adam Smith, John Locke, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, and others. Since it is clear that Burnham had read Schapiro, he should be able to define a liberal fairly accurately even if he had stopped reading after 13 pages.

With this in mind one can easily refute Burnham’s common-sense view. Eleanor Roosevelt did not hold to equality before the law but to equality of results. She did not advocate a limited government that had as its prime function the defense of liberty. And just because you’ve named your pet giraffe Fido that doesn’t make it a dog.

Jim Peron is executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa.


  1. J. Salwyn Schapiro, Liberalism: Its Meaning and History (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1958).
  2. James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (New York: The John Day Company, 1964).

  • Jim Peron is the author of Exploding Population Myths (Heartland Institute). He is executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa.