How Modern Liberals Fail to Achieve Liberalism’s Potential

Liberalism as a philosophy seeks the freedom of the individual from coercion. As early as the 18th century, Liberal philosophers realized this coercion came not just from the government, but from other entities as well. Working through government, for example, large landowners could privatize commonly held land, defend it with state force, and essentially coerce those who formerly relied on it to work for them or starve. As a result, Liberals expanded their goals beyond simply removing government tyranny and towards supporting individual rights to life and liberty free of coercion by means of government provision of food, shelter, and other necessities.

Thomas Paine, for example, proposed taxing inherited property to pay for a universal income to all persons upon reaching adulthood. This, he believed, would allow them to purchase land or make other investments that ultimately made everyone in the community freer. John Stuart Mill took this further in supporting the establishment and expansion of worker cooperatives. American Liberalism followed in this vein for some time — president Truman, for example, proposed in 1948 a welfare system more sweeping, in many ways, than the one currently extant in the US.

However, Liberals today routinely fall short of the promise of the movement. This is an exploration of the some of the ways this happens.


While cannabis legalization is growing more and more accepted among Liberals, few take the next logical step: treating drug use, of any drug, to the extent that it is a problem, as a public health issue, not one of criminal law. Fundamentally, punishing an individual the ingestion of a substance into one’s body cannot be considered anything but the most arbitrary use of force and coercion — precisely what Liberalism supposedly opposes. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.”

Free movement of capital vs labor

Liberalism has long been associated with ‘free trade’ — the free movement of goods from one location to another. Modern liberals have kept up this tradition; however, they have failed to uphold it equally. While money and goods fly across borders with no great difficulty, individuals find themselves immensely constrained, filling out endless visas and applications and frequently being denied entrance regardless. To brand an individual ‘illegal’, and prohibit other individuals from hiring, selling, renting to, or otherwise economically interacting with that individual is undeniably illiberal.

Corporate Personhood

Liberalism views the human individual as the source of rights — this is how it differs from previous systems that granted ‘liberties’ based on membership in preferred groups or performance of given actions. Liberals recognize that the government needs to defend the rights of individuals. However, a corporation is not a person — it is a legal entity created by the government, and government thus enforces for it certain rights it grants individuals, to property, for example. However, these are not natural rights, and ranking them with the constitutional rights of individuals is a betrayal of the basis of liberalism: the natural born individuals, not government creations, are the primary bearers of rights.

Mass Incarceration

The right to Liberty is one of the fundamental rights laid out by one of the founders of Liberalism, John Locke. And yet the ostensibly Liberal United States denies this right to more individuals than any country in the world. Criminal justice and punishment for lawbreakers may be unavoidable, but the scale at which these are practiced in the US is truly ghastly and a betrayal of our Liberal founding.

Failure to provide for universal welfare

The question of the extent to which government ought to provide for its citizens is often seen as an open one within Liberalism. However, it ought not be. As Thomas Paine writes: “ that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.”, and that before that period, “earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.” Liberalism nonetheless calls for the defense of property, and has since John Locke, because this allows for individuals to invest into their property and benefit society as a whole.

Thus, to reconcile these two contrary positions, it is necessary for society to provide what would have otherwise been available to every individual: a living without the need to work for another. Failure to do this exposes individuals to ‘arbitrary coercion’ at the hands of those who do own property. This is clearly unacceptable to a philosophy that endeavors to eliminate arbitrary coercion as its most fundamental goal.


That Liberals in the United States have only halfheartedly pursued these goals since 1980 or earlier is a major reason for the decline of Liberalism. It has been reduced to a defense of property and trade combined with efforts to advance particular cultural and societal values. Liberalism ought instead be a robust effort to create a society composed of truly free individuals, utilizing precisely as much government force as necessary to guarantee freedom from aggression and privation, and no more.


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