Again, we are pleased to have Dr. Thomas Krannawitter share a bit of wisdom with us.
If one takes the time to read through the speeches of FDR, one of the great rhetorical sleights-of-hand that happened during the inception of the New Deal was a re-definition of the word “liberal.”
Prior to the New Deal, “liberal” was commonly associated with the idea of “liberty.” In that sense, the American Revolutionaries proudly described themselves as “liberal” because they were united in the cause of individual “liberty.” Jefferson was a liberal. Madison was a liberal. Washington was a liberal. Their teacher, John Locke, was a liberal. During the first hundred years of American political history, with the great glaring problem of slavery aside, virtually all Americans agreed that individual liberty is not merely A good thing, but THE supreme good in the realm of politics.
And even for those who tried in vain to defend slavery as a positive good, they still had to maintain that individual liberty was good for themselves and their friends, they just did not want to extend that liberty to those who were enslaved. They stood on the contradiction that liberty is good for some while slavery is good for others, which is the core reason why that position could not withstand scrutiny. (John C. Calhoun was perhaps the most intelligent mind that tried to unite these contradictory positions, but even his arguments, brilliant as they were, fell apart under philosophic analysis — even Calhoun could not conceal completely the contradiction between liberty and slavery.)
Then the progressive moment arose and among progressive intellectuals the idea of individual “liberty” quickly became passé. In their minds, liberty became barely a good at all, and certainly far from the most important good politically. Some of them, like John Dewey, openly scolded Americans for placing too much importance on the idea of individual liberty. The innovators of progressivism were happy and quite eager to sacrifice the idea of liberty in the development of progressive American policies and American political thought. The supposed scientific government management of the economy, of businesses, of education, of health, of food production, of welfare, etc, were all seen as central to making social “progress,” and all more important than individual “liberty.” That is why the early progressives called themselves “progressive,” not “liberals.”
Like earlier apologists of slavery, progressive intellectuals and academicians were proposing a kind of slavery, only milder, more subtle, more “democratic,” more creeping and gradual and bureaucratic and less blatantly brutal. IF Lincoln was correct when he described the principle of slavery AND kingship as, “You work, I eat!”, THEN indeed the “social justice” being promoted by progressivism was a form of slavery, or kingship, or maybe both. But unlike earlier apologists for slavery, progressive thinkers did not fall into the contradiction of trying to maintain an argument for liberty and slavery/kingship simultaneously. They simply dropped the idea of liberty, and the contradiction evaporated. We see this tactic employed to this day, as those who promote more and more progressive government control over our lives simply brush off, laugh off, and dismiss any objection or criticism based on “liberty” as, well, passé — so ridiculous and so antiquated that it’s not even worth considering.
Then along came FDR and his New Deal, starting in the 1930s. FDR in a way was more politically clever than his progressive forerunners. Unlike earlier progressives, FDR knew that the idea of “liberty” remained deeply embedded in the American mind and American soul. So he took to redefining the word “liberal.” One finds the term used many times in the speeches of FDR. But when he used that word, he did not use it as a synonym for “liberty,” or individual freedom, as some inviolate principle from which all American policies should flow. Rather, he used “liberal” as a synonym for “liberality,” or “generosity.”
But here was the rub: Why did Americans need to be encouraged to be “liberal” as in being generous? Americans had ALWAYS been amazingly generous toward one another. That is why phenomena like homelessness was virtually unknown in American history prior to the New Deal. Americans always helped those around them who needed temporary help. Even during the Great Depression, the greatest economic disaster America ever saw (fueled in no small part by government and The Federal Reserve mismanaging the money supply), Americans were helping one another voluntarily, all over the country, in cities and in rural areas.
But this did not deter FDR. He emphasized over and over the need for Americans to be more “liberal,” more generous. But he proposed an entirely new model of what “liberal” generosity means. Prior to the New Deal, generosity went something like this:
Person A helps Person B, and Person C applauds Person A for his generosity — while Person B feels obligated to work and pay back his debt to Person A and Person C learns from the example how C himself might generously help others.
What FDR proposed, however, is very different:
Persons A, B, & C vote for Government Program D which takes from Person E, pays the bureaucrats working for Government Program D, and throws whatever bones are left to Person F, while Person G praises A, B, C, & D for being “generous” and kind and caring and, well, “liberal.” The real winners, of course, are the bureaucrats working for Government Program D — they always get paid before anyone else does. E is outnumbered and has little voice in the matter. Often, E is described by A, B, C, D, F & G as being “greedy” or downright evil — though A, B, C, D, F & G still want E to work hard and productively to fund the government programs that employ D and give to F. And neither F nor G, nor A, B, C, or D, have any feeling of obligation to pay back to E what was taken from him. Ever. It’s never even discussed in our politics today!
This is the basic moral framework of post-New Deal American domestic politics. And that is why when Americans today throw around deeply moral terms like “generous,” “fair,” “liberal,” “care,” etc, many have very different notions of what those terms mean and thus we talk past one another more than we talk with one another.