The Right Opinion

What Is Liberalism?

By John C. Goodman · Feb. 23, 2013

President Obama is said to have made the case for a liberal public policy agenda in his State of the Union speech the other night. But what is liberalism?

The conventional view is that liberalism is an ideology. In fact it is a sociology.

An ideology is a set of ideas that cohere. Socialism is an ideology. So is libertarianism. Suppose I told you that socialists believe the government should nationalize the steel industry and the auto industry. You would have no difficulty inferring what their position is on nationalizing the airline industry. Right? Suppose I told you that libertarians believe in a free market for tinker toys and ham sandwiches. You would have no difficulty inferring that they also believe in a free market for Rubik’s Cubes.

Sociologies are different. They represent a set of ideas that are often incoherent. These ideas are likely to come together not because of reason, but because of history or happenstance. Not only do the ideas not cohere, they may be completely contradictory.

Take the issue of preschool education – forcefully endorsed by the president the other night. As David Brooks explained, the issue is really about allowing poor children to escape from the anti-education atmosphere of their homes to a place that will at least give them a chance to learn. Given a person’s position on preschool education for four year olds, shouldn’t you be able to predict how he will think about allowing poor six- and seven-year-old children to escape from bad schools? As it turns out you can’t.

Brooks explains the preschool issue this way:

This is rude to say, but here’s what this is about: Millions of parents don’t have the means, the skill or, in some cases, the interest in building their children’s future. Early childhood education is about building structures so both parents and children learn practical life skills. It’s about getting kids from disorganized homes into rooms with kids from organized homes so good habits will rub off. It’s about instilling achievement values where they are absent.

Okay, so how is that different from the situation faced by slightly older children trapped in lousy schools where teachers couldn’t care less what they learn? It isn’t. Yet so many of those who favor preschool education (a new and expensive entitlement) are reliable opponents of vouchers, charter schools, firing bad teachers, closing bad schools or any other remedy that offends the teacher’s unions. And that includes President Obama.

Then there is the issue of the minimum wage. The minimum wage does almost nothing to relieve poverty. That’s because almost no one who is a head of household is earning the minimum wage for any length of time. However, I think it is fairly well-established that a higher minimum wage gives teenagers in above-average income households more pocket change, even as it closes off job opportunities for poor, minority teenagers. (Remember, the black teenage unemployment rate is about twice that of whites.) If you want to maximize job opportunities for low-income youngsters, as President Obama says he does, you certainly wouldn’t want a minimum wage standing between a minority youth and his first job. Yet creating that barrier and making it permanent is part of the Obama agenda for the labor market.

A related issue is public policy toward unions. There is no mystery about what a union is. It is an attempt to monopolize the supply of labor to employers. In most all cases, unions confer special (monopoly) status on workers who are solidly middle class, allowing them to seek above-market wages by closing off competition from those who earn less and have less. Yet encouraging labor unions is another core pillar of the Obama presidency.

Finally, our federal deficit is almost totally caused by entitlement spending on the elderly. Our government routinely sends Social Security checks to billionaires and pays their medical bills to boot – paid for in part by a 15.3% payroll tax imposed on the parents of the children to whom the president would like to provide preschool education.

The zip codes in America where people cash the largest Social Security checks are the very same zip codes where Medicare spends the most dollars on the average enrollee. And unlike the income tax, every worker pays the payroll tax – no matter how poor. Yet these are the programs that President Obama resists reforming.

Some readers will be quick to point out that the Democratic Party – dating back to the days of Franklin Roosevelt – consists of a coalition of interests and that winning elections requires satisfying each of those interests. Fair enough. But we are here talking about thinking, not winning elections.

Politicians will invariably search for some intellectual justification for what they do. Since their policies are incoherent, no ideology will serve their purpose. What they need is a sociology – a way of thinking about the world that defends the indefensible. They need intellectuals who will apologize for the mixed economy welfare state without any obvious sense of embarrassment. For the Obama administration, that sociology is liberalism. Its adherents once called themselves “liberals.” Today, they are “progressives.”


HP in Kalispell, MT said:

No, today as yesterday, they are idiots!

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 1:00 PM

Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA replied:

They are stupid enough to control the country and spend us into oblivion. The thing is the Progressive Liberal Politicians lie, their propaganda arm, CBS, NBC, ABC et al swears to their lies and the gullible public buys their lies and upon closer look, the Liberal Progressive agenda, gets much worse. Like a plague it probably will take a very aggressive treatment to cure and many times the patient does not survive the treatment.

Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 12:52 PM

Mindblown in Flyover USA said:

John, liberals/socialists do not promote their ideas as thoughtful solutions to problems. They want to FEEL good about themselves. With solutions that will not solve anything they'll sure feel good while bringing down the country.

Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 1:35 PM

Alex in NJ replied:

And they do it with sneering arrogance, too, believing their §hit don't stink.

Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 10:09 AM

Ted R. Weiland in Nebraska said:

What is liberalism? Great question. It's the same as asking what is the left?

In politics, everything revolves around the positioning of right, left, and center. You’re either rightwing, leftwing, or a centrist. Politicians and non-politicians alike employ all three terms as if there’s a consensus on the parameters for those designations. Even if this were true, who gets to determine what’s right, left, and center and how are those determinations made? Over time, the parameters shift (always further to the left), so how is someone on the right to know he’s now a centrist or a centrist to know he’s now on the left?

There are no answers to these questions because there is no standard for these terms. The terms are completely arbitrary, defined at any given time by finite man and his fickle ethics rather than by Yahweh and His immutable morals.

When today’s politicians (Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Constitutionalists, etc.), churches, preachers, and most people claiming to be Christians are measured against Yahweh’s standard, they are found to be merely left- or right-leaning liberals. We must abandon these counterfeit qualifiers, provided us by who knows who, and do everything in our power to point people back to Yahweh and His immutable standard for left and right and liberal and conservative.

For more regarding this standard and how it applies today, see "Law and Kingdom: Their Relevance Under the New Covenant" at

Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 10:23 AM

HardThought in Kansas replied:

The "Pournelle Axes" written by Jerry Pournelle, PhD better explains political affiliation than does the false dichotomy of "left" and "right" wings.


An independent or centrist is someone who doesn't know how to make up their minds in a consistent manner.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 2:33 AM

Willis in San Diego said:

What Is Liberalism?
Ok, well I will have to strongly agree with Michael Savage's definition:
"Liberalism is a mental disorder".

I believe this is clearly born out by the insanity they display time, and time, and time again.
What will be the latest display? Stay tuned!!

Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 10:50 AM

Dshodges in Reidsville, GA said:

I refuse to use the word "liberal" to describe a con artist. If you pull money from your own pocket and give it away, you are liberal. If the money for your schemes comes from others' pockets, you are a con artist. The next time you are browsing through your Bible and come across Proverbs 11: 25 ("The liberal soul shall be made fat..."), don't think of Ted Kennedy. Think of how we should reclaim the word and call shysters, shysters.

Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 8:14 PM

corvettegeorge in Santa Ana, CA said:

I take exception to your claim that the federal deficit is caused almost totally by spending on the elderly. They all paid into a system that they had no control of, and were promised a return for their contribution(TAX)! They did not have to pay 15.3%, as their employers were also required to contribute(TAX)! The largest expenditures are on welfare and all the other social(ist) programs the government so happily gives away to get more votes. Whoever robs Peter to pay Paul will always have Paul's vote!!!!

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 1:55 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

Thank you for standing up for us seniors. It seems that now we are going to be the scapegoats for every ill in the country. Most of us paid into the system a minimum of 30 years with some paying longer than that. I suspect that a family of four on welfare pulls in as much as my wife and I receive in Social Security every month. If I had not retired from the military we would be living in poverty.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 9:42 PM

Bob Davidson in Titusville, Fl. 32796 said:

Liberism is the, opposite of good business!

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 12:31 PM

Ron in Texas Republic said:

ANYTHING without the center of Gods Order is OFF THE MARK.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 4:09 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Liberalism takes a mallet & Chisel, to Madison's Constitution.Liberalism robs the children's American Dream , due to escalating Debt!

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 5:54 PM

Abu Nudnik in Toronto said:

Thanks for the link to the NCPA article. Very interesting stuff.

Monday, February 25, 2013 at 9:34 PM

G Dub45 in Lee's Summit, MO said:

I do not recall the author of this piece, but I offer it for consideration:
What the liberal mind is passionate about is a world filled with pity, sorrow, neediness, misfortune, poverty, suspicion, mistrust, anger, exploitation, discrimination, victimization, alienation and injustice. Those who occupy this world are “workers,” “minorities,” “the little guy,” “women,” and the “unemployed.” They are poor, weak, sick, wronged, cheated, oppressed, disenfranchised, exploited and victimized. They bear no responsibility for their problems. None of their agonies are attributable to faults or failings of their own: not to poor choices, bad habits, faulty judgment, wishful thinking, lack of ambition, low frustration tolerance, mental illness or defects in character. None of the victims’ plight is caused by failure to plan for the future or learn from experience. Instead, the “root causes” of all this pain lie in faulty social conditions: poverty, disease, war, ignorance, unemployment, racial prejudice, ethnic and gender discrimination, modern technology, capitalism, globalization and imperialism. In the radical liberal mind, this suffering is inflicted on the innocent by various predators and persecutors: “Big Business,” “Big Corporations,” “greedy capitalists,” U.S. Imperialists,” “the oppressors,” “the rich,” “the wealthy,” “the powerful” and “the selfish.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 5:58 AM

G Dub45 in Lee's Summit, MO said:

To continue:

The liberal cure for this endless malaise is a very large authoritarian government that regulates and manages society through a cradle to grave agenda of redistributive caretaking. It is a government everywhere doing everything for everyone. The liberal motto is “In Government We Trust.” To rescue the people from their troubled lives, the agenda recommends denial of personal responsibility, encourages self-pity and other-pity, fosters government dependency, promotes sexual indulgence, rationalizes violence, excuses financial obligation, justifies theft, ignores rudeness, prescribes complaining and blaming, denigrates marriage and the family, legalizes all abortion, defies religious and social tradition, declares inequality unjust, and rebels against the duties of citizenship. Through multiple entitlements to unearned goods, services and social status, the liberal politician promises to ensure everyone’s material welfare, provide for everyone’s healthcare, protect everyone’s self-esteem, correct everyone’s social and political disadvantage, educate every citizen, and eliminate all class distinctions. With liberal intellectuals sharing the glory, the liberal politician is the hero in this melodrama. He takes credit for providing his constituents with whatever they want or need even though he has not produced by his own effort any of the goods, services or status transferred to them but has instead taken them from others by force.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 5:59 AM

G Dub45 in Lee's Summit, MO said:

Sorry for a third post, but it bothered me that I could not recall the author of my two above.
It is indeed: Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr, MD.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 6:07 AM