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Liberalism in America

Updated on August 19, 2010

To answer the question of whether a system based on liberalism is the freest and most democratic system there can be, it is necessary to define what liberalism is, and to analyze how it functions in reality. Classical Liberalism was a political ideology that grew out of the enlightenment, and has the core values of freedom and democracy. During its time it was an ideology of resistance. Since then many states have taken an officially liberal doctrine, and are called liberal, but they are not actually liberal. They differ drastically from liberal principles, especially freedom and democracy.

Liberalism was the ideology of the enlightenment; it was born out of opposition to the status quo policies of feudalism, which was essentially a de jure class system, with the lowest classes enslaved to the upper classes. At the time liberalism was radical and egalitarian, it held that it is

“self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence).

The ruling class of the time believed that liberalism was impracticable and utopian, and liberals were demagogues and terrorists. The first country to have a liberal revolution was the United States of America, which was founded on the principles of liberalism by the former British colonies in America.


The most liberal of the founders of American democracy was Thomas Jefferson. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, taking inspiration from the writings of John Locke, and he established the Democratic Party, which stood for “limited, constitutional government and individual rights” (Gregory). Thomas Jefferson was so strongly in favour of individual rights that he withheld his support for the Constitution until a bill of rights was added that guaranteed “freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land and not by the law of Nations” (Jefferson, 1787). Jefferson was strongly opposed to standing armies because he believed their only purpose was to oppress the people. He preferred that the U.S. not have armies, even if that meant there would be periodic rebellions. In fact he didn’t mind if there were rebellions. “No country should be so long without one. Nor will any degree of power in the hands of government prevent insurrections” (Jefferson, 1787). Instead of armies, Jefferson advocated a militia system, because it would be far more democratic than a traditional military. Every man in the country would be a member of the militia, and its purpose would be to repel foreign attack. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Federalist Party, then the Whig Party, and the Republican Party, embraced the doctrine of big government, and supported big business. “For about a hundred years the Jeffersonian tradition was mostly associated with the cause of the common man” (Gregory). The liberals knew that those who have power use it primarily for their own interests, as the liberal economist Adam Smith said; “Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all” (Smith, 819).


The big government right, also known as conservatives, was strongly supportive of big business, and “fought perennially for central banking, high tariffs, and subsidies to corporations to build ‘internal improvements’”, such as when the railroads were granted “eminent domain, forcibly taking privately owned land and giving it to the railroad companies” (Gregory). Thomas Jefferson was not only strongly opposed to allowing large corporations to rob small farmers of their land; he was in favour of redistributing land to poor people so they could farm it. “The descent of property of every kind… is a politic measure, and a practicable one… Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on” (Jefferson, 1785). Jefferson based his advocacy of land redistribution on his core belief that people are poor because they lack capital, and therefore the government should help them increase their capital so they can be self sufficient. For that reason, Jefferson also strongly supported the progressive income tax. “Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise” (Jefferson, 1785). Liberals also supported redistributive programs because they benefit the economy. “What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can be flourishing and happy if the greater part of the members are poor and miserable” (Smith, 91). Thomas Jefferson strongly believed in equality of opportunity; because people should be able to attain whatever position they can attain for themselves, not inherit that of their parents. For that reason he was in favour of a high inheritance tax. He was also opposed to allowing the government or any other institution to contract debts, especially those that were not meant to be paid off within a lifetime. “This principle that the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead, is of very extensive application and consequences... Abolition of contracting debts… will exclude at the threshold of our new government the contagious and ruinous errors of this quarter of the globe, which have armed despots with means, not sanctioned by nature, for binding in chains their fellow men” (Jefferson, 1788). If contracted debts were allowed to persist they would “eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living” (Jefferson, 1788).


One type of contracted debt is the corporation, a business institution owned by people and other institutions that it has contracted debt with, and that is run by a very small number of people, with the only goal of producing profit. The people who own the most contracted debt mostly inherit their position as creditors, so they are an aristocracy. There were very few corporations in the beginning of American democracy, and the ones that did exist were only allowed to exist for a limited amount of time. “They were ‘chartered’, or called into existence, by the states, and their charters could be revoked at any time” (Yeoman). The number of corporations grew over time, and swelled during the civil war. Eventually they became powerful enough that they were able to gain the same rights as people under the U.S. Constitution. That completely violated the liberal belief that contracted debt, and therefore the aristocracy, should not take precedence over living human beings and the institutions of democracy. “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country” (Jefferson, 1816).

In 1886 Southern Pacific Railroad Company sued Santa ClaraCounty over a tax that was assigned only to railroad companies. Southern Pacific argued their case on a number of grounds, including that corporations have the same rights as people under the Constitution, and the tax violated its right to equal protection. The case went to the Supreme Court, and before the oral argument took place Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite announced “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does” (Santa ClaraCounty v. Southern Pacific R. Co.). That statement was printed by the court reporter in the syllabus and case history above the opinion, and has been cited a number of times by courts who wanted to accord more rights to corporations. This has been a complete violation of the liberal principles of freedom and Democracy for which the American Revolution was fought. “The colonists realized they needed to tear up the very roots of colonialism, including corporate rule… The Revolution was partly an insurrection against entities like the East India Co., whose monopolistic tactics triggered the Boston Tea Party in 1773” (Yeoman).


With corporations established as having the same rights as people under the Constitution, these institutions of contracted debt became as powerful as the medieval European aristocracy. The corporations are “totalitarian in character: in a corporation, power flows from top down... Power over investment decisions, production, and commerce is centralized and sacrosanct, exempt from influence and control by workers and community as a matter of principle and law” (Chomsky, 185). The primary function of any government is to control the population, and they do so in the interest of the people who have power in that society. “Control of its domestic population is the major task of any state that is dominated by particular sectors of the domestic society and therefore functions primarily in their interest; that is, any ‘real existing state’” (Chomsky, 1). The segment of the population that has the most power is “in the United States, the industrial-financial-commercial sector, concentrated and interlinked, highly class conscious and increasingly trans-national in the scope of its planning, management, and operations” (Chomsky, 1). The secondary function of every government is foreign policy. Foreign policy, like domestic policy, in any society, is always in the interest of those who have power in that society. Their interest is to exploit those who don’t have power. “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” (Smith, 466). The most powerful segment of American society is the corporations, and since America is the most powerful country in the world, the world order is primarily in the interest of American corporations. “The rich men of the rich societies are to rule the world, competing among themselves for a greater share of wealth and power and mercilessly suppressing those who stand in their way, assisted by the rich men of the hungry nations who do their bidding” (Chomsky, 5). The U.S. set up this world order immediately following World War Two; The U.S. was to be an industrial society, exploiting the global South, and trading with a rebuilt Europe, which American corporations were to invest in. American currency was convertible to gold so that America could be the bank of the world. That system lasted until the 1970’s when it was no longer profitable for the corporations, and then the U.S. went off of the gold standard and began to demand free trade. In recent decades a de facto world government has begun to form, consisting of the “IMF, World Bank, G-7, GATT, and other structures designed to serve the interests on TNCs, banks and investment firms” (Chomsky, 178). This structure is oddly called Neoliberalism. In fact, it is neo-imperialism. The governments of the North govern the economies of the South in their own interest. It is simply a continuation of the five hundred-year European conquest of the world – the history of aggression, subversion, terror, and domination… [The only difference being that] for the first time a single state had such overwhelming wealth and power that its planners could realistically design and execute a global vision” (Chomsky, 74). This global vision called for powerful states that would protect and enhance the interests of corporations.

In all societies the ruling class understands that is vital to their own self interest to maintain their power. Historically they have done so by not allowing their subjects any say over who is in power and what the government’s policies are, and they maintained power by oppressing the people. In Western ‘democracies’, where due to a history of struggle by average people for the recognition of their inherent human rights the ruling class granted them some say over who has power, the ruling class propagandizes the population to submit to their rule. “To ensure that ‘the many are governed by the few’ and to guarantee ‘the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers’, the governors must control thought” (Chomsky, 86).


In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville predicted the end of American democracy;

“I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world… the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it. I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavouring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is a stranger to the fate of all the rest... Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well intent that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing” (Tocqueville, 339).


The ‘species of oppression’ that Tocqueville predicted has become a reality. It is the media. The media is an immense power that provides paltry pleasures to the masses, keeping them in ignorance, and with advertising indoctrinates them to be consumers of other paltry pleasures. “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society” (Herman, 1). The ruling class controls the media, so it controls public thought. “The powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see, hear, and think about, and to manage public opinion by regular propaganda campaigns” (Herman, xi). The ruling class controls the media because they own it. The dominant media companies are large corporations, and many of them are owned by other corporations. The ruling class controls the media in a number of ways. “Most biased choices in the media arise from the pre-selection of right thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power” (Herman, xii). Other corporations also have influence over the media because the media companies make their profits from the sale of advertising. “The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that they buy and pay for the programs” (Herman, 16). Corporations buy advertising in media that promotes their interests. In many instances they have threatened to stop buying advertising from media companies that were criticizing them. The media are also influenced by powerful interests, such as business and government, because it is economically necessary that they “concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs, where important rumours and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held” (Herman, 18). Those places tend to be the centres of power; capitals and corporate offices. News attained from such places is inherently biased in favour of those institutions. Corporations and government also have a number of methods to reprimand the media for criticism, including “letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law suits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action” (Herman, 26). Owning the media companies and being their primary patron, and reprimanding them when they step out of line, gives the ruling class a high degree of control over the media, and over public opinion. In order to support their own interests they regularly run propaganda campaigns, for example their unanimous support for the invasion of Iraq. They constantly drilled their audience on the Bush administrations excuses for the war, particularly the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. They almost entirely avoided the reality of the situation; the military industrial complex wanted to profit from a war, and the oil companies wanted control over Iraq’s oil.


Using its control of the media, the ruling class is able to keep the population out of politics, so that there is never a serious challenge to their prerogatives. They “keep the ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ in their place: far removed from the political arena though granted a periodic choice between representatives of the business party” (Chomsky, 189). Even if the people were able to elect a government that was not primarily concerned with the interests of corporations, it would not be likely that they could change policy very much, “given the constraints imposed on policy by concentrated private power, increasingly international in scale” (Chomsky, 189). Given that the people have no choice over the policies of their own government, even though it is technically an electoral democracy, it cannot be called a democracy. It is a democracy without the people, a democracy for the ruling class “not intended for the public generally, who are ‘marginalized economically and politically’. ‘The state has reserved for the majority the ‘state of siege’ and all the exceptional repressive legislation and procedures that can guarantee order where other mechanisms fail” (Chomsky, 62).


All over the world democracy and free markets have been in decline, largely due to protracted violent opposition to democracy by the most powerful empire of all time, the United States. This has largely been a continuation of a five century long project of European states to colonize the planet. There has not been any fundamental change. “The basic rules of world order remain as they have always been: the rule of law for the weak, the rule of force for the strong; the principles of ‘economic rationality’ for the weak, state power and intervention for the strong. As in the past, privilege and power do not willingly submit to popular control or market discipline, and therefore seek to undermine meaningful democracy and to bend market principles to their special needs” (Chomsky, 272). This is not liberalism, it is not freedom, it is not democracy. It is, in fact, fascism, which, according to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, is the merger of state and corporate interests.


In his old age Thomas Jefferson was seriously concerned that America’s experiment with democracy would not survive. He believed there were two types of people who competed for power in America, and in every country; “those who fear and distrust the people and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of higher classes; and those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them the safest and most honest, if not always the wisest repository of the public interest” (Jefferson). Those who wanted to draw all powers from the people into the hands of the upper classes “were the advocates of the rising capitalist state, which Jefferson regarded with much disdain because of the obvious contradiction between democracy and capitalism” (Chomsky, 86). The difference between the two is that the left believes people are essentially good, while the right believes people are essentially evil. Over the years the capitalists have been able to equate capitalism with democracy, largely by their use of media propaganda. As democracy has deteriorated in America, Americans have largely forgotten the liberal principles that America was founded on. “With the narrowing of the doctrinal system over the years, fundamental libertarian principles now sound exotic and extreme, perhaps even ‘anti-American’… They are ‘as American as apple pie’, with origins in traditional thinking that is ritually lauded though distorted and forgotten” (Chomsky, 87). In order to further undermine democracy the elite have attacked advocates of democracy a number of times, both throughout the world with invasions and terrorism, and in America. For example, the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1920’s, when they assaulted unions, the McCarthyism of the early 1960’s, the FBI’s war against the Civil Rights Movement, and numerous other times. Fortunately they have not been very successful. These popular movements; the union movement, the Civil Rights movement, and many others, have had a lasting and beneficial impact on government policy, advancing the liberal values of freedom and democracy. “There have... been changes of decisive importance through this period, one of the most noteworthy being the great expansion of the domain of freedom and social justice within the rich societies, largely a result of popular struggles” (Chomsky, 74). Through mass struggles the people have been able to have some impact on western society, and for that reason, and that reason alone, western countries are now more free and democratic now than they have ever been.


The people; believers in democracy, that is, government by the people for the people, have been liberal, socialist, communist, anarchist, whatever. Ideology is not really that important. What is important is that they wanted more power for the people, not for the elite. This simple and yet powerful ideology of resistance has always, and will continue, to inspire struggles for liberation all over the world. People will continue to fight for their freedom in the way they have always done so; “Challenge and unmask illegitimate authority, and… work with others to undermine it and to extend the scope of freedom and justice” (Chomsky, 272). Some will be successful, while others will not. The opposition to democracy; the established moneyed interests that rule the world and that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled have the same rights as people under the Constitution, as well as their allies in government, have been the main opponents of freedom and democracy. They are not liberal; they are fascist, because their interests are a combination of state and corporate interests.

The Constitutional Convention

Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. World Orders, Old and New. Pluto Press. (London, 1994).

Gregory, Anthony. “Corporatism and Socialism in America”. The Future of Freedom

Foundation. 2-23-2005.

Herman, Edward, and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political

Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon Books, 2002.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison”. 20 June 1787Papers

11:480—81 The Founders Constitution. ounders/documents/v1ch8s11.html

Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison”. 20 Dec. 1787 Papers

12:440 The Founders Constitution. s/documents/v1ch14s30.html

Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison”. 20 Dec. 1787 Papers

12:442 The Founders Constitution. ers/documents/v1ch18s21.html

Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison”. 28 Oct. 1785 Papers

8:681—82 The Founders Constitution. unders/documents/v1ch15s32.html

Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison”. 31 July 1788 Papers

13:442—43 The Founders Constitution. ders/documents/v1ch14s46.html

Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific R. Co., 118 U.S. 394 (1886)

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.

Regnery Gateway.

Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. Trans. Reeve, Henry. Pratt, Woodford,

and Co. (New York, 1848).

Yeoman, Barry. “When is a Corporation Like a Freed Slave?” Mother Jones. 11-

2006. ation_lik e_a_freed_slave.html 


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