What Is Liberalism, and Why Is It Such a Dirty Word?
Liberalism is both a word of abuse and a concept that has been abused.
Anything with the word “liberal” is likely to induce apoplectic anger these days. Duterte curses the Liberal Party; Trumpists fume against coastal liberals; Communists resist “neoliberals”; Putin is seeking to overthrow the liberal world order. Liberalism is both a word of abuse and a concept that has been abused.
The many versions of the word liberal are, of course, related, but they can be a source of great confusion. In the U.S., “liberals” are often advocates of greater state intervention in the economy, while European liberals and so-called “neoliberals” want less. In the Philippines, the socially conservative Lito Atienza—who advocated a ban on contraceptives in Manila—was once the president of the Liberal Party. Then, of course, the soon-to-be-dictator Ferdinand Marcos was likewise president of the LP in the mid-'60s. It would be impossible to list the various definitions within the many contexts in which people use the L word, but we can parse out some.
In general, when we say liberalism, we refer to a political philosophy that can be traced roughly to the 17th Century, during the Age of Enlightenment. At the time, thinkers like John Locke and Voltaire began to defend what contemporary philosopher Alan Ryan sees as a negative notion of freedom: to be free was to not be arbitrarily arrested, to not be excluded from the vote, to not be denied access to markets, etc. Thus, Ryan concludes, “One way of understanding the continuity of liberal history in this light is to see liberalism as a perennial protest against all forms of absolute authority.”
By the late 18th Century, liberalism became a rallying cry for revolutionaries seeking to challenge traditional monarchial authority.
To limit authority, liberals believe in rights that constrain political power. For example, the right to freedom of religion prevents the state from determining which god its citizens should worship. By the late 18th Century, liberalism became a rallying cry for revolutionaries seeking to challenge traditional monarchial authority. These liberal revolutionaries became central to the French and American revolutions.
Initially, liberalism was an explicitly elitist philosophy that limited rights to a certain section of the populace. There were numerous cases prior to the 20th Century when liberals denied others the right to vote or the right to property because they were from a subordinate race, class, or gender. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, however, liberals started to believe that everyone should have rights and everyone should have a say in political life. This more egalitarian liberalism is what we now call liberal democracy.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, however, liberals started to believe that everyone should have rights and everyone should have a say in political life.
Economic liberalism is distinct but related to political liberalism. Like political liberalism, economic liberalism has its roots in the Enlightenment and seeks to restrain government power. Its key thinker is Adam Smith, who argued for the efficiency of free markets unhampered by government interference. Smith has always been an important philosopher, but his ideas receded in prominence in the mid-20th century, when John Maynard Keynes, an advocate of government economic planning, became the world’s most influential economist. In the 1970s, however, Austrian economists like Friedrich Hayek reemphasized Smith’s ideas about free markets, and they found backers in President Ronald Reagan of the U.S. and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the U.K. The left-wing critics of these economists labeled them neoliberals, and the term has stuck. A word of warning: many economic neoliberals, especially in the United States, are often socially conservative. The mainstream Republican Party since Reagan has been economically neoliberal (they like unregulated markets), but they are socially and politically conservative (they are wary of things like gay rights or access to abortion). This orientation may change given the rise of the p*ssy-grabber in the West Wing, but time will tell.
The revolution men like Riza and Del Pilar birthed produced a liberal constitution in Malolos that guaranteed basic freedoms such as freedom of religion and the protection of private property.
Where does the Philippines fit in? Our first nationalists—from Rizal to Del Pilar to even Bonifacio—were liberals, who viewed Spanish colonialism as violating “the rights of man.” The revolution they birthed produced a liberal constitution in Malolos that guaranteed basic freedoms such as freedom of religion and the protection of private property. When the Americans colonized the country, they cultivated liberal intellectuals within the colonial state.
Liberalism was the default sensibility of immediate postwar Philippines. When Manuel Roxas founded the Liberal Party of the Philippines as a breakaway faction of the Nacionalista Party in 1946, it was not in order to introduce a new ideology, but, rather, to set up a new pole against Sergio Osmeña and the Nacionalista Party. In the years to follow, political observers noted that there was barely any ideological difference between the two parties.
In the late 60s and early '70s, the LP did become truly liberal as it turned itself into the major critic of the authoritarian Ferdinand Marcos—a former president of the LP who bolted after not receiving the party’s presidential nomination. After the declaration of martial law in 1972, the LP stopped contesting elections and organized itself into a non-electoral conscience bloc.
As a side note, the symbols we now associate with the LP—the L sign and the color yellow—did not originate within it. The original “dilawan” party was the PDP-Laban (the L sign means “Laban” and not Liberal), whose first presidential standard bearer was Corazon Aquino, and whose current party chairman is called Digong.
The Philippines has a long liberal tradition that cannot be limited to the Liberal Party.
As for economic liberalism in the Philippines, well, very few people talk about it, and it is ill-defined. That Communists from groups like Bayan Muna and from ministries like DSWD call anyone who disagrees with them “neoliberal” further adds to the confusion.
Liberalism is a political philosophy that limits authority through the enshrinement of rights. Liberalism for everyone is called liberal democracy. Economic liberalism and neoliberalism call for free markets. The Philippines has a long liberal tradition that cannot be limited to the Liberal Party. And Digong ran under the original dilawans.