I have been accused as a purist when it comes to defining the term liberal. I subscribe to a specific definition of the term liberal that will disqualify many other self-proclaimed liberals quickly. By specific, I am referring to libertarianism. Others prefer the term classical liberals and I find it hard to really differentiate the two in a substantive manner. In any case, that label is merely used to convey the idea that I and others like me hold the individual as the most important component of our society. The way we manifest our political philosophy is by mostly emphasizing or demanding the absence of coercion in running our lives. This is most easily observable when libertarians address economic questions by trying to circumvent any reference to any political authority. There are other qualifications but those details can be suitably discussed at a more measured pace some other time. I only lay out the major identifiers generally to prove that the definition is specific and will disqualify other self-proclaimed liberals.
The term liberal in the most general sense did evolve over time. The experience in the 20th century fused ideas in so many ways. Some decidedly non-liberal understanding of the world before the 1930s became generally liberal by the 1990s. The great economist John Maynard Keynes went out to save liberalism and capitalism from fascism and communism by introducing ideas that today are so imbedded in mainstream economics, but then opposed vehemently by the liberals of his time. The results of the intra-liberalism debate produced a new liberalism that not only sharpened its thesis but also synthesized some of its anti-thesis. A new hypothesis emerged in the post-Cold War 1990s with the rise of the Clinton and Blair administrations, after a political and economic classical liberal resurrection of the 1970s.
The evolution of liberalism forces me to admit at least this: even if I philosophically despised these evolved liberalism, their subscribers do have the claim to the title. They are like the siblings that you find hard to sit with. No matter how much you cannot stand the other, you know all of you share the same parents and there have to be some kind of decorum between the sides.
The debates between the different schools of liberalism still continue today to remind all of the original early 20th century debate in the mist of the Great Depression. But the essential difference is that those intra-liberalism debates now firmly take the center stage while in the past, the opponents in the ring were not liberal at all. Communism is dead and hard socialists of old only throw potshots from outside of the ring, unable to steer the debate even as liberals’ capitalism is in trouble. Possibly jealous of the success of liberalism in evolving itself, old liberalism’s 20th century foes from the left who call themselves liberals, ally themselves with the evolved liberals and sometimes pull the strings towards the left’s original home in the process.
The left’s liberals are those that I take pleasure criticizing because I know they are not liberals in the general sense of the term, even without appealing to libertarianism. At least the evolved liberals accept the market economy even if they do not have the courage to run their arguments to its natural course as libertarians do. In contrast, the left’s liberals are not really convinced of the arguments of the market economy. Have a discussion with them about economic liberalism and one will wonder what is so liberal about them. Pursue a fundamental question beyond the veneer and a fault line will emerge. The left’s liberals would tweak the market economy beyond recognition the minute the more genuinely liberal others blink.
Outside the realm of serious philosophical debates are the superlative liberals. They are liberals just because they are more progressive compared to our conservative society. They may be political moderates or centrists but they are not liberal ideologically in a way that some ideas are fundamentally derived from first principles, like proper liberals. But the superlative liberals call themselves liberals anyway, just because they met someone who holds conservative worldviews that disturbs them. Unfortunately, that is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition to be a liberal.
And then there are the libertines. Or really, they are just socialites. While some liberals may live life large, but libertines by themselves do not ground their ideas the way subscribers of liberalism do, if they have any idea at all. Libertines’ liberalness is just like the superlative liberals’ liberalness. Their liberalness is devoid of liberalism. Moral and religious conservatives derisively call these libertines are liberals while alluding to liberalism, but that only because the conservatives do not understand liberalism as proper liberals do.
So, when I criticize non-libertarians of their diluted liberalism, I can accept the charge of being a puritan. When I criticize the superlative liberals and the libertine, I think I have full moral authority to dismiss them, if they claim themselves as liberals. In the latter case, I am not being a purist at all. It is just about calling a spade a spade.