During the past year, I followed the U.S. Presidential Election very carefully throughout its course. During the elections, I learned that Americans associate being liberal with being a socialist or leftist. The question here is, why Americans relate liberalism with socialism, considering that the rest of the world do precisely the opposite?
First, we have to be clear about what liberalism means. I decided to use a brief, but clear definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Liberalism is a political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual. Liberals typically believe that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty. Furthermore, liberalism around the world tends to be recognized as an ideology which promotes free trade between States, countries, and regions. It promotes economic growth based on free markets.
So, why Americans misunderstand what “liberal” means?
There might not be only one correct answer to this question. According to one explanation I once heard from Eduardo Fernández, a professor at Universidad Francisco Marroquín (located in Guatemala City), it could be related with an American philosopher called John Rawls.
John Rawls is considered one of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century. His theory is based on contractualism (which is a legal fiction to justify the existence of a State). He also justified the welfare State, in order to maximize the worst possible situation. Despite this justification of the welfare State, John Rawls is classified as a liberal because he believed that individuals were the ones who agree the terms and conditions to the existence of a State.
We could take this as the cornerstone of the meaning of “liberalism” in the U.S, and how it started to be associated with the belief of a big State needed to provide its citizens many services as rights (like education and health). That’s the reason why many democrats tend to be called “liberals”.
Despite the reason, Americans need to be very careful when it comes to discussions about liberalism. You could be confused when you debate or read the news from somewhere else around the world. If you are talking of politics with someone from another part of the world, consider that “liberal” might have another meaning for them.
Liberalism stands for individual rights and free trade. Platforms such as the one Bernie Sanders advertised is only a populist one. When candidates promote collectivist rights and economic protectionism, they are not liberals, they are socialists!
Luis Fernando Salazar