Where Did Liberalism Go Wrong?

This is a contribution to Symposium No. 1, our invitation to explore and explain the basic principles of a liberal outlook.

Conflicting ideas about freedom are a mainstay of politics today. To name just a few:

In certain sectors of the right, COVID restrictions and mask mandates have become central animating issues. The right to own guns and the freedom to carry them have been key issues for decades of Republican politicians. 

The political left, on the other hand, is passionate about a different set of freedom claims. Abortion rights, freedom for LGBT+ people, and civil rights have become foundations of Democratic politics. More recently, freedom from discriminatory policing has understandably grabbed the spotlight. And at least since the notorious golden elevator speech, a relatively broad freedom to immigrate has caught the fancy of a majority on the left.

Often, freedom is invoked on both sides of the same issue. If a social media company kicks a conservative agitator off its platform, his supporters cry that his freedom of speech has been violated. But when the government threatens to prohibit deplatforming, the companies argue that this would nullify their freedom of association. A gay couple demands the freedom to have their cake baked by the shop of their choice; the baker refuses, citing freedom of conscience. 

Even issues couched in purely economic terms, such as the giant Coronavirus recovery package recently passed, often hide liberty claims just under the surface. The $1400 stimulus checks, for example, are often defended as providing workers in jobs with high risk of exposure the freedom to stay home or work less. Likewise, defenders of the Universal Basic Income claim that it enhances freedom of choice for its recipients.1 Ditto for socialized medicine. On the other hand, opponents of government welfare programs cite economic freedom, defined by The Heritage Foundation as “the fundamental right of every human to control his or her own labor and property.” Heritage goes on to state that “[i]n an economically free society, individuals are free to work, produce, consume, and invest in any way they please,”2 thus couching its economic argument, not in utilitarian terms, but in terms of freedom.

When everything becomes a liberty claim, the term itself is at risk of losing its meaning and explanatory power.3 Meanwhile, the political debates grow ever more hostile and sometimes violent. Everyone seems to love liberty, yet they have come to literal riots fighting over its meaning.

The roots of all these political debates, and with them much of the rancor of the current socio-political world, lie in a disagreement about the very meaning of freedom. It is a disagreement hidden in plain sight, as partisans of every side talk angrily across one another, seldom realizing that they are leaning on profoundly different concepts. If we are to get past the venomous hatreds and fruitless partisanship of the current political age, one essential first step is to identify the root issue. As long as that core issue goes unrecognized, the downstream political issues will be fought over in mutual misunderstanding, frustration, and anger.

The original American understanding of freedom came ultimately from Eighteenth-Century English philosopher John Locke, whose ideas had a profound influence on the founders. It was Locke who established the centrality of individual rights, and his language was echoed in the Declaration of Independence’s invocation of the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In his political writings, most famously his Second Treatise of Government and even more systematically in his first and second Letters Concerning Toleration, Locke provided both a resounding defense of liberty and a very specific understanding of freedom.

In Locke’s view, the essential meaning of freedom is the absence of coercion. He held that any non-coercive behavior was part of one’s freedom. A church, for example, has the right to excommunicate its members who fail to follow its practices and teachings, as long as it does not subject its lapsed members to “rough usage,” by which Locke meant “damnifi[cation] in body or estate.” For, he said, “all force...belongs only to the magistrate, nor ought any private persons, at any time, to use force; unless it be in self-defense against unjust violence.”4 In other words, persuasion of any kind is acceptable, but forcible coercion is out of bounds.

Locke grounded his political theory in the fundamental question: why is government necessary in the first place? Answering this question is the essential function of the idea of the “state of nature,” a conceptual experiment commonly employed in the political philosophy of his day. The idea is to imagine a world before the creation of government of any kind—a kind of primitive anarchy in which people roam freely, interact with whomever they choose in whatever manner they choose, and form whichever associations suit their fancy. 

By contrast with the continuous “war of all against all” posited by Thomas Hobbes as the natural state of mankind, Locke considered his state of nature to be a world in which “Men liv[e] together according to reason.”5 All the normal ideas of ethics and civility fully apply in the state of nature. “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”6

In Locke’s view, the problem with the state of nature, and the reason government is necessary, is the absence of an objective, neutral arbiter of that law of nature. In that absence, there are no known and propagated laws, leading to misunderstandings and avoidable disputes. Worse, lacking an enforcement mechanism for the law of nature, individuals are vulnerable to those who willingly flout the law of reason through theft and violence. And finally, without a neutral observer the individual is left to be the judge in his own case, an inevitable source of bias and conflict.

So the entire purpose of government, according to Locke, is to avoid conflict by vesting the power of coercion in a single authority. Government’s remit does not include the right to reach into the private, voluntary associations of peaceful individuals. Government exists precisely to protect peaceful individuals from coercive interference by others, not to impose its own coercion upon citizens.

This Lockean idea of the role of the state is the root of the foundational liberal idea that there is a bright-line distinction between the realm of ethics and the realm of politics. The line often attributed to Voltaire, “I strongly disapprove of what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it” is the classic summary of this idea. On one side of this dividing line is the realm of persuasion, argumentation (logical or otherwise), remonstration, and free association. On the other side is physical force of any kind. The former is the realm of ethics or morality, while the latter is the realm of politics and subject to government action. Classical liberals held that there is a bright-line distinction between the realm of politics and the realm of private opinion and action; that the basis for that distinction is the distinction between the coercive and the non-coercive; and that the only legitimate purpose of government is to exercise a monopoly on coercion within its territorial bounds in order to prevent the initiation of force. 

According to this classical liberal ideal, the individual should be free to engage in any non-coercive action, moral or immoral, in every sphere of life, from the boardroom to the bedroom. Others may disapprove, argue, remonstrate vigorously, decry, condemn, and boycott someone whose non-coercive actions they disapprove of, but they are prohibited from using physical force against him or her.

The classical liberal view holds that anyone has the right to hold and act on wrong, absurd, and even vicious views, as long as he or she does not coerce others. You may be a racist, homophobe, antisemite, or whatever other despicable thing you want to be, in your private life. You may disseminate your views in any manner you choose, to anyone who will listen. You may act on your ideas, as long as you do not initiate physical force against another person. On the other hand, your liberty does not give you the right to coerce anyone else to listen to you or support you. The implication of this political theory is laissez-faire, both in economics and in personal life, a pairing sometimes summarized as “free markets and free minds.”

This is classical liberalism, but it used to be just “liberalism.” The qualifier is called for largely because of a novel idea of freedom introduced in 1859 by John Stuart Mill, in his slim little book On Liberty

“The object of this Essay,” Mill writes, “is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control”—in other words, On Liberty is intended to define the proper extent of liberty. And Mill intends to defend a very broad sphere of liberty, via what has become known as his “harm principle,” the idea “[t]hat the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Mill bases his liberalism ultimately on “individuality,” arguing that

The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom, makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular powers, are improved only by being used....

Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing.7

While both Locke and Mill rest their arguments in the active nature of human beings as living organisms rather than automatons, Mill’s emphasis on choice and the variety of human nature arguably makes for a more personally inspiring battle call than Locke’s focus on the epistemological pursuit of truth.

And yet there was something much more radical going on in Mill’s work than an eloquent restatement and defense of classical liberalism. Mill signaled as much in a letter to his wife and virtual co-author of On Liberty, Harriet Taylor Mill. There, Mill referred to On Liberty as “concentrated thought—a sort of mental pemmican,” referring to the tough, jerky-like food carried by native Americans. Like pemmican, Mill expected that On Liberty’s value could be extracted only after considerable chewing by “thinkers, when there are any after us.”8 (Whatever one may think of Mill’s political philosophy, it would be difficult to fault his intellectual self-confidence.)

Mill didn’t dispute the evil of coercion, as Locke and subsequent thinkers had elaborated it, but he considered this to be a battle already won. The primary goal of On Liberty was to expand the idea to cover a further field he termed the “moral coercion of public opinion,” which he considered to be tantamount to physical coercion and equally a violation of liberty. It is this expansion that radically altered the nature of liberalism and, I would argue, undermined the very individuality that Mill advocated for.

In the past, Mill says early in On Liberty, the concept of liberty had been defined as a protection from government, especially from despotism. However, borrowing the concept of the “tyranny of the majority” from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Mill argues that “when society is itself the tyrant,... its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries.” Any case of social pressuring, particularly when it involves the possibility of economic harm, can be considered a violation of liberty. As Mill puts it, “men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.”9

On the surface, this may seem like a relatively minor question of definitions, but it has far-reaching political implications. This little change in definitions breaks down the wall between the moral and the political, undermines the idea of a private moral sphere, necessitates the recent half-century-long explosion of state intervention into the intellectual sphere, and ironically unleashes the countervailing “moral coercion” of political correctness, “wokeness,” and so-called cancel culture. Along the way, it undermines the case for economic liberty and provides a major boost for socialism.

Almost immediately after this reconceptualization of liberty, Anglo-American liberalism coalesced around a divided view of liberty. While advocating laissez-faire in speech and private choices, these new liberals increasingly rejected the principle of economic liberty. If, as Mill had argued, social pressuring is tantamount to coercion, then the free market becomes, not an expression of liberty but a vast field of potential liberty violations. 

As Mill had remarked in On Liberty, “Whoever undertakes to sell any description of goods to the public, does what affects the interest of other persons, and of society in general; and thus his conduct, in principle, comes within the jurisdiction of society.”10 Mill himself, for the most part, defended the free market on pragmatic grounds, but he had blasted away its intellectual roots in the foundational concept of liberty. (Famously, he inserted a series of chapters on socialism in the later editions of his Principles of Political Economy in which he called for experiments to test whether or not socialism could be rendered practical.)

Mill wasn’t the first thinker of the industrial age to raise concerns about the free market. Adam Smith and David Ricardo had worried about economic power and questioned the justice of markets under certain circumstances. Socialists and communists had argued that economic power could crush the liberty of the working class. But it was Mill who married these two critical threads, thus injecting the socialist critique of the free market into the theoretical heart of increasingly mainstream liberalism by reshaping the very notion of liberty itself.

The steady abandonment of free markets by thinkers after Mill was a marked break with the laissez-faire philosophy of the early liberals, but the logic of Mill’s reconceptualization of liberty extended even deeper into the heart of liberalism. 

The second step over the transom was a massive expansion of governmental intervention into the realm of ideas. If the private actions of private individuals can constitute violations of intellectual freedom, then government should rectify such violations by supporting unpopular ideas and art. Mill himself spoke of the advantages of “endowed institutions for education, and...a leisured class” supported by government. Such an intellectual Establishment would have, in Mill’s view, “security, far greater than has ever existed in America, against the tyranny of public opinion over the individual mind.”11

In the US, this took the form of government endowments for arts and letters, small at first but exploding as part of LBJ’s Great Society, as well as America’s massive system of government-sponsored higher education. Debate over the wisdom and propriety of such government sponsorship is a topic for another day, but the Millian understanding of liberty placed a heavy political stamp on these institutions. When public officials have sought to block funding for art that was obscene or offensive to various religious or other groups, this has been assailed as a violation of free speech.

To this point in the logic of Millian liberty, the political shifts were generally subsumed under the rubric of liberalism, but that logic eventually worked its way out in a break with the very notion of liberalism itself. This is the rise of avowedly illiberal “woke” culture, “cancel culture” (on both the left and the right), and the whole range of tribal identity politics.

Once one’s liberty is considered to be violated by social pressuring, every disagreement can be construed as a “microaggression,” every failure to announce one’s preferred pronouns can be seen as “moral coercion” against gender-nonconformists. “Hate speech” is viewed as a crime punishable by law, and even silence, the failure to affirm one’s support for a socially important cause, “acts like a weapon.”12

And on the other side, every lapse in fealty toward the former president is condemned as “disenfranchising” his millions of supporters. A US senator loudly complains that a private company’s decision not to publish his book is censorship and violates the First Amendment (a complaint which is, of course, widely reported in the media).13

Any supposed assault on one’s identity becomes, not a disagreement to be discussed rationally, but a violation of one’s liberty.

Moreover, it becomes imperative to punish supposed offenders, not merely argue with them. Just as it is a breach of justice for the government to let a proven criminal off the hook, so it is incumbent upon the tribal warriors to “cancel”—or worse—whoever has transgressed against them.  If Barry Goldwater was right to say that “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and  “[m]oderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue,” then, by the logic of Mill’s redefinition of liberty, cancel culture is only doing what it must. In other words, the new illiberalism of both the left and the right is a direct, logical outgrowth of the liberalism espoused by John Stuart Mill.

Of course, this was far from Mill’s intention. On Liberty was written to promote what, in another essay, Mill termed “the free and bold spirit of inquiry,”14 and elsewhere “free and manly enquiry.”15 Mill holds an ideal of active, even contentious debate on important issues, especially issues of ethics, social norms, and politics. Nevertheless, in what might be thought of as a Frankensteinian tragedy, Mill’s radical reconceptualization of liberty has lumbered forward through history as the gravest threat to the very individuality it was intended to defend.

The Lockean classical liberal idea of freedom as freedom from coercion had a conceptual clarity to it. While of course every concept has grey areas, such as what exactly constitutes a threat of violence, the idea of coercion with its root in actual physical violence is conceptually clear. In areas of law, backed by coercive government punishment, conceptual clarity is a paramount value: One cardinal aim of any legal system should be that its subjects know what the law requires. Argumentation and disputes, including moral disputes, admit of degrees, shades of grey, and mutual tolerance. Liberty violations do not. By breaking down the barrier between the spheres of morality and law, our new, post-Millian concept of liberty unleashed the vicious rancor that characterizes today’s politics.

One salutary effect of the Trump era has been the backlash against the new tribalism. Beginning with the “NeverTrump” right, and joined by center-left liberals who recognize the threat to liberty on their side of the aisle, a new group of intellectuals has begun to coalesce around, not an agenda, but an approach. There is some hope for genuinely fruitful political discussion—the kind of discussion John Stuart Mill himself fervently wished for, even as he planted the intellectual seeds of its destruction.

Robert Garmong is a writer and philosopher based in Dalian, China. He can be found on Twitter @rgarmong.


Haagh, L. (2019). The case for universal basic income. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.


2021 Index of Economic Freedom. https://www.heritage.org/index/about. Accessed 15 March, 2021.


See Stanley Fish’s essay. “Liberalism Doesn’t Exist.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 1987, no. 6, 1987, pp. 997–1001. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1372594. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.


Locke, J., & Nidditch, P. H. (1979). An essay concerning human understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 17.


 Locke, J., & Laslett, P. (1963). Two treatises of government. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2.19.


Two Treatises, 2.6.


On Liberty 3, ¶¶3-4.


Mill to Harriet Taylor Mill, 29 January [1854], Collected Works, vol. XIV. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 141-2. Hereafter cited as Works.


On Liberty, Ch. 1, ¶1.


On Liberty, Ch. 5, ¶4.


Works, vol. XVIII, p. 85.


“White silence on social media: Why not saying anything is actually saying a lot,” Christina Capatides, CBS News, June 3. 2020


“It’s time to stand up against the muzzling of America,” Josh Hawley, New York Post, Jan. 24, 2020


“On Punishment.” Works, vol. XXI, p. 77.


“Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews,” Works, vol. XXI, p. 250.