Samuel Hammond at the Niskanen Center:
The ideals of liberalism seem increasingly under threat these days, so it’s worth reviewing what they are, where they come from, and why it’s essential that they make a comeback (a PDF version of this essay is available here). The first step is to recognize that they were not invented by some obsolete English philosopher. Rather, in their most general form, liberal principles have been rediscovered repeatedly and throughout history as practical tools for reconciling two basic social facts:
- Many of our deepest moral and metaphysical beliefs, like how to live a good life or which God to worship, are inherently contestable — reasonable people can and will disagree;
- We nonetheless all stand to benefit (on our own terms) from a social structure that enables peaceful cooperation.
Take, for instance, our separation of church and state. Yes, the Founding Fathers were cognizant of (and deeply influenced by) great liberal philosophers like John Locke, but the edict that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” had a much more practical origin: the extraordinary religious diversity that permeated colonial America.