In the American context the labels liberal and conservative are used in an ahistorical way---more as terms of opprobrium than as accurate designations for what people actually believe about political life. Liberals and conservatives alike differ less on fundamental principles than on who can better claim custody over the same principles---the principles of, well, liberalism.
The liberalism of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill. After all, the Declaration of Independence is a liberal document, unquestioningly accepting that popular consent stands at the origin of political authority. As Alasdair MacIntyre has put it, in the Western world there are conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals, but all adhere to the basic principles of liberalism.
So what accounts for the differences between Democrats and Republicans, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? What separates them is that each represents a different stage in the larger development of liberalism. Those who do not like what liberalism has become in recent decades have not repudiated it as such but have tried instead to hold onto it and return it to an earlier form---one thought to be purer and closer to its original meaning. I believe liberalism can be traced through five stages of development.
1. The Hobbesian commonwealth
The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes set forth an alternative story to the biblical redemptive narrative of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. For Hobbes, history consisted of a grand movement away from a chaotic state of nature and toward a civil order presided over by a sovereign capable of keeping the peace. The key to this change was a contract among individuals motivated by fear of a violent death to seek a more peaceful state. Only an all-powerful sovereign could put an end to the war of all against all and bring about more agreeable conditions. Hobbes's sovereign could do no wrong legally and morally speaking, because he was the source of law. But there were real practical limitations on his power, for if he pushed his subjects too far they might decide to take their chances with the state of nature once again and try to unseat him.
2. The night watchman state
This second stage in liberalism's development is most associated with John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson. The narrative structure is still the same. According to Locke, the state of nature produces certain inconveniences that can be remedied only by individuals entering into a contract to establish a civil government. If the Hobbesian sovereign is established to protect life, the Lockean government is set up to defend life, liberty, and property---or, as Jefferson put it, the pursuit of happiness. Government remains small and allows sovereign individuals to pursue their own respective goods as they understand them. With respect to economic life, government limits itself to setting and enforcing the rules of the game, allowing the players to seek their own advantage. The net result will be a spontaneous order emerging, almost providentially, out of all this self-seeking.
3. The regulatory state
In reality, of course, self-seeking, while undoubtedly producing certain material benefits, did indeed lead to abuses, such as those engendered by the early factory system: excessively long work days and weeks, dangerous working conditions, and low wages due to a surplus of potential laborers in the marketplace. In its third stage, liberals call on government to rectify these abuses. Theodore Roosevelt is a paradigmatic figure, in so far as he brought the power of government to bear in checking an "industrial baronage" represented by the large corporate concerns. The U.S. Congress passed the Sherman and Clayton Antitrust Acts in 1890 and 1914 respectively as means of restoring competition to a marketplace now dominated by monopolies. The breakups of Standard Oil in 1911 and of AT&T in 1984 were motivated by this concern.
4. The equal-opportunity state
Each of the previous stages sees the proponents of liberalism undertaking to expand individual freedom---first from fear of death, second from threats to property, and third from economic monopolies. The shift from stage 2 to stage 3 sees a necessary expansion of the apparatus of government. However, many liberals regard this as insufficient. In particular, if the quest for economic advantage is likened to a game, and if government sets the rules of the game, contestants inevitably have an uneven start. Unlike Parker Brothers's famous Monopoly game, in which every player begins with $1,500, real life sees people entering the marketplace with greater or fewer advantages than others. The effect of the Great Depression of the 1930s accentuated the feeling of many liberals that a small night watchman state and even a regulatory state are not enough "to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness," as Franklin Roosevelt expressed it in 1944. This, of course, necessitated another expansion in the apparatus of government, leading to what we now know as the welfare state.
5. The choice-enhancement state
The welfare state received another boost in the 1960s with President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society." Now the focus shifted yet again to enabling citizens to expand their range of choices, the ordinary constraints that life imposes on one's options now being deemed oppressive. To be sure, there were positive advances for society as a whole in that era, as African Americans, women, and other minorities were incorporated more fully into the body politic and into social and economic life as a whole. Nevertheless, the legitimate liberation of people from past wrongs quickly became a general quest to emancipate everyone from a variety of norms and standards impinging on their own wills. This had immediate effect on sexual mores. Norms inhibiting consensual sexual behavior were discarded, with the state increasingly refraining from judging among a variety of sexual relationships. As Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously put it, "the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."
Paradoxically, however, this changed attitude towards sexuality called for an even larger government apparatus. A government may refrain from judging the choices individuals make, but it cannot decree that these choices will have no negative consequences. With a rising divorce rate and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, government is increasingly called upon to step in to neutralize their negative effects on the population. Fifth-stage liberals typically call on political authorities to cushion the effect of a wide variety of personal choices whose consequences would otherwise be destructive. If divorce exacerbates poverty, government is expected, not to make divorce more difficult since that would limit the right to choose, but to commit more funding to the broken families themselves.
Is Liberalism Circular?
Are there only five stages in liberalism's development? What lies beyond the fifth stage? We cannot say for certain, of course, but there is much to suggest that we may end up doubling back to the first stage. In short, the development of liberalism may prove to be circular. How so? The most famous sentence in the United States Supreme Court's notorious decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) holds the key:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.
This is heady stuff. Just imagine: defining my own concept of the universe and of existence itself. I didn't know I got to do that. Now imagine everyone doing the same thing and you get a pretty grim picture of what could be in store for us. Hobbes had his own expression for it: bellum omnium contra omnes---"the war of all against all." For which, once again, he prescribed the Leviathan, a sovereign ruler knowing no legal or ethical bounds, only practical ones. Is this where we are heading? Are we destined to repeat the whole process again?
The Alternative to Liberalism
We should be aware that all of these stages follow the basic redemptive narrative conditioning the liberal worldview: the pre-political state of nature, wracked with the attendant dangers to life and liberty, followed by the establishment of a civil commonwealth to escape these dangers, by terms of a contract whose parameters are set by its parties. If the commonwealth and the magistrate set over it fail to live up to its terms, the parties to the contract are justified in reclaiming the freedom they sought to protect in the first place. (Notice that circular pattern again.) If government is deemed an obstacle to this freedom, they will then try to keep it as small as possible. If, on the other hand, government can be enlisted to expand this freedom, then so be it. This is how both opponents and proponents of "big government," who seem so diametrically at odds with each other in political debates, can fit under the larger liberal umbrella.
What is the alternative to this overarching liberal framework? One that recognizes what I call the pluriformity of authorities in society. Human society is made up, not just of individuals and the state, but of a variety of authoritative agents, each of which has a unique task in God's world. The diversity of God's creation is not limited to the natural world but includes the rich array of human institutions, communities, associations, and relationships. This creation, in all its fulness, is caught up in the drama, not of a continual expansion of individual freedom and a liberation from perceived oppressions, but of redemption in Jesus Christ---a redemption he will bring to fruition in his own good time at his return.