Often in political and philosophical discussions, the reasoning can appear to be something like “Whatever you think that thing is (be it an idea, concept, object or maxim), actually it is the opposite.”
Up is down, black is white, dogs and cats actually love each other, etc. But when it comes to this particular word at hand, that’s exactly how it is. “Liberal” means almost precisely the opposite of what most of us think it means.
“Liberal” as a political term is really about individuality. The idea is that the individual is the core unit of society, and it is the individual’s rights that are paramount in a political calculus. Rights of the government, be it local or federal, or the rights of the community are always subservient to the individual.
Freedom is freedom of the individual to do what they please so far as it doesn’t harm anyone. The individual retains ownership of property as opposed to a group of people, like a government. Even a corporation composed of many people is legally considered an individual, and accumulates wealth just like an individual.
To whatever degree you accept these ideas you are a “liberal.” If you accept them unequivocally, you might be called a libertarian; to reject them utterly you might be called a communitarian (not the same as communist) and of course there are many in-between shades. Pretty much every democracy in the world is a liberal democracy, ones that for the most part espouse these ideas of rights, liberty and property.
But notice – doesn’t this sound an awful lot like ideas that are espoused by the U.S. right-wing? Any one of those ideas could have come right out of the mouth of Newt Gingrich or George Bush and you’d probably not bat an eye. The American right-wing are the true political liberals, not Democrats and leftists.
In fact, it seems that being politically left is in part a commitment to honor the rights of communities, especially disenfranchised and marginalized communities. But this just means that by definition the left is actually far les liberal than the right, if we take political terms seriously and not parochially.
The reason that we often identify the word liberal with the left probably has something to do with the sense of the word meaning something more like overflowing, broad, generous; the analogy being that leftists are generous in our political leanings, or something like that. To get where the real political term comes from just consider the word “liberty”, as in freedom. This goes back to the Latin word “liberalis” that referred to a free man, that is, a man with money who was free of having to work.
So calling a philosophy that seeks to maximally protect individual freedom “liberal” makes perfect sense. In fact it makes more sense than our current usage. At any rate, next time someone calls you a liberal, you’ll have something to distract them from the inevitable end of the conversation, wherein they call you a dirty hippie.