However, the meaning of words change over time. Perhaps it would be useful to consider the past usage of some of these terms.
Liberal. There is something called Classical Liberalism. Classical liberalism had its heyday in the 1700's. Many of our Founding Fathers would qualify as classical liberals. Classical liberals believe that people have the capacity to do good. Through the use of reason people construct government and the correct structures of government allow for progress over time. Putting together frames of government and constitutions whether on the colonial, state or national level was serious business.
It is interesting to note that classical liberals believed that once the government was ordered correctly the best thing to do was to leave it alone. A good machine of government would work without tinkering.
Classical Conservatives think differently. Classical Conservatives held that the institutions of government and the traditional customs of society embody a kind of collective wisdom. When one makes a change of any sort one should ask if the value is being changed or just the form. Classical Conservatives held that people were just as likely to do evil as they were to do good. The primary purposes of government were these two: defense against external aggression and the maintenance of internal order. Everything else is secondary to these two purposes.
Today's thinking is a little different. Modern liberalism had its origin in the United States in the 1870's and was in full bloom by the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Modern liberalism received perhaps its greatest boost in the time of Franklin Roosevelt. Modern liberals see the government as an advocate as a referee among competing interests and as a protector. The National Medicare, Medicaid, the Departments of Agriculture, Education and Commerce: the list goes on. Today people take it for granted that government has a place in their lives. Particularly since the time of Franklin Roosevelt people see and feel the presence of government in their lives.
The best definition of modern liberal government was that given by former United Nations Ambassador, Congressman, Atlanta mayor and civil rights icon, Andrew Young. "Government" said Young "is the way people get things done."
Today the term "libertarian" has been added to the political discourse. Libertarians believe in maximum freedom and responsibility for the individual. Libertarian government would be startling to some. There would be no laws governing sexual activity or drug use. Taxes would be lower. There would be no foreign aid. There would be no military bases abroad. There would be no Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. There would be no federal aid to education, scientific research, health research or the arts. Government could be summed up in the adage, "Everyone paddles his own canoe."
It seems that there are a few simple questions that would make our often-acrimonious political discussions less toxic. Does something need to be done? In other words, is there a problem or a need? If the answer is yes then at what level should the problem be addressed: local, state or federal? The third question is how much will the solution cost? One can only spend your same dollar once.
There are many shades within the terms I have discussed such as social or fiscal conservative. Unfortunately, it seems that people are often more interested in labels, particularly in labeling the people they disagree with, than they are in discussing issues that affect many.