Politics & Policy

Whose Liberalism?

The curious career of two ideas and one word.

There is a great deal of argument on the subject of capitalism that could be superseded by coming to some agreement about what we talk about when we talk about capitalism. If by “capitalism” we mean (a) what happens when a few million grocers and the mind-bendingly complex chains of production behind them compete for the custom of a few hundred million hungry Americans, that’s one thing; if by “capitalism” we mean (b) bank bailouts and General Electric’s defense-contracting division, that’s another thing. There are critics of capitalism who argue that (a) leads inevitably to (b); one need not necessarily take a position on the merits of that claim to understand that (a) and (b) are nonetheless different things, and that if we take “capitalism” to mean (b) then we need another term — “free enterprise,” “laissez-faire,” etc. — to denote (a).

Across a not-insubstantial spectrum of political debate, the common term for (a) is “economic liberalism,” but in the contemporary context — particularly the contemporary American context — that presents some difficulty, too, as evidenced by Katrina Forrester’s new essay in The Nation, “Liberalism Doesn’t Start With Liberty.” Forrester, a lecturer in the history of political thought at Queen Mary University, London, begins with a strange assertion: that the idea of liberalism as a consent-oriented view rooted in the work of John Locke and based on “toleration, private property, and individualism” is in effect a propaganda coup, “a recent invention. It is, in fact, largely a product of the Cold War. . . . Before the 1930s, histories of liberalism told a different story.” The claim is false on its face: We find that conception of historical liberalism fully developed as early as Ludwig von Mises’s Nation, State, and Economy, published in 1919, to say nothing of Adam Smith’s attention to “liberal” policy in a rather more well-known work in 1776. (If you would like a few charts illustrating the historical use of the word “liberal,” Daniel B. Klein obliges in The Atlantic here.) Mises was writing not in the context of the Cold War but in the context of the trauma of the First World War; the book’s original title was Imperialism, and that tendency, rather than socialism, is the evil to which Mises addresses his criticism. The French use of libéral to denote political ideas emphasizing individual liberties dates to the 18th century, its adoption by critics of the English proponents of those ideas at least to the first year of the 19th. That the common understanding of “liberalism” and its origins is a Cold War invention surely would come as a surprise to the ghosts of Peel and Gladstone.

Forrester would be correct if she were arguing that what we now commonly call “liberalism” is a very different phenomenon from the one Smith and Locke had in mind, one with its origins in the early 19th century and heavily influenced by Bismarck’s social-welfare state and the experiments of so-called pragmatists in the United States. But unless I am grievously misreading her, that is not her argument; rather, her assertion is that our contemporary understanding of liberalism is a fraud perpetrated by opponents of socialism who invented for themselves an intellectual pedigree that “harked back to an imaginary nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism.”

There is something more at work here than exercises in political brand-building. For the Left, “liberalism” means a social and political program that evolved to address the perceived shortcomings and excesses of capitalism as practiced in the 19th and 20th centuries; for the Right, what we today call “liberalism” is in reality a reaction against liberalism, with such factors as laissez-faire economic policies, constitutional government, individual rights, property, etc., forming a unitary whole. Forrester writes of F. A. Hayek’s “willingness to belittle politics,” which is a very strange claim to make about a man who wrote a massive book on the organization of politics, covering every subject from constitutionalism to the role of labor unions to planning-and-zoning laws. Hayek, like the liberals who came before and after him, believed that the liberal economic order and the liberal political order are intrinsically linked. (Modern experiences ranging from Northern European welfare states to Singapore suggest that these linkages, while real, are less robust and operate in a less straightforward manner than Hayek assumed in The Road to Serfdom and elsewhere.) This is important to understand because the Left’s fundamental intellectual defect — at least in the critique of those liberals who are now obliged to call ourselves “conservatives” — is that it seeks to establish something very much like the arbitrary princely powers that Smith and Hayek warned against, and that Washington fought against. The Left believes that this power can be made benevolent not by the strengthening of democracy — that is not precisely right — but rather by making ever-greater portions of society subject to arbitrary princely powers when those powers enjoy the endorsement of a plebiscite, as though handing over Augustus’s powers to the tribune of the plebs would constrain the imperial tendency.

Whether we call what the Left believes “liberalism,” “progressivism,” or pumpkin pie, we must address that assumption.

This speaks to an ancient but fundamental disagreement over the nature of human beings and, consequently, over the nature of human society. Conservatives — those who seek to conserve the liberal national order formalized by the founding of the American republic — tend to be oriented toward process, toward a narrow reading not only of Constitution and statute but also of the meaning of rights (negative) and the role of the state (limited); in our view, rights are enjoyed by individuals rather than by collectives, even when those rights are exercised in aggregate. Forrester characterizes this habit as “polar thinking,” and against it opposes what she calls “practical thinking” and “practical compromise.” Readers of Jonah Goldberg will be familiar with the endless mutations of familiar ideology that are folded into the assumptions of self-proclaimed pragmatists.

Forrester has no patience for the “unbridled individualism of the market economist,” just as John Nichols, also writing in The Nation, laments “unfettered capitalism,” a favorite phrase among so-called liberals (Chris Hedges invokes it in The Death of the Liberal Class). Which brings us back to a linguistic question: What is the opposite of “unbridled”? What is the opposite of “unfettered”? Excising the negative prefixes and considering the implications is a much more illuminating argument that “liberalism,” as we perversely call it, “doesn’t start with liberty” than anything one might read in The Nation lately.

Suetonius reports Caligula’s stated wish that “all Romans had one neck.” From a purely practical point of view, it would be easier to affix a bridle that way. A “liberalism” that is chiefly concerned with the many clever uses of bridles and fetters does not deserve the name. It never has.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.


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