Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Meaning of Liberalism (Part 2): The Shift from Old to New Liberalism

Introduction: This is the second-part in the series on the meaning of liberalism. It will explore how liberalism shifted from the libertarian kind to the modern, statist "liberalism" we have come to know. For Part 1, see here

Now, having laid out the wonderful heritage of classical liberalism, we will explore how this type of liberalism was abandoned for the modern-day liberalism which celebrates wealth redistribution, social democracy, a strong central government, collectivism, and a host of other interventions from the government. First, we will look at the term "liberal" and how it went from the individualists to the progressives. Then, we will look at some of the flaws within classical liberalism itself that led to the shift from old to modern liberalism.

First, let us look at the term "liberal." How did that term shift from the belief held by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Locke, Frederic Bastiat, Benjamin Constant, Lord Acton, Adam Smith, James Mill, and the liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the belief held by modern-day "liberals" as Saul Alinsky, John Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, John Maynard Keynes, Barack Obama, John Rawls, Paul Krugman, Jeremy Bentham (who was originally a classical liberal), John Stuart Mill (for more information on John Stuart Mill, readers are requested to refer to Murray N. Rothbard's An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Vol. II, chapter 8) and many others. Ralph Raico documents in his 1992 history of classical liberalism that the change was partly because of "the new class of intellectuals that proliferated everywhere. That they owed their very existence to the wealth generated by the capitalist system did not prevent most of them from incessantly gnawing away at capitalism, indicting it for every problem they could point to in modern society." Also, "the rise of democracy may well have contributed to liberalism’s decline by aggravating an age-old feature of politics — the scramble for special privilege. Businesses, labor unions, farmers, bureaucrats, and other interest groups vied for state privileges — and found intellectual demagogues to rationalize their depredations. The area of state control grew, at the expense, as William Graham Sumner pointed out, of 'the forgotten man' — the quiet, productive individual who asks no favor of government and, through his work, keeps the whole system going." Also, in America and Britain, "social reformers around the dawn of the 20th century conceived a particularly clever gambit." The reformers hated the term with a vengeance, and thus "they hijacked the term 'liberal.'" What followed was tragedy and war, particularly in the form of World War I; a reversion to the ancien regime ensued, with increasing federal control and statism. The Marxists claimed the mantle of progressivism that was originally the helm of the classical liberals and the radicals (the term which was used for the more extreme of the classical liberals), and they brought death and destruction instead in the form of the Russian Revolution. 

The central force behind this reversal, as Murray Rothbard documented in the first chapter of For A New Liberty, was conservatism. It was, in the words of Rothbard, "a conscious attempt to undo and destroy the hated work of the new classical liberal spirit," being led by two reactionary thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre and Louis Jacques Maurice de Bonald, as well as the ex-libertarian Edmund Burke. Conservatism "yearned to replace equal rights and equality before the law by the structured and hierarchical rule of privileged elites; individual liberty and minimal government by absolute rule and Big Government; religious freedom by the theocratic rule of a State church; peace and free trade by militarism, mercantilist restrictions, and war for the advantage of the nation-state; and industry and manufacturing by the old feudal and agrarian order." However, by the end of the 19th century, the conservatives quickly realized that they would fail if they stated their goals explicitly, because, as Ralph Raico said, "liberalism was the spectre haunting Europe — and the world." Thus, as Rothbard noted, the conservatives "decided to shift their gears and to update their statist creed by jettisoning outright opposition to industrialism and democratic suffrage. For the old conservatism's frank hatred and contempt for the mass of the public, the new conservatives substituted duplicity and demagogy." These new conservatives (or neoconservatives, as they had come to be known in the mid-20th century) claimed to admire capitalism, liberty, and private property; yet at the same time they supported regulations on business for the "public good," organized, top-down cooperation, war, protectionism (Pat Buchanan-style), and a "strong national defense," which in reality was a strong "empire." Thus, rather than looking to absolute monarchy to fulfill their goals, the conservatives looked to democracy, which was originally the goal of the classical liberals, to engineer the citizenry and establish daily "consent" to the increasing state. They "had to gull the public in many crucial and fundamental ways," such as convincing them that "tyranny was better than liberty, that a cartelized and privileged industrial feudalism was better for the consumers than a freely competitive market, that a cartelized monopoly was to be imposed in the name of antimonopoly, and that war and military aggrandizement for the benefit of the ruling elites was really in the interests of the conscripted, taxed, and often slaughtered public." They did this by using the intellectual forces of the day, for "in all societies, public opinion is determined by the intellectual classes." They allied the intellect with the State, the professor with the city official, the scholar with the president, and many other statist alliances with the intellectuals. Thus, after all this, the statist conservatives "appropriated to themselves the words 'liberal' and 'progressive,' and successfully managed to tar their laissez-faire opponents with the charge of being old-fashioned, 'Neanderthal,' and 'reactionary.' Even the name 'conservative' was pinned on the classical liberals. And, as we have seen, the new statists were able to appropriate the concept of 'reason' as well."

Now having laid out the truth behind the co-opting of liberalism by the statists and the conservatives, let us look at some of the inward flaws within the classical liberals themselves, as well as in many of the nineteenth-century manifestations of classical liberalism. The flaw was a change from early libertarian radicalism to "conservative" gradualism, from purity to compromise, from revolution to evolution. 

What happened to the classical liberals that they should fail and that liberalism became the mantle of the statists and conservatives? What happened that they should abandon their fervor for liberty and be content with their partial victories? The classical liberals, as Murray N. Rothbard documented in his classic essay "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," "increasingly abandoned their radical fervor and, therefore, their liberal goals, to rest content with a mere defense of the uninspiring and defective status quo." The two roots were "the abandonment of natural rights and 'higher law' theory for utilitarianism" and "evolutionism, or Social Darwinism, which put the finishing touches to liberalism as a radical force in society." The first root resulted in the lack of the framework that resulted in the success of classical liberalism in the first place. The second root, which saw the world through rose-colored glasses and through Darwinian utopianism, tarred the reputation of classical liberalism among many moralists, particularly amongst Bible-believing evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics. This fatal flaw was exemplified in the libertarian Herbert Spencer. While Herbert Spencer was not the Social Darwinist statist historians claimed him to be, Murray Rothbard documented that he "began as a magnificently radical liberal, indeed virtually a pure libertarian." Sadly, "as the virus of sociology and Social Darwinism took over in his soul, Spencer abandoned libertarianism as a dynamic historical movement, although at first without abandoning it in pure theory." Thus, Spencer went too far in his optimism and became the naive caricature of libertarians among many liberals and conservatives. Also, as Rothbard documented further in his essay, "the classical liberals began their shift from radicalism to quasi-conservatism in the early nineteenth century." This was exemplified, particularly among British classical liberals, in their attitude toward the liberation struggle in Ireland. Their blindness resulted in the British classical liberals abandoning their liberalism for gradualism. Therefore, "there was no longer a party of hope in the Western world, no longer a 'Left' movement to lead a struggle against the state and against the unbreached remainder of the Old Order." What would replace the classical liberal society of the late 18th century and much of the 19th century? Who would be the "leftists" in place of the classical liberals?

The answer to that question was socialism. It was a mixture of the classical-liberal ideal and the conservative ideal, that sought for libertarian ends through statist/conservative means. In "Left and Right," Murray Rothbard documents that contrary to the idea of most libertarians and conservatives, socialism is not the diametrical opposite of libertarianism (or classical liberalism, as the two terms are synonymous in my opinion. Rather, socialism "accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc." Because of this gaping contradiction within the socialist creed, there existed two very different strands of socialism; "one was the right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism; but especially the smashing of the state apparatus to achieve the 'withering away of the State' and the 'end of the exploitation of man by man.'" Surprisingly, as Rothbard further shows, the Marxist theory “replacement of the government by men by the administration of things” was actually a harkening back to earlier French libertarians as Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. The other "Marxist" theory about "class struggle" was actually a corrupted version of the classical-liberal/libertarian class theory, "except that for Dunoyer and Comte the inherently antithetical classes were not businessmen versus workers, but the producers in society (including free businessmen, workers, peasants, etc.) versus the exploiting classes constituting, and privileged by, the State apparatus." Having fallen prey to the inner contradiction between liberalism (or libertarianism) and conservatism, the socialists "turned sharply rightward, "completely abandoned the old libertarian goals and ideals of revolution and the withering away of the State and became cozy conservatives permanently reconciled to the State, the status quo, and the whole apparatus of neo-mercantilism, State monopoly capitalism, imperialism, and war that was rapidly being established and riveted on European society at the turn of the twentieth century." Thus, the conservatives "had re-formed and regrouped to try to cope with a modern industrial system and had become a refurbished mercantilism, a regime of statism, marked by State monopoly privilege, in direct and indirect forms, to favored capitalists and to quasi-feudal landlords." Thus, we see modern examples such as government surveillance, wiretapping, and a host of other violations from the government of the right to privacy. Not only that, we see conservatives defending the surveillance state, as they did during the Bush Administration (2001-08), with the Patriot Act that set the stage for a massive surveillance enterprise that would wiretap into the cellphones, emails, and snail-mail of the American people. 

Here is the tragic story of how the wonderful ideology of classical liberalism was turned into the modern, faux "liberalism" of today. It is a sad story to remind us Christians that we should not give up or compromise on the Gospel message; otherwise, it will be watered down to a point where the Gospel is barely recognizable. It is also a reminder to us libertarians that we should not compromise on the libertarian message. While we may have disagreements within libertarian circles over intellectual property, abortion, federalism and states' rights, anarchism and the role of government, we should always agree on this thing: our enemy is the State, and for the Christian, our enemy is Satan.

Fortunately, with all this abandonment of genuine, classical liberalism and radicalism, there gleamed a ray of light within libertarian movements throughout the 20th century, with leaders from the Old Right, a movement of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to opposing the New Deal and U.S. entry into World Wars I and II. It was also dedicated to restoring the Old Republic that our Founding Fathers fought and died for (though the more extreme of the Old Right libertarians sought to restore the Articles of Confederation that existed before the Constitution). The group consisted of people such as Albert Jay Nock, H. L. Mencken, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane (the only living daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder), Garet Garett, Robert Taft, Charles Lindbergh, Leonard E. Read (founder of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)), Frank Chodorov, Zora Neale Hurston, Ayn Rand, F. A. Harper (founder of The Institute for Humane Studies (IHS)), John T. Flynn, and Murray N. Rothbard. It even included non-libertarians such as Herbert Hoover, who criticized FDR for going too far with the New Deal. In his book The Betrayal of the American Right, Murray Rothbard links the Old Right to the modern libertarian movement. Hope was not lost. There are still libertarians in this country who are dedicated to the principles of the old liberals and who seek to restore our country to the classical-liberal principles on which it was founded on, and not only that, the libertarians of today want to surpass the classical liberals of the past and apply their principles more consistently. 

For the next part of the series, I will explore whether the classical liberal political philosophy (otherwise known as libertarianism) is compatible with orthodox, biblical Christianity.