Sunday, February 3, 2013

One Liberalism Through the Ages

This was originally published at Open Left, I am republishing it here as a starting point to further updates on these topics and themes. - D.

Last weekend Paul wrote:

Moreover, by the 1870s, British liberals had become quite aware that their previous understanding of economic freedom was a hollow joke, producing vast legions of downtrodden urban poor, and so they began seeking another way to think about freedom, closer to that which slaves have always understood-freedom as a gaining of power for those at the bottom, not to be dominated from above, but to be lifted up by collective support for one another: in short, the New Liberalism of Britain, which 60 years later arrived in America in the form of the New Deal. 

I've been meaning to write about this for some time, and now I promised Paul I would, so here's a first installment on the topic.  Understanding the transition liberals made from unfettered free market economics in the mid 1800s to the interventionist government model post New Deal is key to making sense of the ideological morass which humanity transitioned through in the past 400 years.  I know opinions differ on this subject, and many on the left see a meaningful distinction between progressivism and liberalism, or between classic liberalism and modern social liberalism.  I do not.  They're all liberals, even though there can be notable policy distinctions between various groups of liberals, there is still only one liberalism, and it is the same liberalism as began (or at least took form) with John Locke in the late 1600s.

This is a daunting topic.  When I first became politically aware in my late teens, and pondered what "liberal" and "conservative" meant beyond the trite caricature presented by the contemporary political parties or newspaper discourse, I discovered that no one of any academic merit had particularly good (or widely accepted) answers to this.  For example, I have written of how Conservatives cannot define "conservativism."  If better read and smarter people cannot reach concurrence, forgive my temerity in making a run at it too.  Ideology is at the core of what drives politics and any improvement of our understanding of the topic is worthwhile.  The confusion about the topic allows a lot of people who aren't liberals (like libertarians who call themselves "classic liberals") to be confused for them, and others who should be allies to create unnecessary distinctions and look at one another with distrust over what are differences not in core ethics, but technical mechanics.  It is strange that we all generally able to spot liberal and conservative ideas intuitively yet seemingly no one can can agree on what these things are.  We are left with too many definitions that rest on the specific policy preferences of the ideological groups at different points in history.  Just as modern conservatives who love free trade are not really different from past conservatives who loved tariffs and mercantilism, today's liberals who want limitations on trade are not a different species from their Corn Law repealing bretherin of 1846.

In this iteration of the project, I'm going to rely mostly on Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe, a liberal who studies questions of ideology.  It is more of a reliance on appeal to authority than I want to rest this on, but congealing the sea of philosophers and developments into a coherent story is more than I can pull off this week.

Ok, What is Liberalism then?

To begin to show that "classic" liberals are just liberals operating in a different socio-political environment, we need a definition that could plausible cover both groups.  Wolfe provides a really good one:  "As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take."

In a radio interview Wolfe once gave, he highlighted the concept of autonomy as vital to liberalism.  It is distinct (ironically considering the etymology of the word) from "liberty" (or "freedom").  I have never liked the word liberty.  Perhaps it is because those who extol it most often seem to be referring to the liberty of a predator to consume prey.  What of the liberty of the prey not to be eaten?  Liberty and freedom are negative concepts.  They imply merely the absence of formal restraint (usually by the state).  However autonomy is a richer and more complete concept.  It is akin to the distinction Martin Luther King Jr. once drew between peace that was merely the absence of violence, and peace which contained the presence of justice.  Thus it is not merely enough to remove the chains that bind humanity, if they are left destitute in the street to wander aimlessly and hungry.  Autonomy requires the capacity to pursue goals.  It is still individualistic, but allows for the real support all of us need from without to make any of those goals a reality.

A shorter definition from Wolfe's might be "As many people as possible should have as much autonomy as feasible."  Indeed, Wolfe has probably said as much, and likely uses the longer version as the word autonomy requires explanation.  Much more can be said about this, and I think there are even other valid (probably longer) definitions of liberalism possible, but this one satisfies my need.  For one thing it should be evident that conservatives cannot really claim to exist under this definition.  The long history of conservativism, as Phil Agre wrote in a famous piece, is one of hierarchy and inequality.  But what about libertarians?  How are they distinct from this?

What Liberalism is not

Well for one thing note that Wolfe's definition lacks any mention of an economic system.  Wolfe comments on the topic:

The idea that liberalism comes in two forms assumes that the most fundamental question facing mankind is how much government intervenes into the economy. To me, perhaps because so little of the means of production lies under my control, this is a remarkably uninteresting subject. I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do. 

Agree with that or not (I do), it is not surprising his definition does not require reference to economics.  In my own mental model of society, economics is the engine of the car.  Engines are obviously very important to the overall functioning of the car.  However, they are not the purpose of the car.  They are also able to vary significantly in theory.  So long as it can provide power to turn an axle, who cares how the engine does it?  In practice, car engines almost all work on the same principles, and the laws of physics limit the practicality of many alternative models.  So it seems with economics.  Capitalism may be the greatest economic system possible, or it may be the best we have tried so far, and others still untried will prove much better.  Liberalism can be agnostic on this topic.  If it employs capitalism, it will delve into the best way to tune and tweak that engine for maximum output, but it will remember that the engine is not the car, and what is good for the engine is not necessarily best for the car.

Wolfe's definition also does not make reference to the State.  It does not specify a big state, or a small one.  Virtually every definition of libertarianism or conservativism seems to rest upon some goal of smaller government and a minimized state.  In short, for Wolfe, the state should be as big or small as it needs to be to provide the most autonomy for the most people.  The economic system should be the one that does the same.

Let me provide a non-Wolfe source to bolster this claim, Francis Fukuyama, discussing the views of Adam Smith:

Smith is, however, no straightforward partisan of liberalism. He says that the prototypical bourgeois virtue of prudence earns only our "cold esteem"; his analysis, in the Wealth of Nations, of the deadening effects of the division of labor on the worker in the pin factory served as the basis for Marx's concept of alienation. For Smith, liberal commercial society is clearly second best, to be preferred only because the best regime is incapable of realization. A society in which virtue is placed front and center - a theocracy, for example - produces unexpected and counterproductive consequences, including hypocrisy and moral lassitude in the orthodox, and fanaticism and opposition in the heterodox. Smith preferred a "free market of religions," in which the need to attract followers promotes active belief, and the diversity of sects keeps fanaticism in check - something not unlike the actual condition of sectarian Protestantism in the United States. If religious belief, nonetheless, tends to erode over time, there are other sources of moral behavior. 

(Emphasis mine) For some the claim that Smith is a liberal is contentious, and certainly libertarians often see him as one of them, but here we see even Smith is actually not primarily concerned with economics, but morality.  He arrives at his economic conclusions by eliminating other options that do not bring the type of moral society he envisions.

Adding More History

Still, we are not yet ready to explain why contemporary libertarians fail to meet Wolfe's definition.  We return to Wolfe for a brief synopsis of the development from classic to social liberalism:

In the 18th century, legacies of feudalism and the rules of mercantilism created a situation in which free markets could both allow people greater control over their lives and at the same time spread that capacity to others. Smith, although claimed today by libertarians, was a liberal, indeed one of the great liberal thinkers, not because he made such a lasting contribution to economic theory but because he developed a moral philosophy respecting both freedom and equality. Under conditions of contemporary capitalism, by contrast, individual autonomy is threatened by poverty, economic instability, and concentrated corporate power. Using government to control economic fluctuations, as Keynes argued, gave society the capacity both to improve the ability of any one person to become more autonomous as well as to extend the same notion more broadly. Keynes, a member of the British Liberal Party, was never a socialist. He, like Smith, was a liberal because he too respected both freedom and equality. 

You have to consider Smith's vision of capitalism in contrast to what it displaced, the mercantilism and even legacy of feudalism which dominated life.  Capitalism was simply better than those in providing autonomy.  A feudal peasant is simply born into a caste from which he can almost certainly never escape.  The mercantilist worker may draw some sentimental happiness from the success of her nation in the zero-sum competition with other nations, but her lot does not really change whether or not her nation secures that choice colony in the New World.

Flash forward to a world in which feudalism has shrivelled to nearly naught, and mercantilism has begun to give way to capitalism.  Where are liberals?  They've won a major battle, but now must re-evaluate what they have really accomplished and where to go from there.

This is the slow march Paul describes at the start.  After all capitalism was new.  It hadn't been done before.  Smith and other liberals who followed him had high hopes, but the results did not pan out as well as desired.  Better than feudalism?  Sure.  Good enough?  No.

Now we're ready to arrive at our answer for the libertarians:  Yes, in many ways their policy preferences today map very well to the policies pushed by liberals like John Bright and Richard Cobden in the UK, Jefferson and Madison in the US or William Lyon MacKenzie in Canada.  The classic liberals.  However the difference is that those men did not have the extra 150 years of experience with the reality of capitalism.  Libertarians have stuck to a set of beliefs that liberals abandoned because they weren't serving the true goals of liberalism.  Rather than assume libertarian thinkers are unaware of this history, we must conclude that they either do not share the same goals as liberals, or lack the rational capacity to reach the correct conclusions about the empirical policy record.

While in regrettable individuals it is sometimes the latter reason, most often the difference is the rejection of autonomy by libertarians, and generally all forms of positive liberties.  The mere absence of enforced state monopolies and divinely empowered noble figures dominating life had not proved sufficient to create a society of general autonomy, and so liberals have looked to various ways through the State to provide it.  Libertarians have resisted these.  Liberty outweighs autonomy for them.

While that's defensible on many philosophical grounds, it is not what liberalism is about, even if it amounted once to what liberals of a certain era were about in specific policy terms. Libertarians today can worship markets and reject positive liberty if they want, but they're 150 years late to the classic liberal party.  It's a free country, they can call themselves what they want, but they're just revealing that they never understood what liberalism was really about to begin with when they employ the term.  Liberalism didn't betray its roots by embracing the welfare state, that was the natural response to the results of an early iteration of liberal policy real world experiment.

There is one liberalism that has pursued the same broad goals through different means.

In my next attempt at climbing this mountain, I will try to elaborate more on the specific progression of thought and events along that road for liberals in several nations.

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