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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism

Classical Liberalism vs. Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism

"In the history of politics, there is only one fundamental, abiding issue: It is individualism vs. collectivism... [Yet] American political debates tend to be dominated by modern liberalism and modern conservatism — approaches to politics that are properly called “sociologies” rather than “ideologies.”

Modern liberalism is not completely collectivist; nor is it completely individualistic. It has elements of both doctrines. The same is true of conservatism. Neither view provides a coherent approach to politics, built up from first principles. Instead, they both reflect a process that is akin to picking items from a dinner menu. What is chosen is a matter of taste rather than a matter of thought...

All forms of collectivism in the 20th century rejected the classical liberal notion of rights and all asserted in their own way that need is a claim. For the communists, the needs of the class (proletariat) were a claim against every individual. For the Nazis, the needs of the race were a claim. For fascists (Italian-style) and for architects of the welfare state, the needs of society as a whole were a claim. Since in all these systems the state is the personification of the class, the race, society as a whole, etc., all these ideologies imply that, to one degree or another, individuals have an obligation to live for the state.

One of the difficulties in describing political ideas is that the people who hold them are invariably more varied and complex than the ideas themselves... To even try to use words like “conservative” and “liberal” when describing them is more likely to mislead than to shed any useful light...

Liberals are not advocates of special interest legislation per se. But they are apologists for it in the sense they believe that economic regulations should be decided by democratic political institutions, not by court-enforced rights to freedom of contract. So if butchers, bakers and candlestick makers succeed in obtaining special interest favors from government at the expense of everyone else, that is a legitimate exercise of political power.

The New York Times believes that you have a right to engage in almost any sexual activity in the privacy of your own bedroom. But the Times does not believe you have a fundamental right to rent your bedroom (or any other room) to your sexual partner – or to anyone else for that matter.  Indeed, the Times is fully supportive of the principle of government regulation of who can rent to whom, for how long, under what circumstances, and at what price.

The liberal’s view of rights is closely connected to the issue of trust. The editorial page of The New York Times does not trust government to read our mail or listen to our phone calls — even if the caller is talking to young Arab males behaving suspiciously. Yet the Times editorial writers are completely comfortable with having government control their retirement income, even though Social Security has been managed like a Ponzi scheme. They are also willing to cede control to government over their (and everyone else’s) health care, including the power to make rationing decisions about who lives and who dies!...

Many conservatives, given a free hand, would impose additional government restrictions on our noneconomic liberties. In the past, conservatives were quite willing to control the books and magazines we read, the movies we watch, etc. These were the same people who believed that what went on in the workplace was none of the government’s business...

The U.S. Supreme Court has increasingly sided with the liberal view of rights over the conservative view... you have today an almost unrestrained constitutional right to say whatever you want to say... On the other hand, you have virtually no constitutionally protected rights to acquire and own property or engage in voluntary exchange...

The case for freedom of thought is not stronger than, weaker than, or any different from the case for freedom of contract. Just as there are externalities in the world of commerce, so there are externalities in the world of ideas. Just as public goods exist in the economy, so there are public-good type ideas in the culture...

This helps us understand why consistent classical liberalism makes no distinction between freedom of thought and freedom of commerce. Both are subsumed under the general notion that people have a right to pursue their own happiness in any realm.

Any attempt to argue for differential rights fails on close examination. As noted, most liberals favor minimum wage laws that prevent common laborers from working if they cannot produce goods and services worth, say, $7.25 an hour. Yet these very same pundits would recoil in horror at the idea of a law which prevents people from being authors, playwrights and artists unless they can produce a minimum annual income. On what basis can one argue for economic freedom for musicians, painters and novelists while denying it to everyone else? There is no basis...

Freedom of speech is a meaningless right without the economic right to acquire space, buy a megaphone and invite others to hear your message. Freedom of press is a meaningless right if one does not have the economic right to buy paper, ink and printing presses. Freedom of association is a meaningless right if one cannot own property or rent property or otherwise acquire the right to use the premises where a group can assemble.

The idea that political rights are meaningless without economic rights was made abundantly clear in recent presidential elections in Russia, where international chess star Garry Kasparov sought to challenge President Vladimir Putin’s hand-picked successor. Russian law requires that each candidate be endorsed at a meeting of at least 500 citizens. Yet under pressure from Putin, every landlord in Moscow refused to rent Kasparov’s group a hall where they could hold a meeting. Unable to acquire the economic right to exercise his political right, Kasparov was forced to withdraw from the race...

A variation of modern liberalism is popular among faculties at college campuses. Its adherents reject not only the idea of individual economic rights, but also the idea of individual rights as such. Instead, they believe that people enjoy rights and incur obligations as members of groups...

Adherents of this view believe there is no such thing as an individual right to freedom of speech or expression or association. What rights or privileges you have depend on what group you are a member of, and the state may properly enforce such distinctions. For example, speech that is permissible if the speaker is black might be actionable if the speaker were white, Asian or Hispanic, depending on how the speech affects the sensibilities of other blacks. Or if blacks or Hispanics, say, form groups and exclude others, that is generally permissible; but the same actions by a group of whites or any of the European ethnic groups would probably be proscribed.

Assigning rights and responsibilities to groups rather than individuals is at the heart of collectivism. Political correctness is a sort of barnyard version of collectivism. In this sense, the type of liberalism that is popular on college campuses is far more consistent than mainstream liberalism. This version of liberalism rejects individualism as such.

Such consistency, however, exists only in the abstract. In practice, politically correct liberalism is anything but consistent. For example, the standard justification for giving group A more rights than group B is some injustice committed by B’s ancestors against A’s ancestors. Yet among the black students at Harvard University (all of whom presumably qualify for racial preferences), only one-third are unambiguous descendants of slaves. More than half are immigrants! Harvard and many other prestigious universities are assigning privileges to students not based on past grievances but on skin color alone...

Conservatives who hold [protectionist] beliefs view the world from the right in exactly the same way as some trade unionists view the world from the left. They believe that people are entitled to their jobs for no other reason than that’s what they happen to be doing. They are entitled to their current incomes for no other reason than that’s what they happen to be earning...

[Pat] Buchanan actually has a lot in common with the politically correct crowd on college campuses. He believes, for example, that Christians, Muslims and Jews should not have to tolerate irreverent insults to their beliefs and has even hinted that it may be permissible to outlaw blasphemy...

In American politics these days, it is increasingly common for those on the left to call themselves “progressives” rather than “liberals.” The term is apt in the sense that much of modern liberalism has its roots in the Progressive Era, which flourished in the first several decades of the 20th century. Interestingly, much of contemporary conservatism also finds its roots in that era. In fact it’s probably fair to say that while the best of modern liberal and conservative ideas are extensions of classical liberalism, their worst ideas are products of progressivism.

To many people, the term “Progressive Era” evokes fond caricatures of Teddy Roosevelt and such reforms as safe food, the elimination of child labor and the eight-hour work day. Yet real progressivesm was much more profound and far more sinister. Here is how Jonah Goldberg describes the World War I presidency of Woodrow Wilson:

The first appearance of modern totalitarianism in the Western world wasn’t in Italy or Germany but in the United States of America. How else would you describe a country where the world’s first modern propaganda ministry was established; political prisoners by the thousands were harassed, beaten, spied upon, and thrown in jail simply for expressing private opinions; the national leader accused foreigners and immigrants of injecting treasonous “poison” into the American bloodstream; newspapers and magazines were shut down for criticizing the government; nearly a hundred thousand government propaganda agents were sent out among the people to whip up support for the regime and its war; college professors imposed loyalty oaths on their colleagues; nearly a quarter-million goons were given legal authority to intimidate and beat “slackers” and dissenters; and leading artists and writers dedicated their crafts to proselytizing for the government?...

The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) — our first federal regulatory agency — was dominated by, and served the interest of, the railroads. Similarly, the regulatory apparatus created by the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 served the interests of large meat packers. Safety standards were invariably already being met — or were easily accommodated — by large companies. But the regulations forced many small enterprises out of business and made it difficult for new ones to enter the industry...

In general, there is nothing truly progressive about modern progressives. That is, nothing in their thinking is forward looking. Invariably, the social model they have in mind is in the distant past. Many explicitly admit they would like to resurrect Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In this sense, most people on the left who use the word “progressive” are actually reactionaries. And the problem is not only on the left. In general, the greatest intellectual danger we face is from reactionaries on the left and right.

Reactionaries (mainly on the left, but sometimes also on the right) want to freeze the economy — preserving the current allocation of jobs and the incomes that derive from those jobs. Although their current focus is on opposition to globalization and international trade, consistency requires them to oppose virtually all of the “creative destruction” that Joseph Shumpeter said was inevitable in any dynamic, capitalistic economy.

Reactionaries (mainly on the right, but sometimes also on the left) want to freeze the culture. They see new ideas, different religions and different cultures as threats to their world view. Rather than allow ideas, religions and mores to compete in a pluralistic, tolerant society, they want to use the power of government to force their ideas on others.

Against these threats to liberty, the basic classical liberal understanding of rights is a powerful defense"
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