Economics, Liberalism

Fearing Freedom

James Buchanan was one of the most philosophical economists of his generation, and he had a deep commitment to the classical liberal world-view. But he also identified serious challenges that classical liberals had to grapple with — challenges of justice, challenges of freedom and responsibility, and challenges of vision.

In this working paper, written for a collection of papers honoring Buchanan, I try to grapple with Buchanan’s challenges. It would be great to hear from BHL readers what they thought of Buchanan’s challenges and whether they might classify him as a forerunner of BHL.

Here’s the abstract:

In “The Soul of Classical Liberalism” (2000), James Buchanan argues that modern advocates of the liberal order must move beyond the mid-20th century project of “saving the books” and “saving the ideas” and instead embrace the challenge of “saving the soul” of liberalism. The prospects for establishing a genuine liberal order turn on capturing the intellectual imagination of a significant segment of the population. This paper examines the themes Buchanan raises in three essays that focus our attention on these critical issues; they are “Buchanan, The Potential and the Limits of Socially Organised Humankind” (1991); “The Soul of Classical Liberalism” (2000); and “Afraid to Be Free” (2005).

  • j_m_h

    I don’t suppose it would be possible to make Buchanan’s articles available for review prior to offering comments?

    • I was able to track down electronic copies of two of them. Links added to OP. No luck on the third so far though.

      • Hume22

        Matt, just sent that third article to your san diego email address.

        • Thanks! I added it to the post.

          • j_m_h

            Thanks Matt and Hume22!

        • jdkolassa

          You sir, are awesome.

  • Sean II

    Let me play the pessimist here, because the obstacles ahead of us seem to be either largely natural or brutally stubborn, or both.

    The intuitive way to answer Buchanan’s call is by moving out of the academy (for philosophers are no better than economists at capturing the public imagination) and into the streets. The way you usually do that is with movies, novels, music, real-life character drama, reportage, humor, etc.

    Okay, great! Except……not so great, because right away we’ve got three big problems, numbered and titled as follows:

    1) WE ARE DORKS. Around these parts, he who uses soulful narrative without philosophic precision gets called a “cartoon libertarian”. It’s a survivable insult, I assure you, but it might tend to discourage those who are otherwise inspired to have a go at expressing the “soul of classical liberalism”. Be honest, now: if anyone but recently departed James Buchanan had mentioned Ronald Reagan favorably, as an example of how to inspire people with an ideal of liberty, that guy would be getting gang-tackled in the comment thread as we speak. And while the “cartoon” smear is unique to this corner of the movement, the habit of snobbishly turning one’s back on “soul” and mere “vision” is about as libertarian as homestead pie.

    Hence, the trap: as long as we remain an insular faction of persnickety nerds, we aren’t going to allow ourselves or each other to develop much in the way of soul, and if Buchanan is right, as long as we remain soul-deprived, so must we remain a small, insular faction of persnickety nerds.

    2) LIBERTY IS BORING BECAUSE IT WORKS. Then again, maybe no special discouragement is needed, since there are obstacles enough in the first place. What I mean here is that story-telling does not mix well with liberty and especially not with spontaneous order. Just look at Atlas Shrugged. It’s supposed to be THE classic novel of individualism and the free market, and it ends up by idolizing a small cadre of indispensable business leaders. Who can read that book without thinking: “You know, John Galt probably could make a pencil all by himself!” Exactly the wrong conclusion, and I’m convinced that helps explain why so many people can read that book without ever seeing the true beauty of the market.

    Not that Rand had much of a choice. The sad truth is that, from a dramatic standpoint, peace and freedom and decentralized problem-solving are boring as hell – actually, more boring than hell…if you take hell to be found in the highly entertaining precincts of war, tyranny, and top-down central character heroics.

    Don’t believe me? Try to imagine a good movie being made about the growth of Wikipedia. How would you do it? How can you have 20,000,000 protagonists in a story? How can you expect viewers to identify with a process, instead of a person? Who’s gonna be the villain? Where is the crisis coming from? When something just works – like the market works – it’s really hard to conjure up drama and dramatic obstacles.

    Here’s another example. Most libertarians are better acquainted with the details of the October Revolution than they are with those of the Velvet Revolution. Why? Because the first is a fascinating tale of a tiny gang of evil conspirators who took over the world’s largest country, and very nearly the world itself. You could drop Lenin and Stalin and Totsky into Game of Thrones, and not one of them would seem out of place.

    But if next week, HBO ends Season 3 with the common scum of King’s Landing bootlegging Lou Reed and jingling their keys until the Lannisters just give up power and peacefully exit the scene, subscribers would burn their Tivos in a public outpouring of disgust. Probably there would be an FCC investigation or even a Senate sub-committee hearing, to punish those responsible for such a massively disappointing and implausible rip-off.

    Face it: our story is not easy to tell. It doesn’t fit any pattern familiar to the people who want to tell it, and especially not to those who need to hear it.

    3) MAYBE WE HAVE NO SOUL. Consider this: about ten days ago Sarah Skwire launched a thread called “Liberty is Personal”, where she invited us to put aside our “social justice” debating cudgels and share some stories about the deeply personal nature of our libertarian beliefs.

    She got two comments, only one of which counts as a personal story. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it might just mean…we suck.

    • jdkolassa

      Haven’t been reading BHL in the past week, but I added my story to that post as well.

      I agree with 1 & 3 to some extent, but quibble with 2; it’s not that liberty is boring, we’re just doing a really shitty job of promoting it.

      • Kevin

        We are passionate about liberty, so “boring” is the wrong word, but liberty from harm caused by people with good intentions enacting laws which leave no one specifically responsible for them is incredibly resistant to a good narrative pointing to clear, motivating, libertarian moral conclusions.

        For example, what moral conclusions should we draw from the stories in Sarah’s thread?

        Most people would readily conclude that the problem in the first video is that the kids weren’t picked up by social services. Why make drugs legal? Does liberty make sure kids are cared for?

        Most people would conclude that the government should help your friend get a job or extend unemployment or welfare, because liberty provides no guarantee that he would be able to find a job in his chosen field.

        The problem is that unless liberty is infringed to the point where pointed retribution is possible and warranted, the benefits of liberty are often indirect and statistical. And when we reduce it down to the individual story level, people will invariably reply, “Well let’s help that individual and those like him. By passing a law.”

    • ThaomasH

      At last a chance to disagree only partially with Sean. 🙂

      I think RR is and should be an inspiration to liberals. Regardless of whether deficits were too large, his sense that things could be better and that we could act out of a desire to expand freedom rather than defend ourselves from “terror” would do us a lot of good today.

      “Liberty works” is a harder nut to crack. The “heroic” story of airline regulation? The (fictional) epic of how the ethanol subsidy was repealed? How Lawrence v Texas became law has many twists and could work as a comedy of how “conservatives” screwed up their case. [Wikipedia says that Loving v Virginia has already been made into a movie.]

      • Sean II

        I find this partial detente between us to be exciting, and just a little bit scary. We both know it’s doomed, but for one brief, magical highly jingoistic and really just blatantly statist holiday weekend conjured up by government workers with their boundless appetite for paid time-off…we stood together, you and I.

    • matt b

      You always play the pessimist 🙂 I think there’s some interesting points contained in your post, as always. But I just feel like there’s lot of people who really are fed up with both parties and have a lot of libertarian sympathies at a core level. It’s just about helping people realize through the consistent implications of those beliefs. It might also help if we didn’t start the conversation with comments like “social programs are slavery”. Might turn a few people off.

      • Sean II

        “It might also help if we didn’t start the conversation with comments like “social programs are slavery”. Might turn a few people off.”

        I’ll make you a deal: you keep flogging that straw man whenever you can work it in, and I’ll keep pointing out two things:

        1) No one says that, like that. No one says social programs are identical to slavery. What we say is “social programs are involuntary, which makes them like slavery in one respect” and “social programs frequently put people in a condition of servile dependency, which makes them like slavery in another respect.” That’s the argument. Please respond to it and not some pinata you rigged up just so you could crack it with a stick.

        2) Let no one pretend he knows what “turns people off” to libertarianism. It may be that we need milder rhetoric. It may be that we need bolder rhetoric. It may be that nothing will work, because most people are inherently biased against or incapable of grasping our ideas. No one really knows, and while we remain ignorant, no one should claim the right to run around chastising other libertarians for speaking their mind.

        • matt b


          I’m doing opposition research for the Democrats in Kentucky and I couldn’t help point this out (just kidding on the opposition research part). This is a quote from Rand Paul on health care “With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies,” the senator said. “It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me.”

          “It means you believe in slavery,” Paul added. “It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.”

          So do libertarians say social programs are slavery. They kinda do.

    • les kyle Nearhood

      Sean some things are being done in this area of outreach using modern media. John Papola at emergent order is one.!/emergentorderco and the Foundation for Economic Liberty!/feeonline

    • Kevin

      Good points. I think #3 just means that we don’t have much to say when we agree (making #3 an extension of #1). In other words, maybe I’m replying to you because I just don’t like the idea of not having a soul. 🙂

      I agree, Sarah’s post is excellent and most appreciated. I’d vote it up. Similar to your idea of listing her post at the top of the home page, perhaps the solution is to allow people to rate posts and have a panel that ranks them by score to call attention to it.

  • j_m_h

    Pete, I think you can make the case that Buchanan was a forerunner of BHL

    I think it’s fair to say his bring in justice was not mere the individual justice that most seem comfortable with but something larger that than. His idea that we need to both be open, but perhaps more important, have some vision of a better world for everyone resonates with the what I understand as the underlying principles or goals of founding the Blog.

    Perhaps the soul that drives isn’t really a bleeding heart soul but simply a warm and human heart rather than the cold calculating heart of the extreme rationalist.

  • les kyle Nearhood

    One of the challenges of Libertarian/Classic Liberal ideas is the emphasis on the individual. Although we understand why the individual is so important, it does not always sell well. It comes off to many as selfishness.

    We should always formulate our arguments in favor of the Individual, the family, and the community. Since empowering individuals means they will use their resources in favor of their community, Meaning the small community, your family, friends, maybe a civic or religious organization or the neighborhood.

    If we include these things in our rhetoric then I believe we will go a long way to framing the issues in the best light.

    • TracyW

      Since empowering individuals means they will use their resources in favor of their community, Meaning the small community, your family, friends, maybe a civic or religious organization or the neighborhood.

      Is this a good idea as a matter of rhetoric? The story of the Good Samaritan is strong in part because he was not using his resources in favour of his community, but to help a stranger. And don’t we all admire general benefactors of humanity such as Issac Newton or Alexander Flemming?

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Yes, well what I am trying to say is simply that when we make the case for libertarianism we need to not always emphasize only the individual, but also the family and community because they also suffer from intrusive government.

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