Libertarianism, Liberalism

Happy Liberalism Day!

Today is Liberalism Day.

More info at Liberalism Unrelinquished

In the 17th and 18th centuries there was an ascendant cultural outlook that may be termed the liberal outlook. It was best represented by the Scottish enlightenment, especially Adam Smith, and it flowed into a liberal era, which came to be represented politically by people like Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, and John Bright.

A good time to reflect, perhaps, on one of my favorite essays by Murray Rothbard, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty.” Here’s one relevant passage:

Soon there developed in Western Europe two great political ideologies, centered around this new revolutionary phenomenon: the one was Liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was Conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the old order. Since liberalism admittedly had reason on its side, the Conservatives darkened the ideological atmosphere with obscurantist calls for romanticism, tradition, theocracy, and irrationalism. Political ideologies were polarized, with Liberalism on the extreme “Left,” and Conservatism on the extreme “Right,” of the ideological spectrum. That genuine Liberalism was essentially radical and revolutionary was brilliantly perceived, in the twilight of its impact, by the great Lord Acton (one of the few figures in the history of thought who, charmingly, grew more radical as he grew older). Acton wrote that “Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is.” In working out this view, incidentally, it was Acton, not Trotsky, who first arrived at the concept of the “permanent revolution.”

Happy #LiberalismDay!

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
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  • Damien S.

    ‘Most people don’t know that “liberal” used to mean small government and free markets’

    Unless they’re one of the 6.8 billion people living outside the United States, in which case it still means that.

    (Then there’s the original meaning of ‘libertarian’, a fair distance from how its used in the US now. And its possible future meaning of “conservative who’s avoiding the label of ‘conservative'”, based on current trends.)

  • ThaomasH

    I think it’s still a good word to mean keeping government focused on preventing people from harming each other. Because of the complexity of the economy, that requires a lot bigger government than it used to. And if that’s your objective, it’s pretty hard to prevent those sympathies from spilling over into wanting government to TAKE some wealth from some relatively well off people to redistribute it to less well off people.

    • Damien S.

      Complexity of the economy plus capabilities of technology. US Constitution got written, and early liberal thought formed, before machine guns, high explosives, fast transport, accurate missiles, invisible pollutants, nuclear weapons, vaccination, antibiotics, the awareness of species extinctions, and almost everyone living in suburbs if not outright cities. Even something as simple as leaf-burning looks different when you’re living at 40 acres per person vs. 40 people per acre. And while one can easily make a liberal argument for tight controls of pollution as preventing a ‘force’ inflicted on others, protection of far-ranging wild species and preventing abuse of antibiotics seem harder to even make sense of in classical liberal terms.

      • ThaomasH

        I agree that specie extinction is probably better thought of as collective consumption like building the Large Hadron Collider or sending robots to Mars.  But antibiotic use (even more so abuse) is a perfect externality.  I recover but the microbial population gets a little stronger and everyone else suffers a little.

        • Damien S.

          I think species could be externalities as well. I take a tuna, that’s plus one tuna for me, minus some vague fraction or number of future tuna per everyone else. Tragedy of the commons leading to overconsumption is an easier way of thinking of both problems, though.

          As for antibiotics and everyone else suffering… sure, but it’s not force or fraud. The non-aggression principle is “no initiation of force for fraud”. Pollution is fairly easily thought of as putting something into the air and water, thus forcing other people to ingest it, thus being a libertarian sin/crime. Losing a bit of antibiotic resistance is much more abstract, though. Accept that as a harm and you might as well accept being told what you can do with your house because it affects local property values…

          • ThaomasH

            I agree about the tuna.   If tuna were not global it might be “regulated” by assigning a quasi property right to a consortium of fishermen.  I was thinking of the extinction of blue green tree frog in Madagascar that of no “use” to anyone and so whose extinction does no “harm” to anyone.   Antibiotic resistance is harder, again because it’s global (and maybe too late, anyway).  Taxing commercial use in animals would help (or would have helped) but prescription of wide spectrum antibiotics for symptoms that might even be viral is/was more a problem of ignorance than lack of the proper weighing of private benefits and external costs and even if medical practice in rich countries can change with cheaper diagnostics the process will continue in poor countries.  There is some hope for new therapies that disrupt quorum sensing and which therefore do not promote the development resistance whose development is a public good well worth investing in.

    • Jameson Graber

      I think this is exactly why the word “liberal” came to be property of the left in America and other anglophone countries. So one view that I think is tenable is that libertarians and left liberals as two factions of liberalism, essentially divided on the issue of how much government is needed to prevent coercion and harm.

      I am a libertarian in part because I disagree with your assessment that greater complexity implies greater need for government. And if certain government interventions are necessary, they need not be the kind which interfere with further innovation and growth.

      • ThaomasH

        There are various possible divergences.  While there might be empirical differences on how much and what kind of intervention would be wise to prevent harm, I don’t see those as becoming differences in principle between libertarians and “left liberals/progressives.”  For example, I can’t see an objection in principle by a Libertarian to a Pigou tax on pollution.
        I think a more fundamental difference would be over collective consumption (beyond whatever is stipulated as being minimally necessary to preserve the state: courts, armies, governance).  As a non-libertarian, I have no qualms about taxes to finance collective consumption (NASA sending missions to Mars, National Parks, just because I think it’s cool and a majority of my fellow citizens agree).  Nor do I object in principle to public investments that produce inputs into private consumption (public road, bridge, public transportation)  but I think it is worth asking why the investment has to be public.
        Another kind of divergence might be over pure redistribution, taking from the rich to give to the poor. [One might conceive of that as another kind of public consumption — I want to “consume” the knowledge that the poor are receiving a minimum standard of living — but I think the motivations and possible downsides such as creation of dependency and/or the dangers of voting oneself benefits are sufficiently different from other kinds of public consumption as to consider separately.]
        Finally, over and above which interventions are permissible in principle, libertarians may be more sensitive (perhaps excessively sensitive?) than “left liberals” to practical implementation of say collective consumption: that suppliers of NASA inputs and public officials will gain undue political clout and oversupply the collectively consumed consumable.  But these I still think of as empirical judgments not differences in principle.

        • Damien S.

          Yeah, it’s a bit funny how polarization has linked up “redistribution” with “public goods” and “market regulation” in the US spectrum. I think Europe, with more proportional elections and thus more parties, has a wider explicit range: actual leftists who want a lot more redistribution and may be market hostile, Christian Democrats and other ‘centrists’ who believe in regulation and public goods and universal health care, but not too much welfare, and small government ‘liberals’ (who likely *still* believe in universal health care, having read their Kenneth Arrow.)

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    It is important to note that this classic liberalism was attacked constantly, and eventually weakened through the Napoleonic era, the Romantic movement, Marxism and other isms. And of course the progressive period. Now, we struggle uphill just to get the average college educated person to admit that they might be better off running their own life instead of some central government bureaucrats.

    • AP2

      Well, if the person is left-leaning, you can always quote them Marx:

      “The contradiction between the vocation and the good intentions of the administration on the one hand and the means and powers at its disposal on the other cannot be eliminated by the state, except by abolishing itself; for the state is based on this contradiction. It is based on the contradiction between public and private life, between universal and particular interests. For this reason, the state must confine itself to formal, negative activities, since the scope of its own power comes to an end at the very point where civil life and work begin. Indeed, when we consider the consequences arising from the asocial nature of civil life, of private property, of trade, of industry, of the mutual plundering that goes on between the various groups in civil life, it becomes clear that the law of nature governing the administration is impotence. For, the fragmentation, the depravity, and the slavery of civil society is the natural foundation of the modern state, just as the civil society of slavery was the natural foundation of the state in antiquity. The existence of the state is inseparable from the existence of slavery.”