Classical Liberalism: Its Proud Past And Positive Prospects
Election years are depressing experiences for friends of freedom. The campaign stump, invariably, brings out even more of the worst in mainstream politicians who make their living by making promises they cannot keep through spending other people’s money. The 2016 presidential election cycle has only magnified this pattern.
Both the Democrat and Republican Party presidential candidates represent variations on the same theme of more government spending, greater intrusion into people’s personal lives, and increased political concentration of power and control over economic and social life. The only real difference in this year’s presidential election compared to previous ones is the degree of the repugnant unattractiveness of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
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The world, therefore, is going to hell in a handbasket, and those friends of freedom have nothing to cheer about or look forward to. Such pessimism is easily understood, but is really misplaced. If a wider lens is placed on the human condition, there are sufficient reasons for greater optimism than a single election year appears to suggest.
Liberalism: True and False
It is only in America that “liberalism” was turned into its opposite of diminished personal, social and economic liberty in the face of growing government control.By a wider lens I mean to think not in terms of the last decade or two, but, instead, in terms of the last two or three hundred years. The most transformative philosophical and ideological force over this longer period of time has been political and economic liberalism.
I do not mean what passes for “liberalism” in modern-day America. For a good part of the last one hundred years those who really are proponents of various forms of “democratic” socialism, interventionism, and welfare statism have twisted the meaning of liberalism.
The liberalism of which I speak is a political and economic philosophy of individualism, free market capitalism, free trade, free human association, and a body of law meant to secure and protect the rights of each and every individual to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property.
This is what liberalism meant throughout most of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, and still generally continues to mean in parts of Europe today. It is only in America that “liberalism” was turned into its opposite of diminished personal, social and economic liberty in the face of growing government control, regulation and planning over everyday human life.
Classical Liberalism and the Improved Human Condition
Let’s look at some general economic data comparing two or three hundred years ago with today.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries life expectancy for most of humanity was in the 20s or 30s. Today, especially in the West and now for a growing number of parts of the world, people can easily expect to live into their 70s and 80s.
In the 1600s and 1700s, infant mortality rates in Great Britain were such that near 20 percent of all newborn children died before their first birthday. Out of every 100 live births, 60 percent, on average, would die before their sixteenth birthday! Today in the United Kingdom, the infant mortality rate is 4.2 out of 1,000 live births.
In no Western developed country in the early twenty-first century is the infant mortality rate above 7 percent out of every 1,000 live births. (In the U.S. the infant mortality rate is 6.5 percent.) Even in the most poverty stricken developing country, nowadays, very few places have anything near an infant mortality rate of 10 percent or above out of 1,000 live births.
Standards of living have equally improved over the last two hundred years. In 1820, global per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $605 (in 1990 U.S. dollars measured at purchasing power parities). In 2010, worldwide per capita GDP had increased to $7,890. In 1820s Great Britain it was $2,074, while in 2010 it had grown to $23,777. For the United States, 1820 per capita GDP measured at $1,361, compared to $30,491 in 2010.
In 1850s, Japan per capita GDP stood at $681, and in 2010 it was $21,935. In 1820, Argentina’s per capita GDP was only $998; by 2010, it has risen to $10,256.
Individualism and Human Betterment
None of this happened by chance, or fortunate good weather, or due to the micro-managing wisdom of politicians or bureaucrats. It happened because of a radical change in the guiding ideas influencing people’s attitudes and views concerning man, society and government. Most recently, economic historian Deidra McCloskey has summarized the transformative impact of what she calls the bourgeois revolution in virtues, dignity and equality in her massive three-volume work on this theme.
In less than a century and a half, liberalism freed men and women from legal human bondage. Behind it all was a shift in political and economic thinking toward a radical individualism that challenged the collectivist beliefs and policies of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Every individual possessed certain inherent and unalienable “natural rights” that neither private person nor political authority could morally abridge or abrogate. Men of good will, reasoning together, could see the rightness and reasonableness of every human being’s right to his own life, liberty and peacefully acquired property.
This set loose, as McCloskey and others have emphasized, the economic revolution of personal liberty and free markets that served as the avenue and incentives to begin the rise from poverty of growing portions of the human race, as the data above suggests. If these trends were to continue they may very well mean the actual end to abject poverty, worldwide, before the end of the twenty-first century.
Classical Liberalism and Transformative Social Change
We should not forget how revolutionary transformative this political and economic philosophy was, what we now call the principles and policies of classical liberalism.
First of all, it brought about the crusade for the end to human slavery, a social institution that has existed throughout all of the thousands of years of human history. In less than a century and a half, liberalism freed men and women from legal human bondage. If nothing else, this would enduringly be classical liberalism’s most cherished badge of honor.
But classical liberalism did far more. It campaigned and achieved the end to cruel and unusual punishments; it fought for the rule of law with an unbiased equality of civil liberties for all; it tamed arbitrary and arrogant monarchical power through the fight for constitutional restraints and representative government; it abolished or radically reduced government regulations, controls and planning over the economic affairs of the citizenry, including the triumph of freedom of trade and the near freedom of movement of people worldwide. And it argued for limits on the methods and impact of war on both combatants and civilians alike through international agreements on the rules of war.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, friends of human freedom could look back at the hundred years that has passed and be amazed and proud of what the liberal crusade for liberty has succeeded in achieving.
Collectivism’s Counter-Revolution Against Freedom
Unfortunately, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century an intellectual and ideology counter-revolution arose that argued for a return to collectivism and control. Instead of arguing for the restoration of unrestrained kings and privileged aristocracies, the new collectivism cloaked itself under the banners of nationalism and socialism.
The new collectivists spoke of loyalty and obedience to “the nation” or “the people.” Subservience and sacrifice was expected from every individual for the “national good” or the “social welfare.” The new collectivism culminated in the worst human tyrannies of modern history in the forms of Soviet communism, German Nazism and Italian fascism.
It has been estimated by learned historians of the twentieth century that in the name of building one type or another of these collectivist hells-on-earth as many as 250 million innocent, unarmed men, women and children were killed in the name of the bright and beautiful socialist future-to-come.
Humanity experienced near total political madness and unimaginable mass murder in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Under the experience of German National Socialism (Nazism) and Marxian-inspired Soviet-style communism, there were many friends of freedom who lived through that time and were convinced that the end to all human liberty was soon to be upon us.
This year, 2016, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union on the global political map. Its demise symbolized the passing into history of the twisted dream of remaking human society from top to bottom through comprehensive socialist central planning and one-party political dictatorship.
Anti-Capitalism Still Haunts the World
In the heady days following the disappearance of the Soviet Union, there were some who spoke about “the end of history,” with only “democratic capitalism” left standing as the political-economic alternative for the world. They metaphorically slapped themselves on the back, saying “free enterprise” has demonstrated its superiority to socialism. Freedom and limited government had won over totalitarian tyranny.
Classical liberals must not allow themselves to be overly distracted by these short-run turns and twists of everyday politics and news cycles. In all this euphoria what was missed was that while few remained who still called for marching to the Soviet-style central planning drummer, one fundamental element in the Marxian system of ideas remained unshaken: its radical critique of the “evils” of capitalism.
This is what intellectually and ideologically guides the rationales and justifications for the interventionist-welfare state and the continuing ridicule and rejection of classical liberalism in America and around the world.
Whether it be the warnings of supposed growing income inequality as the rich get richer and the poor and middle class stagnate; or the claimed immorality of self-interested profit-making by “business” against the interests of “society”; or the accusation of capitalist-created racism, sexism, or anti-environmentalism, all of these can be demonstrated to be variations on the nineteenth century Marxist theme that capitalism and capitalists exploit the workers, concentrate wealth in the hands of the few (the “one percent”), and create divisiveness and disruption to the fabric of society.
Furthermore, once such ideas come to dominate the political landscape and dictate governmental actions through interventionist regulations and redistributive policies of one type or another, it fosters the creation of spiders’ webs of special interest groups each one of whom now sees their own financial and social well-being connected to and inseparable from the continuation of the paternalistic state.
Collectivism’s Rearguard Attack on Liberty
But we must not lose sight of the fact that these arguments are the last refuge of ideological and special interest scoundrels. These are the attempts of arrogant social engineers and anti-competitive privileged segments of the society to retain and rationalize their quest for political power and plunder at their neighbor’s expense.
The economic and financial crisis that struck the world in 2008-2009 has served as the smokescreen behind which these proponents of power and privilege make their case about the supposed latest “failure” of capitalism. But it has been, in fact, once more, the failure of the interventionist state that created the conditions for this crisis and which has delayed the recovery and a return to a normal path of economic progress and a more fully market-based sustainable coordination of human association.
Classical liberals must not allow themselves to be overly distracted by these short-run turns and twists of everyday politics and news cycles. We must take the long view in our thinking and in our focused determination in making and winning the case for liberty.
How Socialism Won Against Classical Liberalism
I have sometimes asked what friends of freedom could learn from the successes of the socialists. I have pointed out that in the 1880s, say at the time of Karl Marx’s death in 1883, a sincere and true-believing young socialist would have had to be downhearted and despairing in ever hoping to see the triumph of socialism.
If that young and committed socialist looked around the world in which he lived he would find a world dominated by his hated capitalist system. Government was relatively small in countries like Great Britain or the United States; markets were free and unregulated over most aspects of economic life; taxes were low and government budgets tended to be balanced or running surpluses; and the monetary systems were based on gold.
Furthermore, most people believed that such a free market-based, limited government liberal system was politically right and good. Even “the workers” were suspicious of socialist agitation with its appeal for ending private enterprise and a government-managed society in the name of “the people.”
Such a young socialist could only hope that Marx was right in his claim that socialism was coming whether people wanted it or not, because of those historical “laws” of inescapable human evolution and revolution that Marx insisted that he had discovered that were leading mankind to that bright and beautiful socialist and communist future.
But, in fact, socialists did not just passively sit and wait for capitalism’s “inevitable” demise and replacement by socialism. Socialism began to gain adherents in the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries because while socialists advocated collectivism, they practiced a politics of individualism. They common-sensically and intuitively understood that “history” would not move in their direction unless they changed popular opinion. And implicitly they understood that this meant changing the minds of millions of individual people.
So they went out and spoke and debated with their friends and neighbors. They contributed to public lectures and the publishing of pamphlets and books. They founded newspapers and magazines, and distributed them to anyone who would be willing to read them. They understood that the world ultimately changes one mind at a time – in spite of their emphasis on “social classes,” group interests, and national conflicts
They overcame the prevailing public opinion, defeated powerful special interests, and never lost sight of their long-term goal of the socialist society to come, which was the motivation and the compass for all their actions.
The Lessons for Classical Liberals
Classical liberals need to offer a consistent, logical and principled explanation and defense of the ideas of individual liberty and the free market society.What do friends of freedom have to learn from the successes of our socialist opponents? First, we must fully believe in the moral and practical superiority of freedom and the free market over all forms of collectivism. We must be neither embarrassed nor intimidated by the arguments of the collectivists, interventionists, and welfare statists. Once any compromise is made in the case for freedom, the opponents of liberty will have attained the high ground and will set the terms of the debate.
Freedom advocate, Leonard E. Read, the founder and long-time first president of the Foundation for Economic Education, once warned of sinking in a sea of “buts.” I believe in freedom and self-responsibility, “but” we need some minimum government social “safety net.” I believe in the free market, “but” we need some limited regulation for the “public good.” I believe in free trade, “but” we should have some form of protectionism for “essential” industries and jobs. Before you know it, Read warned, the case for freedom has been submerged in an ocean of exceptions.
Classical liberals need to offer a consistent, logical and principled explanation and defense of the ideas of individual liberty and the free market society. Otherwise, the conceded “buts” start adding up to a compromised position opening the door to a new advance by the proponents of the interventionist-welfare state.
Another lesson to be learned from the earlier generation of socialists is not to be disheartened by the apparent continuing political climate that surrounds us. We must have confidence in the truth of what we say, to know in our minds and hearts that freedom can and will win in the battle of ideas.
We must focus on that point on the horizon that represents the ideal of individual liberty and the free society, regardless of how many twists and turns everyday political currents seem to be following. National, state, and local elections merely reflect prevailing political attitudes and beliefs. Our task is to influence the future and not allow ourselves to be distracted or discouraged by who gets elected today and on what policy platform.
The Importance of Self-Improvement for Liberty
Finally, each of us, given the constraints on his time, must try to become as informed as possible about the case for freedom. Here, again, Leonard Read pointed out the importance of self-education and self-improvement.
The more knowledgeable and articulate we each become in explaining the benefits of the free society and the harm from all forms of collectivism, the more we will have the ability to attract people who may want to hear what we have to say.
Let us not forget that over the last hundred years virtually every form of collectivism has been tried – socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, interventionism, welfare statism – and each has failed. There is only one “ism” left to fill this vacuum in the face of collectivism’s failures.
It is classical liberalism, with its conception of the free man in the free society and the free market, grounded in the idea of peaceful, voluntary association and individual rights. If we keep that before us, we can and will win liberty in our time – for our children and ourselves.
(Based on a talk delivered at the Classical Liberals of the Carolinas conference at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina on August 12, 2016)
Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.