Saturday, November 6, 2010

Taking the Left Out of Liberalism

Michael Strong
In the past year there has been a constant stream of articles claiming that “progressive” or “liberal” ideas have lost credibility due to the massive funding or superior stratagems of “right-wing” think tanks. But in 2001 liberal foundations spent $136 million on public policy institutes whereas conservative foundations spent only $30 million.1 The fact is that liberals desperately need to re-think their ideas. They need to return to liberalism, an intellectual tradition that has almost disappeared from contemporary academic life (and, consequently, from the agendas of many mainstream foundations who consider themselves “liberal”).
The Left has, for more than a hundred years, encouraged the belief that if one is not Left-wing, then one is Right-wing. But liberal, properly understood, is neither Left nor Right; it is Up-wing. Because the Left has long accused anyone who does not subscribe to their brand of “progressive” as being “conservative,” it is worth being clear just how un-conservative I am.

I am a secular humanist Enlightenment liberal. I believe in science, progress, and human potential. My primary motivation is to do good, with joy and fulfillment . I spent fifteen years in K-12 education creating programs and schools designed to develop students’ abilities to think for themselves. I am radically committed to intellectual freedom and personal autonomy. I am in favor of right-to-choose, death-with-dignity, marriage between consenting adults, regardless of their gender, and alternative lifestyles and family structures. I am in favor of the legalization of drugs and of all mutually-consenting sexual behavior between adults. I believe the Golden Rule obliges us to devote ourselves to helping those less fortunate than ourselves.
Coming from a working class background, I am intimately familiar with the lives of “those less fortunate than ourselves.” My father is a life-long union member and my mother is a high school dropout. My immediate family, friends, and in-laws include welfare mothers and convicted felons, drug dealers and addicts, strippers and prostitutes, violent men and violent women, survivors of rape, incest, beatings, and mutilations. One set of grand parents lives in a trailer on a Superfund site, the other lived in a small house built in part from radioactive uranium tailings.
I have a deep personal interest in and commitment to increasing social mobility. I spent fifteen years creating more humane, more effective schools and classrooms (It is plausible that I have created the most effective classroom-based means of raising African-American SAT scores anywhere). I regard the empowerment of women as one of the most important social changes in history, analogous to the abolition of slavery, and one which has barely begun to take place. I acknowledge that there were numerous shameful, horrifying episodes of genocide in the violent domination of the planet by European peoples in the last several centuries.
I don't have a television set and consume moderately - focused almost exclusively on food and books. I have helped design and build a solar home, have studied tai chi with a Taiwanese master, and spent ten days in an intensive Vispassna meditation retreat. One of my children was born at home and both were “unschooled” for a period of time. I have explored a wide range of alternative health practices and practitioners, and I love exploring new culture. I devote most of my time to articulating a realistic means of creating a world in which sustainable peace, prosperity, and happiness are a reality for all of humanity; a world based on love, and not fear.
There is no sense whatsoever in which it is accurate to call me “conservative.” I am a liberal through and through.
Liberals should regard the contemporary Leftist bias of universities and mainstream philanthropic foundations to be among the gravest threats to human well-being. Had liberalism dominated our universities, instead of the Left, many millions of people might still be alive today, and billions of people around the world would be healthier and happier.
We liberals should sharply distinguish “liberal” from “Leftist.” The latter characterized by anger, hatred, bullying, intransigence, and intellectual dishonesty. These spiritual diseases, legacies of the French Revolution and its Terror, began to infect liberalism in the early 20th century. This ugly spirit has contaminated much of academic life outside the hard sciences, economics, and business schools. As a consequence, many of the ideas and attitudes in the humanities and social sciences are profoundly, tragically misguided.
For much of the 20th century, Leftist influences promoted a wrong-headed view of economic development according to which free enterprise was seen negatively and government activity was seen as an unmitigated good. The cost in human life and well-being of this distortion has been immense. Even those professors who continue to advocate more or less traditionally liberal positions often succumb to the social pressure to spin their conclusions more to the Left than they would if they were researching and writing in a more intellectually open and honest environment.
The original ideas of liberalism, which gave the world so many blessings in the 18th and 19th centuries, have largely been distorted or denied. Leftist pressure has distorted the judgment and sensibilities of mainstream liberals. Liberals need to recover from a century of Leftist social and political pressure. The Left-Liberal marriage has been a disaster. We need a divorce.
In the eighteenth century, liberal authors sketched out a vision of society based on education, enlightened values, the rule of law, constitutional republics, minimal government, free markets, and an ethos of personal responsibility and initiative. This classical liberal framework allowed for the greatest proportional increase in the standard of living of the common people that the world has ever seen. The Liberal Revolution is the greatest miracle in human history.
John Stuart Mill, in some ways the last great classical liberal, provided the core statement of intellectual freedom in his essay “On Liberty.” Mill makes the case that we can only discover the truth, or our best current understanding of what might be true, if we are free to explore all ideas openly, regardless of how offensive or reprehensible those ideas might at first appear.
The Marxists, following the tradition of class warfare established in the violence of the French Revolution, have been aggressively hostile to those individuals who espoused ideas that they consider to be inappropriate. In the 1960s, following Herbert Marcuse, this intolerance of disagreeable ideas was introduced into the academic mainstream. From the late 1960s forward it has been acceptable among too many students and faculty to ridicule or attack ideas with which they disagreed. Worse yet, the ridicule and attack often became a substitute for substantively addressing the disagreeable ideas.
Under the influence of the Marxists, the facts of the Liberal Revolution have been slandered and libeled by intellectuals to such an extent that, oddly enough, to state the very facts of the Liberal Revolution (e.g. that the standard of living of the working class increased dramatically under free market capitalism in Britain and the U.S. from 1830 – 1860) is considered a politically conservative claim. Worse yet, because politically “conservative” statements are ipso facto considered to be in bad taste in academia (if not outright censored), basic facts that are key to understanding the world today are thereby concealed from students and future opinion leaders.
In order to effectively eliminate global poverty, it is critically important that politicians, journalists, NGO leaders and workers, educators, media personalities, business leaders, and everyone else understand that, by and large, the Liberal Revolution largely alleviated poverty among the masses first in Britain and the U.S. in the 19th century, then in the rest of Europe in the first part of the 20th century, then in the market-friendly portions of Asia in the second half of the 20th century. Dubai, Chile, Ireland, and the Baltic Republics are exciting market-based growth economies today. Although economists and others are still fine-tuning the model, and no one knows how to implement the model in nations with corrupt leaders, the model of the Liberal Revolution represents a successful strategy for the alleviation of global poverty. The Fraser Institute’s “Economic Freedom of the World Index” describes a specific set of criteria against which progress may be measured. If free trade zones were set up around the world, similar to Hong Kong and Dubai, the global standard of living would rise rapidly for all. A foundation would thereby exist for lasting global peace, as there is a high positive correlation between prosperity and peace.
To be fair, there are many thousands of conscientious academics and intellectuals who may disagree with details of the Fraser Institute approach and who may disagree concerning exactly which elements of the Liberal Revolution resulted in the amazing economic growth that first democratized a decent standard of living. There are difficult and important issues of social, economic, and political policy remaining. And there are difficult practical and strategic issues concerning how best to move an economy from failure to success.
But despite the healthy, productive, and necessary debate concerning global economic history and contemporary policy measures, often the loudest and most aggressive voices in academia do not represent healthy, positive or informed debate. The anti-globalization movement, anti-Americanism, and lingering communism that are common in some academic departments do not offer a useful, positive, or well-considered means of making the world a better place. Hatred and bitterness are no substitute for intellectual coherence. The social and intellectual atmosphere at most universities (and, significantly, the two cannot be distinguished) continues to support views that are better described as “Leftist” than as Liberal. It is not socially acceptable in the humanities departments of most universities to suggest that Hong Kong and Singapore are economically successful today in large part because they had the good fortune to have inherited classical liberal principles as a legacy of British colonialism, or that free trade is the best means available of alleviating global poverty today, or to debate whether FDR or LBJ was the most destructive U.S. president in the 20th century.
Key liberal intellectual advances in the last forty years, including the work of Nobel laureates Hayek, Friedman, Stigler, Buchanan, Coase, Becker, North, and Vernon Smith are often stigmatized as “conservative” and thus ignored. The ideas of these and other thinkers could add immensely to global well-being if they were widely understood. During the last forty years it has become clear that:
  1. Government systematically mal-functions roughly as predicted by public choice theory: i.e., every agent (voters, politicians, bureaucrats, judges, etc.) is biased based on his or her information and incentives.
  2. Markets open to entrepreneurial talent are vastly more innovative than are government-managed economic sectors.
These two facts alone have shifted an informed perspective away from government intervention in the economy and back towards a more classically liberal perspective. These facts should not be politicized: They should be recognized as mainstream liberal wisdom, not as “conservative economics.”
The reason why the “Leftist bias of universities and mainstream philanthropic foundations is among the gravest threats to human well-being” is because the Left continues to prevent important ideas from being disseminated or discussed. Too many individuals ridicule and attack the classical liberal tradition, thus suppressing crucial information and arguments. The Left has been an abusive spouse; it will take us many years to recover from the threats and intimidation under which we have lived for the past century. Eventually we will re-gain our own voice.
A checklist to determine whether or not Liberalism has returned to our campuses:
  1. Are most students and professors aware that under 19th century free market capitalism in the United States and Britain that it was not true that “the rich got richer and the poor got poorer?” i.e., that the working class standard of living steadily increased under laissez-faire capitalism?
  2. Do most students and professors understand that wealth is created almost exclusively by private enterprise (given a framework based on the rule of law)?
  3. Are most students and professors aware that Marxist governments murdered over 100 million people in the 20th century, vastly exceeding the loss of human life due to the Nazis?
  4. Do most students and professors acknowledge that those humanely-motivated academics who self-identified as Marxists should, indeed, accept responsibility for having advocated a repeatedly murderous ideology? (“We didn't intend those outcomes” is not an adequate excuse after the fourth totalitarian Marxist regime, predictably enough, committed mass murder.)
  5. Do most students and professors understand public choice theory?
  6. Do most students and professors understand the necessary relationship between economic freedom, on the one hand, and creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, on the other?
Many more items could be added. Because individual human symbols are emotionally important, we should also recommend the outspoken support of the following two propositions:
  1. Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman, who represented humane ideas and ideals against cruel and vicious opposition, are 20th century heroes of intellectual courage on a par with Socrates and Galileo.
  2. Che Guevara, who murdered individuals and who openly advocated the mass destruction of human life, is the moral equivalent of Herman Goering.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, after one has become sober, one faces an obligation to seek out those individuals whom one has harmed. Indeed, facing up to one’s failures is a key to spiritual growth in most religious and spiritual traditions. This principle of human psychology rings true even for this secular humanist.
Robert Heilbroner, a lifelong socialist, is a model of such integrity. Towards the end of his life, he acknowledged:
“Capitalism has been as unmistakable a success as socialism has been a failure. Here is the part that's hard to swallow. It has been the Friedmans, Hayeks, and von Miseses who have maintained that capitalism would flourish and that socialism would develop incurable ailments. All three have regarded capitalism as the 'natural' system of free men; all have maintained that left to its own devices capitalism would achieve material growth more successfully than any other system. From [my samplings] I draw the following discomforting generalization: The farther to the right one looks, the more prescient has been the historical foresight; the farther to the left, the less so.” 2
Heilbroner is, unfortunately, a rare exception. The primary reason why “mainstream and liberal foundations and the think tanks that they support are losing in the war ideas in American politics” is that the vast majority of intellectuals and academics have failed to make, either privately in their own hearts or publicly as a statement of record, any equivalent of the acknowledgement made by Heilbroner above.
Because a revival of Liberalism is crucial to the creation of global peace, prosperity, happiness, and well-being for people of all races and cultures, let’s hope that more prominent intellectual leaders will join Heilbroner in a forthright statement of past mistakes – at least in their hearts, if they don't have the courage to do it publicly. We can’t afford for the 21st century to be as brutal for so many as the 20th century was.
  1. Andrew Rich, “War of Ideas,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2005.
  2. Cited in David Boaz, “The Man Who Told the Truth,” Reason, January 21, 2005.
Michael Strong is a pioneer in education and independent learning. He is the founder of innovative Socratic, Montessori, and Paideia schools and programs in Alaska, Florida, California, Texas, and New Mexico. Michael is co-founder and serves as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Visionary Officer of FLOW. He is also a board member for the Moorfield Storey Institute. Reprinted from FLOW.

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