Thursday, July 28, 2011

Classical liberalism as a Form of Progressivism

The following is by Prof. Steve Horwitz. These are notes from a speech he gave on the role of classical liberalism as a form of progressivism. This is not a finished essay but the material is in sufficient form that it is easily understood by the average reader. His views represent well the views of the Moorfield Storey Institute and are added here you consideration and distribution.

My title is meant to provoke.  I want to make a case for what has recently been termed “bleeding-heart libertarianism.”  Or, put differently, I want to argue that libertarians should more consciously attempt to think of themselves as “on the left” rather than “on the right.”  Some libertarians say we should be “neither,” but I want to argue that history suggests we have a home on the left and that many of our ideas suggest that too. I also want to take a short detour to ask how “progressive” the Progressives of 100 years ago really were. 

Who really IS on the side of the poor?  Who really IS on the side of African-Americans or women?  Who really IS on the side of the innocent victims of American imperialism?  I’m going to try to argue that historically classical liberalism was and so was libertarianism for much of its history, and I’m going to argue that we SHOULD be and need to recapture that spirit of progressivism.

It’s also important that libertarians NOT allow our friends on the left to claim a monopoly on the moral high ground.  They don’t get one.  We also care about the least well-off among us and we believe our preferred social order would do better by them than the alternatives. We need to be unafraid to push back when leftists accuse us of not caring about the poor or being racists or sexists on the basis of our policy preferences.  We should not let them get away with arguing in bad faith that way.  Most of our disagreements, though not all, are not about ends but about means.  We share many of their ends – we disagree on what policies will best achieve them.  Let’s force them to debate the empirical effects of policies, not whose motives are more pure.

Classical liberalism in the 19th century

Making the case that classical liberalism, especially the defense of free markets, was historically considered “progressive” against the conservatism of the day is actually not that hard.  On three issues, our 19th century intellectual ancestors were the ones on what today would be called the “progressive” or “left” side of those topics.  Let me list them first and then explore some of the arguments of the time:

               Racial equality
               Gender equality

Racial equality

David Levy’s work:  How the Dismal Science Got its Name.  In the great debates over racial equality in the mid 19th century, the combatants were the conservative Romantics such as John Ruskin and Thomas Carlysle and classical liberals such as J. S. Mill.  The Romantics argued in favor of tradition and hierarchy and believed that the commitment to markets and capitalism would destroy tradition/hierarchy because it treated everyone as equal, what Levy calls “analytical egalitarianism.”

NOTE:  the 19th century liberals understood, correctly, that equality was central to their world view.  This point has been lost and denigrated by too many modern CLs.

When everyone’s money is green, race becomes far less important and the ability to please consumers replaces old markers of status and hierarchy.  This is what Mill and others argued about capitalism and why it was good.  The Romantics thought this would lead to a chaotic society in which no one knew “their place,” hence the reference to economics as a “dismal” science.  Why it was dismal was because it promised a world of equality before the law in which race and other hierarchies didn’t matter. 

Gender equality

Two points here:

1.  Throughout the 19th century, there were a number of writers, both male and female, who made strong feminist arguments but from a classical liberal/individualist perspective.  There were other feminist traditions at the time, of course, but there was a strong CL one as well.  Much of this centered around sexual issues as well as married women’s rights questions.  Remember that this was a time that it was illegal to sell contraceptives, or in some cases even talk about them.  (And yes, they did exist.)

The debates over women’s rights were often part of the debate over slavery, as individualist feminists compared women’s second class status to that of slaves and tried to persuade abolitionist men to work for their cause.

Voting rights were an interesting issue given the split in the individualist movement between the anarchists like Spooner (who thought women would be better off going to the state capitols and burning the law books than working to get the right to vote) and the more mainstream classical liberals.  People like the Grimke sisters and Voltairine de Cleyre, as well numerous men, took up the individualist side of the emerging feminist movement.

2.  Capitalism, as an economic system, liberated women in a whole variety of ways
               Transformed marriage from yokemates to soulmates, making consent and love the center of marriage.  “From Status to Contract.”
               Slowly took wives out from under their husbands by ending coverture (though the job really wasn’t finished until the 1970s with end of marital rape laws).
               Created the wealth that made possible technological and market substitutes for household labor, enabling women to more easily enter the workplace
               Created the wealth that created the demand for labor that made women more valuable as employees
               Created the wealth that enabled families to educate their children more, including girls
               Created the wealth and changed ideologies in ways that made divorce both more acceptable and more feasible, enabling women to exit abusive marriages more easily

Did 19th century classical liberals forsee all of this?  No, but they did glimpse it.  As the race debate shows, they understood the equalizing/leveling effects of a vibrant market economy and they glimpsed how it would changed women’s roles and their relationship with men.
            J. S. Mill and Harriet Taylor here.


Often lost is the long classical liberal tradition of anti-imperialism, much of which has its roots in the late 19th century and saw a revival among the “Old Right” of the 1930s and 40s.  Herbert Spencer, the much misunderstood great libertarian of the 19th century, was one of the best on this, arguing for the fundamental equality of all citizens of world and the immorality of our imposing by force our “way of life” on others across the globe. 

If “analytical egalitarianism” was good enough for human beings within the borders of the UK or (eventually) the US, it was good enough for humans elsewhere.  Again, classical liberalism was cosmopolitan and progressive.

Of course peace is intimately linked with free trade, and classical liberals didn’t just argue that imperialist conquering was wrong, they had an alternative.  They were not “isolationists;” they were “cosmopolitans,” but not at the point of the gun, rather through the free movement of goods, services, ideas, and people.

            Bastiat:  “where goods cannot cross borders, armies will.”

As with race and gender, here too trade and markets are the means toward progressive ends, in this case peace.

The Progressives weren’t very “progressive”

Late in the 19th century saw the split between the “classical liberals” and modern liberalism, with the latter taking the form of the Progressive movement.  These were the progenitors of modern American liberalism as they largely combined the classical liberal commitment to progress and stated concern for the poor with the view that these goals could best be accomplished through activist government that could scientifically manage society in ways that would achieve those goals.  Much of the regulatory legislation of the late 19th and early 20th century came out of these beliefs, hence “the Progressive Era.” Everything from anti-trust to the FDA to the Fed were products of Progressivism.  At the state level, they supported minimum wage laws and other labor market legislation designed to protect “the weak” against exploitation.

The general tale today is that these folks were the heroes who saved us from the ravages of laissez-faire capitalism by bringing the market under the regulatory control of the state.

However, the truth is a little bit different.

Many, though not all, of the progressives were fascinated with eugenics and saw their use of government, especially in labor markets, as a way to eliminate workers who were not smart or skilled enough to survive, namely blacks and, to a lesser extent, women as well as the “mentally defective” etc.

Economists have long argued that minimum wage laws, for example, will harm lower-skilled workers by pricing them out of the market.  We’ve pointed out that if minority groups have fewer skills due to historical discrimination, minimum wage laws will harm them most of all.  So classical liberals today argue against minimum wage laws on “progressive” grounds.  We are mystified why modern progressives support them.  And we are baffled when WE are called racists for wanting to get rid of them.  We tend to assume they just don’t get the economics.

Note the historical irony:  the original progressives correctly understood the economics but LIKED the consequences that we today think as negative ones.  Modern progressives are taking the same position as their racist intellectual ancestors, and the policies they support are having the same effects even if they don’t intend them.

He quotes Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s statement that “this unemployment is not a mark of social disease, but actually of social health.”

Further, he quotes Henry Rogers Seager of Columbia University, who suggested that minimum wages were necessary to protect workers from the “wearing competition of the casual worker and the drifter.”

A.B. Wolfe, who would one day be a president of the American Economic Association, wrote in the American Economic Review in 1917 (quoted in part by Bernstein and Leonard): “If the inefficient entrepreneurs would be eliminated [by minimum wages,] so would the ineffective workers. I am not disposed to waste much sympathy upon either class. The elimination of the inefficient is in line with our traditional emphasis on free competition, and also with the spirit and trend of modern social economics. There is no panacea that can ‘save’ the incompetents except at the expense of the normal people. They are a burden on society and on the producers wherever they are.”

You can find similar comments about women and much of the “protective” legislation that limited women’s access to the labor market was all about keeping them in the home to raise the kids and ensure the superiority of the white race.

A good number of major Progressive era figures were deeply involved in the eugenics movement – hardly a mark of what we today think of as progressivism.

So how did we get on the right?

Why then is classical liberalism today so often seen as “on the right?”  The answer is: socialism.  When Progressivism morphed into socialism, classical liberals opposed it.  Socialism was seen as the new “progressive” view and got the left, while classical liberals was seen as clinging to the past and became viewed as conservative.  Read anything from the 1920s and 30s and you’ll see this – including that forgotten progressive Herbert Hoover.

At the same time, classical liberal opponents of socialism found common cause with traditional conservatives in their mutual opposition to socialism and this alliance became stronger at the end of WWII with the advent of the Cold War.  Plus, true classical liberals were few and far between after the Great Depression, so allying with the Right was the lesser of two evils and necessary in some fundamental sense.

By the 1960s, during the libertarian revival, there was a real attempt to separate libertarians from the Right, provoked to a significant degree by the Vietnam War and the draft, two related issues that pushed libertarians left, along with the civil rights movement.  (The LP was the first political party to have a gay rights platform, and that was no later than 1980.)  Murray Rothbard and others had some briefly successful alliances with the New Left and the 70s looked like a time when those might blossom.

But along came Reagan and changed this dramatically.  His classical liberal rhetoric and the growing free market presence in the conservative movement and the GOP led many classical liberal types to see the Right as their home.1970s libertarians were often very counter-cultural and hippie-ish, but by later in the 1980s, the transformation to the mainstream, if not the country club, was quite clear.  Those 70s libertarians also tended to be a-religious if not anti-religious, but the 80s brought more believers into the broad classical liberal tent, if not the more narrow libertarian one. All of these things together pushed libertarianism to the Right, particularly as the Reagan years saw exacerbated tensions with the USSR. 

Today and tomorrow:  Bleeding-heart libertarianism

That world is gone. The world we inhabit today looks a lot different, and in many ways more like the 60s with war being a major issue, not to mention the related invasion of privacy and 4th amendment issues.  Throw in things like same-sex marriage and techno-freedom and many libertarians are making common cause with issues that resonate more on the left. The possibilities for alliances have never been greater and some, like, have been pretty successful.

Beyond that, the way in which we argue for libertarianism has shifted, with more and more people making the case that a classical liberal world better satisfies the demand for “social justice” that’s normally associated with the Left.  You can call this “Hayek’s world meets Rawls’ criteria” or you can call it “bleeding-heart libertarianism” or you can just call it smarter, more socially-concerned libertarianism.  Whatever you call it, it’s here and it’s allowing libertarians to see ourselves as “on the left” in ways we haven’t before.

And as I’ve argued, this is true to our longer history.  The 20th century may well have been an aberration, brought on by the anti-socialist alliance with the right and the corresponding hyper-individualism that emerged out of both Rand and Rothbard.  Too often over the last few decades, libertarianism has been sold as “Leave me alone, so I can get mine and you worry about yours.” That was perhaps historically understandable, but it’s not true to the history and it’s also not good strategically. 

Classical liberalism began as a progressive movement and it should be so again

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