American Classical Liberals Suck

This week Kevin Vallier published a new entry on neoliberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Neoliberalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is a well-written, well-researched piece. However, it is also symbolic for the greatest deficiency of American classical liberals: they are unable or unwilling to defend the name, or label if you like, of the ideas they are associated with. Given the influence of American academia and thinks tanks on the rest of the world this is especially important. It has happened before, and it is happening now. It sucks.

This is how Vallier starts his entry:

“Though not all scholars agree on the meaning of the term, “neoliberalism” is now generally thought to label the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly liberal and capitalist, but supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. Recent work on neoliberalism, thus understood, shows this to be a coherent and distinctive political philosophy. This entry explicates neoliberalism by examining the political concepts, principles, and policies shared by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, all of whom play leading roles in the new historical research on neoliberalism, and all of whom wrote in political philosophy as well as political economy. Identifying common themes in their work provides an illuminating picture of neoliberalism as a coherent political doctrine.”

The problem is in the words: ‘“neoliberalism” is now generally thought…’’.  Neoliberalism is a hotly debated term, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning. As Oliver Hartwich has emphasized in Neoliberalism, the genesis of a political swearword, it is still most often used as a swearword by the left for all that they think is wrong with capitalism, (classical) liberalism, (more or less) liberal policies by IMF, WTO and World Bank, et cetera. These left wingers are also found in academia, policy and in media circles, which has led to its routine use. However, it is not true that the work of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan is generally thought to be covered by a neoliberal label. Only those who disagree with it call them neoliberals. It is painful to see that the ideas of these three Nobel Prize winners are now used to explain neoliberalism in a leading online source. They self-identified as classical liberals and just because opponents of their views use a different label is no reason to comply with that malicious practice.  

The worse thing is, it has happened before, also commencing in the US. Fairly recently, classical liberals began to use the label libertarian, as the Cato Institute has been promoting, for example on their (very useful) website  Libertarianism.org, or in David Boaz’ The Libertarian Mind.  Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism, what everyone needs to know is another example. The issue here is that the three aforementioned classical liberals, and others, are now thrown onto the same heap as Rothbard and Rand, to name a few rather different thinkers.

Decades earlier, Hayek and others noted with regret that the Americans were unable to defend the original meaning of the word liberal, with the result that a liberal in the American sense is now what people in other parts of the world call a social-democrat. It is also the reason Hayek and other started to use the name classical liberal.  

The result of all this changing of names is confusion and vulnerability. Nobody knows what label belongs to which ideas, which gives rise to a petty industry on liberal labels, yet without any clarity in the end. It also provides ample opportunity for opponents to negatively attack ideas loosely associated with the (classical) liberal movement, which results in a negative image, which also make liberal ideas less attractive for outsiders. The lack of clarity also makes vulnerable for any kind of criticism. Actually, embracing the swearword other use for you, by offering the ideas of your greatest and brightest thinkers, is a shameful act at least.

American classical liberals should stay firm and defend their ideas under the proper labels. There is no reason for change (see my Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology), there is only a need for explanation and defense. Giving up clear and proper labels plainly sucks.         

5 thoughts on “American Classical Liberals Suck

  1. Love it or hate it (I don’t think anyone’s lukewarm), the term can be traced directly to the Mont Pelerin Conference, as a response to the rise of Keynesian Liberalism Post WWII, as I think Phillip Mirowski has argued convincingly. I think of neo-liberalism in particular as a conscious, concerted effort to ensure that where the state does intervene, it does so in an effort to achieve a hypothetical market outcome. Buchanan’s public choice critique of state action would be of particular note here. I don’t know that I entirely agree with Miroswki that Classical Liberalism did not rely on the state, but that’s another argument. One problem that does arise with the use of the term neo-liberalism is that it encompasses everything from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair so the term does kind of lose its descriptiveness.

  2. Thanks. I agree th term was used around Word War 2, for a short while (see the work of Stefam Kolev and Erwin Dekker, to mentiom just a few). Yes it was discarded in the early fifties. So no reason at all to refer to them nowadays with that obsolete label.

    Adam Smith already in the Wealth of Nations sugggested a number of state tasks (education among them), so it is not true liberalism did not see state tasks from its earliest days. Hayek, and Mises both claimed to be followers of the great Scot as well, so there is direct lineage.

    Classical Liberalism is not what Mirowski or Slobodian want us to believe, we should not follow them.

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