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.         

Libertarianism and the new generation

Computer use as an adult: check my bills, check my savings, look at pricing for home improvements, check the scores, send & answer emails, read blogs if I’m lucky.

Has there been any foundational libertarian academic work done in the last 35 years? I mean, when I was in college, you read Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Mises, and Nozick. These were the people you read if you wanted to familiarize yourself with common libertarian sentiment on questions of public policy (“economics”), ethics, foreign affairs, and cultural shifts.

What do the kids read nowadays? I’m in favor of overhauling the canon. I’d keep Nozick and Rand, but whose work should we consult on matters of public policy (“economics”) and foreign affairs? I think I’m going to have to be the one who answers the foreign affairs question, but what about econ? Whose work is the new Mises/Friedman? Whose going to overtake Rothbard and come up with a libertarian manifesto for a new generation?

Has our time come and gone already? If we don’t need new voices and fresh perspectives, then we’ve already lost the war of ideas.

“Libertarianism and international violence”

An oldie but goodie from RJ Rummel:

Based on theory and previous results, three hypotheses are posed:

1. Libertarian states have no violence between themselves.

2. The more libertarian two states, the less their mutual violence.

3. The more libertarian a state, the less its foreign violence.

These hypotheses are statistically tested against scaled data on all reported international conflict for 1976 to 1980; and where appropriate, against a list of wars from 1816 to 1974, and of threats and use of force from 1945 to 1965. The three hypotheses are found highly significant. Tests were also made for contiguity as an intervening variable and were negative. Finally, two definitions of “libertarian” are tested, one involving civil liberties plus political rights, the other adding in economic freedom. Both are highly positive, but economic freedom is also found to make a significant added reduction in the level of violence for a state overall or between particular states.

Here’s the link, and this turned into an article in Journal for Conflict Resolution. I think he’s wrong. I think it’s a shame that this argument is cited as an example of libertarian thought in international relations, or at least that it’s still cited as The Libertarian Example. It was good when it came out during the Cold War (in 1983). But it’s soooo Westphalian. Trying to bring Philadelphian sovereignty back into the picture is a tough slog.

Libertarian foreign policy for the 21st century

American libertarians are behind the times when it comes to foreign policy (also known as “international relations”). We’re still, to a large extent, stuck in a Cold War mentality. The non-interventionism of Murray Rothbard and Robert Higgs is still prevalent in our circles, but this non-interventionism is rooted in the bipolar power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union; it’s concerned with imperial overreach rather than liberty and republican security, which is understandable given the America’s role in the Cold War (the reactionary opposite to the Soviet penchant for exporting revolution).

European classical liberals are ahead of us, as they are in a more multipolar environment than us Americans, but they’re missing something too. They think the Westphalian status quo is just fine. They point to the European Union and they say, it’s better than nothing. But the world has changed since Westphalian confederations were en vogue. How does Westphalian nation-statism answer puzzles like Somaliland or Biafra or Balochistan?

It doesn’t.

American libertarians and European classical liberals have built their exit-centric approach to international relations upon Westphalian assumptions.

I think that an entrance-centric approach to the world would be a much better, more libertarian option.

Nightcap

  1. Libertarianism is bankrupt Thomas Wells, 3 Quarks Daily
  2. Neoracism in America today John McWhorter, Persuasion
  3. Racism, elites, and the have-nots Joanna Williams, spiked!
  4. Monday morning quarterbacking Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals

Nightcap

  1. What’s not wrong with libertarianism? (pdf) Tom Palmer, Critical Review
  2. A civilizational foreign policy? Samuel Gregg, Modern Age
  3. The case against fiscal austerity? Ed Dolan, Open Society
  4. The minimum wage paper that needs to be written Vincent Geloso

Nightcap

  1. Lessons on internationalism from Carl Schmitt Mark Weiner, Open Society
  2. Populism (and its violence) is here to stay Mark Kukis, Aeon
  3. How 2020 kicked classical liberalism’s ass John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  4. An excellent essay on Christianity and the West Andrew Klavan, City Journal

Nightcap

  1. It would take at least 6,300 years to reach the closest star to our sun MIT Review
  2. How far aggressive aliens? Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  3. America’s long (and beautiful) anti-socialist history Matthew Wills, JStor Daily
  4. Big business got bigger in America during the pandemic George Dance, Political Animal

Nightcap

  1. Accidents in ideological machines Chris Shaw, Libertarian Ideal
  2. Reordering the liberal world order Duncan Bell, Disorder of Things
  3. 10 best history books of 2020? RealClearHistory
  4. Byzantines, Ottomans, and Turkey Nick Ashdown, Newlines

Nightcap

  1. Toward an a priori theory of international relations (pdf) Mark Cravelli, JLS
  2. A fourth way out of the dilemma facing libertarianism (pdf) Laurent Dobuzinskis, C+T
  3. Taobao, federalism, and the emergence of law, Chinese-style (pdf) Liu & Weingast, MLR
  4. A road not taken: the foreign policy vision of Robert A. Taft (pdf) Michael Hayes, TIR

Nightcap

  1. Required reading at French military schools Michael Shurkin, War on the Rocks
  2. Stealing libertarianism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Liberty is self-government, not rights alone Richard Reinsch, Modern Age
  4. How Big Film distorts colonialism’s legacy Lipton Matthews, Mises Wire

Nightcap

  1. On cancel culture Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Why I lean libertarian Arnold Kling, askblog
  3. Colonialism and economic development Lipton Matthews, Mises Wire
  4. Speculation about Greece and Turkey Koert Debeuf, EUObserver

Nightcap

  1. The libertarian personality Arnold Kling, askblog
  2. The decline of the West – new and improved Josef Joffe, American Interest
  3. When a civilization retreats Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. Cents and sensibility Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling

How I understand left and right today

One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.

At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.

Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.

Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.

Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.

And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.

 

Nightcap

  1. 1979 and the rise of “Global Jihad” James Barnett, American Interest
  2. Why is Sweden such an outlier? Benjamin Davies, Times Literary Supplement
  3. A sign of things to come? (Taiwan) Nick Aspinwall, the Diplomat
  4. Taking a piss on libertarianism’s grave Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber