Before I had returned from my trip to Princeton for this event, the always-sage John Holbo wrote,
But here’s the main problem. It is obviously false that Obama ‘demonizes individualism’. I’ve read quite a bit of Croly and heard a lot of Obama speeches and they don’t sound like each other at all. They don’t have similar political philosophies. If you listen to Obama and hear Croly all that proves is that you need to get your hearing checked. Or your head checked.
Read the whole thing; John's epic-length posts are always worth it.
I hadn't been sure whether to post my panel remarks here, but John's post settled it for me. He's having an argument with Jonah Goldberg about whether Obama is kin to the collectivist progressives of the turn of the twentieth century, and-- as you'll see below-- I think he's right and Goldberg's wrong. (I recognize I haven't provided an argument to that effect. Only had ten minutes to talk.)
The great economist Joseph Schumpeter, referring to the fortunes of the word ‘liberal,’ once commented that "as a supreme, if unintended, compliment, the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label." Many of my fellow libertarians, or classical liberals as we sometimes insist on calling ourselves, share that view; egalitarian liberals are enemies who stole our name. I think that it’s much more pithy than it is true, and that classical liberals and those who a century ago took the name of “new liberals” but who I’ll just call left-liberals share much that is morally and philosophically important and true, and that we’re ideological cousins sprung from common intellectual ancestry. We’re also sprung from a common class and cultural matrix. Liberals were not the party of the peasantry or the working class, neither were they the party of the aristocracy, the high clergy, and the military. They were the party of religious dissenters and minorities, smallholders, the petit bourgeoisie, merchants, and sometimes lawyers.
Now, the timing of our session is odd, for this argument. On the one hand, I have arguments I’ve been developing for many years about why libertarians belong not in a great fusionist alliance with conservatives but rather in common cause with our fellow liberals. I think that’s been an interestingly hard argument to make, but we meet at a time, a few weeks before an election, when I think the immediate conclusion to draw is boringly easy. No libertarian can hope to see the party of torture, denials of habeas corpus, indefinite detention without trial, and boundless unsupervised executive power returned to office. If our core root liberalism, if our roots in the struggles of common law against absolutist king or in John Locke or in Montesquieu or in the American Revolution mean anything at all, then it means a four percentage-point difference in marginal income tax rates is less important than removing the party of torture and detention without trial from power. That’s morally so overwhelmingly important as to make my traditional arguments about libertarians leaving the fusionist alliance seem kind of silly.
Conversely, I’ve had arguments as to why left-liberals should welcome us into common cause, and why they as well as we should be prepared to be changed by the alliance or the fusion. I think that the US Democratic Party ought to build on the accomplishments of the Clinton years, and extend and deepen the New Democratic agenda. To a libertarian, those years of trade deals completed and successfully ratified, market liberalization spreading around the world, and moderate budget restraint at home have to look something like a paradise—and it was a time that showed the progressive potential of market-led growth. But the paradise is lost, and we are in for not only a recession and a financial contraction but also for an era of bad policy responses and reactions. I have no illusions that Democrats are going to come shopping for market-oriented or neoliberal or deregulatory reform ideas in the next couple of years. Though I think it’s worth noting that Obama is from and of the market-friendly University of Chicago Law School, and that the Republican Party not only nominated the moralizing anti-market anti-bourgeois noblesse d’epee John McCain but is likely to face a Palin-Huckabee contest four years from now that will confirm a Republican turn toward a singularly unattractive populism.
But this moment will pass, and anyway I have little comparative advantage in talking about current events. Instead, I’d like to talk about political theory, about the divergence between classical and egalitarian liberalisms, and about what they can bring to each other today.
During the era when the so-called “new” or “social” liberalism self-consciously departed from its market-oriented predecessor, the new liberals often maintained that their core liberal values needed to find new institutional and policy outcomes in the wake of the industrial revolution—that a corporation as much as a state could threaten a person’s freedom, that the assembly line as much as censorship could stunt individual mental growth and development. In my view, unfortunately, they never did much more than establish those analogies. They didn’t do much interesting argumentative work on how old liberal premises and values plus new industrial circumstances yielded welfarist conclusions. In part this was because the major theorists of the turn in Britain, Thomas Green and Leonard Hobhouse, really didn’t share old liberal premises; Green had drunk too deeply at the well of Hegel and Hobhouse was too quick to reject the moral priority of individuals. I think that a great deal of the political movement of new liberalism was more continuous with the old—it drew from the same intellectual, cultural, and class circles, for example—but the theoretical turn to welfare liberalism got highly tied up with a generational intellectual turn to Hegelian idealism or to collectivism of various unattractive sorts. I think a similar story can be told in the U.S. around Woodrow Wilson and the mixing together of welfarist liberalism with progressivism, imperialism, and Jim Crow. In turn, I think that the classical liberals who lived through the 1910s to 1940s saw the development of egalitarian liberalism as being of a piece with the moral and intellectual crisis of those years—the flourishing of communism and fascism, the crisis and near collapse of liberal constitutionalism. And they thus made common cause with conservatives who they took to be on the right side of a great civilizational divide, no matter how many things they were wrong about. The liberal center did not hold; some liberals made common cause with social democrats who two generations before they had viewed as antagonists, and others made common cause with conservatives they had viewed as antagonists.
Fortunately, I think that Hegelianism, collectivism, and progressivism have been substantially unwound from welfare liberalism, certainly in the U.S. since no later than Rawls and the Warren Court. An egalitarian liberalism that is committed to the priority of liberty, to the defense of civil liberties, to the social diversity characteristic of the post-60s and 70s West, and to the anti-authoritarianism of the New Left—that’s a liberalism worthy of the name. And libertarians in Will’s and my generation, while we learned from people who learned from people who were shaped by the long crisis of the first half of the twentieth century, we inhabit a different world from the one in which the fusionist alliance with the Right made sense. National Greatness conservatism, the conservatism of Irving Kristol and John McCain that says let us have a war or a crisis just so that we may have national unity and a moral cause greater than our private lives—that’s the kind of thing that characterized progressivism and New Liberalism at their worst, but it’s effectively absent from egalitarian liberalism today.
I mean to close with a few words about what egalitarian and classical liberals can learn from each other, and what their common cause is.
From the classical liberal, the egalitarian liberal has learned one huge lesson and ought to learn three more. The huge lesson is the productive and progressive power of markets. While economic discourse will turn anti-market for a while, we are not going to return to the 1970s or the 1940s or the 1930s. Egalitarian liberals may overestimate the number of tweaks and twists and limits they can give the market with no ill effects—but they’re not going to aspire to replace the market, or complain about how awful it is that economic activity is so disorganized and uncoordinated. The three lessons they ought to learn are: first, remember that the choice is never between the existing market and the ideal regulation or the ideal intervention. It’s between the existing market and the politically likely regulation or intervention. Second, remember that egalitarianism’s moral force ought to be global, and therefore that the egalitarian has the most reason to favor openness to trade and immigration. Free trade is, along with religious freedom and the rule of law, one of liberalism’s three founding commitments, and classical liberals can help call our egalitarian friends back to their best selves by reminding them of that. And, third, remember that the exercise of coercive power tends not to be done in the interest or for the benefit of the powerless, and that often limiting state power is the most progressive policy. The American War on Drugs and the resultant criminalization of vast portions of America’s poor is the most dramatic of examples.
From the egalitarian liberal, the classical liberal has probably not yet learned any of the necessary big lessons. But I will focus on two. The first is that where distributive effects from deliberately enacted policies are inevitable, and they often are, it is better that those effects be progressive rather than regressive. At any given level of spending, we have moral reason to prefer that the spending alleviate poverty and suffering rather than that it be wasted. The view of the big-government right has been that spending on the rich didn’t count as spending, and that state-corporatism could still claim the mantle of the market. The Bush administration’s drug benefit is a spectacular example—huge government spending, but so long as it’s arranged to subsidize a corporate sector rather than to alleviate need among the poor, it doesn’t really count. Classical liberals need to be able to say that there is principled reason to prefer progressivity to regressivity and corporatism, alongside the principled reasons to favor smaller government over larger. We will not always be able to have a government that is both smaller and more progressive—but we will sometimes, as we have for the past eight years, have government that is neither, and that suggests that it’s possible to make some pareto improvements from the joint perspective of egalitarian and libertarian liberals.
For the second, I’ll note that Friedrich Hayek considered the rule of law to be such an attractive and foundationally liberal concept that he attempted to subsume most of his political theory under its rubric. I think he was right about some of that, though not all of it. But the analogical extension of the rule of law to cover questions of economic policy depend on the conceptual core of the rule of law being intact: the separation of powers, constraints on executive authority, due process, and all the rest that Hayek wrote a marvelous history of in the middle of Constitution of Liberty. This allows me to draw the theoretical point back toward the contemporary moral point with which I began. The rule of law, the subjection of the executive to law, and the protections of the due process of law—these are accomplishments that it is easy to take for granted but that are always fragile. Their defense and vindication is the common cause of liberals of whatever stripe.