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On being liberal

By Karl Smith

Matt Yglesias argues that the modern left is the proper heir to Locke and Hume.

There’s a commonly held view that modern day American liberals aren’t “really” liberals and that the “real” heirs of the classical liberal tradition of Hume, Smith, and Mill are conservatives or libertarians. I think that’s honestly nonsense. There’s just nothing in the liberal tradition to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the welfare state, social insurance, redistributive taxation, or environmental regulation.

There is much truth to this. I do wonder whether either the people touting "The Road to Serfdom" or dismissing it have actually read it. One my favorite outtakes:

That the ideal of justice of most socialists would be satisfied if merely private income from property were abolished and the differences between the earned incomes of different people remained what they are now, is true. What these people forget is that in transferring all property in the means of production to the state they put the state in a position whereby its action must in effect decide all other incomes.

That is, as Hayek goes on to explain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with communal ownership of the means of production. The mistake is to think that the government could facilitate such ownership because then the government is effectively a monopolist and that would give the government almost unlimited power.

The idea that in principle it would be okay to completely redistribute all capital wealth is far to the left of anything proposed in modern America.

On the other hand it is not correct to suggest that modern American liberalism does not have a stronger regulatory bent than either conservatism or libertarianism. It’s also hard to argue that the goal of government-run health insurance -- very popular among progressives -- could be defended on classical liberal grounds. Though huge transfers to the poor, which they could use to buy health care if they so choose, could be.

At the same time, obviously conservatism is very supportive of the permanent military state that classical liberals truly feared, and modern libertarianism often makes a fetish of taxation that is not supported by the original arguments.

Karl Smith is an assistant professor of economics and government at the University of North Carolina and a blogger at ModeledBehavior.com.

By Karl Smith  | November 10, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
 
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Comments

This is born out by almost any comparison of present groups/beliefs to the past. Sure, there are ways that the modern Republican Party is similar to Lincoln, and he may even share some of their beliefs, but it's more about using Lincoln's brand to strengthen their own than any real connection.

Posted by: MosBen | November 10, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Modern American liberalism is the same as classic liberalism. It's just that there are an awful lot of confused people out there.

Liberalism is in constant conflict with itself over libertarianism vs. progressivism.
At the moment, the progressives are winning, largely because the libertarians are making such asses of themselves. But do progressives overreach into authoritarianism? You bet. When they reform through coercion, they certainly do.

It might help to consider that the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism but rather authoritarianism. Conservatives are just scared liberals with a lot of stuff to lose, afterall.

Posted by: pmcgann | November 10, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"On the other hand it is not correct to suggest that modern American liberalism does not have a stronger regulatory bent than either conservatism or libertarianism."

Even this, I think, speaks to the modern left's affinity for the classical liberal tradition, depending on what you mean by "modern" and "conservatism." In the no-so-distant past, a belief in strong government regulation in favor of the public interest was a credible definition, at least in part, of conservatism. The spread of participatory democracy -- itself a liberal ideal -- gave rise to new ideas about the nature of the "public interest." This widened the cohort of those qualified to benefit from government action beyond its older focus on wealthy capitalists. This led many in business to question for the first time the usefulness of market regulation by the government. Americans have been negotiating the precise role of the state in this system ever since.

And to go back even further, many of America's first labor movement espoused the labor theory of value, and artifact of Lockean thought, to justify their right to have some say over the means of production.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | November 10, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure American liberals are the proper heir to, for example, Locke.

I can see how one would say that American liberals can trace their roots back to Locke, but their views seem considerably different. Humans can trace their ancestry back to (among other animals) ancient fish, yet fish and humans are quite different creatures.

Locke in particular was very concerned about property rights. From his Second Treatise on Government:

"There is, therefore, secondly, another way whereby governments are dissolved, and that is, when the legislative, or the prince, either of them act contrary to their trust. For the legislative acts against the trust reposed in them when they endeavour to invade the property of the subject, and to make themselves, or any part of the community, masters or arbitrary disposers of the lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people. The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property; and the end while they choose and authorise a legislative is that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the society, to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society."

Or consider another quote:

[Government] "can never have a Power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the Subjects Property, without their own consent. For this would be in effect to leave them no Property at all"

That suggests at least pause when considering whether or not Locke would have been comfortable with high taxation and a large welfare state. I can see Ron Paul saying something similar - not so much Barney Frank.

"And to go back even further, many of America's first labor movement espoused the labor theory of value, and artifact of Lockean thought, to justify their right to have some say over the means of production."

dollarwatcher,

I haven't read all of Locke, but I always took Locke to have a labor theory of property rights, not of value.

Posted by: justin84 | November 10, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Karl, it doesn't look like you understand Hayek's work -- and most definitely it looks like you are not familiar with any of it besides RtoS.

Is that correct?

Posted by: gregransom | November 10, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

You've got to be kidding.

The statement below utterly misses the central arguments contained in Hayek, many of which are only just brushed upon in RtoS.

Karl writes,

"as Hayek goes on to explain, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with communal ownership of the means of production."

Posted by: gregransom | November 10, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Well, hundreds of thousands have read RtoS.

Reagan's copy was heavily annotated.

What we do know is that overwhelming numbers of those who have read it have been conservatives and libertarians -- and in the contemporary period leftists and Democrats and academics almost universally have never read it or any other Hayek. Hayek simply isn't part of the "mainstream" academic curriculum. I won't speculate as to why Hayek has been essentially blackballed. But he has.

Karl,

"I do wonder whether either the people touting "The Road to Serfdom" or dismissing it have actually read it."

Posted by: gregransom | November 10, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

My takeaway from this dormroom discussion is that Progressives are profoundly discomfited by Libertarians.

Posted by: happyacres | November 10, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Someone might want to read Hayek's essay "Liberalism":

http://www.angelfire.com/rebellion/oldwhig4ever/

Or _Hayek's Conservative Liberalism_, by Hannes Gissurarson, originally a dissertation written at Oxford.

People can use words any way they want, and as David Hull points out, words / concepts are historical individuals, and over time they often come to have meaning or significance close to the opposite of what they began.

It's just a fact of language, and I recommend Hull's work on this topic to anyone interested in the evolution of language or ideas.

Posted by: gregransom | November 10, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

"Karl, it doesn't look like you understand Hayek's work -- and most definitely it looks like you are not familiar with any of it besides RtoS.

Is that correct?"

No. Their seem to be two major confusions here based on what other have written.

First, is that communal ownership implies communal direction. A large fraction of the US population owns ExxonMobile even today. In theory that fraction could rise to 100%, and in theory the shares could be evenly distributed among everyone. However, that would not constitute communal direction.

Second, the difference between in principle and in practice. The problem, in my reading of Hayek, is not that communal direction is in principle wrong but that it is practice unworkable.

Contrast this for example with Ayn Rand who even aside from dismissing it as unworkable would suggest that communal ownership was morally wrong.

Posted by: karlsmith | November 11, 2010 1:08 AM | Report abuse

I remain uncertain about the value of debating the finer points of economic philosophy in anonymous blog comments, but I'll do it anyway.

justin84,
I would urge a closer reading of your own quotations. For example:
"The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property; and the end while they choose and authorise a legislative is that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the society" -- and here's the kicker -- "to limit the power and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society." Seems to me this can be read as prescription for government arbitration (and consequently regulation) of the competing interests of society's haves and have-nots.

And: [Government] "can never have a Power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the Subjects Property, without their own consent. For this would be in effect to leave them no Property at all" Interpretation of this quote seems to hinge in part on punctuation (in an era where such things were not standardized), but I'll take it on its face: "Subjects" meaning all of the people -- the whole of society -- and the key line "without their consent" -- which I take to mean it is OK for government to act if the people have given their consent through election to a government to make such decisions. The libertarian reading would be "Subject's" (apostrophe added) -- one person having property taken away without his or her by-your-leave.

Also, Locke was pretty clear about the importance of labor in determining property rights. Early American "mechanics" took this and applied it to their own work in manufactories -- which is what I meant by it being an "artifact of Lockean thought" -- and Marx built upon this thinking in his theories of value. So origin questions are debatable. But the productive use of resources -- giving them value -- was one of Locke's main concerns, he clearly he favored labor over capital (property) in determining the best use of resources.

Posted by: dollarwatcher | November 11, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

The knowledge problem and the rule issue are connected, and they show that the "in principle" problem is in fact an empirical "in practice" barrier. You are trying to draw a distinction without a difference, which is part of Hayek's core argument.

The example of ExxonMobile stock ownership is an argument against your position, not one supporting it.

Unless you are merely playing word games with the word "communal ownership".

Karl writes,

"the difference between in principle and in practice. The problem, in my reading of Hayek, is not that communal direction is in principle wrong but that it is practice unworkable."

Posted by: gregransom | November 11, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Karl, you've read something besides "RtoS".

What?

And I'm wondering if you've read anything in the socialist calculation and corporate governance literature, e.g. the work of Peter Klein.

Have you read Don Lavoie's book on the socialist calculation debate?

Hayek again and again attacks Mill's notion that distribution is independent of production. Are you familiar with that argument?

I'm trying to get some framework for calculating your background understanding on this matter, which so far seems ungrounded in the academic literature.

Posted by: gregransom | November 11, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Hayek is saying that communal direction in principle cannot sustain a mass population, and that as a matter of morality Hayek own moral code tells him it is immoral to sacrifice massive populations in order to fulfill the primal moral demands of our ancient genetic heritage.

But again, you are using language bizarrely.

It is very unusual to use "in principle wrong" when you mean to say "morally wrong" -- especially when the "in principle" language is specifically used in the academic literature on this topic to identify a scientific and logical issue, as distinct from a moral one.

I question why you are trading on this pun.

Karl writes,

"is not that communal direction is in principle wrong but that it is practice unworkable."

Posted by: gregransom | November 11, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Karl, perhaps you meant to say this:

"as Hayek goes on to explain, there is nothing MORALLY wrong with communal ownership of the means of production."

Well, Hayek has a LOT to say on the theory of morals, MOST of it published well after "RtoS".

And Hayek has a lot to say about the moral consequences of communal ownership -- a bit of it in "RtoS".

So this is not AT ALL a straightforward issue.

As an ideal, Hayek the young man was emotionally attracted to the ideal of socialism and communal property -- he saw it as a kind of moral idea IF you didn't think about real world moral rules, real world morality, or the real world of social coordination and cooperation, and governance.

In other words, Hayek shows that morality is inherently mixed up with "practical problems" directly tied to the problems of communal ownership.

Hayek talks about a lot of these things in in _Law, Legislation, and Liberty_, in his _The Fatal Conceit_ and in his essays of the 1980s.

Posted by: gregransom | November 11, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

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