The dangerous complacency of classical liberalism
The seemingly settled modern ideological coalitions of the West are shifting and breaking down. And so, some thinkers have begun to advocate for a return to an older way of thinking and acting about politics.
They call themselves classical liberals.
Many mainstream media organizations (and pundits) have begun to lavish attention on them. Might they be the wave of the future? A gateway to a form of politics beyond the competing populisms of President Trump and Bernie Sanders, as well as the busybody moral puritanism favored by many millennial progressives?
The answer, unfortunately, is no.
On some issues (free speech on campus; the irritations of political correctness) the classical liberals — a syncretic group of writers, thinkers, and politicians that includes Sam Harris, Jonah Goldberg, Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, Daniel Klein, Peter Thiel, Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan — have a point, though they also have a tendency to overstate it. But when we push beyond those niche issues, we discover that classical liberalism amounts to little more than a problematic variant of libertarianism.
To the extent that classical liberals are just libertarians trying to resurrect the much-hyped, short-lived "libertarian moment" of 2014, the trend adds up to little more than a rebranding exercise. But if it's more than that — an effort to suggest a way forward from the sordid mess of national politics in the Trump era — then it's something to be actively avoided.
The problem isn't that classical liberalism is some foreign import to American democracy that threatens to corrupt it. Quite the reverse: Classical liberal ideas serve as the foundation of democracy in America. But they are only the foundation — the cluster of ideas that any healthy and responsible politics must presume but then must also build on and surpass in favor of principles and policies that correct for its defects and limitations.
This has been true for well over a century. It's never been truer than now.
Classical liberalism is the cluster of ideas devised by a series of political philosophers who wrote between the 17th and 19th centuries: John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill, among others. Against defenders of absolute monarchy and the mercantilist economic order of the early modern period, these writers advocated a minimal, nightwatchman state founded on the consent of the governed and an economy of free trade based on private contracts freely entered into by equal individuals. This political and economic arrangement would valorize and protect individual freedom, foster a burgeoning and peaceful civil society, produce massive increases in wealth, and encourage revolutionary scientific and technological advances.
That was the theory.
In the reality of U.S. history, classical liberalism had two moments of special prominence: the era in which the federal Constitution was adopted and the subsequent early national period, and then in the decades following the Civil War. The latter period was especially significant, because it was a time of economic "takeoff" in which lightly regulated industries grew enormously, contributing to a significant leap in economic growth along with a surge in wages for many.
But of course this was also the era of the robber barons, the great monopolies and trusts, and the rise of the People's Party, the original populists, who took a stand against the inequality, dislocations, and social and communal costs of unrestrained economic dynamism and creative destruction. From out of that protest grew the Progressive movement, the New Deal, and the rest of modern liberalism — which is best understood as an absolutely necessary corrective to the injustices produced by the freewheeling churn of classical liberalism.
That's why classical liberalism is and always will be both necessary and radically insufficient to serve as the governing philosophy of a free and equal democratic society. Such a society needs and depends on economic growth. But that very dependence invariably leads it to downplay the tendency of private entities (big business; wealthy elites; slave owners; racial majorities) to acquire and wield the kind of power formerly wielded only by states.
If you're standing against a tyrannical and unjust government, classical liberalism can be a fabulously potent force for fighting it. But when confronting the myriad tyrannies and injustices promulgated by private power, it counsels only complacency and resignation. "That's life; suck it up" — in previous, far more inegalitarian centuries, such a lesson might have been acceptable. In the modern world, it simply isn't.
In the modern world, it might even provoke a revolution marching under an anti-liberal banner.
The modern liberalism of the welfare state, redistribution of wealth through taxation, and regulation of commerce was a prudent response to a world in which the dislocation and destabilization wrought by capitalism threatened to inspire revolutionary movements that could well have toppled the whole system, including its classical liberal foundations. In this way, modern liberals saved liberalism from itself.
Liberalism faces a similar challenge today — though with a twist.
Since Ronald Reagan brought a classically liberal sensibility into the White House for the first time since before FDR, the Republican Party has done its level best to return the country to something like its late-19th-century condition. (House Speaker Paul Ryan and much of the House Freedom Caucus would fervently love to push this tendency further.) This has had much the same result as it did in the 1880s and '90s, spawning economic growth in the aggregate, inequalities in wealth, and a populist movement (with both right and left wing variants) that's openly hostile to key aspects of liberalism.
The twist lies in the GOP's role both as an advocate for classical liberalism and an incubator for the most virulent and electorally potent strain of populist reaction to it. That paradox reaches an exquisite peak in the Trump administration itself, with its drive to cut taxes, gut the Affordable Care Act, and shred regulations, while simultaneously whipping up racism and nativism and enacting policies designed to inflict maximum cruelty against the most vulnerable.
The Trumpist version of the Republican Party is a motor for generating and benefitting from populism. And classical liberalism is the fuel on which the motor runs.
Which means that classical liberalism is far from serving as a potential panacea for our political woes. On the contrary, it's guaranteed to make the worst aspects of our politics even worse.