I am not a classical liberal, but classical liberals are right about some things. In a sane world they could play a valuable role by challenging the thinking of social democrats, welfare state liberals, and others who believe the state has an important role to play in economic affairs. We all need to be kept honest.
But for decades, classical liberalism has been debased by the economic extremism of its adherents and their willing association with the social reactionaries and authoritarians in the Republican political coalition.
The dalliance with reactionaries has led to a never-ending stream arguments that attempt to put lipstick on the pig, or deny that the pig exists, or point to another pig, or at least to a frightening squirrel.
The latest installment in this saga comes from Alexander Salter and Phil Magness writing in The Washington Monthly. They opt to deny that the pig exists, while simultaneously pointing to a small squirrel, or maybe a mouse. And to top it off, they wash it all down with a dose of self-pity. Let’s take a look:
The case of the missing democracy:
Classical liberals are on the precipice of political homelessness. America’s animating philosophy, which emphasizes individual liberty, the rule of law, free enterprise, and equal dignity for all, is getting swept away by torrents of illiberalism. On both the Left and Right, winning political coalitions have little use for those who pledge allegiance to our nation’s historical creed.
See what’s missing from our “historical creed”? Democracy. Voting. Free and fair elections. Not having a king or some other tyrant. And really, who cares that classical liberals don’t feel entirely comfortable with any political party? For better or worse, we have a two-party system. No one feels that any party perfectly represents their views.
As classical liberals, we cannot hide our dismay with contemporary politics. On the Right, the fusionist coalition that once offered old-fashioned liberals a voice within the GOP is falling apart. On the Left, Democrats treat as enemies of the state anybody who dares dissent from extreme progressivism. . . .
. . . While we don’t expect sweetness and light from partisan contests, surely it’s reasonable to demand the political process respect quintessentially American beliefs. . . .
What are these quintessential beliefs?
There’s little room for our economic ideas in the Democratic Party. They’ve opposed free enterprise since the New Deal, if not earlier.
Here we see the economic extremism. Social Security is illegitimate, even though Americans overwhelmingly support it, because . . . going hungry in your old age is a quintessential American value? Who knew? And presumably Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, workers comp, the EITC, SNAP, etc., are also illegitimate, because what is more American than hungry and sick children, and disabled or unemployed adults sitting on subway grates selling pencils?
Perhaps this is why Salter and Magness never mention the threat that Republicans pose to American democracy – if democracy is sacrosanct, their desire to destroy the New Deal is not likely to make much progress.
The woke peril:
But another, more recent illiberal turn is far more alarming: Democrats have turned their back on basic values such as free speech, toleration of dissent, and open scientific inquiry. Instead, they prefer totalizing wokeness, seasoned heavily with authoritarianism. Left-illiberalism infuses every aspect of life with “social justice” activism, from the ESG investment schemes of Wall Street to the monetary policy priorities of the Federal Reserve to the kinds of cars and appliances permissible to purchase. If Democrats get their way, everything social and cultural will necessarily become political. There’s no room for liberalism here.
Are there some people who say dumb “woke” things? Yes. Do people with nutty woke ideas have any hope of winning political power in America? Here’s a simple test: how many people are running for office in 2022 on a platform to “defund the police”, or to teach critical race theory to elementary schoolers (or even high schoolers)? Salter and Magness aren’t idiots. They know this “totalizing wokeness” argument is just Republican racist dog-whistling. (And “totalizing”? Really?) Despite their rending of garments and claims of political orphanhood, they are still comfortably ensconced in the Republican political coalition. (Oh, and for the record, I think ESG is a con. I do not think it portends the end of liberal civilization.)
Bothsidesism doesn’t work when you are only willing to criticize one side:
OK, but what about Republicans?
Conservatives once paid lip service to freedom of contract, voluntary exchange, free trade, and fiscal discipline. Alas, those days are gone. Under the misleading cover of pursuing America’s “national interest,” their policies single out politically connected industries as recipients of public largesse. Some are even heralding the revival of Henry Clay’s “American System” — a discredited platform of trade protectionism and subsidized infrastructure from the 19th century. These policies invariably devolve into political cronyism, as happened in the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which triggered an international collapse in commerce and helped put the “Great” in the “Great Depression.” As history shows, right-wing illiberalism is dangerous, too.
See, nothing about Trump, nothing about rampant election denialism in the GOP, or January 6th, or the Electoral Count Act, or the fact that the Supreme Court is a partisan hack shop that is actively undermining the integrity of our elections. Instead, they whine about protectionism, which is far from the most serious threat we face, and has a long history in America, whatever you think about it. (They do not even mention the social illiberalism, racism, xenophobia, and sexism of the Republican party, which is a bit of problem for their “both sides do it” story line. They do mention that some members of the Libertarian party are indulging in “noxious racialism”, but really, would it make any difference if the Libertarian party traded in racist ideas if the Republicans weren’t there to back them up? This is performative anti-racism.)
Classical liberal fantasy talk:
Here’s the conclusion:
Illiberalism makes our national problems, especially polarization, even worse. Repudiating natural rights and basic legal fairness makes us more fearful of each other and hence more willing to do one another harm. Classical liberalism’s retreat from the public square sets us up for a war of all against all. Those who believe in the self-evident truths upon which America is built must resist illiberalism with all their strength and hope that any sensible voices still remaining in our political system, whatever the party, are listening.
This is classical liberalism fantasy talk. They are just imagining a world in which everyone agrees with them and we have exactly those rights – and only those rights – that people like Salter and Magness think we should have. And to be completely fair, they are correct – in their absurd fantasy world, there would be no polarization! But of course, in the actual world, most of us do not agree with Salter and Magness. The way we negotiate our differences – in the actual world of politics, not the fantasy world of Salter and Magness – is by having free and fair elections. But elections are the part of our collective heritage that Salter and Magness just can’t bring themselves to mention.
The threat to democracy is real, and classical liberals are ready to throw democracy under the bus:
The problem here is not just a silly and self-indulgent op-ed by Salter and Magness. As Saldin and Teles show in their book Never Trump, there are precious few Never Trump classical liberal or libertarian economists. Classical liberals and libertarians are at best indifferent to democracy, and they play an outsized role in our political economy because their ideas get disseminated by right-wing think tanks funded by libertarian plutocrats.
If you’re worried that classical liberals and the plutocrats who hire them would throw democracy under the bus to dismantle the welfare state, or even just for some regressive tax cuts, you’re not being paranoid.