The Limits of Classical Liberalism

The primary limitation of classical liberalism, in my mind, is that it arose during the modern world. That is prior to the realization of the inter-subjectivity of existence. Modern philosophy is rife with deus ex machinas whose job it is to create a larger harmonized whole out of the actions of separate atomistic indivduals. This is particularly true of the Anglo-American tradition of liberalism: Smith’s invisible hand, Leibniz’s pre-established harmony of the monads are good examples of this trend.

The reason this vision is so limited and these epicycles of invisible hands or providence have to be thrown in, is that humans are always already arising in worldspaces. What is acting in self-interest rationally does not emerge until the human has gone through (at least) 4 major transformations. It is true that there is such action but it is discovered and praticed only (at least) at the modernist-orange wave.

The social-collective is an inherent dimension to existence not an extra piece that descends to cover the gaps.

This is why of the many varities of conservatisms, hardcore economic libertarians I find the most partial. They are very helpful when the constantly criticize government waste and excess–not good when used as a primary guiding philosophy imo.

If every individual is acting in his/her rational self-interest, things do not automatically as a reuslt go well. The market for example does not save us–as the fulndamentalist clergy of economic libertarianism have been telling us it will for ever.

Capitalism is the best form of economic activity to generate wealth as quickly as possible. Fatually this is the case. Capitalism also has within it no praxis for equitable (not equal) distribution of that wealth. Unregulated capitalism intrinsically tends to gross wealth disparities, corruption, and monopolization.

Smith’s economic theories got around this by saying his ideas only applied in the theoretical case of the completely transparent, level playing field of the market.

Of course in actual practice, as postmodernism would show (or even muckraking modernism), that test case hardly if ever really exists. Now there are the great heroic econ stories of Google, self-made millionaries, etc. it can happen. But for everyone of those, numerous counter-examples could be marshalled.

Because capitalism of the Anglo-American variety emphasized individualism and had within it no injunction for larger social-communal reality, other the negative freedoms of the Bill of Rights (freedom from censored speech, religious tests, etc.), it left the door open for social philosophies that placed the primary on the collective.

The most brutal of these were the totalitarianisms of communism and fascism. Softer varieties included European welfare states/state socialism. But all of these have intellectually failed (see Hayek).

Certain forms of Islamism represent another such rising of the social-collective. As long as a quadrant is forgotten, then it will re-emerge and sabotage what is.

That is why I do not make, what I consider, unhelpful stark dualisms between say classical liberalism/modern conservatism (good) and leftism (bad). Because I see intrisinc flaws in the classical liberal tradition which generally “leftist” tracks can help ferret out and name. I don’t however accept that any of them do anything other than that–critique the destructive sides of liberal modernity.

That is why I think some other future integrated form must emerge (radical middle, 3rd Way, etc), but until then the choices for me are between the lesser of evils.

Consider the following two quotations in this context. I’ll just say my view is the former.

Liberal democracy is the worst form of government on earth–until you study all the alternatives. –Winston Churchill

America is the greatest country on earth. —Robert Godwin

From whose point of view? The second quotation strikes me as context-less and can easily come across as out of touch, insensitive, call it whatever you like.

You might not think the US is the greatest country on earth IF you were say:

–born on a reservation in South Dakota and had to live with the fact that this greatest country on earth massacred and systemetic policies of genocide against your ancestors, destroying their traditional ways of life. And to this day the country operates as if ur people do not today exist. That Indians exist in musuems and in cowboy movies.

–a Marshalese (Marshall Islands) woman who three generations since the testing of the Hydrogen bomb off the coast of ur islands has what in the local language is called a grape baby. A grape baby, is a horrific birth defect that is 100% fatal to infant due to continued fallout from the radiation, where the child is born with no skin. The infant’s organs are fully visible and their “skin” is like translucent grape-quality.

the list could go on and on–descendent of enslaved humans, from the largest segment of poverty in the US…poor, white Applachian, Vietnamese, now Iraqi, murdered by death squads funded/trained by US in Nicaragua, El Salvador–including Roman Catholic priests and their housekeepers.

To quote Sam Harris: “The US is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen-pregnancy, STD infection, and infant mortality. Southern and Midwestern states, characterized by the highest levels of religious literalism, are especially plagued by the above miseries, while the comparatively secular states of the Northeast conform to European norms.”

I live in Vancouver whose worst neighborhood consists of (sadly) strung out drug addicts. But there is no weaponization of the drug trade, so there are no guns and no homicides like in US ghettos. I used to live in the Bronx and can tell you there were many many streets I knew I couldn’t walk down. In fact the few blocks right behind my house were safe to walk at night because they were Mafia controlled. If someone tried to pick-pocket me, they would have been executed Sopranos-style for their action.

That said to point out there are awful shadow sides, but there is a positive in terms of the amount of people who are not killed, wounded, or psychologically devastated (police) in our urban war zones comparable to our Iraqi ones.

The US also pays the most per person for the worst health care in the industrialized world. In part because we spend no moneys on preventive care, that due in part to libertarian rhetoric of not being told what to do (excuse me, I forgot the trans-fat ban in NYC).

I’m not saying its all relative or Americans are the evil baddies in a world where everyone else is peaceloving do-gooders.

Let’s say America is the greatest country on earth taking all that into account. To me what that means is that human beings have an abysmal record. If this is the best that we can come up with, as a species we generally have failed and continue to do so to this day.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in my view one of the greatest 20th century Christian theologians, wrote after living in America (he was a German Lutheran) for a few years teaching at Union Theologicla Seminary in NYC, that America had never fundamentally questioned the modern world. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Similiarly Bonhoeffer said of American religion, particularly Christianity, that it is very good at fund drives, social outreach projects, getting people to church, revivals, etc, but it has never fundamentally asked whether religion is not the solution but possibly part of the problem. Bonhoeffer at the end of his life in letters ferreted out from his prison cell to friends spoke on an ir-religious Christianity (or what I would call a post-religious Xty).

I’m not suggesting the way of the Europeans or the deconstructionist American left. They certainly questioned modernity and see religion as part of the problem. But that has led to a deadend, emotionally, politically, and spiritually.

A better figure to consider would be a Martin Luther King, Jr. Not the white-washed Aemrican saint whose feast day we celebrate. But the man with a vision and a deep and abiding criticism and love of the US. But as he say it from a higher moral plane. King as long as stayed to the question of Black Civil Rights was harrassed but eventually tolerated. I find it not surprising that he was killed at the time he began saying that the experience of the American black was comparable to that of the Vietnamese, the African, and the 3rd World in general. Then he was killed.

He did not represent a deconstructionism. He believed in right and wrong but he was guided by what he saw as a higher moral value than simply the Anglo-American common law/republican constitutional tradition. He was certainly willing to use that and saw that system as having advantages of others. Only Anglo-American traditions allowed for succesful non-violent civil disobedience: Gandhi in British India; King in US. But they are still deeply flawed institutions.

Godwin writes that classical liberalism is the best way to achieve freedom from tyranny. He’s right about that. But to me that is also its shadow: freedom from as opposed to freedom for. What do we do with that freedom from tyranny? All become middle class, 2.3 kids, white picket fences, bourgoise consumers?

After the Soviets fell, John Paul II who was attempted to be Americanized by his biographer George Weigel and First Things Editor Richard John Neuhaus, said “1 down (i.e. communism), 1 to go (capitalism).” Weigel and Neuhaus attempted to gloss over JPII’s rejection of the War in Iraq (which both theologians supported and which both JPII and Benedict have from the beginning denounced repeatedly). Neuhaus attempted to read into JPII’s encyclials a support for US free market libertarianism. He was thrased in theological circles for his idoelogical reading. The encylical if you read it, supports democratic socialism. I’m not saying that means its right or what we should aim for because the Pope said so, just that is what he said.

With JPII and MLK I support a higher moral law, which I believe always stands in judgment o
safeguarding the possibility for people to pursue that higher moral law and spirit. But it for me is only the best of those currently represented and even as best has massive limitations and evils inherent in it. I also hold out the belief that there will be some better form of human organization and governance, but likely never in my lifetime. Something of a federation–not the UN–of global wide concern transcending the limitations of even the best of nation-states.

But that relative issue aside, human laws/politics will always stand in judgment from the divine. God is not an American nor a classical liberalist. Or rather that version of god is–from this perspective–idolatrous and the worship of a human-made abomination. [Bonhoeffer’s point]. Governments are, as Augustine said, barely more than legitimated bands of robbers.

See Sandy Berger stealing documents here. See George Bush silencing a critic and politicizing yet again our foreign intelligence services by lying that the Iranians support for the US in Afghanistan was classified here. The author, Flynt Leverett, one of the smartest Americans on the topic of Syria and Middle East used to work for Bush. That information by the way was publicly stated by the Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. So why isn’t she being threatened with criminal proceedings?

But that aside, the form of modernism, whch rising powers like China, India, Russia, and Brazil maintain will not be American libertarian tradition of free markets. It will still be modern and yes there may be more tyranny (by American definitions) and possibly better communion relative to the US–it’s not zero-sum games around–but the US will have to learn to live with those realities.

A reliance only on an American form of modernism is preventing America in terms of foreign policy and education from seeing itself as part of the globalized world and promote a vision for the 21st century. Not the isolationism that is now setting in.

Published in: on December 26, 2006 at 4:05 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This whole piece is very good – great food for thought. So I will focus, as is my wont, on a question for more explanation:

    “Softer varieties included European welfare states/state socialism. But all of these have intellectually failed (see Hayek)”

    This could use a bit more explication – as recent studies have show, that there is more “economic dynamism” in some of the northern European countries,such as Finland, who still incorporate quite a lot of what would be termed in the U.S., socialism.

    There is still a lot of room for combining what works inside a well-regulated capitalist system, within the framework of what works best with what is administered through state means (such as health). There is still quite a lot of strawman in the “left”, as used.

    As you point out, by lots of measurements, the U.S. is not, the greatest country in the world. Some things are great, and certainly in terms of raw power, great – but standards of living-wise, per person, not so much.

    I think your point on tyranny is correct – and I’ve remarked about this as well – modernity and technological capitalism can coexist with quite a lot of tyranny. In addition, to this, there is a current social rise of being immune to, a shrugging the shoulders to, violations of individual personhood by the state apparatus.

  2. ebud,

    thanks for the comment.

    There’s a good article here on Ireland, Sweden, and Finland economies:

    All three had invested heavily in new information technologies. In fact Ireland which has the highest growth rates in Europe has (it could be argued) the most freewheeling, US-like economy of them all. It strated the latest and was the poorest, so was desperate for Foreign Investment and bypassed old regulatory practices entrenched on the Continent.

    But I think your larger point is correct. When I referenced Hayek I meant that those systems as the primary means of organizing economies/politics/society has failed (negated the absolutism).

    It doesn’t mean there aren’t partial elements left to be retrieved but I think those elements have to be put in a different framework then was traditionally employed (and still is to some degree).

    The other reason particularly say with Europe that the system is in jeopardy is the birthrate problem and the aging of the society. Japan too, Canada?

    Even the US system, which we have immigration, sustainable birthrate, and a lower tax burden, can’t last (as economies are currently configured) more than 40 years.

    Now a monkey wrench that could be thrown into that analysis of course is long term extension of human life. That could go both positively and negatively. As well as creation of entirely new technological bases: nanotech, robotics, genetics. These could theoretically produce an entirely new plateau of wealth solving the current fiscal threats. However, not clear that the same issues wouldn’t rise back to the surface–needing to find a “integral” balance between wealth creation and equitable distribution without putting too much negative pressure on economies nor leave humans at the mercy of global capital flows/economic elites.

    Nobody has figured out the right balance yet in my mind.

  3. The primary limitation of classical liberalism, in my mind, is that it arose during the modern world. That is prior to the realization of the inter-subjectivity of existence.


    This strikes me as a fundamentally strange proposition for a cause and effect. That, and veering towards a fundamentally patronizing attitude against pre-modern people.

    I read this, as well as your post about what you find postively about classical liberalism, and I have to say, you don’t seem to be talking about classical liberalism. But rather something else that I don’t have a name for.

    Go basic, buddy. From Wikipedia:

    [A]t the heart of classical liberalism”, wrote Nancy L. Rosenblum and Robert C. Post, is a prescription: “Nurture voluntary associations. Limit the size, and more importantly, the scope of government. So long as the state provides a basic rule of law that steers people away from destructive or parasitic ways of life and in the direction of productive ways of life, society runs itself. If you want people to flourish, let them run their own lives.

    Nurture voluntary associations … limit the scope of government … society runs itself ….

    Unless you talk about these things, you aren’t ttalking about classical liberalism.

    Did you ever have a chance to read Murray’s In Our Hands book? I know you criticized him a bit back, but I forget if you read that book or not.


  4. One more comment:

    That is why I do not make, what I consider, unhelpful stark dualisms between say classical liberalism/modern conservatism (good) and leftism (bad). Because I see intrisinc flaws in the classical liberal tradition which generally “leftist” tracks can help ferret out and name. I don’t however accept that any of them do anything other than that–critique the destructive sides of liberal modernity.

    You are stretching the term “critique” if by using that to characterize what the left has done. The size of government on all levels is substantially larger today than it was 100 years ago. Doing so, to centralize government, to take on roles previously performed by civic/religious associations, or even those that never existed before, is precisely the strategy of the left (the real term for the left is the “progressives”).

    The point is that the left (i.e., the progressives) clearly won the debates in so far as government was involved.

    What has that reaped?

    Government attempts to alleviate poverty haven’t worked. Government attempts to provide public education have proven unsustainable. Government attempts to manage the country’s agriculture haven’t worked. Government attempts to manage retirement funds have not worked.

    These left/progressive “critiques” (to use that battered word, which I’m only doing because you do) have failed. Only their lobbies in D.C. keep them afloat. All of these are a of a piece of undiluted socialism — that being a demonstrable error. The impossibility of “central planning”.

    That is because the only things government ought be involved in, or attempt to plan, manage, and run are those “public goods” that individuals and voluntary associations cannot do themselves, as well as which benefit all citizens equally (they equally participate in their benefits) … Such as national defense, roads/highway maitenence, collection of taxes, law enforcement.

    These public goods would be strengthened by a smaller government (in terms of bureaucracy) with more limited, and focused, purposes.

    It is for these reasons and more that I find that your appraisals of classical liberalism suffer badly.

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