Progress and Reaction in a Liberal Age

I have some thoughts rumbling around in my head. Let me try to lay them out and put order to them. What I’m pondering is liberalism and conservatism, progressive reform and the reactionary mind, oppression and backlash.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that, ever since the Enlightenment, we live in a liberal age dominated by a liberal paradigm. So, in a sense, we are all liberals. Even reactionaries are defined by the liberalism they are reacting to. This relates to Corey Robin’s observation of how reactionaries are constantly co-opting ideas, rhetoric, and tactics from the political left. Reaction, in and of itself, has no substance other than what it takes from elsewhere. This is why conservatives, the main variety of reactionaries, often get called classical liberals. A conservative is simply what a liberal used to be and conservatism as such merely rides along on the coattails of liberalism.

This isn’t necessarily a compliment to liberalism. The liberal paradigm ultimately gets not just all the credit but also all the blame. What we call liberals and conservatives are simply the progressive and regressive manifestations of this paradigm. The progressive-oriented have tended to be called ‘liberals’ for the very reason these are the people identified with the social order, the post-Enlightenment progress that has built the entire world we know. But this easily turns those on the political left toward another variety of reaction. Liberals, as they age, find themselves relatively further and further to the right as the population over the generations keeps moving left. This is how liberals, as they age, can sometimes start thinking of themselves as conservatives. It’s not that the liberal changed but the world around them.

As reactionaries have no ideological loyalty, liberals can lack a certain kind of discernment. Liberals have a tendency toward psychological openness and curiosity along with a tolerance for cognitive dissonance (simultaneously holding two different thoughts or seeing two different perspectives). This can lead liberals to be accepting of or even sympathetic toward reactionaries, even when it is contradictory and harmful to liberalism. Furthermore, when experiencing cognitive overload, liberals easily take on reactionary traits and, if stress and anxiety continue long enough, the liberal can be permanently transformed into a reactionary (as a beautiful elf is tortured until becoming an orc).

We are living under conditions that are the opposite of being optimal for and conducive toward healthy liberal-mindedness. That isn’t to say the liberal paradigm is going to disappear any time soon. What it does mean is that the political left will get wonky for quite a while. American society, in particular, has become so oppressive and dysfunctional that there is no hope for a genuinely progressive liberalism. Right now, the progressive worldview is on the defense and that causes liberals to attack the political left as or more harshly than they do the political right. As they increasingly take on reactionary traits, mainstream liberals trying to hold onto power will defend what is left of the status quo by any means necessary.

Yet there is still that urge for progress, even as it gets demented through frustration and outrage. It was inevitable that the #MeToo movement would go too far. The same pattern is always seen following a period of oppression that leads to a populist lashing out or at least that is how some will perceive it. It is what is seen in any revolutionary era, such as how many at the time saw the American and French revolutions going too far, and indeed both led to large numbers of deaths and refugees, but that is what happens under oppressive regimes when the struggle and suffering of the masses becomes intolerable. The judgment of going too far was also made against the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Those stuck in the reactionary mind will see any challenge to their agenda of rigid hierarchy as being too much and so deserving of being crushed. And as reactionary worldview takes hold of society, almost everyone starts taking on the traits of the reactionary mind, hence reaction leading to ever more reaction until hopefully a new stability is achieved.

All of this has more to do with psychological tendencies than political ideologies. We all carry the potential for reaction as we carry the potential for progressivism. That struggle within human nature is what it means to live in a liberal age.


Broad Liberalism and Red Republicans

I noticed two things about my thinking.

First, I focus quite a bit on the topic of liberalism more than on the topic of conservatism. This makes sense. I am, after all, a liberal… or at least I usually identify as a liberal. I’ve struggled with liberalism and have come to an uneasy truce with it.

The second thing could be seen as harder to explain. I focus more on the Republican Party than the Democratic Party. Yet I have never voted Republican nor do I have any personal investment in the GOP. Maybe I care more about it, for the simple reason that my parents are Republicans. Then again, my parents are also conservatives, but that doesn’t alter my heavy emphasis on liberalism.

So, why is this?

I have a theory. There is a commonality between liberalism and the Republican Party, as contrasted to conservatism and the Democratic Party. To my curious mind, they are simply more interesting.

Liberalism is more interesting than conservatism for a number of reasons. It is a broader category, more inclusive and diverse. It is a more ambiguous label. A conservative can identify as a classical liberal, but a liberal cannot identify as a classical conservative. As such, liberalism as a political tradition includes modern conservatism.

This is exaggerated even further in the United States that lacks much of a tradition of traditionalism. This country was founded on liberal values of the Enlightenment. The ancien regime never dominated and ruled in this territory to any significant extent. American conservatism is distinct from European traditionalism. Because of this, American conservatism is unrooted in the deep soils of the past. It is forced, instead, to be permanently in reactionary mode to liberalism and hence defined by liberalism.

The Republican Party is more interesting than The Democratic Party for one major reason. It is a younger party that is fully American. The Democratic Party is old, oldest in the world, and is rooted more in English political traditions from the founding generation of this country. The Democrats have always been a mainstream party, always been one of the two major parties. The Republicans began as a radical third party that arose to power alongside the heightening conflict that led to the Civil War.

I know the history of the Democratic Party. Most Americans who are reasonably well-educated know the history of the Democratic Party. But fewer Americans know about the history of the Republican Party, despite it being a shorter history. I’m constantly surprised how few Republicans know of the party’s radical beginnings. Those early third party activists were called Red Republicans for a good reason, and yet few people today stop to think why Republicans are associated with the color red. The Republican Party has become mainstream and respectable. The very notion of ‘republicanism’ has for many become identified with a conservative status quo. But when the Republican Party came on the scene it threatened to tear our country apart with its radical politics, so radical that during the Civil War it garnered the support of the likes of Marx.

There ya go. That is the best explanation I can offer for why I spend so much time contemplating such things. At one point, both liberalism and the Republican Party were extremely radical, completely altering the world around them. I find that interesting.

Libertarian Failure of Principles

I came across a decent article by Will Moyer. I’ve never heard of him, but for the sake of amusement I’ll just assume he is the son of Bill Moyer. This piece is published in Salon with the title, “Why I left libertarianism: An ethical critique of a limited ideology“.

This interests me for a number of reasons. My criticisms of libertarianism, similar to this article, are motivated by my principles. I like aspects of libertarian rhetoric, but I see two problems. First, libertarian reality doesn’t live up to libertarian rhetoric. Second, libertarians don’t take their own rhetoric seriously enough to follow it to its inevitable conclusion. That last point is major part of the article.

I don’t know if libertarianism is possible on a large scale of running a society. Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing a society attempt it. The one thing libertarians pride themselves is on their principles, as if they are more principled than everyone else. Considering that, it is strange how they sell short their own principles. Some of the strongest criticisms of libertarianism come from within libertarianism, just as some of the strongest criticisms of liberalism come from within liberalism.

I’d love to see libertarianism succeed. My harsh attitude toward libertarianism is that it fails according to its own high ideals. I’m a classical liberal and I’m attracted to left-libertarianism. What this means is that I actually take seriously the values of the Enlightenment. When I hear libertarians go on about freedom and such, what makes me wary aren’t that I disagree with those values but that I don’t trust libertarians to live up to them. I don’t trust the Koch brothers to follow libertarian principles any more than I trust Obama to follow liberal principles.

Here is what I liked about Will Moyer’s analysis:

“Both Rothbard and Block accept that some degree of child abuse either violates the NAP (in Rothbard’s case) or delegitimizes parental ownership (in Block’s case), but what constitutes abuse represents a “continuum problem” for libertarians. Some attacks on children are okay but not too much. It’s a big gray area.

“It’s embarrassing that many libertarians have so little moral clarity on this issue. Especially when compared to a website like Jezebel, which has no problem taking a hard stance on aggression against children. [ . . . ]

“Besides all it leaves out, the framework also includes a facile conception of consent.

“Within the libertarian ethical framework, choice is binary. Either something was consented to voluntarily or it was not. This conception of consent marks the line between good and evil. On one side of the line are socially acceptable behaviors and on the other side are impermissible behaviors.

“Theft, rape, murder and fraud all lie on the nonconsensual side and are therefore not good. The other side includes all forms of voluntary human interaction which, again because we’re limited to a political ethic, we can’t really say much about. It’s all fine.

“But there is some gray on the good side. Is a rich CEO really in the same ethical position as a poor Chinese factory worker? In the libertarian view, yes. There are plenty of differences, but if that Chinese worker voluntarily chose to work for that factory, they’re not ethical differences.

“Like the starving-your-child issue, any moral objections you might have are outside the scope of the libertarian ethic. They reflect your personal morality, which has no business being used to dictate social behaviors.

“But choice isn’t binary. It’s a spectrum. There’s a gradient that we can use to measure how constrained a choice really is. On one end is outright force and on the other is pure, unconstrained freedom. But in between is a fuzzy gray area where economic, psychological, cultural, biological and social forces are leaning on human decision making.

“Most libertarians would admit that this spectrum exists, but there is still strong sentiment within libertarianism that any non-coercive relationship is good. And — within the political ethic — even if it isn’t “good,” it’s still permissible. That’s why you see libertarians defending sweatshops.

“A poor Chinese factory worker is far more constrained than a rich white businessman. His range of possible options is tiny in comparison. He is less free. The same may be true depending on your race, gender, class or sexual orientation. The way you were treated growing up — by your parents, teachers and peers — may contribute. The way people like you are represented in media and entertainment may contribute. Social prejudices and cultural norms may contribute. These factors don’t mean people are being outright forced to do anything, but simply that they’re constrained by their environment. We all are, in different ways.

“We don’t lose any ground or sacrifice any claims to a rational moral framework by admitting that. We can still say that one side of the spectrum — the unconstrained one — is good for human beings and the other side is bad. And we can still conclude that the use of force is only a legitimate response to human behavior that falls on the far end of that bad side (theft, rape, murder). But by accepting the spectrum we can examine other relationships that, while they may not include force, can be exploitive, hierarchical and authoritarian.

“As before, without admitting that this spectrum exists, libertarianism leaves an entire range of human social behavior off the table.”

More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

Richard Hofstadter wrote of pseudo-conservatives. Sam Tanenhaus has taken this idea up with his realist versus revanchist conservatives. In the time between these two thinkers, Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who lived in America for the last part of his life. He began his writing career before Reagan and Thatcher came to power. It is interesting to read Fairlie explaining conservatism in that earlier time, a conservatism that once was more trusting of government than capitalism.

Fairlie called himself a Tory, but his Toryism made him closer to a Democrat. American conservatives often trace their tradition back to Edmund Burke who was a Whig and he was a liberal for his time. Burke argued against British imperialism and for the rights of Catholics. This would be the equivalent of an American politician arguing against American imperialism while arguing for the rights of Muslims, a hard thing to imagine a Republican doing.

There is lots of ideological confusion. While Tea Partiers point fingers at supposed RINOs, another group of conservatives have taken the left’s criticism of false conservatism and made it their own. Many moderate Republicans have seen their party taken over by the Tea Party which  is really just the inevitable result of the Southern Strategy. Conservatives liked how this strategy initially won them power, but they have come to question the price they paid for power.

Two books I’ve read this year offer moderate and moderating conservatism as true conservatism: The Founding Conservatives by David Lefer and Constitutional Conservatism by Peter Berkowitz. I don’t find their arguments overly convincing, but I just like that there are conservatives making such arguments. Of the two, Lefer makes the most original argument, partly basing his definition of conservatism on the example of John Dickinson. The only problem is that, if Dickinson is a conservative, most Republican politicians aren’t conservatives and many Democrat politicians are.

The other perspective is that of Corey Robin with his reactionary conservatism. He doesn’t see this as false, but as the real deal. He includes Burke among these reactionary conservatives. I’m sympathetic with this view. Burke after the French Revolution is like Reagan after the Cold War began, reacting not just to liberalism but more specifically their own liberalism or former liberalism. I suspect reactionary conservatives are often nothing more than liberals who become cynical about change? This makes them cynical liberals for sure. I don’t know that it makes them conservatives, reactionary or otherwise.

I must admit I’m fond of the notion of conservatism as moderation. However, this seems less about conservative ideology and more about conservative-mindedness. I’ve commented about the fact of American liberals being rather conservative-minded, defending what traditionalists once stood for.  This distinction between conservatism and traditionalism is important, but maybe it has less to do with conservatism. Such things as moderation and radicalism seem less to do about specific ideologies. Robin is maybe wrong to solely identify conservatism with reaction.

I honestly don’t know what conservatism is or could be under different conditions. I’d like to believe in a moderate and moderating conservative. People sometimes ask what do conservatives seek to conserve? The main problem I have with Lefer and Berkowitz is that they have a limited knowledge of history. If you don’t know the past, you might repeat what is less-than-desirable but you also won’t know what could and should be maintained. This is how conservatives constantly fail or even actively threatens traditional.

This brings me to two other books: Liberal Beginnings by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson and The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh.

Conservatives like to make a misinformed distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Progressive liberalism goes at least back to Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice”, and it was Paine who inspired the US Constitution by suggesting Americans needed their own Magna Carta. Paine came of age when the enclosure movement was hitting hard those who were dependent on the commons. Besides food riots, one thing this led to is the first labor unions. The world during Paine’s life was the beginning of our modern political order.

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

A genuinely moderate and moderating conservatism would not be so blithe about the past. It isn’t just that they dismiss important traditions. They don’t even bother to learn the history that would inform them about why these traditions matter. I have a natural inclination toward moderation, but it seems to me that moderation can only exist to the degree that knowledge is embraced. I want to conserve what is good in the world because that is the first step to increasing the good.

If what goes for conservatism is somehow false, it is because it has become a hollow label.

Liberalism, Enlightenment & Axial Age

There are two historical periods that have interested me for a long time: the Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age.

We speak of these modern times as if there is something fundamentally different about society today, but I feel unconvinced as I look about the world. I often get this sense of how primitive humans still are with only a veneer of civilization.

This brings me to my fascination with history. The past isn’t really in the past. History is the act of storytelling in the present. All the basic problems of humanity still exist and have always existed. The reason tumultuous events of bygone times fascinate us is because they symbolize the very issues with which we still struggle.

At the same time, there are societal shifts that are fundamental. I would add that there is no way of going back. But the shift I perceive is much larger than any given historical period. The Enlightenment Age and the Axial Age are the outward manifestations of this foundational reallignment. It comes down to civilization itself, specifically in terms of the the first cities and city-states as they developed urban infrastructures and cultures which in turn laid the groundwork for the first empires.

We are more or less the same as humans during other times in the development of civilization, but we are utterly transformed from humans prior to that. The Axial Age most clearly demonstrates this period of transition. It’s when all the problems of civilization and urbanization came to the forefront. It’s also when patterns were being set down that would lead to all later developments: Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment Age, Revolutionary Era, etc.

The Axial Age was more pivotal than even the Enlightenment Age. I’d argue that the Enlightenment thinkers were largely just responding to the ideas and practices first introduced during the Axial Age, although it is worthy of note that the Enlightenment Age allowed those ideas and practices to be taken to their next level. What the Axial Age prophets and philosophers offered to ensuing generations are such things as individualism, republicanism, democracy, anti-authoritarianism, universal truth, transcendent idealism, non-ethnic/non-tribal communitarianism, egalitarianism, multiculturalism, scientific inquiry, rational thought, international trade, syncretism, etc; but also such things as monotheism and patriarchy.

We moderns, left and right alike, are the descendants of the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment thinkers, radical and moderate, were descendants of the Axial Age.

So, this makes us all descendants of that first shift that began as civilization more fully took hold across all societies.

This shift has been continuing ever since and has yet to play itself out. I don’t sense that we’ve yet come to another era that comes even close to the vast significance of the shift that became so apparent during the Axial Age. What was started so long ago either needs to come to some kind of conclusion or else utter failure; then and only then will society be ready for something entirely new.

My most personal interest at the moment, though, is on a much smaller scale.  As can be seen from many recent posts, my mind has been overly focused on conservatives and liberals, even moreso than usual which is saying a lot. My focus has often been on what divides people in terms of ideologies, movements and predispositions. But thinking about the Axial Age reminded me of what unites all modern people.

I’ve thought about this most specifically in terms of America which is most representative of what it means to be modern, considering most Americans have so little sense of the larger past beyond the American Revolution. One implication of American history can be interpreted as a lack of having a tradition of conservatism. Those Americans claiming to be ‘conservatives’ tend to identify with classical liberalism or at least be heavily influenced by it.

The problem with this is that classical liberalism isn’t simply or directly opposed to modern 20th century liberalism. For one thing, later liberalism emerges out of classical liberalism (in the sense of classical liberalism being defined as all liberalism prior to the 20th century, including radical liberals such as Spinoza and Paine). For another, classical liberalism originated specifically in opposition to classical conservatism. Conservatives can’t simultaneously claim classical liberalism and classical conservatism, two mutually exclusive categories. American conservatives aren’t traditional conservatives or, to put it another way, their tradition of conservatism isn’t very old and is actually a reformulation of one variant of early liberalism.

In some ways, this is just an argument about terminology. But it is important because it is about the history of that terminology. I don’t care, in a practical sense, how others choose to label themselves. What I care about is the deeper meaning and values that underlie those labels. Liberalism by any other name is still just as liberal.

An obvious thing to note is that conservatives today are more socially liberal than liberals were in past centuries. So, we presently all are social liberals. It’s just that people who identify as liberals are slightly more socially liberal than people who identify as conservatives. Most of the things that conservatives opposed in the past have now become the social norms for modern Westerners and for much of the world as well. Conservatives no longer defend monarchy, theocracy, slavery, racism, genocide of the indigenous, etc; at least few do so fully and overtly. Traces of classical conservatism remains, but they are just traces at this point. Even fundamentalism is just another manifestation of modernity.

All of this can’t be denied, and yet most conservatives can’t accept the truth of it. They are caught up in the word ‘liberalism’, not looking beyond their own fearful projections to the actual meaning behind the word. That is the challenge. There doesn’t seem to be any neutral language to use. Instead of social liberalism, I could speak of social democracy. But that is problematic as well since social democracy has a history with socialism. Of course, we technically live in a social democracy already, whether or not conservatives realize this simple fact. America is a liberal society, in the basic sense of the word.

The Axial Age can be seen as the first time social liberalism manifested on a larger scale, even if it only looks like mere glimmerings by today’s standards. It took the Enlightenment and many revolutions to bring this emerging social liberalism to greater fruition. Even now, social liberalism can feel like it is barely limping along. The important part is that we’ve collectively come to see that social liberalism is of central value, no matter what terms we use to describe it.

I don’t know why the language aspect is such a stumbling block. I think that is why I was recently thinking about this in terms of the Axial Age. That earlier era came before such labels were invented, although I’m sure similar distinctions were beginning to arise back then.

Maybe if we liberals speak about social liberalism in the terms of the Axial Age,  then it will be more acceptable to conservatives. The Axial Age as the origin point of Christianity is less threatening, if anything the source of what many conservatives see of value. To find a shared language, we might have to step back in time before we can step forward.

Is Reactionary Conservatism Conservative?

I’ve written about this topic quite a few times before. I don’t have any grand insights to add to my previous commentary. I just find myself constantly perplexed by American conservatism.

One particular thing keeps coming back to my mind. America has no tradition of traditional conservatism. This has been more or less true going back to colonial times, but definitely true at least by the revolutionary era. The Europeans who immigrated to America mostly came from traditionally conservative societies and communities, although modern liberalism was already beginning to take hold in certain countries such as Britain and the Netherlands. The important part is that these people were usually leaving traditional conservatism behind on purpose, sometimes even being forced to leave by the defenders of traditional conservatives of their homelands.

The Enlightenment eventually led to the demise of traditional conservatism in  the West. What replaced it was reactionary conservatism. This took hold earliest in America because there was no other conservatism to compete with it. But what exactly is this reactionary conservatism? Is it even conservative in any basic sense?

Traditional conservatives were the strongest opponents of classical liberalism, most specifically laissez-faire capitalism. Modern conservatives have come to embrace many of the major issues that classical conservatives opposed. Conservatives no longer even promote conserving such as the precautionary principle which goes back to the origin of the word itself.

They don’t resist change, but react against it. In reacting, they oddly end up embracing so much of what they reacted against. There is no core set of beliefs or values to reactionary conservatism. It just depends on what they happen to be reacting against at the moment?

Being predisposed to the liberal worldview, it doesn’t bother me that liberalism lacks any core principles. I’ve always thought of liberalism as more of an attitude, a mindset. Liberalism is all about changing with the times, all about embracing the new and different. But that isn’t how conservatives think of conservatism… which makes reactionary conservatism a very odd beast.

Am I not fully grasping what conservatism is all about? Maybe I’m doing what conservatives tend to do by pushing the idea of the idea of a genuinely conservative conservatism of the past. Maybe conservatism has always been reactionary. If one were to seek an origin of conservatism, one would have to look to the most traditional of societies which are hunter-gatherer tribes. Even the traditional conservatism that existed when the revolutionary era came was far away from tribal societies.

All of civilization was built on largely liberalizing forces. The merging of cultures and syncretizing of religions in such civilizations as the Roman Empire. Civilization is fundamentally liberal in bringing local people into an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

By following the strands of conservatism back in time, do we find a beginning point of conservatism? Or does the entire idea of conservatism simply unravel?

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

Was Classical Liberalism and Social Democracy Opposed?

utubehayter wrote:

Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance? And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?

Where the hell do these people preach social democracy?


“Not monarchy” does not mean “a republic”. And you are calling others ignorant?

My Response

The broadest definition of classical liberalism is all liberalism prior to the 20th century. I realize modern right-wingers have come to define classical liberalism narrowly to only refer to themselves and assert that it represents the ‘true’ conservative tradition. But some modern liberals also claim their lineage comes from classical liberalism. And it must be noted that the liberal values and vision of social democracy existed long before the Progressivism of the 20th century. Alan Wolfe writes (from A False Distinction):

[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.

I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?

[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.

When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.

Liberalism and conservatism aren’t specific ideologies so much as they are general attitudes. By definition, a conservative wishes to conserve and a liberal does not. This brings us to one of the problem of American politics. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” So, conservatism will criticize the living breathing liberalism of the moment often in defense of the fossilized liberalism of the past. This is why conservatives will claim classical liberalism as their own. Liberalism of the past is safe because it’s been cleansed of all unknown, and hence uncontrollable, elements. Even though neither is a specific ideology, conservatism is forever seeking to conserve the ideologies of the past whether they are considered liberal or conservative. Conservatives in the past would have criticized classical liberalism, but conservatives today can safely admire it because it’s been made into a set doctrine. This might also explain why many Americans identify as conservative even as they hold traditionally ‘liberal’ positions. Progressive policies were liberal when they were first proposed, but now that they’ve been established for almost a century they’ve become a part of the American tradition and so many conservatives will seek to conserve something like Social Security.

Liberalism, by nature, is constantly changing, constantly pushing the boundaries, constantly trying new things (or putting old things in new contexts). As such, liberalism isn’t a single set of beliefs and policies. When conservatives are getting used to classical liberalism, liberals are already onto another original concept or system. Liberals adapt to present circumstances seeking to go in new directions. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental core to the liberal attitude. As Wolfe points out, “For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.” A liberal is less concerned for the method than for the desired results (which the conservative, burdened by traditions of the past, might consider overly idealistic and pragmatically unrealistic; this reminds me of research that showed optimists are less realistic about the present but, for that reason, less likely to get stuck in present problems; therefore, it’s more difficult for the pessimistic conservative to envision a new future or to trust what a liberal envisions). As such, a liberal is willing to try any method or system to achieve the desired result, always with their ideal as the pole star to guide them. Liberalism is broad and wide-ranging because liberalism wants to expand, to liberate. Here is a general definition of liberalism:

Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”)[1] is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights.[2] Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutionsliberal democracyfree and fair electionshuman rightscapitalismfree trade, and thefreedom of religion.[3][4][5][6][7] These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.

Such a definition includes classical liberalism but obviously isn’t limited to it. Liberals, starting with the classical liberals, focus on the individual. They put greater importance on the human being than on the system. The system is merely there to serve people, not the person to conform to the system. When faced with an oppressive or unfair government, liberals will seek to free themselves by limiting government (i.e., classical liberalism). When faced with an oppressive or unfair capitalism, liberals will seek to free themselves by regulating capitalism (i.e., social democracy). It’s the same impulse just responding to different problems at different times. Both responses are seeking the public good by decreasing that which impinges upon individual freedom. It’s not mere idealization of the individual. It’s an understanding that what is good for one is good for all and what is bad for one is bad for all. But at any given time the balance between public good and individual freedom is never perfect, constantly shifting in order to adapt to present realities. This is why classical liberals, faced with an oppressive social system, emphasized individual freedom. And this is why social democrats, faced with an oppressive corporatist plutocracy, emphasized public good.

The conservative, on the other hand, wants a set of principles that will stand for all time. For this reason, the conservative prefers to find a system that has proven itself over time, a tradition (whether religious, political, or economic). The commonality between the fiscal conservative and social conservative is that both want to conserve, but American tradition is such a mixed bag that there are many choices about what a conservative may choose to conserve. American conservatives are put in an odd position. America was founded on radical change. How does one conserve radical change?

American Politics & Thomas Paine

What differentiates American politics is that Classical liberals “established political parties that were called “liberal”, although in the United States classical liberalism came to dominate both existing major political parties.” The struggle of early American politics wasn’t whether to be liberal or not, but how liberal to be. Thomas Paine, for example, was a radical liberal. Compared to Paine, many of the founding fathers were conservative in that they still wanted to conserve a ruling class of landowners and of educated elite. However, compared to the British political system, the founding fathers were liberal in that they wanted to eliminate the monarchy. This was the meaning the founding fathers had in mind when they used the word ‘republic’ to describe America. The original and most basic meaning of republic was a government that wasn’t a monarchy. Power didn’t come from a monarch but from the people (‘republic’ originates from res publica: the public thing/affair, commonwealth).

The debate between Paine and some of the founding fathers is rather telling about the internal conflict of American politics (that continues to this day). It was Paine’s radical vision that inspired the American Revolution, but that radical vision was tamed when the constitution was written. Many of the founding fathers were conservatives in that they feared change. They didn’t merely want to create something radically new as Paine proposed. The founding fathers saw themselves as part of a small ‘r’ republican tradition that had it’s roots in British culture. They revolted against the monarchy not to be radicals but to conserve this republican tradition. They didn’t trust the general public any more than they trusted the British monarchy. They weren’t against an aristocracy per se. They just wanted a political elite based on a meritocracy rather than on mere inheritance. They assumed the upper class of landowners were superior to the common rabble. That is why they explicitly denied the majority of the population the right to vote or to hold public office.

Paine, however, was against all aristocracy, against all ruling elites. Paine wanted all men and women to be free, to have the right to vote and hold public office. He realized that for practical reasons representation was necessary for democracy, but he wanted democracy to be as direct, as grassroots, as localized as possible. He wanted democracy to literally be in the hands of the people, no matter how poor, no matter whether man or woman, no matter what race or religion. Paine wasn’t shy in his defense of equal rights nor shy in his criticisms of those who would disenfranchise others of their rights (Dissertation on the First Principles of Government):

But the offensive part of the case is that this exclusion from the right of voting implies a stigma on the moral character of the persons excluded; and this is what no part of the community has a right to pronounce upon another part. No external circumstance can justify it: wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of the want of it.

On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence. If therefore property, whether little or much, be made a criterion, the means by which that property has been acquired ought to be made a criterion also.

The only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others. The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.

To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. The proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal as the proposal to take away property.

When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity. The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me; and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.

Let me now respond to the first part of utubehayter’s comment:

Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance?

I must admit that I’m still learning about Thomas Paine. I’ve learned about Paine mostly by my reading Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye and therefore my understanding of Paine is biased by this author, although I have read a bit of Paine’s writing on its own. Here is a quote where Kaye describes why so many different types of people have tried to claim Paine as one of their own (Kindle location 767):

In words that would forever delight libertarians and anarchists, he distinguished between society and government and maintained that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Yet Paine was neither a libertarian nor an anarchist or for that matter a Lockean liberal. He was a revolutionary democrat, and contrary to the commonly accepted view, his tale was rendered not so much as a diatribe against government, at least not all forms of government, as a narrative of democratic beginnings and commitments.

So, that is the premise of Kaye’s book. I’ll now share some sections that make the case that Paine was a social democrat who believed government played an important role. There is a concept that conservatives don’t seem to understand. A person can be both a small ‘r’ republican and a small ‘d’ democrat’. In fact, one of the first American parties was the Democratic-Republican Party (the name is used by political scientists, but the members of the party often would call it either Republican or Democratic, “the two terms often used interchangeably.[22]). Kaye explains Paine’s own understanding of republicanism and democracy (Kindle location 841):

Republicanism to Paine, as he would later explain, meant not a “particular form of government” but a government constituted for “respublica … or the public good,” as opposed to one that served “despotic” ends. And he understood the particular form of government he advanced as representative democracy: “By ingrafting representation upon democracy, we arrive at a system of government capable of embracing and confederating all the various interests and every extent of territory and population.”24

The America Paine portrayed was not thirteen separate entities but a single nation-state. Deeply concerned that the tenuous colonial alliance might fall apart, he was the first to propose the idea of convening a conference to frame a “Continental Charter.” And—making it all the more original—his democratic commitments and sensibilities led him to insist that the conference be “impowered by the people.”

When Paine spoke of democracy, he meant it in the most radical and inclusive sense as an uncompromising egalitarianism (Kindle location 1129):

“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.”61 Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”

It’s true many of the founding fathers feared democracy, but Paine did not. One of the reasons the founding fathers feared democracy is because they feared what they saw happening in France. Paine’s response to France was to be optimistic. He hoped revolution would spread all across Europe and Paine’s writings inspired revolutionary fervor in many countries. The founding fathers feared that Paine would inspire in America what helped to inspire in France. But Paine believed in, rather than feared, the common man (Kindle location 1300):

Conceding the danger of “mobs,” Paine attributed their actions to the brutality of aristocratic societies, especially their cruel forms of punishment. Rejecting Burke’s thesis that generations were obliged to defer to their ancestors, he upheld the “rights of the living” and insisted that generations cannot “bind” future generations: “Every age and generation must be free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it.” And countering Burke’s propositions about the “ancient” origins of rights, he retorted that Burke did “not go far enough into antiquity,” for the “natural rights of man” went all the way back to “creation” and remained in every generation “equal” and “universal” among men. Divinely ordained, natural rights might be suppressed, but they could not be forfeited or alienated.16

Paine expressed tremendous confidence in the “genius and talents” of common people, if only governments would engage them: “There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him … to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”

In Paine’s vision of America, he saw the possibility of a government that would help the common person. He believed a government could empower the public by putting the power of the government in the hands of the public. He wanted a government that was literally for and by the people. For this reason, he wasn’t seeking to lessen the power of the government but to increase the power of the people through self-governance. A government was only worthy in his eyes to the degree that it helped all people equally and helped all people to achieve some semblance of equality. Paine was a social democrat in that he saw the necessity of a welfare state to lessen the problems of modern civilization, not a paternalistic state but an empowering government (Kindle location 1365):

Paine did more than censure Britain’s political order. Reviving the plan he had begun to formulate years earlier but had set aside in his encounter with America, he extended his radical-democratic thinking by outlining a series of welfare programs that a revolutionary change in government would afford. Along with suggesting a progressive estate tax to limit accumulation of property, he recommended raising the incomes of the poor by remitting their taxes and augmenting the sums, distributing special relief for families with children, creating a system of social security for the elderly, instituting public funding of education through a voucher system, providing financial support for newly married couples and new mothers, and establishing employment centers for the jobless. He also rendered a most appealing image of the good society:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, “My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness”: when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.27

Even as Paine pushed radicalism in a social-democratic direction, he proclaimed, “I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend to its effects.” It may seem odd to many of us today, but like many eighteenth-century radicals confronting the legacies of absolutism, Paine comprehended “political liberty and economic liberty” as mutually interdependent and imagined that economic freedom served to assure equality of opportunity and results. Witnessing monarchical regimes taxing the productive classes, transferring wealth to parasitic royals and aristocrats, and punishing working people and the poor, he personally had come to view nondemocratic governments, not markets, as the fundamental cause of social inequality and oppression. Consequently, he proposed the liberation of the market and expansion of commercial activity.28

Commerce was, for Paine, “a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other … If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” As much as he appreciated the manifold potential of free markets, however, he did not hold that equality and democracy must necessarily defer to the imperatives of commerce and trade. And as his revolutionary proposal for welfare-state policies attests, he increasingly realized that the democratic governments for which he fought would have to politically address inequality and poverty.

If you had any doubts about Paine being a radical social democrat (which isn’t the same as socialist or communist), the following should eliminate all doubts entirely (Kindle location 1562):

In July 1795 Paine published Dissertation on First Principles of Government, fervently reaffirming his commitment to republican democracy. While he granted that “property will ever be unequal,” he argued against the right of any regime to divide the citizenry into civil or political ranks by wealth and rejected the notion that owning property afforded any entitlements. Furthermore, he demanded the establishment of universal manhood suffrage. And laying down that “the only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others,” he proclaimed. “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which others are protected.”49

When, regardless of his complaints, the government proceeded with its constitutional plans, Paine withdrew from the Convention and went to work on finishing the second part of The Age of Reason. That autumn he again fell seriously ill, and rumors flew around the Atlantic that he had passed away. But Mrs. Monroe nursed him back to health.

Back on his feet, Paine immediately set himself to writing a series of new pieces, including the highly original Agrarian Justice. He had come to see all the more clearly that inequality and poverty were the consequences not simply of exploitative systems of taxation and government expenditure but also of economic power and the payment of inadequate wages. “Civilization,” he wrote, “has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state … [T]he accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.”50

Paine refused to blame the poor for the economic circumstances to which they were reduced, for “poverty is a thing created by … civilized life,” which, he believed, did not exist “in the natural state.” In the face of increasing disparities, he grew increasingly impatient: “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and … a revolution should be made in it.” And even more strenuously than he had in Rights of Man, Paine propounded that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare. This “ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation,” he insisted, and its aim should be to “preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which it has produced.”51

Paine had been led to write Agrarian Justice by Bishop Richard Watson’s sermon “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both rich and poor,” which Watson had included in his reply to The Age of Reason. “It is wrong to say God made both rich and poor,” Paine responded. “He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.” Paine then held that since God had provided the land as a collective endowment for humanity, those who had come to possess the land as private property owed those who had been dispossessed of it—“on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization”—an annual ground rent. Specifically, he delineated a limited redistribution of income by way of a tax on landed wealth and property:

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property: And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

And notably, Paine did not limit the initial stake or later payments to men.52

Paine also made it clear that he was not proposing a charity but rather was advocating the “right” of the dispossessed to “compensation.” And he then enunciated an important democratic principle and practice, namely that “the payments [are to] be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions.” Those who “do not choose to receive it,” he added, “can throw it into the common fund.”53

While Paine called for a “revolution in the state of civilization,” he was not a socialist. He did not suggest redistributing or recollectivizing the land. He did not contest the right of the propertied to hold their property. Nor did he long to restore some lost “golden age.” The progress of “civilization” had created inequality and poverty, yet it had also materially improved life. Not only was the natural state clearly “without those advantages which flow from agriculture, art, science and manufactures,” but “it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state.” There was no turning back the historical clock.

Paine’s vision of America is radical even by today’s standard of a welfare state. I don’t think it’s fair to even call Paine’s vision welfare because he merely saw it the egalitarian protection of God-given rights. God gave us all rights, but God didn’t give the ruling elite their wealth and land. Even today, most wealth in America is inherited rather than earned wealth. We always hear the promise of America that any person can grow up to be anything, even president. But we all know that is a lie, just pretty words to uplift the peasants from the drudgery of their existence. Paine, however, actually believed in those words.

Henry David Thoreau: Liberal?

Finally, let me deal with the last part of the comment by utubehayter:

And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?

I actually don’t know what Thoreau identified as, but I’d imagine he wasn’t much interested in confining himself to labels. Thoreau probably was inspired by classical liberalism. In fact, he was inspired by many things considering he read widely including books from Eastern countries. Whether or not we label him a classical liberal, it’s for certain he was a liberal even by modern standards of liberalism. It’s funny that utubehayter thinks there is a conflict between liberalism and anarchism considering that the latter is an just extreme version of the former. You can’t get any more liberal than anarchism. Anyway, I don’t think Thoreau was an anarchist. He was just a humanist who was cared about people and was suspicious of corrupt power, both in government and in capitalism.

I’ve written about this before:

Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach

Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.

“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”

Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.

“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”

Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).

“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

Libertarians: Privilege & Partisanship

Here are two blog posts that connect. They’re about some of the problems and limitations of the present conservative-leaning libertarian world view. I entirely agree.

At the above link, the blogger is responding to these articles:

And he responds with this commentary:

. . . libertarianism – as a political movement – is overwhelmingly white and male.  We tend to think of the racial composition of a political movement as just having electoral consequences, but it also has a profound effect on the core ideology of said movement.  At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, marginalized voices – racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays, etc. – are overrepresented among liberals and as such, the left that has been forced to grapple with the issues and concerns of marginalized communities in such a way as to make liberalism better equipped to deal with these issues.

It seems that insofar that libertarians experience oppression or constraints on their liberty, it is through the actions of the state rather than through culture, which makes sense. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white and male, and in a culture which highly values whiteness and maleness, they will face relatively fewer overt cultural constraints on their behavior than their more marginalized fellow-travelers.  Or in other words, a fair number of libertarians are operating with a good deal of unexamined privilege, and it’s this, along with the extremely small number of women and minorities who operate within the libertarian framework, which makes grappling with cultural sources of oppression really hard for libertarians.  After all – socially speaking – being a white guy in the United States isn’t exactly hard and that’s doubly true if you are well off.

Here is the comment I left:

You hit the nail on the head. What goes for libertarian these days tend to be rich white males. I pointed this out in a recent post of mine:

They’re concerned about freedom from rather than freedom for because of the reasons you stated. As they grew up with privilege, they’ve never known prejudice, poverty, and oppression. They don’t understand that there are still people in this country fighting for the basic rights and privilege that they accept as being their normal reality.

The thing is libertarianism wasn’t always this way. According to Chomsky, libertarianism began as a socialist workers movement in Europe. The founding father of American libertarianism was Henry David Thoreau who was very liberal and not pro-capitalist. I wrote about Thoreau’s libertarianism in another recent post:

The second blog post I mentioned is this:

. . . new libertarians are really disappointed conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists, who seek an intellectual basis for their values and find it in the rock-solid certainty of an ideology characterized by an ethic of individualistic, leave-me-alone, I-can-do-it-myself sufficiency. These disaffected Republicans know the surface of libertarianism; the details, which are hinted at by Stossel’s review and expressed in greater detail by virtually unknown contemporary writers like Virginia Postrel (”The Future and Its Enemies”) and others tend to make our neo-libertarian very uncomfortable.

You see, it’s one thing if “they” lose their house because they violated the laws of the market; it’s quite another if “I” lose my job because my employer can import a Filipino who will work for a quarter of what I was making. Well, to the real libertarian the second example is just as much the laws of the market as the first, so too bad.

These two posts bring up important issues about right-wing libertarians. Too many libertarians are oblivious to the classical liberal roots of libertarianism and too few understand that libertarianism isn’t inherently conservative. There is nothing about the libertarian world view that requires a person to be for conservative ideology such as pro-capitalism, and yet libertarianism is entirely against most of the central positions of mainstream conservatism (nationalism, drug prohibition, and using the federal government to regulate marriage and abortions).

Libertarianism could be a powerful movement if libertarians didn’t make it into a partisan movement and didn’t make into class war. Libertarianism shouldn’t be just for rich white conservatives. If libertarianism doesn’t fight for the rights of all and doesn’t fight for that which oppresses freedom, then can it even genuinely be considered libertarian?

Liberal and even socialist libertarians exist, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the libertarians from right-wing think tanks and Fox News. Libertarianism began as a socialist workers movement in Europe, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the rich white conservatives who control the libertarian message. I’d love to see a big tent libertarianism. Until that happens, it’s unlikely there will be a third party that can challenge the two party system.