Bryan Caplan  

Liberal Conflation

PRINT
The Macroeconomic Reversal... Hope for Britain?...
Academic political philosophers use the word "liberalism" in a way that would baffle almost anyone else.  (See here and here).  Who counts?  Virtually all the thinkers that normal Americans would call "liberal" + mainstream thinkers who call themselves "conservatives" and "socialists" + all or almost all libertarians.  (Anarcho-capitalists might not count, but even that's not clear).  As long as you favor basic civil liberties and oppose dictatorship, political philosophers will probably label you liberal.  Unless, of course, you call yourself a "communitarian," even if your concrete policy views are quite moderate. 

When students furrow their brows, philosophers often explain that there are two varieties of liberalism: classical (or libertarian) liberalism, and modern (or welfarist) liberalism.  But the claim isn't that people simply use the word "liberalism" in two incompatible ways.  The claim, rather, is that libertarian and welfarist liberalism are two variations on some common liberal essence.

I remember being at an IHS conference where a professor advised libertarian philosophers and political theorists to capitalize on this nomenclature.  "Whenever you're talking with non-libertarian members of your profession, be sure to say, 'We liberals think X'  And try to explain how your work defends liberalism against its enemies."  Even at the time, I found this advice overly careerist and sneaky; what good is it to be accepted if you're misunderstood?  Now I think it's positively bizarre.  Regardless of your own political position, why would you lump almost all mainstream thinkers together with radical libertarians, then oppose these strange bedfellows to non-liberal socialist Vladimir Lenin, non-liberal conservative Joseph de Maistre, and communitarian Michael Sandel?

Three closing questions:

1. Don't classical and modern liberalism have common historical roots?  Sure.  But modern liberalism and socialism probably have more.  Even in the 19th-century, many Marxists favored civil liberties and opposed dictatorship, so by modern academic usage, they were liberals despite their vocal hostility to "liberalism."

2. What's wrong with political philosophers using an eccentric definition for technical purposes?  Nothing - if their definition actually clarifies thought and discussion.  But their eccentric definition has the opposite effects.

3. Why complain about eccentric language that actually benefits my fellow libertarians?  In part, I simply doubt that the benefits are high - though on that point I'll defer to people actually in political philosophy and political theory.  My main complaint, however, is that political philosophers' eccentric definition of liberalism makes libertarianism seem much less alien and threatening to modern sensibilities than it really is - and it's more important for libertarians to be understood than to be popular.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (17 to date)
Ryan writes:

This topic was discussed in detail in an EconTalk podcast when Alan Wolfe was the guest:


http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2009/05/wolfe_on_libera.html

Wolfe sees modern liberalism and classical liberalism as essentially the same thing, an argument that makes more sense when you declare that progressivism isn't liberalism of any kind.

ajb writes:

The essence of Bryan Caplan:

"it's more important ... to be understood than to be popular."

Hence libertarians get their wish: They are well understood and justly unpopular.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Bryan, in Liberalism: Loose and Strict, Jasay explains why so many contradictory ideas can be considered "liberal" and makes a decent attempt at providing a remedy. You can find the essay here.

HiggsBoson writes:

In what world are libertarians "well understood"?

Nathan writes:

I've mostly conflated "liberalism" with "individualism" in the broadest sense possible. Liberals, classical and modern, are concerned with the individual, whereas conservatives, communitarians, etc, favor action for the benefit of society or culture as a whole. The difference between classical and modern liberalism seems to be that classical liberals see the state as the most dangerous abuser and thus want to limit its actions as much as possible, whereas modern liberals try to protect the individual from corporations, and non-govt. forces of society in general like racism and the more destructive parts of capitalism. But at bottom both think they're trying protect the individual from having his rights violated and allowing him to have the most "freedom" possible (obviously both have different conceptions of "freedom").

Miguel Madeira writes:

A tangential point - I imagine that, in Portugal, almost all of your "liberals", "libertarians" and "conservatives" will be considered "liberais".

Miguel Madeira writes:

Another point (or the same) is the question of perspective - in a country where you basically have moderate social-democrats, "free-market/small government" conservatives and classical liberals, the three positions seems very different.

But in the context a world where until very recently most left-wingers were in favour of "collective ownership of the means of producion" (not only high taxes...) and a rigth-winger was, almost by default, in favour of a "strong man", makes some sense to consider moderate social-democrats/"free-market/small government" conservatives /classical liberals seems very similar.

"Don't classical and modern liberalism have common historical roots? Sure. But modern liberalism and socialism probably have more."

I think that is like the question - "what is more similar to a dolphin? A fish or a cow?"

Mikko Sandt writes:

The distinction is clearer in Europe where "welfarists" have their roots in the 19th century labor movement. The way I see it, contemporary "liberals" in the US are simply mimicking European social democrats who have never been particularly concerned with the individual.

And here in Finland liberalism is still used in the classical sense even though neoliberalism is much more popular among the ideological enemies of (classical) liberalism. Practically any attempt to decrease the role of the state is labelled as neoliberalism.

Troy Camplin writes:

I find it bizarre that anyone would want to be mistakenly associated with their opposites. The Modern Liberal is in fact an illiberal, anti-Liberal thinker in the Classical Liberal sense of the word. Modern Liberals are economic Intelligent Designers (if not outright economic Creationists), while Classical Liberals are spontaneous order evolutionists. They are incompatible, as one is anti-scientific and the other scientific.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I think your mistake is to think about a philosophy in terms of an ideology or a party.

I provide more detailed thoughts on this post here.

Snorri Godhi writes:

Don't classical and modern liberalism have common historical roots?

That depends on what you mean by "modern liberalism". I assume you mean modern AMERICAN "liberalism". In this case the answer is an emphatic NO! At least, according to Goldberg's Liberal Fascism; and if anyone can correct him, I am open to revising my emphatic denial.

According to Goldberg, American "liberalism" originates from Progressivism, which has its roots in Hegel, Nietsche, and Bismarck -- none of them a classical liberal. A later influx of Marxist ideas does not help.

But modern liberalism and socialism probably have more.

But AMERICAN "liberalism" and fascism probably have many, many more.

Even in the 19th-century, many Marxists favored civil liberties and opposed dictatorship

Except for Marx himself (based on what I hear, without having read his work first-hand).

shrikanthk writes:

I remember Robert Blake summing up British Conservatism in his book The Conservative Party - From Peel to Churchill with words to this effect:

A belief that Britain, especially England, is usually in the right. A faith in the value of diversity, of independent institutions, of the rights of property. A distrust of centralising officialdom, of the efficacy of government, of 'Utopian' panaceas and 'doctrinaire' intellectuals. A dislike of abstract ideas, high philosophical principles and sweeping generalisations. A reluctance to think too far ahead into the future. A belief in original sin and in the limitations of political and social amelioration. A degree of scepticism about human nature and the notion of equality.

I think these words pretty much sum up Conservatism for me. American Liberalism, as I understand it, is in conflict with whatever is mentioned above.

Miguel Madeira writes:

>>Don't classical and modern liberalism have common historical roots?

>That depends on what you mean by "modern liberalism". I assume you mean modern AMERICAN "liberalism". In this case the answer is an emphatic NO! At least, according to Goldberg's Liberal Fascism; and if anyone can correct him, I am open to revising my emphatic denial.

At least, the Democratic Party of US, the Liberal Party of Canada and the Liberal Democratic Party of UK (I think both the 3 can be considered, today, welfarist liberals) have its roots in classical liberals parties of 19th century (in the case of Democrats, if we forget the slavery and segregation thing).

Jason Brennan writes:

Bryan,

Philosophers don't use the word "liberal" in an eccentric way. You non-philosophical laypeople do.

An archetypical liberal is committed to:
1. the liberal principle of justification,
2. individualism on a political level,
3. a presumption of liberty, and
4. a view that individuals have extensive rights and an extensive sphere of private freedom.

Without explaining what 1-4 mean (I'm not in the mood right now), I know someone is liberal by the extent to which she advocates 1-4, and is illiberal to the extent she fails to advocate them or rejects them.

As for classical and modern liberals: Sometimes the debate is just about what institutions realize agreed upon liberal values. Other times, the difference is about how to interpret 1-4, or about *other* moral issues not related to 1-4.

Ask John Tomasi for a copy of his forthcoming book Market Democracy for a nice overview. Or look at Gerry Gaus's Contemporary Theories of Liberalism textbook,

Snorri Godhi writes:

Miguel:
At least, the Democratic Party of US, the Liberal Party of Canada and the Liberal Democratic Party of UK [...] have its roots in classical liberals parties of 19th century (in the case of Democrats, if we forget the slavery and segregation thing).

WRT the US Democratic Party: I am not sure if you mean Thomas Jefferson or Grover Cleveland, or both. Still, I stand by what I wrote: American "liberalism", as distinct from the Democratic Party, does not originate from classical liberalism to the best of my knowledge.

WRT the Canadian and British parties: I wrote "American" in block capitals to make it clear that I was talking only about the USA.
I note that the UK Liberal Democrats seem to be much more committed to freedom of speech than the US Democrats.

(I think both the 3 can be considered, today, welfarist liberals)

OK, with the qualification that the Democrats are "liberal" by American standards and the UK Liberal Democrats are social-liberals by European standards. The 2 standards are not comparable.
(Not sure about Canada.)

Miguel Madeira writes:

"OK, with the qualification that the Democrats are "liberal" by American standards and the UK Liberal Democrats are social-liberals by European standards. The 2 standards are not comparable."

My impression (I could be wrong) is that "liberal by American standards" and "social-liberal by European standards" is more or less the same thing, no?

The difference is that there are not (much) socialists in US, and because that the RELATIVE position of US "liberals" is much more to the left than the relative position of european social-liberals; but I suppose that the ABSOLUTE position is very similar (of, if it is different, is in the sense of US "liberals" being more TO THE RIGHT than european social-liberals*).

Snorri Godhi writes:

Miguel: thank you for your reply. I cannot give you an informed reply, but I'll give you my way of seeing things, based not only on what I read but also by my experience of North America and Britain (and continental Europe, but that doesn't really matter here.)

My impression (I could be wrong) is that "liberal by American standards" and "social-liberal by European standards" is more or less the same thing, no?

My claim (and I too might be wrong) is that it is not the same thing. The similarity is in the economic policies. The difference (that I see, and I might over-estimate it) is in what is more properly called "liberal": social-liberals really value liberty in the non-economic sphere; I see no evidence that American "liberals" do. At least, not recently: in the period between FDR interning Japanese-Americans and civil rights legislation, it might have been different, but I don't know much about that period.

The difference is that there are not (much) socialists in US, and because that the RELATIVE position of US "liberals" is much more to the left than the relative position of european social-liberals; but I suppose that the ABSOLUTE position is very similar

One could say that there are a sort of socialists in the USA, but they call themselves "liberals". A comparison of Spain and California might support this claim: a Spanish Socialist PM cuts wages for state employees when a Californian Republican governor does not dare do anything like that.

But leaving that aside, I reject on principle arguments based on placing ideologies on a right/left axis. Specific, concrete differences between American "liberalism" and social-liberalism should be understood independently of their placement on an abstract "political spectrum".

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top