Monday, 30 April 2012

Where next? The past, present, and future of classical liberalism

At Cato Unbound there are a series of very interesting essays on the above topic. The lead essay is by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi under the title A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism
Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A "neoclassical liberal" would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.
The essays in response to Zwolinski and Tomasi are:

In Praise of Bleeding Heart Absolutism by Roderick T. Long
Roderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the "Unholy Trinity" of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don't conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard's thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a "bleeding-heart absolutism" – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.
Natural Rights + ? by David D. Friedman
David Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The "working poor" were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.

Let's Reject the Purity Test by Alexander McCobin
Alexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is "more" libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.
There is much in each of these essays to ponder. I have sympathy for Alexander McCobin's point that libertarians engage in unproductive debates about who or what is "more" libertarian. The liberalism of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard was different to that of, for example, Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. (There is the wonderful story that during one discussion at the first Mont Pelerin Society meeting Mises clashed with other participants who were willing to concede that the government had some role in the redistribution of income. This topic led to some spirited discussions. According to Friedman, Mises walked out, declaring, "You’re all a bunch of socialists." Not many people would ever call the likes of Friedman, Stigler and Hayek socialists!) But this doesn't make one group more "libertarian" than the other. A first move towards a better future for liberalism may be to except that in the past there are different, equally valid, views on what liberalism is and learn from all the different perspectives. Intra-group warfare doesn't help anyone.

See also David Friedman on Bleeding Heart Libertarianism by David Henderson and Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism and Its Critics: Preliminary Mediation by Bryan Caplan. Both postings are at the EconLog blog.

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