Is Classical Liberalism an Impulse Idea or a Long Term Ideal?

Posted on October 8, 2013 by


I have heard much talk in the last few months to the effect that market advocates, conservatives (in the American sense) or classical liberals (to use a broader sense) have failed to make their case.  They have not “sold” their ideas well, to use a marketing analogy.  Alberto-Benegas Lynch has addressed this issue in an interesting article in the October issue of Freeman, 2013 (see  October).  Lynch begins with the thesis is that there is a fundamental distinction between a product for sale and an idea.  One must only be able to explain and support the consequences from buying and using the market product, without understanding the entire process (see I, Pencil by Leonard Reed).  Ideas on the other hand must be understood in all their complexity, including definitions, causal connections, etc.  To put it another way, in understanding and explaining ideas one engages in analysis—beginning with the big overall picture and then proceeding to resolve it into its constituent parts, understanding each one along the way and making appropriate connections among the parts.  Ideas are different, Lynch argues.  I tend to agree, though he says that we cannot say what will result from a “truly open society,” which I believe may be a bit overstated.

Nevertheless Lynch does acknowledge that classical liberals (more or less equivalent to advocates of free markets and limited, constitutional government) have been less than skillful at communicating their message.  Here is where Arthur Brooks has made a similar point recently when he stated that the argument for the efficiency and wealth production of capitalism has pretty much been won.  But the moral argument for markets has only just begun and had been absent for the most part in the past.  In addition, the means used by classical liberals has been lacking.  For better or worse, until recently we produced dry-as-dust technical tomes, virtually unreadable by anyone outside academia.  Social media were unknown, but even when they were many refused to change the “packaging” of their ideas.  Think tanks have begun to change the landscape.  They do take advantage of social media and they have been writing easy-to-digest policy works as well as more theoretical and philosophical material—and in shorter forms.  I don’t think by any means that this shift will stymy academic work of a high quality.  It can be (if it isn’t always perfect) a mere matter of translation—not transformation—of the message, much the same way the Bible has been translated into many different kinds of English versions.

But I think Lynch does make another excellent point, that classical liberal ideas, like many other ideas,  are not susceptible of dogmatically predicting “how things will turn out.”  They, like one of theirs, Friedrich Hayek, have always recognized the limitations on the capacity of humans to ascertain knowledge sufficient to account for all contingencies.  As Lynch says, however, authoritarians will (apparently), by which he means central planners, utopians of all kinds, modern liberals, and socialists, all of whom seem to believe they can have absolute and perfect knowledge, never understand this.  Because classical liberals view knowledge as limited and imperfect they do not (or should not) assert that they know exactly what will happen in a free and open society, one with free markets and limited government.  So they ought not to sell their ideas as if they could.  That would be dishonest.

But now Lynch raises the real question:  Can we seriously suggest an idea whose ultimate outcome we cannot know?  The answer to that question, as Lynch rightly puts it, is that if we actually believe humans know individually what is best for themselves (or their families) in most cases, then we can trust the outcomes individually and, far more often than not, collectively.  As a Christian (working for a Christian university) I do have some reservations.  For Christians there is that inconvenient problem of sin, which has a way of interfering with the proper pursuit of self-interest.  However, this fact for Christians should not change the basic conclusions of classical liberals, for the reason that even accounting for sin, that problem extends to all humans, even those in government.  Thus, given certain institutional arrangements, such as bureaucracy or absolute monarchy, and even pure democracy without checks, the sin problem can be exacerbated.  It is therefore better, though not perfect, to have free markets and limited government rather than bureaucratic regulation and central planning.  Lynch points out that classical liberal ideas work against other political-economic ideologies in that even those that are more democratic allow too much “political demand” to supersede individual action.  So in a democracy, a majority could vote to tax the minority to redistribute wealth to itself, even if the minority was itself nearly a majority.  Would this be fair?  Classical liberal ideas would advocate limits to such possible outcomes, while at the same time making the individual action the same as the “social” outcome as much as possible, so that those who do exercise their autonomy also bear not only the benefits but the costs of their choices.

Classical liberal ideas are not easy to articulate at the substantive level.  They do  not have the same immediate “curb appeal” as planning, authoritarianism, “expertism” and so on.  Therefore it will take longer for these ideas to prove themselves.  That is not reason to give up.  But it does mean we must adopt a longer run perspective, even as many socialists and modern liberals did in an earlier time—and were ultimately very successful.  So the watchwords are patience, diligence and carefulness in articulating the classical liberal idea.