Perversion Inversion

Mr. Yglesias has it exactly backwards.

I’m a little late to the dogpile, but I’m still struck by the, to coin a phrase, perverseness of this assertion by Matthew Yglesias:

I know they see it the other way, but I see myself as a liberal and “libertarianism” is a weird perversion of the idea.

‘See it the other way’ we most certainly do. Libertarianism is, at its core, the classic liberalism enshrined in the Constitution by the Founders. As with the genre Sirius radio calls “Classic Alternative” (an oxymoronic phrase if ever I heard one), the very reason that philosophical viewpoint now needs the modifier is that the meaning of the word in the current vernacular is almost but not entirely divorced from the original.

There’s certainly some overlap remaining, the subset of civil liberties modern-day liberals still respect and defend being the most prominent. But classic liberalism also reveres economic liberty as being a fundamental part of civil liberties generally, a position decidedly at odds with latter-day liberalism. The word equality is a touchstone for both but, where libertarianism is individualist, what we now call liberalism is decidedly collectivist.

As such, one must be especially purblind to believe that libertarianism, with its philosophical roots in the Enlightenment, is a perversion (weird or otherwise) of the collection of warmed-over 20th century notions of social justice we now call liberalism. More generously, one could say that, in the Hegelian sense, modern liberalism is the antithesis of classic liberalism — a competing post-Industrial Revolution philosophy that drew more from Mill and Dewey than Locke and Hobbes. But it was a reaction to the laissez-faire capitalism that is and has always been inextricably part of the classic liberal movement, not a precursor.

In short, Mr. Yglesias has it exactly backwards.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Dodd Harris
About Dodd Harris
Dodd, who used to run a blog named ipse dixit, is an attorney, a veteran of the United States Navy, and a fairly good poker player. He contributed over 650 pieces to OTB between May 2007 and September 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Amuk3.

Comments

  1. Pete says:
  2. Herb says:

    “The word equality is a touchstone for both but, where libertarianism is individualist, what we now call liberalism is decidedly collectivist.”

    Um….the world we live in “decidedly collectivist.” We’re so collectivist, we’re making people buy their own health insurance these days. Yeah, making em.

    You should check of David Frum’s series on the libertarianism of the Founders. He does much to demonstrate that this statement:

    “Libertarianism is, at its core, the classic liberalism enshrined in the Constitution by the Founders”

    Is little more than wishful thinking.

  3. ponce says:

    Libertarianism is a bunch of juveniles using the government funded internet to whine about the government funding things using their government invented computers.

  4. Axel Edgren says:

    I don’t like libertarians much either, ponce, but your definition is neither sharp, fair or very persuasive.

  5. Stan says:

    To my best knowledge the Founding Fathers were classical whigs – they believed in personal liberty and religious freedom, they distrusted absolutism, and they were committed to enlightenment values. By contrast, I see current Libertarians as being interested primarily in keeping as much of their own money as possible, and to Hell with everything else. I don’t see much overlap between between the views of Benjamin Franklin, for example, and Dick Armey. But maybe I’m not seeing the big picture.

  6. steve says:

    I think Dodd is sort of right. Liberalism is, at least partially, a response to the failures of laissez faire practices. While libertarians have many good individual ideas, as a total philosophy it is difficult to implement into a functioning society. Too many issues with existing capital. It was also perverted by Rand. If you go back and read people like Acton, skip over Rand and read modern libertarians, you will be much better off. Also, ignore anyone who claims the 1800s were some kind of golden age.

    Steve

  7. sam says:

    “Libertarianism is, at its core, the classic liberalism enshrined in the Constitution by the Founders.”

    I think Stan is pretty much right about the Founders’ Whiggery. I’d only add that the Whigs were all for using government to improve things like infrastructure. Not all of them were Whigs, of course — there is the Hamilton/Jefferson butting of heads. But there was nothing particularly libertarian about the early US government, I mean, we got both the Tariff Act of 1789 (the very first piece of substantial legislation passed by the 1st Congress) and The Alien and Sedition Acts (passed by the 5th Congress). And then there was the attempt by Congress to fund the building of the Erie Canal (Madison vetoed the bill, but the congressional impulse is what is revealing). Now either those closest to the Founders didn’t understand the real intent of the Constitution, or modern libertarians are reading back into the document intentions that the writers didn’t really have. I think the latter is more accurate.

  8. Dodd, the perfect is the enemy of the good is never better demonstrated than by those who seem to think Young Mr. Yglesias is so much smarter than you. Like, totally.

    While Stan at least acknowledges that it all has something to do with freedom, he then goes on to say that libertarians really don’t care about freedom at all, only money, But I’ll give him credit for mentioning freedom.

    IMHO, Steve misunderstands the past in one important respect. I don’t think too many people seriously posit the 19th century, or any other period, as a golden age, but to the extnt they do it is about the degree of freedom people or, if I may, the equality of opportunity more than the equality of outcome. In so many respects, context is important and you cannot cherry pick conditions of one period against the mores of another.

    The Founders weren’t saints, nor did they claim to be, and every attempt to enshrine them as such is misguided. What seems to be so frequently forgotten is that our constituion established a government that focused on what the government could not do and not on what citizens could not do — which, IMHO, is a key element of the old liberalism — whereas today liberals only focus on what the government can do and what citizens cannot.

    Happy New Year!

  9. sam says:

    “but to the extent they do it is about the degree of freedom people or, if I may, the equality of opportunity more than the equality of outcome.”

    Really, Charles, sometimes you’re just silly. What people are your talking about in the 19th century? Black people, female people?

    Anyway, Happy New Year to you, too.

  10. Steve Plunk says:

    Has a liberal pundit like Yglesias said anything that makes sense recently? They all seem so daft yet self important.

    Liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, and the rest are the interests pulling people in all directions at once. None are perfect or pure in reality yet the ideas they represent are tangible and can serve as a quick guide to what citizens believe in and want. As is typical with the Left we find Yglesias playing around with definitions because of his dissatisfaction with how people perceive the word liberal. It already has an accepted meaning so tinkering in such a fashion is silly.

    The reality is we will never be a pure liberal, conservative, or libertarian society but will be in the middle drifting toward one or away from another. All the while reasonable people can admire portions of all political philosophies and be content somewhere in between.

    The founders were very much libertarian by today’s standards but also knew without certain legislation there would be no revenue to finance the government. The first order of business for even a libertarian government is to be there the next day. While blacks and females were denied freedom we must realize the Constitution was a document that eventual remedied those problems.

    Money and taxes today represent power and freedom. To want to keep more of your own fruits of labor is very much about freedom. The government intrusions libertarians despise start with taking by force and spending on those politically connected. Throw in the tendency of bureaucrats whose nature is to regulate and again we see why keeping the money fulfills libertarian goals.

    The Inuit have many names for snow because it is important to know the differences in their world. In our world liberal, conservative, libertarian,and the rest have meaning plenty good enough as is without trying to redefine them or claim one is a perversion. We all know what we are talking about.

  11. john personna says:

    There is nothing wrong with reasoned libertarianism. It leads to moderation, after all.

    The thing that can be sad is when libertarianism becomes a fetish, set at odds with realities of the world. Perhaps spray cans destroy the ozone layer. A reasoned libertarian would say, “ok, here is a place where reality trumps philosophy, outlaw those cans.” Someone less reasoned would make a fetish of the personal choice, and find it unconscionable that anyone else would decide for him, the cans. Ozone be damed.

    (Feel free to substitute other more current questions for ozone and cans.)

  12. john personna says:

    (I guess that is another way to phrase fetish-libertarianism. It is “the inside of my head is more important than the world.”)

  13. Axel Edgren says:

    I agree with personna here.

    Every ideology has to make concessions to exigencies of having stable nations, social coherence and fiscal solidarity between different areas and populations. Libertarians accept little compromise. Their reaction to the climate challenge speaks volumes of how they are unprepared to truly live, act and think along the lines of their own philosophy. They seem to think their entire movement is about being anti-government in the face of people who always want more government all the time. Idiotic.

  14. Dave Schuler says:

    Relevant to this discussion: Walter Russell Mead’s recent post, Can the L-word be saved?

    To some degree I think that debating whether today’s progressives or today’s libertarians are the legitimate heirs of the Founders resembles debating whether today’s Roman Catholic or today’s Southern Baptists are the heirs of the apostles. The answer is both. And neither.

  15. george says:

    “The thing that can be sad is when libertarianism becomes a fetish, set at odds with realities of the world.”

    Which is true for every ideology. Luckily very few people are ideologically pure, and most folks are liberal on issue A, conservative on issue B, libertarian on issue C, socialist on issue D etc.

    Only very political people think ideological consistency is important, let alone try to maintain it personally.

  16. john personna says:

    Which is true for every ideology. Luckily very few people are ideologically pure, and most folks are liberal on issue A, conservative on issue B, libertarian on issue C, socialist on issue D etc.

    Must be the circles I (don’t) travel in. I don’t see anyone as trapped by ideology as the libertarian purist.

    The modern liberal may want to “spend more” to “help them” but they are a long way from Marxist purity.

  17. sam, careless editing on my part may have confused it a bit, but I don’t think I was trying to say what you think I am trying to say.

    I’m findin I cannto type clearly any more. Maybe I should see a docotr.

  18. sam says:

    Fair enough, Charles. If I mistook you, my apologies. FWIW, re typing (unless you were making a funny….): I find the mousetype in the comment box really, really hard to see. Fortunately, my browser, Opera, allows me to jump up the type size on command, makes typing in the comment box much, much easier (when I remember to do it, that is).

  19. george says:

    “Must be the circles I (don’t) travel in. I don’t see anyone as trapped by ideology as the libertarian purist.”

    Must be. Among my friends and colleagues, people I know at the gym, and just folks I run across at the local pub I don’t know anyone who’s been an ideological purist of any stripe since university days. Perhaps that says more about my friends and colleagues than anything else, but I suspect they’re pretty much typical.

    Libertarian purists are as rare as Marxist purists as far as I can tell. In fact, most people I know wouldn’t call themselves conservative, liberal, libertarian, socialist, or anything – they’re much more likely to say something to the effect that ‘all political parties are crooked’ than anything else.

    The Internet can make it seem that everyone has a strong political ideology, but in fact for the majority of people politics is of quaternary interest at best – something to be looked at during an election (and even then with a sense of holding your nose and picking the best of a horrible lot).

  20. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Modern liberalism or progressives is just another name for Marxist. Scratch a liberal and you will find a red. Most liberals admire Che and Mao. They think people like Reagan and Bush were wrong. Men like Lenin and Stalin were right. Oddly, they would not have survived in any of those systems.

  21. wr says:

    Zels — It’s quite possible to think that Reagan and Bush were wrong — particularly when it comes to little things like the brutal torture and murder of our darker-complected brothers — without believing that Lenin and Stalin were right.

    Someday you should really try to meet another human being, and perhaps you will come to understand that they have little in common with your bizarre perceptions of the species.

  22. anjin-san says:

    > “but to the extent they do it is about the degree of freedom people or, if I may, the equality of opportunity more than the equality of outcome.”

    Equality of opportunity for whom? White male property owners? Of course, a white male who was not a property owner back then might still do very well with some combination of high intelligence, hard work, vision, luck and so on. But that is still true today. It is just true for people who are not white males as well.

  23. john personna says:

    I’m sorry George, but we have those environmental examples. Those are real. I’ve heard them here, and from friends and co-workers. We can’t fix X, not because it isn’t real, but because fixing it would impact my freedoms.

    There is someone making that argument about incandescent bulbs in an adjacent thread. There is no argument that we as a nation are better off with those bulbs, just that freedom is more important.

  24. Axel Edgren says:

    It’s about the standard libertarian response to discussions like that – sure, actually limiting freedoms would give a net benefit and would also be morally decent, but any limiting of freedoms has a metaphysical cost of 1000 trillion dollars, so my alternative is more sound.

  25. john personna says:

    Or, Canadian healthcare. We could have something like it. It would be cheaper. It would keep us alive. But it would sap our freedoms, and so we must suffer. That is better, on a metaphysical level.

  26. george says:

    “I’m sorry George, but we have those environmental examples. Those are real. I’ve heard them here, and from friends and co-workers. We can’t fix X, not because it isn’t real, but because fixing it would impact my freedoms.”

    Sure, and there are some crazy Marxists out there too, especially on the Internet. But what percentage of the people that you know personally are ideologically pure (any ideology)? Or even, how many aspire to be ideologically pure? Of the several hundred people I know well enough to know that kind of thing about, the only people I know who aspire to ideological purity (or who even think its a good thing) are still in university … and there’s only a couple who come to mind. I’d suggest that’s pretty typical, and it makes up about 2% of the population.

    Its no different with self-described libertarians than anyone else from what I’ve seen. Most libertarians I know are people who are fiscally conservative, socially liberal – the old Progressive Party in Canada (at the time of Robert Stanfield to Brian Mulroney) was full of self described libertarians (yes, I’m currently living in Canada). They’re anything but ideologically pure … in fact most probably couldn’t even state what pure libertarian means, other than its not conservative and not liberal.

  27. john personna says:

    I’m telling you that libertarian ideology, and free market ideology, has a visible impact.

    Whereas no, no one is a Marxist these days, in what that really means: an end to personal property, workers owning the means of production.

  28. john personna says:

    (The fall of communism really meant an unbalancing of the world you describe. Yes, there used to be libertarians at one extreme and socialists at the other. One end vanished. One result of the fall of the Soviet Union was that the left shifted. Now, they are Market Believers Light, and people like Zels call them socialists just for old times sake.)