*meaning “classical liberalism,” as the term is commonly understood
As you know, there has been an ongoing discussion here regarding the issues of the role liberalism has played in creating the destructive society within which the west currently lives. The battle lines are simple enough: classical liberalism has offered perhaps what is best about the west and also what is worst.
As you also know, this battle plays out not just in the community but within me. I find the medieval law, based on old and good custom and tradition, to come closest to what could be considered libertarian law today – and not just closest, but longest lasting. I also find tremendous value in the worth of the individual as an individual that is at the heart of liberalism. Oh yeah, and I like the free market and private property stuff.
Yet liberalism was born from the fruits of the rejection of this medieval law, this custom, this tradition. Instead of law discovered in old and good custom we have law created by man’s reason with nary a thought given to the reason that is inherent in the hundreds and thousands of years of man’s law, custom, and tradition. And this transformation in the source of law hasn’t worked out so well.
But to the extent that the concept of “freedom” includes the material blessings enjoyed in the west – and I do not mean the frivolities, but reliable food, clothing, shelter, transportation, etc. – well, the west is quite free, both compared to much of the world today and compared to the west ever in history. Yet, classical liberals complain – rightly so – about our lack of freedom. So…freedom cannot be limited to – or even greatly satisfied by – such material comforts.
So why all of this rambling today? C. Jay Engel has written a piece, “Liberalism and Loneliness?” It is a critique of a critique of liberalism. Through this piece, perhaps I can move an inch or two closer to clarity, closer to resolving this battle within me and the discussion within this community.
As a quick aside, I believe that classical liberalism had its own shortcomings, among which include that it was not as consistent as it should have been (but the later libertarianism that succeeded it purified it)…
I agree with the “classical liberalism had its own shortcomings” part; I am not so sure about the power of libertarianism to purify. That is expecting quite a bit from a political philosophy that can too easily free itself of the constraints of normative customs and traditions.
Nonetheless, classical liberalism was a positive influence in the world and many of its doctrines should be defended and expanded upon, as was done by people like Mises and Rothbard.
As noted, I find much positive and some negative in this philosophy; I do agree that many of its doctrines should be defended and expanded upon. Perhaps more important, some of its doctrines should be examined in order to understand how the liberty promised by classical liberalism (and glimpsed, momentarily, in a few places for a few years in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) devolved into what can only be described as the tyranny to be found in the west today.
Engel will come later to cite something from Mises on this topic, as will I. I think it is important to keep in mind what Mises meant by the idea of liberalism, and the context within which he took the term; I will expand on this shortly.
At its most basic, classical liberalism is merely the repudiation of aggression as a legitimate form of human interaction.
“At its most basic” this may be so. But this is the problem – and it is compounded (not necessarily purified) by the libertarianism (as defined by many) that succeeded it: too many of us (and I include myself in this category, certainly in the past and even in my struggles today) see classical liberalism as nothing more than this “basic.” We get rather upset if anyone points out that it is lacking in some earthly need.
Engel comes to the important point:
Any voluntary relationship that individuals have with other individuals, making up groups, businesses, clubs, gatherings, communities, and societies, these are mutually beneficial arrangements and therefore a partial fulfillment of the “want and need” of humans to interact with each other.
The point is…is this optional, as classical liberalism or the more pure libertarianism will suggest or demand, or is this necessary if one is to fully conform to liberalism as Mises saw it – even necessary if one is to make liberalism “work”?
Engel expands on his point with a cite of Mises. I will make mine in a similar manner. From a most excellent essay by Joe Salerno, “Mises on Nationalism, the Right of Self-Determination, and the Problem of Immigration”:
For Mises, liberalism first emerged and expressed itself in the nineteenth century as a political movement in the form of “peaceful nationalism.” Its two fundamental principles were freedom or, more concretely, “the right of self-determination of peoples” and national unity or the “nationality principle.” The two principles were indissolubly linked.
Read this again slowly. Mises found in the roots of liberalism a nationalism that is “indissolubly linked” to the idea of self-determination.
Citing Mises, Salerno offers:
[T]he nationality principle includes only the rejection of every overlordship; it demands self-determination, autonomy. Then, however, its content expands; not only freedom but also unity is the watchword. But the desire for national unity, too, is above all thoroughly peaceful. . . .
Autonomy and unity in the same statement – the idea of liberalism is somewhat more complex than “anything peaceful.”
Returning to Salerno:
Mises contends that nationalism is thus a natural outcome of and in complete harmony with individual rights: “The formation of [liberal democratic] states comprising all the members of a national group was the result of the exercise of the right of self determination, not its purpose.”
Liberalism was to be found in these voluntarily formed and maintained national groups. Unless the link is soluble, the two must remain joined.
Finally, Salerno citing Rothbard:
Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one of several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. . . .
So what does all of this mean? From Mises, it seems clear that the idea of liberalism and nation go hand in hand. In his writing he has made clear the difficulties for minorities subsumed in a larger culture; in his life, he lived through, first-hand, the devastation of perhaps the greatest multi-cultural society in Europe.
Of course, one can say that perhaps the most unified society in Europe – Germany – wasn’t exactly a liberal paradise during the 1930s and 1940s. But a common nation does not guarantee a liberal society; the issue is: can a liberal society come forward from a multi-cultural society – one absent any norms, common understandings and traditions, language…dare I say it, even religion?
From Rothbard, a dose of reality: humans aren’t merely cash registers and ATMs. There is much that binds them together besides the market. Libertarians – or classical liberals – ignore this at the risk of their (and their philosophy’s) irrelevancy.
I am all for liberalism and libertarianism. I just don’t think it can be separated from the other stuff – common traditions, customs, and norms. In fact, the two are “indissolubly linked.”
So I guess I am in pretty good company.