The weekend opinion section of the Washington Post published a short piece reflecting on Patrick Deneen’s book “Why Liberalism Failed.” Titled “Liberalism is Loneliness,” the article offers an opportunity to interact with the same complaints against classical liberalism that have arisen since the early days of its existence.
Authored by Christine Emba, the article suggests that liberalism in the classical sense (limited government, free markets, capitalism, and individual rights) is both descriptive of the present system and is also the foundation of many of our current social woes. I won’t involve myself in her echo of Deneen’s interpretation of actual Lockean liberalism, as David Gordon’s review of Deneen’s book addressed it.
[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), much of its British-branch economics was empirical and lacked the benefits of Austrian subjectivism, and it founded its case for freedom on a utilitarian paradigm. 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.]
One key sentence that significantly reflects Christine Emba’s disdain of classical liberalism is her summary of it: a headlong and depersonalized pursuit of individual freedom and security that demands no concern for the wants and needs of others, or for society as a whole.
At its most basic, classical liberalism is merely the repudiation of aggression as a legitimate form of human interaction. Classical liberalism, though perhaps not as consistent on this point as the libertarianism which eventually succeeded it, is a rejection of the idea that men should, upon threat of violence, be forced to abandon his material desires. Thus, classical liberalism is the application of the idea that individuals should be free to make their own decisions regarding the employment of the property that they own. As a corollary, one cannot harm the person or property of other individuals because, ipso facto, this would prevent the victim from using his person or property as he sees fit.
Accordingly, far from depersonalizing human affairs, classical liberalism offers the individual legal sanction to express and exercise his desires in the way that he sees fit. No conceivable system is so supportive of the personalization of human life than liberalism.
Emba criticizes liberalism for not demanding concern for the wants and needs of others. This is a staggering accusation, although the spirit behind it is common. On one hand if by demand, she means that individuals are not forced, against their will, to be concerned for others (how can the force of law change someone’s level of concern?), then this is true; and it is a feature, not a liability. Surely even an anti-liberal like Emba would not endorse forcing people to be concerned.
On the other hand, it is precisely because we are social creatures, craving and naturally relying on human interaction in order to thrive, that liberalism fits well with human nature. Liberalism is not an abandonment of the need that humans have to engage one another, it is rather the system that supports this need and allows it to flourish. 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.
In fact, markets themselves are a phenomenal vehicle for the mutually beneficial exchange of wants and needs. Liberalism allows human beings who have never even met to fulfill each others wants and needs in a peaceful and socially advantageous way. In a liberal order, it is built into the very social fabric that, in order to improve one’s standard of living, he must first provide a good or a service to someone else so that he may receive something in return.
In this way, “concern for the wants and needs of others” is deeply entrenched in a liberal society. But what is more unique still about liberalism is that it benefits others regardless of whether they are aware of their own concern for others. That is, if the complaint is made that liberalism allows for the existence of the greedy and selfish, the response is that only liberalism has within it the ability to leverage such selfishness on behalf of others. For in a free society, how can a man selfishly profit unless he gives others a reason to voluntarily offer up their money?
According to Emba, it is because liberalism lacks concern for others that we now face a social situation of profound loneliness. But a society which refuses to let the state dictate human interaction does not by default lack human interaction. Rather, it ensures that human interaction be natural and organic, as opposed to stale and artificial. Since liberalism is merely characterized by individuals voluntarily interacting with one another, liberalism per se can never be a cause of loneliness.
It strikes me as odd when the challengers of individual freedom and private property rights refer to the liberal system as the present orthodoxy. It is obvious that they do this so that a system of greater government involvement can be offered as a solution to the problems of our time. But we so clearly live in an anti-liberal world. We live in the age of rejection of anything resembling liberalism.
We walk on the path toward total socialism and the path is best described as an interventionist one. The fruits of interventionism, as Mises warned, are abject economic and social failures that the state subsequently promises to mend and heal. What the state is doing, by refusing to let the failures be a lessen as to the dangers of government war on market mechanisms, is stumbling and staggering its way toward a socialistic paradigm.
It is statism, not liberalism, that is existing concurrent with the list of woes Emba offers as examples of social decay. Suicides, deaths of despair, social unrest, depression, drug problems, racial conflict— these offered examples cannot be the result of liberalism because true classical liberalism has long ago been buried.
There is no better way to conclude this piece by quoting from the master of Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises:
That there is want and misery in the world is not, as the average newspaper reader, in his dullness, is only too prone to believe, an argument against liberalism. It is precisely want and misery that liberalism seeks to abolish, and it considers the means that it proposes the only suitable ones for the achievement of this end. Let whoever thinks that he knows a better, or even a different, means to this end adduce the proof. The assertion that the liberals do not strive for the good of all members of society, but only for that of special groups, is in no way a substitute for this proof.
The fact that there is want and misery would not constitute an argument against liberalism even if the world today followed a liberal policy. It would always be an open question whether still more want and misery might not prevail if other policies had been followed. In view of all the ways in which the functioning of the institution of private property is curbed and hindered in every quarter today by antiliberal policies, it is manifestly quite absurd to seek to infer anything against the correctness of liberal principles from the fact that economic conditions are not, at present, all that one could wish. In order to appreciate what liberalism and capitalism have accomplished, one should compare conditions as they are at present with those of the Middle Ages or of the first centuries of the modern era. What liberalism and capitalism could have accomplished had they been allowed free rein can be inferred only from theoretical considerations.