Decline of the Classic Liberal

Part of what I'm writing about these days involves the origins of liberalism in Europe, a term that meant something quite different then.  We used to have a whole class of Liberals in the antique sense, but no more, for the present political scene is a fruitless war of reactionaries against social democrats.  But a Liberal is a valuable person to have in the state, because of the combination of political impulses that characterize the stance.  

The chief impulse of the original Liberals was to distrust power, especially arbitrary power, since they were rebelling against the arbitrary power of entrenched interests. In Central Europe it was the aristocracy, in England the landowning classes. Liberals believed that arbitrary power should be curbed by law, rather than tradition, and further, that all should be equal before the law, because they thought that limiting individuals because of their caste or class or sex was the essence of arbitrary power.  Liberals were also against arbitrary government intrusion in the markets; they disliked state monopoly, or any monopoly and supported free trade.  But they had also read all of Adam Smith, not just the Inquiry but also the Theory of Moral Sentiments, where Smith describes the nature of a moral society. Smith's own attitude toward capitalism is summed up in the famous,“People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”  

So Liberals also were interested in government creating a civilized society, orderly, calm, and free of guilt, one thing that stuck when this class gave up classical Christianity--you shouldn't stuff your face like a pig when your fellow citizens are starving.  Easy to say, hard to do, as now.  In fact, the great Irish famine was made worse by the reluctance of economic liberals to interfere in the export of food from that starving country. 

But in America, having scotched despotic power in the state--and of course the Constitution is a liberal document in this sense--liberals then confronted the arbitrary power of corporations and financial interests. This history is quite forgotten in America: how corporation essentially owned cities and states as fiefs; how they virtually appointed US Senators; how they were able to unleash National Guard troops on unruly workers; how striking American workers' encampments were bombed from the air by Army planes; how corporations routinely poisoned the public with foods and drugs; how the trusts crushed competition; how the rich lived like emperors. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest American of his time, probably had a third-level vice-president who lived better than Bill Gates does now.

(A little sidebar I can never resist. Federal Laboratories, the manufacturer of the Thompson sub-machine gun after 1928,  advertised their product in the trade press as a labor management tool.). 

Liberals began therefore a long campaign against the arbitrary power of corporations, especially monopolists and financial manipulators, for they saw in them the destruction of the free market to which they were attached.  The result we see around us, the liberal state, whose prime purpose has become the regulation of capitalism and the protection of people who are worthless to capital and who would, in a perfectly rational and profit-maximizing economy, simply be left to die. Capitalism has fought back mightily over this period, with lesser or greater success.  Recently the success has been much greater, such that we now have an economic situation very much like the one in the 1920s, the last time capital had the upper hand.  

How did this come about?  In the first place, many of the same things liberals wanted--extension of the franchise, social insurance, freedom to unionize--the socialists also desired, and so an unnatural connection developed between the left and liberalism, so that it eventually appeared that they were parts of the same political spectrum. In the second place, Liberals, who were supposed to be suspicious of arbitrary power, were seduced by power, and started thinking like socialists, and developed fantasies of social and economic policy that were far removed from the original impetus of Liberalism. (The same things are happening on the right, where libertarians are allied with people who want the state to intrude into the intimate affairs of private life. ) Finally, the public has a short memory.  The grandchildren of people to whom the federal government gave a decent job for the first time in the history of their families, who were In many cases literally saved from starvation by federal programs, are now among the most violent opponents of federal power.

The decline of the classic liberal, like that of his cousin, the classic conservative, gives American politics its characteristic incoherence, and its inability to confront and solve obvious problems when the solutions would involve a negative economic impact on the interests who essentially control the country. Ironically, the safeguards put place by the liberal state tend to save these interests from the catastrophic results of all that "conspiracy against the public."  And don't they howl when the liberal state saves their sorry asses!  Their flacks come out with, first of all, there was no depression, second it wasn't the fault of the market, and third, if it hadn't been for government meddling it wouldn't have happened.   And let's not have any of that regulatory or ass-saving apparatus either!  That's bad!  Incoherence.

      So there is no reason for the current illiberal (strict sense) situation not to continue indefinitely: high unemployment, stagnant wages, the 1% growing ever richer and more powerful, the corruption of democracy by money,and the rest of our charming situation 

I don't see how we get out of this without re-creating a classic Liberal force in the US, and that is going to have to include the libertarians as well as the core of the centrist Democratic Party.  A first step would be for the Democrats to read more Adam Smith and for the libertarians to stop reading Ayn Rand.