How Liberalism in America Became Synonymous with its Antithesis

In the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine to be her running mate, one of the recurring comments was how unpopular Tim Kaine is with the liberals who supposedly comprise the bulk of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and must somehow be coaxed, cajoled or persuaded to reconcile themselves with Kaine’s supposedly moderate centrist political views.

Here’s a typical description of Kaine’s liberal problem in the Washington Post:

Hillary Clinton has made her selection for vice president: Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

That will come as a disappointment to many liberals. After rallying behind Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and being teased with Elizabeth Warren as Clinton’s potential running mate — an audition that appeared to go very well — Clinton opted for a more boring, more moderate pick. This despite some liberal groups saying Kaine was unacceptable and even “disastrous.”

First, let’s run through why some liberals don’t love Kaine. Over at Wonkblog, Max Ehrenfruend details three issues on which Kaine could be a particular disappointment to the Warren/Sanders crowd: trade (he’s generally pro-free trade), banking (he has suggested softening some Dodd-Frank regulations) and abortion (he is personally pro-life but votes pro-choice).

So, according to this article, which I think accurately reflects the current understanding of what it now means to be a liberal in America, we have arrived at a state of affairs in which supporting free trade is sufficient justification for casting Tim Kaine out of the liberal fold. Or to make the point in a slightly different way, on international trade at least, Donald Trump’s views are more liberal than those of either Tim Kaine or Hillary Clinton. In this crazy year of 2016, we have witnessed all kinds of farcical events that no one ever dreamed would actually happen. But for protectionism to now be identified as a defining tenet of liberalism surely belongs on any list of the improbable plot twists in the tragicomedy of an election campaign that we have been watching in disbelief in America’s political theater of the absurd.Considered historically, the notion that you can’t be a liberal if you support free trade is nothing short of preposterous, the British Liberal Party having came into existence in the nineteenth century largely as a result of the great political battle over free trade in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.

The Conservative Party was founded in 1834 as a combination of the Tories and a number of Whig followers of William Pitt the Younger. Led by Sir Robert Peel, the Conservatives were committed to protecting the interests of the landed aristocracy from whom the Tories were largely drawn, and were generally solicitous of the royal prerogatives. Although they too were drawn from the landed aristocracy, the Whigs were hostile to the royal prerogatives, seeking to enlarge the powers of Parliament and limit those of the Crown. In opposing royal powers, the Whigs were the natural allies of the Radicals, who represented the interests of the rising industrial and commercial sectors and the growing middle classes.

Reflecting the predominant influence of the Tory landed aristocracy, the Conservatives supported protective tariffs to keep domestic grain prices and land values high. Although the economic interests of the Whig landed aristocracy were also served by protection and high grain prices, the Whigs were prepared to sacrifice their economic interests (perhaps more diversified than the Tories’ interests) and to accept free trade as the price to regain power in concert with the Radicals, whose laissez-faire principles and economic interests strongly inclined them to oppose protection and high grain prices.

As Prime Minister in the 1840s, Peel reversed his previous opposition to free trade, having been persuaded by Richard Cobden, a Radical and the chief Parliamentary advocate of free trade, that allowing foreigners to increase grain exports to Britain would increase foreign demand for British manufactured goods. The famous, possibly legendary, story of Peel’s conversion to free trade has it that, after one of Cobden’s compelling Parliamentary speeches in favor of repealing the Corn Laws restricting grain imports into Britain, Peel, turning to his colleague Sidney Herbert, said: “Sir, you must answer him, for I cannot.” Whatever the motivation for Peel’s conversion to free trade, Peel’s decision split the Conservative party, with most Conservatives still opposing free trade, while about a third of Conservative MPs, including the future Liberal Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone, sided with Peel to form a separate faction.

Eventually, in 1859 the Whigs, Radicals and most of the Peelite Conservatives, joined to create the Liberal Party. So the British Liberal Party was formed as a coalition united by their support of free trade. Although the Conservative Party later came to support free trade, at the beginning of the twentieth century Conservatives turned against free trade, renewing the old conservative-liberal ideological divide.

Given the origins of liberalism as a political movement supporting free trade, it’s disconcerting to watch self-styled liberals transform liberalism into its own antithesis. I’m not trying to suggest that there is such a thing as a true liberalism, or that any departure from the original creed is a kind of heresy. All I’m saying is that leftist critics of Kaine show their own ignorance and ideological illiteracy — not to mention sheer arrogance — when they claim that support for free trade, which for almost two centuries was considered a basic liberal tenet, invalidates Kaine’s standing as a liberal.

I am also not saying that there are no good arguments to be made against free trade, though there are certainly a lot of bad ones, especially those that focus on the trade deficit as a measure of the harm caused by trade. I have actually written previously about the inadequacy of standard economic defenses of free trade, which doesn’t mean that attacks on free trade are right, just that those attacks are not necessarily countered by the standard defenses.

But we are now so disconnected from history that we habitually use terms as labels or as epithets in ways that are completely at odds with the meanings that the terms used to have. President Obama, for example, is routinely described as a socialist and even as a Marxist based, as far as I can tell, on nothing more than that he wants the federal government to reduce the inequality of income and wealth in the US. I have written some posts in the past suggesting why a lot of high income earnings from finance and intellectual property do not increase net social welfare, but I don’t  have a well-thought-out position about overall income and wealth inequality. As a starting point, I think Rawls’s difference principle that income inequality is justified only insofar as the inequality redounds to the absolute benefit of the least well-off members of society is a good way to think about how to handle income and wealth inequality in a free and democratic society. But I don’t think that Rawls gets us very far. The problem with the Rawlsian difference principle is that, in practice, it is nearly impossible to make the principle operational. I have no doubt that Ludwig von Mises would have been totally comfortable arguing that laissez-faire capitalism actually satisfies the difference principle. I believe that he actually made such an argument in Human Action.

But the point that I am making here is simply that it is entirely possible for someone to favor non-trivial redistribution of wealth and income from the wealthy to the less wealthy without being either a socialist or a Marxist. And in fact there have been many non-socialists and non-Marxists who have favored some degree of wealth and income redistribution. So the routine smear attacks on Obama for being a socialist or a Marxist as just typical of the degradation of our semantic environment.

Of course, there is nothing to stop anyone from defining “socialist” and “Marxist” so that anyone who supports redistributing income and wealth is both a socialist and a Marxist. But such definitions would be a trivial exercise with no historical basis. The exercise would be self-defeating if it’s artificiality were acknowledged. What “socialism” has meant historically is a political doctrine favoring the state ownership and operation of all or most of the non-human means of production. But as the number of people who believe in government ownership and operation of the means of production has fallen steadily over the last half century or so, the term “socialism” has gradually been transformed into a vague and nearly meaningless catchword.

What makes Bernie Sanders a socialist is not a belief that government should own and operate most industries, but a general ethos that he feels is captured and communicated by the term. “Socialism” is a convenient way to signal hostility to capitalism – though not a desire to replace it with state ownership and control — and support for wealth redistribution. Similarly, those on the right find “socialism” a handy term of abuse with which to vilify their opponents.

I am no expert on Marxism, but my understanding is that it is a belief in a particular theory of the (supposed) historical laws governing the past and future development of society, supposedly leading to the creation of a socialist state. I assume that there are still some Marxists out there, but if you really do believe that Barack Obama is one of them, there is a good chance that you are delusional.

But what strikes me as especially interesting is not just that liberalism, like socialism, no longer means what it used to mean, but that it has come to mean, in the minds of many, the exact opposite of what it used to mean. So I’d like suggest my own linguistic theory of how liberalism in America has come to take on a meaning so very different from what it once meant. What led to the transformation of liberalism in America was, I conjecture, the lack of a successful socialist political movement in the US. In one sense that was a good thing,  because socialism is not now and never was a sensible way to organize a society or to promote widespread prosperity. However, the failure of socialism in the US to become a politically viable left-wing alternative meant that “liberal” became one of the two default terms for moderately left-leaning political activists to use for self-description and self-identification, the other being the peculiarly American term “progressive.”For similar reasons, liberalism and progressivism also came to be associated with the political activism of organized labor. In Europe, however, socialism aka “social democracy” became a politically powerful movement, gaining the support of much, if not most, of the labor unions. So the contrast between the middle-class orientation of European liberalism on the one hand and the labor activism and socialist ideology of the left-wing parties on the other was much sharper than the contrast between middle-class liberalism and labor activism in the US.

Similarly, because American political parties were almost totally non-ideological, having developed as loose coalitions of diverse sectional and economic interests, the Democratic and Republican parties, unlike the European parties, developed few systematic political doctrines. The antebellum Democratic Party, for example, purported to espouse the doctrine of states’ rights, but professed adherence to that doctrine did not prevent the Democrats from insisting on a federal fugitive slave law requiring Northern states to cooperate with slaveholders to return runaway slaves to their owners, thereby overriding the laws of those Northern states that recognized runaway slaves as free human beings rather than the property. Until the Civil War, the slavery issue dominated political discourse, making the Democratic Party the pro-slavery, or the slavery-neutral, party. For sectional reasons, the Democratic Party also tended to be the anti-tariff party, while the Republican Party was the high-tariff party, rendering both parties unsuitable homes for liberal doctrines, thereby depriving liberalism of a coherent political voice.

The political failure of socialism in the US compelled reformist political movements to focus on piecemeal rather than comprehensive social and economic changes, e.g., the unsuccessful free-silver movement of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the whole panoply of Progressive measures enacted in the early twentieth century under the Republican and Democratic administrations of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. With no competing popular doctrine available, liberals and progressives occupied almost all of the left side of the political spectrum. So left-wing political activism in the US was co-opted by the liberal and the progressives instead of socialists or social democrats. In Europe, competing with the socialists to their left, liberals had good reason to emphasize their differences with the socialists as well as their similarities, and there was only limited incentive for liberal parties to try to compete with the left-wing parties by shifting to the left. In the US, however, there was an incentive for liberals to shift to the left to foreclose the entry of a new left-wing party or movement that might drain support from liberals and progressives.

Similarly, insofar as liberals shifted to the left to foreclose a more left-wing alternative, it became easier for moderate or right-leaning liberals to shift their  political allegiance to conservatism than it would have been for European liberals to switch their allegiance to conservatism, because many American conservatives more or less shared the liberal values espoused by liberals, as those values were enshrined in the founding documents of the American Republic. European conservatives, unlike most American conservatives, were ideologically hostile to the basic democratic and liberal values that most American conservatives also acknowledged, notwithstanding the hypocrisy of supporting or tolerating legal segregation and other forms of legal racism. Even in Britain, the cradle of liberalism, the Liberal Party, which had governed Britain for most of the second half of the nineteenth century up to and including the First World War, was eventually reduced to insignificance when the rise of a Labour Party to its left drove Liberal voters, fearing a Labour victory, into the Conservative camp.

Thus, liberalism in Europe retained a more distinct character as a middle-class, democratic, secular, non-socialist ideology than American liberalism. American liberalism was drawn steadily to the left, becoming increasingly attuned to the political agenda of organized labor and becoming increasingly identified with left-wing economic ideas that were not necessarily socialist in the traditional sense, but were also not compatible with liberal doctrines like free trade. Many moderate and right-leaning liberals found it preferable to adapt to the political program offered by an American conservatism that seemed to have embraced many of the key elements of classical nineteenth century liberalism, but without totally rejecting the post-war consensus of a limited welfare state providing a social safety net for the less fortunate, than to follow the leftward drift of American liberalism.

So with the transition of many American moderates and liberals into conservatives, American liberalism has evolved into a left-wing ideology that has animated and energized the Sanders political revolution of 2016, thereby creating the impression in America, among both liberals and non-liberals, that liberalism is more or less interchangeable with left-wing or socialist ideas, albeit socialist ideas that have little relationship to socialism in the original sense of the term. This doesn’t mean that all American liberals are leftists. Many, if not most, American liberals w remain politically moderate, but the ideological energy of American liberalism seems now to be headed in a leftward direction. Years of ideological confusion have obliterated the distinction between liberalism and “leftism,” so that liberalism as an economic doctrine no longer stands for anything — in the American context — other than a demand for government intervention to reduce income equality, to raise wages, which is basically all that socialism now signifies. Disconnected from its historical origins and meaning, American liberalism now represents nothing more than a vague term more or less synonymous with an equally vague “socialism” whose meaning is no more definite than the sentimental message of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”



26 Responses to “How Liberalism in America Became Synonymous with its Antithesis”

  1. 1 Lars Christensen August 1, 2016 at 12:20 am


    Isn’t the confusion here that Americans of odd reasons insistent on calling socialists and interventionists “liberals”? Both the left and right (whatever that is) in the US think a liberal is some kind of interventionist.

    True liberals – meaning freedom-loving, limited government, pro-free trade and pro-tolerance – should reclaim the term liberal.

    Being against free trade is not a liberal position. In fact free trade is at the core of classical liberal thinking – from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill to Hayek and Friedman.

    Unfortunately, liberalism has disappeared in the US. There are two kind of interventionism – rightwing interventionism, which want to interfere with what people are doing in the their bedrooms and leftwing interventionism, which want to interfere with private property and the free exchange of goods and services.

    Both rightwing and leftwing interventionists in the US today share a common hatred of free trade and immigration. Both sides are far from being liberals in any sense.

    I hope that one day tolerant, free market, open borders liberalism will re-emerge as a force in the US because today fear, scaremongering and interventionism are at the centre of US political discourse.

    PS in Europe a liberal luckily still means liberal, but unfortunately we see the same interventionist tendencies on both the left and the right a the support for free trade and open borders is unfortunately also here under serious attack.


  2. 2 Hugo André August 1, 2016 at 7:00 am

    Mr Glasner, the usual argument (at least from American liberals) against TPP and TTIP concern the provisions that give companies strong legal positions versus governments as well as the extension of IP rights that the agreements would entail. Neither of these is directly related to free trade and it’s perfectly possible for a classical liberal to oppose both trade deals if he believes the gains from associated tariff reductions to be comparatively minor. The fact that many journalists ignore this subtle difference doesn’t mean US liberals would be opposed to a genuine free trading agreement.

    There also seems to be some confusion in your post about the meaning of socialism. During the last 80 years it has meant more or less the same thing as social democracy in Europe. In this context and since there hasn’t been any major socialist movement in the US, it makes sense for Bernie Sanders to use this epithet to describe his own program. Ironically, the European social democrats (epitomized in Germany and the Nordic countries) have generally been staunch supporters of free-trade.


  3. 3 Lord August 1, 2016 at 9:47 am

    It is all about marketing and the best way to promote something unpopular or denigrate some popular is to call it something it is not. Thus marketing protectionism had to be done by calling it free trade. This eventually loses all meaning since no one knows what someone else is talking about but isn’t all bad as people then have to talk concretely rather than abstractions and false marketing fails.


  4. 4 peterschaeffer August 1, 2016 at 9:52 am

    You are attaching to much importance to the word “liberal”. Famously, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) dominated Japanese politics for decades. Wags observed that the LDP was neither Liberal, Democratic, or a Party. The third part is probably wrong. The LDP was (is) a party.

    However, U.S. liberals are not 19th century British Liberals, nor should they be (in my opinion).

    British Liberals firmly supported free speech. Modern liberals are essentially intolerant of free speech (Political Correctness, Microagressions, Safe Spaces, Speech Codes, etc.)

    British Liberals opposed trade unions. Modern liberals are generally supportive.

    British Liberals opposed the welfare state. Modern liberals support the welfare state.

    British Liberals opposed racial identity politics. Modern liberals can’t imagine a word without identity politics (of all kind).

    The notion that 19th Century British Liberals were some kind of ideal strikes me as wrong. British Liberalism produced some of the greatest evils (not the greatest) in the history of the world.

    A typical quote from British Liberalism follows

    “Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade”

    The author of that quote (Sir John Bowring) practiced what he preached. When the Chinese resisted the British narcotics trade, he burned the Summer Palace to encourage them as to the wisdom of addiction.

    The Opium Wars were conducted in the name of “free trade”. They were an exercise in moral depravity. A decent book on the subject is titled “The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another”.

    A broader point is that 19th century England embraced “free trade”. The U.S. rejected “free trade”. The decline of England and the rise of the USA after 1850 would lead a reasonable person to question the merits of “free trade”.


  5. 5 peterschaeffer August 1, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Lars Christensen,

    The liberalism you espouse if fading because it is failing. Your version of liberalism has no answers for the problems Europe and the USA are facing. After the cologne assaults, the pro-Open Borders mayor of Cologne advocated using the Nazi salute (#einearmlänge) to fend off attackers.

    Do you really think this is sustainable?

    Just one example. I could provide thousands more.


  6. 6 FairLady August 1, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Thank you Dr Glasner for the historical explanation, which has cleared my longstanding confusion of the term ‘liberal’ . Yes, let’s drop the name calling (e.g., liberals, socialists, etc.) because as Dr. Glasner argues, the terms have evolved over time, and most importantly, the European experience from which the terms first came to be used is significantly different from the U.S. experience. Also, I think that the conflict before was landlords vs, merchants/business, and now, it is the business class vs. workers. So, in the 19th century, the merchants who wanted free trade were the liberals, and in today’s time in America, this merchants/business class are more aligned to the Republican Party (thought of as ‘conservative’, not ‘liberal’, but again, let’s drop the name-calling),


  7. 7 David Glasner August 1, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Lars, I think that most liberals share some common values, so I think that it would be a “mistake” to define liberalism in such a way that made it just moderate libertarianism. This post was motivated by the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I saw the articles about how Bernie Sanders’ supporters would be put off by Tim Kaine’s selection to run for Vice President because Kaine’s position on trade is not liberal enough: he supports trade deals. The idea that support for free trade means that you are not a liberal was just too hilarious for me to ignore. But as I started to write this post, I kept asking myself how liberals could have gotten to the point where supporting free trade means that someone is not a liberal. Nineteenth century British Liberals, especially Gladstone, were in many respects an admirable group of politicians, but they hardly lived up to your standards. Oscar Wilde was arrested and prosecuted in 1895 under the Liberal government of Lord Rosebery.

    Hugo, I have no problem with opposition to TPP based on its strengthening of the IP rights of American businesses. But my impression is that the opposition to TPP is fueled mainly by a desire to exclude foreign imports.

    If that impression is mistaken I will be happy to be corrected. I think that German Social Democratic Party did not abandon its Marxist and Socialist orientation until 1959, less than 60 years ago. But I agree that, the German Social Democratic Party has not been a traditional socialist party for a very long time. The French Socialist Party and the British Labour Party have had a more conflicted attitude toward socialism and social democracy. I don’t think it makes sense for Bernie Sanders to call himself a socialist except as a provocation, and his entire political career has been based on a desire to create such provocation. His success this year reflects the juvenile desire of American voters to be provoked themselves and to provoke others. And we are just starting to pay the price for this collective hissy fit. How high the price will ultimately be, heaven only knows.

    Lord, I agree that deceptive marketing is a really serious problem in both the commercial and the political marketplaces.

    Peter, I am trying not to attach too much importance to words. I am just noting anomalies in how words are being used and abused. Political correctness can be problematic, but that doesn’t justify abusive speech in the public arena. Yelling “political correctness” in response to criticism of indecent and abusive rhetoric and incitement is just as reprehensible as suppressing legitimate debate under the guise of “political correctness.” Both sides of this idiotic debate are just sloganeering.

    I seriously doubt that the quote “Free trade is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is free trade” is at all typical of British Liberalism. Obviously people invoke all kinds of high-minded principles when seeking to advance their own self-interest. British Liberals were just like everyone else in that respect, except that, on the whole, their principles were more admirable than average.

    Your point that free trade in the nineteenth century didn’t work out as well for England as protectionism did for the US is interesting, but it’s hard to have much confidence in a conclusion based on a data set that small.

    FairLady, Thanks so much for your comment.


  8. 8 Hugo André August 2, 2016 at 4:55 am

    David. That’s a reasonable interpretation although I’d argue that the anti-TPP movement would have been a lot less popular without the intellectual backing provided by these more sophisticated arguments.

    Re: Socialism, now you’ve forced me go rummage through a few history books. First of all I meant the 80 years as a rough estimate. The Swedish, Danish and Norwegian social democratic parties all developed much of their basic party program “based on socialist principles” during the early 1920’s which is more than 90 years ago.

    The doctrine that the state should be in control of all or most human factors of production (which most Europeans would call Communism) was represented in France by the Parti communiste français during the post-war period. The two socialist parties Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière(SFIO) and Parti Républicain Radical et Radical-Socialiste have consistently supported private property, at least post WW2. By imposing regulations on many markets, nationalizing certain industries, and greatly strengthening unions and worker representation the SFIO built a typical mixed economy which was still a long distance away from communism.

    The British Labour party have never even called themselves “Socialist” but they did rule the country for several intervals without ever trying to impose communism. A complication when it comes to British politics is their first past the post system which causes the big parties to include a very broad swathe of ideologies (including both socialists and communists).

    I won’t defend Sanders since I agree with your assessment but his anti-war stance and support for state interventionism put him in the same camp as European socialists.


  9. 9 Jason August 2, 2016 at 4:57 am

    Unfortunately, many protectionist and regulatory policies are included in “free trade” bills and promoted as “free trade”.

    When people oppose “free trade”, it’s hard to know what they are really objecting to….but it seems to me that much of the recent objection to “free trade” is over all the non-free trade stuff that had been rolled into the legislation.


  10. 10 peterschaeffer August 2, 2016 at 6:53 am


    “Thus marketing protectionism had to be done by calling it free trade.”

    I am not sure what period or context you are referring to. However, in U.S. economic history protectionism was marketed as protectionism. Quote from Abraham Lincoln.

    “In the days of Henry Clay, I was a Henry Clay-tariff-man and my views have undergone no material change on that subject,” wrote Abraham Lincoln in 1860.A campaign profile published in a Pennsylvania newspaper in February 1860 labeled Lincoln “a consistent and earnest tariff man from the first hour of his entering public.”When Lincoln announced his first candidacy for the state legislature in 1832, he reportedly said: “I am in favor of the internal improvement system and a high protective tariff. These are my sentiments and political principles.”Speaking in Pittsburgh on the way to Washington in February 1861, President-elect Lincoln said: “The tariff is to the government what a meal is to the family; but, while this is admitted, it still becomes necessary to modify and change its operations according to new interests and new circumstances.”


  11. 11 peterschaeffer August 2, 2016 at 7:03 am


    Another quote from a few decades later.

    President William McKinley

    “[They say] if you had not had the Protective Tariff things would be a little cheaper. Well, whether a thing is cheap or dear depends upon what we can earn by our daily labor. Free trade cheapens the product by cheapening the producer. Protection cheapens the product by elevating the producer. Under free trade the trader is the master and the producer the slave. Protection is but the law of nature, the law of self-preservation, of self-development, of securing the highest and best destiny of the race of man.”

    As you can see, protectionism was marketed as protectionism, not free trade.


  12. 12 David Glasner August 2, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Hugo, Fair enough, the Scandinavian socialist parties were in the vanguard of breaking free from orthodox socialism, and the German Social Democratic Party belatedly followed their example. The lesson I take from this is that “socialism” is now a very elastic label that can be applied to a very wide range of beliefs. I agree that even orthodox socialist parties have not always advocated the abolition of private ownership in all the means of production, but they did advocate a pretty substantial nationalization of large scale industry and financial institutions.That was the program on which Mitterand was elected President of France in 1981 only to abandon it less than half way into his first term.

    I think that my conjecture about the reason for the differences between American liberals and European liberals still stands. “Socialist” and “social democrat” were not respectable terms in the US, so those occupying the moderate “social democratic” space were the “liberals” and “progressives,” so their political program naturally included many of the same features characterizing social democratic political parties in Western European countries. Many “social democrats” have been free traders, but the connection between “social democracy” and free trade tends to be pragmatic while the historical connection between liberalism and free trade is very deeply rooted.

    Jason, I agree that characterizing these trade agreements as free trade is highly misleading, and I agree that the process of negotiating these agreements has become an open invitation for rent seeking.


  13. 13 jimhexis August 2, 2016 at 10:20 am

    The Hell of it is that we probably would benefit from a TPP, just not this TPP. Unfortunately, the political power of rent-seeking capital is so great that it is impossible to work towards a genuine free market at present where “free markets” have something to do with low tariffs and the free flow of goods and services instead of the hypertrophy of intellectual property rights and the promotion of the interests of multinationals over the interests of consumers and workers. Thing is, it’s damned hard to see how you break the power of the oligarchs without resorting to force or, at a minimum, chicanery since the political appeal that works is protectionism, ergo the neanderthal economic nationalism of Trump reverberates more loudly than the nuanced critique of the TPP you’ll find in Hillary’s position papers and, for that matter, in some of the speeches of Bernie Sanders.


  14. 14 AndrewK August 2, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    Very interesting post David. It made me consider the rise of ‘New Liberalism’ towards the end of the nineteenth century in Britain, which in many ways is an even more ‘left wing’ version of American liberalism today. As you note, the contrast between socialism and non-socialism in Europe (and indeed my own country, Australia), tended to push self-described ‘liberals’ to the right of the political spectrum as the twentieth century progressed. But in that period of, say 1890-1914, ‘liberalism’ was a viciously contested label, and the ‘classical liberalism’ of Cobden was losing out to the far more interventionist liberalism of people like T.H. Green and Leonard Hobhouse. (Hobhouse’s book ‘Liberalism’, published in 1911, is quite consistent with Bernie Sanders aspiration for ‘democratic socialism’).

    Similarly, the ‘liberals’ in Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century were strong protectionists. Indeed the three main parties were ‘Protectionists’, ‘Free Traders’ and the Labor Party. Generally it was the Protectionist Party that called themselves liberal and regarded the laissez-faire doctrine as a ‘conservative’ doctrine. However, the Free-Trade and Protectionist parties merged in 1909 to form the Commonwealth Liberal Party, which stood as an anti-socialist party to contrast itself with the Australian Labor Party. Today, the term liberal is considered a centre-right term. Consistent with your thesis!


  15. 15 acharn August 3, 2016 at 6:25 am

    I think the use of “free trade” to describe TPP/TTIP/TISA is a corruption of the language. Trade barriers are already extremely low. Supporters of TPP put out a list of something like 18,000 items that will have their tariffs reduces. American manufacturers will no longer have to pay a tariff on the shark’s fin soup they sell to Malaysia. Objections largely center around the protectionist extension of patents and copyrights, and the increase in corporate power to sue government for “perceived” loss of “anticipated” profits. I think this is related to the emerging push-back against corporate demands for arbitration agreements in all contracts, prohibiting resort to the courts or the regular legal system. Happily, some courts are beginning to recognize what an abuse this is.


  16. 16 Benjamin Cole August 3, 2016 at 7:15 am

    Still…isn’t free trade and open borders just a way to bash the employee-class in America, while sounding ideologically pure or classy about it?

    Why so little interest in the predations of property zoning or the criminalization of push-cart vending?


  17. 17 Tony Wikrent August 3, 2016 at 8:17 am

    At the time the United States was founded, no such thing as capitalism actually existed. Now, of course, there are many of an academic bent who would argue the point, but the fact is that the word “capitalism” would not come into general use until a half century after the ratification of the USA Constitution. Go ahead and find the text of the Constitution, and even The Federalist Papers, online, and search for the word. It’s simply not there.

    The Constitution contains a clause in which the federal government guarantees to the states a republican form of government. And we have a pledge of allegiance to “the republic” which is represented by the USA flag. So, what is a republic, and what is republicanism? I have become convinced that in many ways, capitalism is actually antithetical to republicanism. In fact, I have come to believe, from all I have read on these matters, that republicanism is actually quite conducive to socialism. So, the key historical question is: how did the American experiment in self-government evolve from republicanism, to the economic liberalism of modern day capitalism?

    European liberalism developed in part as opposition to the USA theory and practice of republicanism. This is especially true of the British school of political economy of Smith, Ricardo, and Malthus–i.e., economic liberalism– which was explicitly rejected as the basis of the USA economy by first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in his landmark reports to Congress on credit, banking, a mint, and manufactures, as well as his paper for President Washington on the Bank of the United States.

    Hamilton’s economic policies were not liberal, but mercantalist, and were designed with an active role by government in promoting and supporting economic and technological progress. But–and this is the crucial point–Hamilton’s mercantalism was a sharp break from the mercantalism of European states because of the Constitutional mandate that the government must promote the General Welfare.

    The Historical Context of Mercantilism, Republicanism, Liberalism and Neoliberalism


  18. 18 David Glasner August 3, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Jim, I agree that there are good non-protectionist reasons for opposing TPP. I don’t criticize anyone for opposing TPP; I just find it problematic when to be considered a liberal you have to be a protectionist.

    Andrew, I think Green and Hobhouse had significant influence on American liberals and progressives, and I think that their influence probably helped move the British Liberal party toward the more interventionist policies advocated by Lloyd George when he became leader of the Liberal Party. I wonder if there is a good historical account of the collapse of the Liberal Party after World War I.

    Thanks for the interesting historical background on the Australian Liberal Party, which seems pretty right wing.

    acharn, Thanks for the interesting details about TPP. Can you provide any examples of the court decisions you are referring to?

    Benjamin, No free trade and open borders are not just a way to bash the employee-class in America. I don’t think that the interests of workers, as workers, are sufficiently accounted for in theoretical welfare economics and in standard cost-benefit analyses, as I have written in my post “What’s so Great about Free Trade?” So I don’t dismiss the effects of trade on workers as some free traders do, but that doesn’t mean that all free trade does is harm workers. Same for the effects of immigration. Those effects are complex, and they are hard to disentangle. Property zoning is a real problem and I am certainly against criminalization of push-cart vending, just as I am against criminalization of non-legal (“illegal” is a pejorative misnomer, which invidiously connotes criminality as does the term “amnesty” when used in the context of immigration reform) immigration.


  19. 19 Davidw August 4, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    America is a big country. This is why liberals could sort of ignore trade issues and focus more on the liberal ideas of equality, and the emphasis on opportunity. I rather think that it became obvious to American liberals that capitalism could create it’s own aristocracy, and it’s own harsh inequality – and thus liberals gradually supported government solutions. And with trade being such a small part of GDP, no one much cared. Conservatives and liberals both love a Hamilton and Jefferson – and probably know nothing about their disparate views on trade.


  20. 20 peterschaeffer August 4, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Dr. Glasner,

    A number of notes

    “The idea that support for free trade means that you are not a liberal was just too hilarious for me to ignore.”

    It’s not hilarious at all. It’s reasonable and serious. Modern liberalism is not British 19th century liberalism and doesn’t claim to be. Modern liberalism rejects the ideas (laissez-faire capitalism) and the consequences (extreme inequality) that British 19th century liberalism enthusiastically supported.

    They may share the same word, they are not the same thing.

    The nation of Columbia provides a good example. The Columbian Liberal Party was originally a liberal (using the old British sense of the word) party and is now a liberal party (in the modern sense of the word). From Wikipedia

    “The Colombian Liberal Party (Spanish: Partido Liberal Colombiano; PLC) is a social-democratic political party in Colombia. It was originally founded as a liberal party, but later developed into a more social-democratic direction, joining the Socialist International in 1999.”

    To put this in perspective, in 1982 Pablo Escobar (yes, that Pablo Escobar) was elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia as a CLP candidate. Presumably, 19th century British liberals would not have welcomed Pablo as a one of their candidates.

    It is naïve to view Political Correctness (PC) as some sort of antidote to “abusive speech in the public arena”. PC is a comprehensive system of authoritarian thought control that exists to exclude non-PC ideas from the public arena, no matter how innocently they are expressed and no matter if they are well-supported by facts. Note that PC has been highly successful to date in achieving its goals of censorship, oppression, etc.

    There are numerous examples of this. However, the pseudo-Stalinist show trial of Larry Summers (roughly derived from Saletan, Parker, Taylor, and others) is one of the best example. Larry Summers’s comments to the NBER conference were a model of legitimate, highly rational, scientific, academic discourse (read them in the original). For daring to mention (part of) what science knows he was pilloried around the world and driven from office. His subsequent recantations and groveling apologies would have made a communist show-trial judge proud.

    Of course, I could provide numerous similar example of PC authoritarian abuse all over the (Western) world. The issue isn’t “abusive speech in the public arena”, but ideological suppression of anyone who dares to deviate from PC orthodoxly. Indeed, a well-known liberal, Jonathan Chait, wrote an article on the subject.

    “Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now? – How the language police are perverting liberalism”

    The entire article is excellent. However, one quote should make it all too clear what PC is about

    “Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible”

    See also “Does Political Correctness Work?” (

    However, the issue here go further. Let’s say that PC only objected to “abusive speech in the public arena”. That’s not true (at all). But let’s say it was true. So what? Charlie Hebdo has no right to satirize Islamists? Didn’t Voltaire say “I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It”? What exactly is “abusive speech”? The church regarded Galileo’s claims as “abusive speech”. Was the church right to suppress Galileo? Today’s “abusive speech” may well be tomorrow’s truth. How can any society hope to find truth without allowing dissenting opinions?

    For better or worse

    ““Free trade is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is free trade””

    Was quite representative of British Liberal opinion. Bowring is noted as being more devout than the median for the period. His opinion on free trade were quite “conventional” for British liberals of the period.

    Here is Palmerston on tariffs and slavery.

    “We do not like slavery,” said Palmerston to Adams, “but we want cotton, and we dislike very much your Morrill tariff.”

    As you can see, Palmerston regarded tariffs (the Morrill tariff) as being more offensive than slavery. He was not alone. Dickens (yes, that Dickens) embraced the Confederacy (for a while) because he viewed tariffs as more odious than slavery (see

    Note that Gladstone very publically endorsed the Confederacy. He was, unfortunately, a typical British liberal in the 19th century.

    America’s success with tariffs compared to England’s failure with free trade is just one data point. The 19th century successes of Japan and Germany are two more. More recently, a Korean economist (Ha-Joon Chang) has shown that trade restriction has been a key component of economic success throughout Asia (notably South Korea and China)

    See “Bad Samaritans – The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism”

    Of course, the applicability of Ha-Joon Chang’s work to the USA can always be debated. That said, the overall performance of the U.S. economy has declined, since the U.S. adopted “free trade” (neoliberalism more generally). All of the statistics show that slow grow, rising deficits (notably the trade deficit), falling median incomes, declining LFP, rising inequality, etc. since NAFTA. Of course, the explosion of high-end incomes undoubtedly accounts for the popularity of polices that have overtly failed America as a whole.


  21. 21 peterschaeffer August 5, 2016 at 8:52 am

    “Illegal” is a statement of fact. We have immigration laws. If you have violate them, you have done something illegal. Sort of like robbery, assault and battery, and arson. These acts are violations of the law. They are illegal. Stealing a car is illegal. If you steal a car and drive it, you are an illegal driver. If you rob a bank, you are a criminal. Calling car thieves and bank robbers criminals (illegals) isn’t pejorative, it’s simply a statement of fact.

    The fact that calling illegals, “illegals”, is now deemed to be non-PC (offensive even) is a classic example of how PC is used to censor honest discussion of the issues facing America.

    Of course, everyone knows this. If illegals weren’t violating U.S. laws, why would anyone be trying to provide Amnesty for them? Why would any legalization be needed? The fact that the advocates of Amnesty demand “legalization” proves that “illegals”, are in fact illegal.

    Please observe that ”illegal” is not just a generic statement. Illegally entering the U.S. is a Federal crime (see below). Illegally residing in the U.S. (even after legally entering) is a Federal civil offense (deportation is the stated penalty). Of course, documentation fraud, Social Security fraud, identify theft, etc. are all Federal crimes and the vast majority of illegals have violated these laws.

    Note that even “illegal immigrant” is an oxymoron. Under U.S. law, immigrants are defined as legal non-citizen residents of our country. You can not be an “illegal immigrant”. The correct term is “illegal alien”.

    See Box 1 on page 3 of “Immigration Policy in the United States”

    “Immigrant refers to an alien lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence; such people also may be referred to as lawful permanent residents.”

    CBO obtained the definitions from Department of Homeland Security’s
    Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

    Also note that 8 U.S.C. § 1325 : US Code – Section 1325: Improper entry by alien describes persons illegally crossing our borders as “aliens” not “immigrants”.

    “(a) Improper time or place; avoidance of examination or inspection; misrepresentation and concealment of facts
    Any alien who (1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or (3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact, shall, for the first
    commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both, and, for a subsequent commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.”

    Also see Section 274A. [8 U.S.C. 1324a] states

    “As used in this section, the term “unauthorized alien” means, with respect to the employment of an alien at a particular time, that the alien is not at that time either (A) an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence, or (B) authorized to be so employed by this Act or by the Attorney General.”


  22. 22 Thanos August 12, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    This is a very interesting article. I think that also in Europe many people who supported Classical liberalism in the beginning of the 20th century decided to vote for the Conservative parties or the Labour/Social Democratic parties. Classical liberals could not find quick solutions to the problems of recessions and the problems that workers faced. So, many Classical liberal voters decided to switch parties and other became Consevatives and others Socialists. Here in Europe many people still use the term “liberal” with the meaning it had 2 centuries ago. But nowadays many people also associate this term with European Conservatism!!!!


  1. 1 How support for free-trade does not mean liberalism anymore.. | Mostly Economics Trackback on August 1, 2016 at 3:03 am
  2. 2 On Liberalism, Political Correctness, and Illegal Immigration | Uneasy Money Trackback on August 8, 2016 at 2:27 pm
  3. 3 2:00PM Water Cooler 8/2/2016 – BitBrowse Trackback on January 10, 2017 at 1:23 am
  4. 4 Website Trackback on June 4, 2018 at 12:12 am

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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey’s unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

My new book Studies in the History of Monetary Theory: Controversies and Clarifications has been published by Palgrave Macmillan

Follow me on Twitter @david_glasner


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