Posts Tagged 'Richard Cobden'

On Liberalism, Political Correctness, and Illegal Immigration

Last week I wrote a post about criticism by some left-wing liberals of Tim Kaine. My post elicited a series of comments from Peter Schaeffer. I responded to his first comment in the comment section, and he has followed up with some further comments, which raise a number of important issues, partly historical and partly philosophical. While his comments are in some respects insightful, I think that are also very misguided. But it is certainly the case that many of the positions he takes are rather widely held, including by some well-known public figures, so I think that they are worth responding to. So even though some of what Peter and I disagree about are fairly obscure matters of British and American history, I think that it is worth taking the time to respond to most of Peter’s comments.

Peter begins by challenging the main point of my previous post, which was that the attacks on Tim Kaine for being insufficiently liberal, owing to Kaine’s support for free trade, were historically anomalous and ignorant, liberalism having originated in Britain as a political party and political ideology in the course of the mid-19th century struggle over free trade, in which liberals were the advocates for free trade. Peter takes issue with a comment I made in reply to Lars Christensen’s comment on my post. I wrote:

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

To which Peter responded:

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.

I am fully aware that modern liberalism and 19th century liberalism are not the same thing; much of my post was devoted to explaining why modern American liberalism moved away from 19th century liberalism. But the differences don’t mean that they are totally unrelated and have nothing in common. John Stuart Mill, unmentioned by Peter, was an exemplar of 19th century liberalism, and he surely was not indifferent to the extreme inequality resulting from pure laissez-faire capitalism. Nor did I deny that it is possible to be a liberal and oppose free trade. All I said was that it is a stretch to say that if you support free trade, you can’t be a liberal, which seemed to be the message of the “liberal” opponents of Tim Kaine.

Peter continued:

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).

What point Peter is trying to make by citing the not very relevant or interesting (WADR) example of the obviously dysfunctional Columbian Liberal Party escapes me. And Peter goes on to show exactly how dysfunctional the party is by providing the following bit of historical trivia.

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 one of their candidates.

To which all I can say is: OMG! Perhaps, Peter would like to identify for us which liberals, other than the dysfunctional Columbian ones, he thinks would have welcomed such a one Pablo as a candidate.

From his confusing musings about the squalid state of Columbian liberalism, Peter moves on to a bitter attack on 19th century British Liberalism, accusing the Liberals of having been supportive of slavery and the South in the Civil War. He cites, as he has previously, the remarkable statement by a 19th-century British politician and diplomat, Charles Bowring (whose obscurity can be inferred his absence in the index of Morely’s three volume biography of Gladstone): “Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.”

To show that this weird formulation was somehow typical of British Liberals, Peter cites Lord Palmerston, the Liberal Prime Minister during the American Civil War, who complained to Charles Francis Adams (US ambassador to Britain) about the Morril tariff, from which Peter infers that tariffs were more hateful to the British Liberals than was slavery. Peter also cites Gladstone as a Liberal supporter of secession. In fact, Palmerston and all the British Liberals were opposed to slavery. However, Palmerston believed that the national interests of Britain might be better served (Britain First?) if the Confederate States were to secede from the Union. It is true that Gladstone made a speech in 1862 in which he suggested that the early military successes of the Confederacy meant that the South had succeeded in creating a new nation, and that it might be best to acknowledge that reality. Gladstone later regretted that this speech, calling the speech “an undoubted error, the most singular and palpable, I may add the least excusable of them all. In the autumn of that year [1862] . . . I declared in the heat of the American struggle that Jefferson Davis had made a nation, that is to say, that the division of the American Republic by the establishment of a Southern or secession state was an accomplished fact. Strange to say, this declaration, most unwarrantable to be made by a minister of the crown with no authority other than his own, was not due to any feeling of partisanship for the South or hostility to the North.” J. Morely, Life of Gladstone, vol. 2, p. 81).

In addition, both Richard Cobden and John Bright, the two leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, and the most fervent British supporters of free trade, were both equally fervent supporters of the Union. And I just found this 2013 article by Bill Cash, author of a recent biography of Bright showing that Lincoln and Bright were united by common ideals and deep mutual admiration.

For those who have seen the brilliant film Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis, you may have noticed in the scenes set within the study that there was a photograph in the left hand corner of the mantelpiece of a great British statesman, John Bright. I have that exact photograph in my personal collection, as described in my book, John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator (IB Tauris, 2011). Bright was the leading advocate in Britain against slavery throughout the American Civil War and who was highly esteemed by Abraham Lincoln for his advocacy in the run up to the Emancipation Proclamation – which had its 150th anniversary on 1 January, 2013.

During the course of the American Civil War, Bright had devoted all his energies to protecting his beloved American democracy – a key influence on his own campaigns for parliamentary reform – centring his arguments on the moral repugnance of slavery. In this, he had the support of the workers at his own cotton mill in Rochdale who, even when impoverished during the cotton famine caused by the war, refused to accept Southern slave-grown cotton. Yet, the relationship between Bright and Lincoln was not merely a real influence on Lincoln himself but on the history of the civil war and the relationship between Britain and America from that time on and still today.

When Steven Spielberg and Day-Lewis were interviewed on television about the film, both of them revealed that what had fascinated them, as much as everything else, was the mind of Abraham Lincoln. And what the photograph in the film represented was the extent to which Lincoln himself paid his own tribute to Bright.

It was testimony to Bright’s influence that Schuyler Colfax (who, as those who have watched the film will have seen for themselves voted for the constitutional amendment in 1865) and Henry Janney – both of whom were confidants of Lincoln – wrote to Bright after the assassination telling him that his portrait and only his portrait was in President Lincoln’s reception room. Lincoln had sent two portraits of himself to Bright, and of the two portraits hanging in Lincoln’s own office, one was of Bright.

Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote to Bright in 1866, requesting a likeness of Bright, saying, “Your face is quite familiar to me already, as your portrait hung up in President Lincoln’s Reception room, and often, in the many evenings I spent with him there, he referred to you with sincere regard & even affection. Every loyal man & woman in the land knows you, knows you and esteems you. But your correspondence with Senator Sumner, whom I often meet (& we often talk about you, you may be assured) has informed you of all this.”

A letter from another of the confidants of Lincoln, Henry Janney (dated 24 April, 1865, immediately after the assassination), wrote to Bright relating how he “told the President I had a letter from thee and he requested me to bring it up and let him see it, saying, ‘I love to read the letters of Mr Bright.’ I complied, when he read carefully every word, then remarked to those around him, ‘my friend has show me a letter from Mr Bright. I believe he is the only British statesman who has been unfaltering in his confidence in our ultimate success – look there.’ I stepped up to the wall and seeing a familiar face read beneath it John Bright MP. It was the only portrait in the room.”

It is perhaps, then, no surprise that a long-standing testimonial from Bright calling for Lincoln’s re-election was found in Lincoln’s pocket when they were emptied immediately after his assassination. Bright was known to Lincoln’s intimate friends as greatly influencing the president’s mind.

In the midst of his anti-liberal tirade, Peter suddenly dives into a discussion of political correctness, possibly in reply something I wrote in response to his disparagement of the support that modern liberals lend to political correctness. Here’s what I said:

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 thought that was a pretty clear statement of opposition to attempts to shut down debate in the name of political correctness; I was just pointing out that abusive and indecent speech cannot be justified or exempted from appropriate expressions of disapproval by the bare assertion that the speaker was merely objecting to political correctness. But Peter doesn’t see it that way:

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.

Peter seems to imply that I believe that Political Correctness is an antidote to “abusive speech in the public arena,” but what I said was that abusive speech cannot be justified as an antidote to, or protest against, Political Correctness. Big difference – but, apparently, not big enough for Peter to grasp. Peter then goes on to cite the case of Larry Summers, who was subjected to considerable public criticism for his comments at an academic conference about the reasons for the under-representation of women in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.

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.

The first thing to notice about Peter’s comment is his Freudian slip in referring to the “pseudo-Stalinist show trial of Larry Summers” when the Slate article by William Saletan to which Peter refers was titled “The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers.” And the second thing is that Kathleen Parker’s column about the rescinding of an invitation by the University of California to Summers to deliver a commencement address compared Summers’s treatment to McCarthyism not to Stalinism. I disapprove of how Summers was forced out of his position as President of Harvard, in part owing to his comments on the reasons for the under-representation of women in the sciences and engineering at top universities and research institutions. But to compare Summers’s treatment to Stalinist oppression is so far over the top that one has to wonder about Peter’s grasp on reality.

Certainly it was embarrassing for Summers to be subjected to verbal abuse and unjustified accusations of prejudice against women. He was also compelled to apologize more abjectly for his remarks than the substance of those remarks warranted. I don’t dismiss the possibility that discrimination is one factor in explaining the paucity of tenured female faculty in the sciences and engineering at top universities, and I can see why Summers’s remarks could have been misunderstood to deny that such discrimination is a factor reducing the number of females in those positions. But after being forced out of his position at Harvard – and his remarks about women were only one factor in turning the Harvard faculty against Summers – Summers received a quite lucrative severance package as well as an appointment as the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard. It was hardly to the credit of the University of California to rescind its invitation to Summers to deliver a commencement speech, but to suggest that such an action rises to the level of McCarthyism, much less Stalinism, is simply laughable.

If you want to know what Stalinism really looks like, read this article in Saturday’s New York Times about the recent show trials of four Chinese human-rights activists who were compelled to read self-denunciations in court after being convicted of subversive activities in promoting human rights and civil society.

BEIJING — Chinese lawyers and rights activists appeared in televised trials throughout this week in what seemed to be a new, more public phase of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to cleanse the country of liberal ideas and activism.

Legal experts and supporters of four defendants denounced the hearings, held on consecutive days in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, as grotesque show trials. All four men were shown meekly renouncing their activist pasts and urging people to guard against sinister forces threatening the Communist Party, before they were convicted and sentenced.

But for the government, the trials served a broader political purpose.

By airing the abject confessions and accusations of a sweeping, conspiratorial antiparty coalition, Mr. Xi’s administration was “putting civil society in all its forms on trial, and vilifying them as an anti-China plot,” Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said in emailed comments.

I don’t defend what was done to Summers, but the way that Summers was treated pales in comparison to what was done to those four brave Chinese activists. Peter continues:

The issue isn’t “abusive speech in the public arena”, but ideological suppression of anyone who dares to deviate from PC orthodoxy.

To restate the obvious yet again, I condemn the ideological suppression of opinions that deviate from PC orthodoxy. But waving the flag of opposition to PC orthodoxy does not give anyone a free pass to engage in abusive speech in the public arena. Which is exactly what abusive speakers are doing nowadays to evade responsibility for their abuse and their threats. Peter goes on to cite an excellent article by Jonathan Chait chastising liberals for siding with the PC police. And Chait makes the valid point that anti-liberal right-wingers and misguided liberals and leftists are all happy to conflate liberalism with left-wing ideology, ignoring the key difference between liberalism and left-wing ideology, which is that liberalism holds that there are certain neutral principles that take precedence over specific objectives and concrete outcomes. Or stated differently, liberalism stands for the idea that it’s not only the ends that people are trying to achieve that matters, it’s also the means that they use to achieve those ends that matters. Certain means are illegitimate no matter how noble the ends. One might have thought that this would satisfy Peter, but it doesn’t.

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?

Peter seems unable to grasp even basic distinctions. I can express disapproval of Charlie Hebdo without banning it, or tolerating, much less justifying, terrorist attack against the magazine and its staff. Being against abusive speech does not mean suppressing it; it means that those who practice abusive speech should be just as subject to criticism as is everyone else who ventures to expose his thoughts to public scrutiny. When you express an opinion, both the substance of the opinion and the manner in which you express it are legitimately subject to criticism. Trying to shield yourself from criticism by saying that you are being anti-PC is nothing but a dodge and a scam. And to suggest preposterously that Galileo was imprisoned for abusive speech is just a travesty. Legitimate criticism of the way in which an argument is presented is not the same as suppressing the opinion.

In a further comment, Peter responds to something I wrote in response to Benjamin Cole’s comment. I wrote:

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.

Peter wrote:

“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.

“Illegal” is a statement of fact only insofar as there are statutes that declare immigration not in compliance with the statutorily established procedures for immigration to be illegal. But that doesn’t mean that illegal immigration is no different from robbery, theft, fraud, assault, battery, and arson. Robbery, theft, fraud, assault, battery, and arson are common law offenses. The act of immigration is not in and of itself a criminal, destructive, or anti-social act. Intrinsically destructive and anti-social acts are common law crimes even without a statutorily created offense. Illegal immigration is a crime only because statutes declare it to be such, not because any aspect of immigration is presumptively illegal. So the analogy between immigration and offenses at common law is completely false, without merit, pejorative, and invidious.

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.

No, Peter, you are insisting that your narrative is factual and that mine is PC and censorious. So we are having an argument about how to describe the fact that people who cross a certain international border without complying with the procedures established for such crossings to be lawful are subject to punitive consequences for failing to comply with the prescribed procedures. You are simply invoking PC as a way of trying to get the upper hand in this discussion about a given factual situation. But PC is a completely irrelevant red-herring. Stick to the facts. And the fact is that, unlike robbery, theft, etc., immigration, i.e., crossing an international border, is not an offense at common law. Amnesty is your term. It implies that there was an offense, but the only offense was non-compliance with an administrative procedure specified by an arbitrary statute. There was no offense at common law, as you yourself acknowledge below. There is a huge difference between an amnesty for a technical administrative violation and an amnesty for offenses at common law.

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.

Peter, you confirm that illegally residing in the US is not a criminal offense even under US law. And your further comments about the definition of “immigrant” under US immigration statutes do not change the fact that there is nothing inherently criminal or offensive about illegal immigration, and that the criminal status of illegal immigrants is the result of the administrative system created by US immigration policy, not the offensive nature of the actions of those who enter or remain in the US in violation of those administrative regulations.

I don’t dispute that the US, as a sovereign state, has the right to establish such regulations, but those regulations have no inherent moral content, as do common law offenses. They are purely utilitarian. And any assessment of how those regulations are being implemented, administered or modified should be made strictly on the basis of how the system as a whole contributes to or detracts from the benefit of the people of the US. And as I indicated in my reply to Benjamin’s comment, it is difficult to disentangle the effects that immigrants have on the well-being of current residents and citizens of the US. Platitudes about upholding the rule of law are simply question-begging when, unlike the basic laws of just conduct, the immigration laws in question have no moral content, but are merely instruments for achieving the goals of the current immigration policy of the US.

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.”

 


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.

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