Wednesday 6 May 2015

The Death of Classical Liberalism

Classical Liberalism believed in personal freedom, in personal rights and in Laissez faire economics. The idea that Government should allow business as much freedom as it likes. It's no coincidence that such an economic policy lead to the rise of Unions and Socialism. But Classical Liberalism was the political philosophy of the Victorian age, in Britain and France, the low Countries and Scandinavia, the United States and what came to be called the Dominions (Canada, Australia etc.). By the 1950's it was the dominate political philosophy, with only Communism as a serious rival. Then at the height of it's power it fractured into Right Liberalism, Left Liberalism and Feminism. What caused it to fracture and why did it fracture into those 3 factions?

First lets take a step back, Classical Liberalism looks quite Conservative compared to the Liberalism we are used too these days, and many who remain Classical Liberals call themselves Conservatives, but they are Liberals not Conservatives and we must always remember that.

In the Victorian age, Classical Liberalism was a way for the Middle class, particularly the rising nouveau riches (French for new rich), to make a claim on politics. It was a way of announcing their arrival as a new and powerful political player, because before the Victorian age most did not have political power, nor did most have the right to vote. This class wanted to be free from Government interference, free to do as they liked and free to make money as they saw fit. Not without restraint, they still believed in restraint but of a moral and personal nature, Governments role was only to do what the individual or business could not or should not do. In many ways what it believed is Conservative, but the sense that we are all in this together was rejected, every man for himself. It also rejected tradition and hierarchy as they stopped the everyman from rising, as they saw it, to his best.

But the rise of Classical Liberalism was at the expense of the Aristocracy and the Working class, both urban and rural. Because it believed in the self made man, that each man should be free to make his own way in the world and that he shouldn't be held back by social class or origin. They believed in merit, not in being born into a role, but in the best man for the job. Each generation inventing itself. And while most Classical Liberals would say they reject the idea, in reality they believe in Leveling, in the idea that there should only be one social class and that all men should be equal. That the Upper class and the Working class are in a sense illegitimate and that they should cease to exist and become one with the Middle class, the natural class.

It is this class aspect which saw the rise of Unions and Socialism, to oppose the rise of Classical Liberalism, and over time they merged. This joining together was often called Progressivism. Still supporting Classical Liberalism, unless it attacked the Working class. If it did then they supported the Working class instead. Here was an attempt to reconcile two very different philosophies and for a while it worked. But it fell victim to the idea that it was always compromising, that it didn't really stand for anything. But slowly Socialism did seep into Classical Liberalism.

The First World War was a major challenge as Classical Liberalism needed all the help it could get to win. It is during this war that Socialism was given support, a kind of war Socialism was adopted. Rationing, the compulsory acquisition of goods, compulsory control of money, foreign trade and the economy, compulsory military and industrial service, and the leveling of the sexes and social classes, everyone is in this together. People asked, not unreasonably, if it worked to win the war why couldn't Socialism, or at least some kind of Socialism work to solve the problems of peace. The Russian Revolution stopped alot of people from being too enthusiastic, while encouraging others. The Great Depression pushed these ideas even further. It challenged the idea that Classical Liberalism had all the answers and it created divisions within Liberalism on how best to solve this problem.

Finally the Cold War put the final nail into the coffin of Classical Liberalism. The choice between Socialism and Capitalism was now stark. Should the Government control the entire economy as Communism said, or should the Government have a more limited role? How limited? It was on this final point, how limited, that Classical Liberalism crashed and broke apart.

It split in 3, those still interested in Liberal economics became Right-Liberals or economic Liberals, also known as Dry's, they rejected Socialism utterly. Those interested in society came to believe in identity politics, infused with both the ideas of a Liberal society and the ideals of a Socialist society. They came to ignore economics and concentrate on society becoming Left-Liberals or Social Liberals. Finally a third group also split, one that had been part of Liberalism for over a century, Feminism. But now Feminism wasn't restrained by being a part of Classical Liberalism, it no longer had to seem respectable to married men. It became more radical now also infused with Socialist ideas.

In the 1950's hardly anyone noticed the split, it was only in the 1960's that it really became noticeable. It is why the 1960's were so radical and it demonstrates why Conservatives always opposed Classical Liberalism, we always knew that it couldn't stand still that it would continue to change and that it started radical and it always would be and so it continues to be, Liberalism, the most radical of all the political philosophies.

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  1. I would put the death of classical liberalism as being replaced with "social liberalism", or what we call left-liberalism or social democracy.

    The 1918 UK election was the clean break, the US got the same in 1964.

    The right liberals, also known as "national liberals" or in the UK, "liberal unionists", no longer need that name because they have replaced the genuine conservatives in the right-wing parties.

    I disagree with you that conservatives have always opposed classical liberalism though, too often we let their camels nose in the tent. The above mentioned "Liberal Unionists" were let in as a quick fix to regain political power. The true opposition to classical liberalism is that it denies hierarchy, which will forever be a limited constituency. How many of us truly love Prince Charles?

    Of course, you in Australia have it easier, your Liberal Party admits what it really is in the name.

  2. Dear Pond Observer

    A 50 year difference doesn't strike me as credible, although if you had said Socialism I would agree. Britain has a rich history of Socialism were as Americas is very spotty at best. Of course Socialism and Liberalism have been mutually supporting philosophies.

    Conservatives have always opposed Liberalism, sadly Right Liberals have also, and are still also called Conservatives. That contaminates the Conservative brand, so much that some Conservatives want to leave it all together.

    It is easier that our Liberal Party was more honest, although everyone still refers to it as a Conservative party!...Annoyingly.

    Mark Moncrieff

  3. Mark

    The 50 year difference is when the left-of-center party became "left-liberal". In 1918 the UK Liberals were reduced to a third party and Labour became the new left-wing major party. In the US the Democrats retained a Southern conservative wing that controlled the Democrats in Congress until 1964 when LBJ and northern liberals won a landslide.

    You are correct that Britain has an open history of socialism from the Labour Party, but in America we did have a Socialist Party in the Midwestern cities around the turn of the century. The Party did not achieve much success outside of Milwaukee, but it's descendent the United Auto Workers was arguably the third most important political actor until after the Vietnam War.

    I see the key elections as distinct because while both the UK and US nationalized some industries in WWI, the US government shrunk in the 1920s, and FDR was never able to implement his "Second Bill of Rights". The UK equivalent to the Great Society was created in the 1920s under MacDonald. The US entitlements weren't created until after 1964. A stroke of luck for the US as we escaped post-WWII nationalization.

    Interestingly, Harry Truman attempted nationalizations, but he had no support in Congress. It was the only time the Supreme Court overturned a Presidential "Executive Order".

    I see socialism as the pilot fish of liberalism's shark. Liberal economies produce the wealth to finance welfare statism. I do typically think that it's not full Socialism unless you have state owned industries, like the UK's NHS. That kind of Socialism has been in decline since the 1970s, what we have is social democracy.

  4. Dear Pond Observer

    While there is nothing incorrect with what you've written, I still have a problem with the 50 year gap. My problem is that the two Roosevelt's Fair Deal and the New Deal were at base Socialist. Thats not to say they were bad, they had both good and bad aspects but they happened a long time before 1964.

    Socialism in America has a limited, but surprising, history. Liberalism however has a very long history in America, going back to before the American Revolution.

    Full Socialism is only possible under Communism, in any other political and economic system it is only part of the whole.

    Mark Moncrieff