What Is Liberalism About?

Rafe Champion writes:

[Mirowski] offers a list of eleven tenets of neoliberalism. Some of them are very strange. 1. “The starting point of neoliberalism is the admission, contrary to classical liberal doctrine, that their version of the good society will triumph only if the becomes reconciled to the fact that the conditions for its existence must be constructed and will not come about ‘naturally’ in the absence of concerted political effort and organization”.

This is supposed to hint at contradiction but laissez faire liberalism did not preclude state action in the form of “construction’, meaning piecemal experiments and instiutional reforms to control the use of force and fraud, to adminster police systems, courts and the laws of the land. It is like the no brainer that Hayek was opposed to planning, so he had to explain that planning is something that people do all the time, the objection is to holisistic or collectivist planning by the state.

Mirowski is differentiating between the wrong things. He considers “natural” vs “unnatural” construction. But what is natural, and anyway who cares? Laissez faire liberalism (hereafter just called liberalism) has never been about what is about “natural”.

What liberalism really cares about is force. It cares about voluntary vs involuntary. I think it’s sad how many people don’t see the difference between voluntary and involuntary as one worth paying attention to. But more to the point, if you want to discuss any kind of classical liberalism you have to understand this issue. Liberalism makes force, or voluntary vs involuntary, a central part of its worldview, so blindness to it leads to severe misunderstandings.

Here, Mirowski is offereing a “neoliberal” criticism of liberalism which is that it rules out “concerted political effort and organization” because that is unnatural. But liberalism has no objection to “concerted political effort and organization” in general, so this doesn’t make sense. What liberalism does object to is Government, but for a different reason: because the Government uses force.

The somewhat similar criticism of liberalism that would make more sense is: the government is not purely voluntary, therefore all government action is incompatible with liberalism.

That is true except it should read “ultimately incompatible”. In other words, consistent liberals should believe in anarcho capitalism as a long term goal. But, well, so what? I do. Others do. Some don’t, but that’s not a problem with liberal ideas themselves.

In the meantime, we should improve things, and there’s nothing inconsistent about taking steps which don’t immediately arrive at perfection. Those steps should include not only reducing the size, scope, and coerciveness of Government, but also using Government and other present day institutions to do good things. We should do good using the best tools we have so far even if we know those tools contain some flaws; that’s not inconsistent.

When Rafe says state action isn’t precluded, I’m not sure if he has in mind something similar to what I said, if he has an objection to anarcho capitalism, or something else.

About Elliot

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2 Responses to What Is Liberalism About?

  1. Rafe says:

    At the risk of being boring and not advancing the discussion, I think I fully agree with Elliot about the ultimate aim of anarcho-capitalism and in the meantime aiming for the minimum state, doing whatever good things it can.
    Jan Lester’s book Escape from Leviathan converted me over the the zero state in principle.

  2. Elliot says:

    I was converted by _The Machinery of Freedom_ by David Friedman.

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