Whither (Wither) Classical Liberalism — and America?

John O. McGinnis, in “The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism“, bemoans the state of the ideology which was born in the Enlightenment, came to maturity in the writings of J.S. Mill, had its identity stolen by modern “liberalism”, and was reborn (in the U.S.) as the leading variety of libertarianism (i.e., minarchism). McGinnis says, for example that

the greatest danger to classical liberalism is the sharp left turn of the Democratic Party. This has been the greatest ideological change of any party since at least the Goldwater revolution in the Republican Party more than a half a century ago….

It is certainly possible that such candidates [as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg] will lose to Joe Biden or that they will not win against Trump. But they are transforming the Democratic Party just as Goldwater did the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party will win the presidency at some time in the future. Recessions and voter fatigue guarantee rotation of parties in office….

Old ideas of individual liberty are under threat in the culture as well. On the left, identity politics continues its relentless rise, particularly on university campuses. For instance, history departments, like that at my own university, hire almost exclusively those who promise to impose a gender, race, or colonial perspective on the past. The history that our students hear will be one focused on the West’s oppression of the rest rather than the reality that its creation of the institutions of free markets and free thought has brought billions of people out of poverty and tyranny that was their lot before….

And perhaps most worrying of all, both the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good. Previously, pressure on classical liberalism most often occurred when times were bad. The global trend to more centralized forms of government and indeed totalitarian ones in Europe occurred in the 1920s and 1930s in the midst of a global depression. The turbulent 1960s with its celebration of social disorder came during a period of hard economic times. Moreover, in the United States, young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose.

But today the economy is good, the best it has been in at least a decade. Unemployment is at a historical low. Wages are up along with the stock market. No Americans are dying in a major war. And yet both here and abroad parties that want to fundamentally shackle the market economy are gaining more adherents. If classical liberalism seems embattled now, its prospects are likely far worse in the next economic downturn or crisis of national security.

McGinnis is wrong about the 1960s being “a period of hard economic times” — in America, at least. The business cycle that began in 1960 and ended in 1970 produced the second-highest rate of growth in real GDP since the end of World War II. (The 1949-1954 cycle produced the highest rate of growth.)

But in being wrong about that non-trivial fact, McGinnis inadvertently points to the reason that “the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good”. The reason is symbolized by main cause of social disorder in the 1960s (and into the early 1970s), namely, that “young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose”.

The craven behavior of supposedly responsible adults like LBJ, Walter Cronkite, Clark Kerr, and many other well-known political, media, educational, and cultural leaders — who allowed themselves to be bullied by essentially selfish protests against the Vietnam War — revealed the greatest failing of the so-called greatest generation: a widespread failure to inculcate personal responsibility in their children. The same craven behavior legitimated the now-dominant tool of political manipulation: massive, boisterous, emotion-laden appeals for this, that, and the other privilege du jour — appeals that left-wing politicians encourage and often lead; appeals that nominal conservatives often accede to rather than seem “mean”.

The “greatest” generation spawned the first generation of the spoiled children of capitalism:

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it. And, sadly, they passed their principles, if one may use the term so loosely, down the generations to the point where young people today are scarcely worth using for fertilizer.

In 1919, or 1929, or especially 1939, the adolescents of 1969 would have had neither the leisure nor the money to create the Woodstock Nation. But mommy and daddy shelled out because they didn’t want their little darlings to be caught short, and consequently their little darlings became the worthless whiners who voted for people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama [and who Bill Clinton and Barack Obama], with results as you see them. Now that history is catching up to them, a third generation of losers can think of nothing better to do than camp out on Wall Street in hopes that the Cargo will suddenly begin to arrive again.

Good luck with that.

[From “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism”, posted in October 2011 at Dyspepsia Generation but no longer available there.]

I have long shared that assessment of the Boomer generation, and subscribe to the view that the rot set in after World War II, and became rampant after 1963., when the post-World War II children of the “greatest generation” came of age.

Which brings me to Bryan Caplan’s post, “Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families”. Caplan — who is all wet when it comes to pacifism and libertarianism — usually makes sense when he describes the world as it is rather than as he would like it to be. He writes:

[W]hen leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian.  Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind.  That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

Case in point: Kathryn Edin and Maria KefalasPromises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.  The authors spent years interviewing poor single moms.  Edin actually moved into their neighborhood to get closer to her subjects.  One big conclusion:

Most social scientists who study poor families assume financial troubles are the cause of these breakups [between cohabitating parents]… Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause, as we will see, but rarely the only factor.  It is usually the young father’s criminal behavior, the spells of incarceration that so often follow, a pattern of intimate violence, his chronic infidelity, and an inability to leave drugs and alcohol alone that cause relationships to falter and die.

Furthermore:

Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education.  Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect.  Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

These passages focus on low male conscientiousness, but the rest of the book shows it’s a two-way street.  And even when Edin and Kefalas are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit.  After all, conscientious women wouldn’t associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place – not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.

Low conscientiousness was the bane of those Boomers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, chose to “drop out” and “do drugs”. It will be the bane of the Gen Yers who do the same thing. But, as usual, “society” will be expected to pick up the tab, with food stamps, subsidized housing, drug rehab programs, Medicaid, and so on.

Before the onset of America’s welfare state in the 1930s, there were two ways to survive: work hard or accept whatever charity came your way. And there was only one way for most persons to thrive: work hard. That all changed after World War II, when power-lusting politicians sold an all-too-willing-to-believe electorate a false and dangerous bill of goods, namely, that government is the source of prosperity — secular salvation. It is not, and never has been.

McGinnis is certainly right about the decline of classical liberalism and probably right about the rise of leftism. But why is he right? Leftism will continue to ascend as long as the children of capitalism are spoiled. Classical liberalism will continue to wither because it has no moral center. There is no there there to combat the allure of “free stuff“.

Scott Yenor, writing in “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty”, makes a point about J.S. Mill’s harm principle — the heart of classical liberalism — that I have made many times. Yenor begins by quoting the principle:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. . . .The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

This is the foundational principle of classical liberalism (a.k.a. minarchistic libertarianism), and it is deeply flawed, as Yenor argues (successfully, in my view). He ends with this:

[T]he simple principle of [individual] liberty undermines community and compromises character by compromising the family. As common identity and the family are necessary for the survival of liberal society—or any society—I cannot believe that modes of thinking based on the “simple principle” alone suffice for a governing philosophy. The principle works when a country has a moral people, but it doesn’t make a moral people.

Conservatism, by contrast, is anchored in moral principles, which are reflected in deep-seated social norms, at the core of which are religious norms — a bulwark of liberty. But principled conservatism (as opposed to the attitudinal kind) isn’t a big seller in this age of noise:

I mean sound, light, and motion — usually in combination. There are pockets of serenity to be sure, but the amorphous majority wallows in noise: in homes with blaring TVs; in stores, bars, clubs, and restaurants with blaring music, TVs, and light displays; in movies (which seem to be dominated by explosive computer graphics), in sports arenas (from Olympic and major-league venues down to minor-league venues, universities, and schools); and on an on….

The prevalence of noise is telling evidence of the role of mass media in cultural change. Where culture is “thin” (the vestiges of the past have worn away) it is susceptible of outside influence…. Thus the ease with which huge swaths of the amorphous majority were seduced, not just by noise but by leftist propaganda. The seduction was aided greatly by the parallel, taxpayer-funded efforts of public-school “educators” and the professoriate….

Thus did the amorphous majority bifurcate. (I locate the beginning of the bifurcation in the 1960s.) Those who haven’t been seduced by leftist propaganda have instead become resistant to it. This resistance to nanny-statism — the real resistance in America — seems to be anchored by members of that rapidly dwindling lot: adherents and practitioners of religion, especially between the two Left Coasts.

That they are also adherents of traditional social norms (e.g., marriage can only be between a man and a woman), upholders of the Second Amendment, and (largely) “blue collar” makes them a target of sneering (e.g., Barack Obama who called them “bitter clingers”; Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables”)….

[But as long] as a sizeable portion of the populace remains attached to traditional norms — mainly including religion — there will be a movement in search of and in need of a leader [after Trump]. But the movement will lose potency if such a leader fails to emerge.

Were that to happen, something like the old, amorphous society might re-form, but along lines that the remnant of the old, amorphous society wouldn’t recognize. In a reprise of the Third Reich, the freedoms of association, speech, and religious would have been bulldozed with such force that only the hardiest of souls would resist going over to the dark side. And their resistance would have to be covert.

Paradoxically, 1984 may lie in the not-too-distant future, not 36 years in the past. When the nation is ruled by one party (guess which one), footvoting will no longer be possible and the nation will settle into a darker version of the Californian dystopia.

It is quite possible that the elections of 2020 or 2024 will bring about the end of the great experiment in liberty that began in 1776. And with that end, the traces of classical liberalism will all but vanish, along with liberty. Unless something catastrophic shakes the spoiled children of capitalism so hard that their belief in salvation through statism is destroyed. Not just destroyed, but replaced by a true sense of fellowship with other Americans (including “bitter clingers” and “deplorables”) — not the ersatz fellowship with convenient objects of condescension that elicits virtue-signaling political correctness.

3 thoughts on “Whither (Wither) Classical Liberalism — and America?

  1. I am generally in tune with your arguments, but I feel something is left out of the factual recitation (unless I passed over it somehow): the role of the military-industrial complex, as D.D. Eisenhower identified in his farewell address. I see this as a cancer eating at our bowels. It was continuous war that depleted the treasury and spirit of the ancient Romans, who then became vulnerable to the northern ‘barbarians.’ Also, did I read correctly that you (or you were quoting someone?) thought that those young people who protested against the Vietnam war (yet another extra-constitutional war without Congress’s declaration) were “selfish”? Perhaps some were, but I will never forgive Robert McNamara, and his handlers, (despite his very late apologies) for his body counts and other barabarities which poisoned the social fabric of the USA in those times. I was quite alert during all of this, including a marginal participation/observation in the “Free Speech Movement” at Berkeley (I was a married, Navy veteran, graduate student) and its sequelae. Underlying (or over-riding?) all of this is the decline in the observation of and respect for the transcendent (I don’t like the words ‘spiritual’ or ‘God’ and their variations because of their mis-use). The latter is the greatest disease in our social fabric.

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  2. The U.S. has spent a relatively small fraction of GDP on defense, including war costs, since World War II (see chart here: https://politicsandprosperity.com/2010/11/19/a-grand-strategy-for-the-united-states/). With the demise of the draft, only volunteers have gone to war. There are good reasons to question the wisdom and execution of the post-World War II wars, but (aside from casaualties) the costs have been relatively small. The bulk of U.S. defense expenditures is devoted to tactical and strategic deterrence. It is my view (again, see: https://politicsandprosperity.com/2010/11/19/a-grand-strategy-for-the-united-states/) that we spend too little rather than too much for deterrence. This is a failing that invites adventurism on the part of our ideological adversaries (although it may not be long before most Americans take an admiring view of Russia and China’s authoritarianism). The other failing which has also invited adventurism on the part of our ideological adversaries is the demonstrable failure to do what was necessary to win wars. This is true of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War (where GHWB pulled back from deposing Saddam), and the Iraq War (which was fought on the cheap). Returning to the Vietnam War, I share your opinion of McNamara (https://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2009/10/08/the-mcnamara-legacy-a-personal-perspective/), who was the Rumsfeld of that era — trying to win a war on the cheap (no doubt by LBJ’s direction), instead of going all-out (which would have saved a lot of lives in the end) or getting out. As for the anti-war protesters, I admit to having qualms about using the word “selfish” to describe the younger protesters who were vulnerable to the draft. The point that I should have made is that there was a large contingent of protesters who used the horrors of the war (which were real) as cover for their desire to avoid the draft. (Economist David Henderson, who has written often in opposition to conscription, has noted that the anti-war protests began to taper off when it became clear that the draft would end. Unfortunately, I can’t find the link to the post in which Henderson makes this point.) While I fully understand the desire to avoid going to war — especially one that supporters as well as opponents challenged (for different reasons), I can’t be sympathetic to anyone who cynically hides behind the cloak of “peace”. I was not exposed to the draft during the Vietnam era because of my deferments (college and occupation) and then my age. I opposed the war (then) because I saw it as being fought wrongly (not because it was being fought). But I didn’t publicly protest the war, and didn’t at all like the riotous, emotion-laden protests that were all too common from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. (I was working in the Pentagon during one of the ridiculous efforts to “levitate” it.) For one thing, many of the protests were far from peaceable assemblies, and so they victimized and inconvenienced people who simply wanted to attend classes, get to work on time, etc., etc. Searching my own conscience and knowing my character (deeply conscientious), I am confident that if I had been drafted I would simply have gone without mounting any kind of protest or appeal.

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  3. I appreciate the thoroughness of your answer. My nature is such that I do not protest, especially in concert with others. I don’t know what label others may put on me, but I put none on myself, other than free man. I agree that a strong national defence is best, for all the reasons known, especially since we have such non-tangible riches which have helped to create the tangible ones. However, empires don’t last, no should they-unless our founding documents (including the letters and arguments before the separation from England) are honored in practice and in our sacred center (for lack of a better phrase). BTW, there was wrong done on both sides of “Free Speech Movement;” an initially righteous response to a a crude dictum by university management, which was quickly captured by the ever-waiting and prepared radicals for their own ends.

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