Monday, September 24, 2018

What Happened to Liberalism?

It began in 1846 in Great Britain with the repeal of corn tariffs. So says The Economist magazine and so reports Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post.

With the repeal of the tariffs, instituted to protect British corn farmers, liberal economic policies ascended. Free trade, free enterprise, free markets and limited government became the rule. And the world has not been the same since.

It is a wonderfully uplifting story… especially if you ignore the simple fact that the twentieth century was a charnel house. Whether or not you want to curb your enthusiasm, you should always curb  your optimism when surveying the movement of big ideas.

The old liberalism advanced the interests of the individual as against the state. But, we need to be careful here, because Germanic philosophers also had a notion of the individual and their notion did not involve free markets, free trade or limited government. So, let’s be clear, the British defined the individual as a free participant in free markets. The more German version, whether in Hegel or in Nietzsche aimed to produce a race of people who were not bound by any rules, but who were their own rules. No more free markets. No more free trade. Welcome to the police state.

Anyway, Samuelson explains the Western liberalism became “mushier” when it morphed into a statist version.

As he write:

Over the years, the staunch individualism gradually gave way to a mushier liberalism that called upon government to stabilize the economy and, through an expanding welfare state, provide economic security.

To be fair, Adam Smith believed that government had a role in the economy. He argued that coinage had evolved because only an objective outsider could guarantee that the gold piece in your pocket was really gold. The government guaranteed it by stamping its mark on it.

And yet, free markets ultimately produce uncertain outcomes. The same is true of any game. If you know the results before the game has begun, the game has been rigged. Modern liberalism, and its socialist cousin have defined the role of government to include: stabilizing markets and providing economic security. Whether or not this will protect us from pending economic calamities like the Great Depression remains to be seen. For all I know the faith in government is yet another misguided attempt to play god. These rarely end well.

Among the problems of big government, and even of international agencies, is that they promise more than they can deliver. They promise peace and prosperity for everyone, regardless of achievement. The promise equitable distribution of wealth and produce rampant inequality.

And, we must note, today’s liberalism, more radical than liberal, has glommed on to a series of dubious causes, like diversity quotas and transgender rights, and has tried to transform the culture to make it fulfill the dreams and hopes of Western idealists. Besides, the advent of multiculturalism and open borders threaten the cohesion of native cultures.

With the advent of massive welfare states, liberal democracy has ceased to work. Samuelson notes the important point. However much we believe that liberal democracy is better than the Chinese and Singaporean model of authoritarian capitalism, the latter has more in common with nineteenth century liberalism than do our current efforts to make government provide for everyone, even for people who have no legal right to be in the country.

Siphoning off wealth and investment capital does not promote economic growth. It makes government into a large scale charity, not a facilitator of free enterprise.

And it involves nations in an endless public drama about issues that have little to do with free markets or free trade. Debates over abortion rights, gun control and same-sex marriage distract from the business at hand. At worse, they undermine the work ethic that produced wealth.

It’s nice to consider that government policy, all by its lonesome, changed the world. It’s nice to imagine that repealing the corn tariffs set Britain on the road to prosperity… and, by the way, to imperial overreach. The truth is, British culture had practiced the values that made it possible for people to compete fairly in the marketplace and to accept the results. Values like good sportsmanship are essential to the functioning of a marketplace. Once you decide that the old British ethos, composed of pragmatism and empiricism, must produce outcomes that fulfill our ideals, we are heading down a road to ruin.


Anonymous said...

Technology and disruptive technology likely plays a significant role. Everything from the nausea-inducing media communications to weapons, just check out the price tag;

The internet will probably continue to be used as disruptive technology to restructure imbalances in domestic economies to the technocratic banking elite's liking, and not to the liking of the worthless eaters that comprise 99% of the civilian population. It will be much easier for the people of real value (bankers, scientists and their industrious technology) to put the 99% of humans into labor camps to thin the herd. Happy camp modeled after Nazi and the British, who helped pioneer the super happy summer camp model;

The Eisenhower death camp model via exposure is perhaps the most rapid and cost effective method and is highly recommended;

Also no labor camp would be complete without it's own Josef Mengele to administer medical experimentation inmates unfit to work;

Western-ingenuity is impressive. It is what it is.

Sam L. said...

It got co-opted by the progressives.

Ares Olympus said...

I find debates like these (Free market vs welfare states) largely incomplete, almost like arguing whether having a mother or a father is more important.

Myself, I take energy as the central issue, cheap one-time fossil fuels have enabled economic growth, and enabled population growth, and consumption of natural resources, which all looks good as long as we can burn more fossil fuels tomorrow as we did yesterday. Then we can guarantee the economy will keep growing, and we can afford to create more debt tomorrow as yesterday, and we can use that debt to fuel today's consumption. So all that looks more like a welfare state than free market, I'll agree.

And they same globalization is a "deflationary" force, so as long as you can keep moving production and pollution to distant lands where people don't yet know how to resist and will work for much less than we work for, you can create amazing material abundance we have today. And if energy stays cheap for one more generation, robots can come along and replace all the cheap labor with mechanical labor, and there will be fewer jobs for more people, and if we "fix" this situation with welfare payments, we're just delaying the revolution we've not yet defined yet.

But it all breaks down if the spell of burning 100 million year old inheritance in a few generation fails to be continued to the next generation. Technology is the wildcard, and necessity is the mother of invention, and maybe we will find a comparable energy source to keep doing what we're doing, and the debt bubbles can keep growing to infinity and beyond. Anything might really be possible if you're a techmaster of the universe.

Leif said...

Liberalism was always a materialistic philosophy from its genesis in the 17th century. It has nothing to do with German philosophy. It was baked into the cake from the very beginning. It could have ended no other way.

Dr. Irredeemable Dreg said...

I find debates like these (Free market vs welfare states) largely incomplete, almost like arguing whether having a mother or a father is more important. Myself, I take beachfront property as the central issue. Cheap beachfront property and the margaritas that go along with it have enabled unintended population increases, law enforcement shortages, and consumption of unnatural resources.

Not only that, but the tsunami of condoms, little umbrellas, and plastic straws has carried pollution to distant lands where people are culturally unaware of birth control, premium tequila, and citrus zesters.

All the partying falls apart if we burn our 100 million year inheritance in sugar sand by selling it to retirement home developers. Maybe AI, pharmaceuticals, sex robots, and the internet can bring the virtual beach experience to doddering oldsters, and the debt bubbles created by reverse mortgages can grow to infinity... and even beyond. Anything is possible for the cis-female third world quantum virtual reality engineers I work with.

David Foster said...

It's not at all clear to me that abolition of tariffs has anything to do with limited government and free enterprise internal to a country.

History of tariffs in the United States:

Sam L. said...

Dr. Dreg, what are you imbibing, and where might I get some?

Anonymous said...

Sam L,

I believe he was making fun of AOC's attempt at sounding knowledgeable. I actually thought in a way this was a great take down. It is not supposed to make sense. Maybe I am mistaken, but I got a real laugh out of it.


Anonymous said...

Maybe Dr. Irredeemable Dreg's comment exceeds all comprehension because he's posting via quantum warp-drive techno-wizardry from the parallel universe of Star Trek?

As I am low IQ (~84), I simply wonder when and where the next mass kill off will occur, this slow culling of the useless eaters by way of disruptive technology is taking too long in ridding our technocrats of useless ape creatures.