Bravo to The Economist — and classical liberalism, part I

By Claude Barfield

Before too much time passes, special notice should be taken of The Economist’s lead analysis from its September 4 issue: “The threat from the illiberal left.” While taking measure of the illiberal left (and the populist right), the editors and writers set forth a clear-eyed, brisk, and much-needed defense of the classical liberalism on which the publication was founded in the mid-19th century. The piece is particularly timely in wake of the Afghan jeremiads that have emerged on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and, on the economic front, the panicked move in the US to emulate elements of China’s tech industrial subsidies and trade protectionism (read: “Buy America”).

What follows are brief excerpts that I hope will reflect the piece’s major elements. First, a working definition of classical liberalism:

At its heart classical liberalism believes human progress is brought about by debate and reform. The best way to navigate disruptive change in a divided world is through universal commitment to human dignity, open markets and limited government. . . . Over the past 250 years classical liberalism has helped bring about unparalleled progress. It will not vanish in a puff of smoke.

Today, classical liberalism is under grave threat from the populist (Trump) right and the illiberal left’s more pervasive ideology. The Economist acknowledges the “most dangerous threat” comes from the Trumpian right who, as the last year or so has shown, vigorously attacks science, the rule of law, and the traditional conservative notion of regulatory restraint when it comes to our country’s most innovative tech firms — all while pushing the dangerous belief that the “deep state” exercises underground control of politics. But the editors argue that a greater, more vital challenge comes from the illiberal left: more challenging in that there is superficial agreement between classical liberals and the illiberal left on some issues — namely nondiscrimination on sexual preferences and race, suspicion of “entrenched interests,” and the “desirability of change.”

A group of protestors descends on the Idaho state capitol in Boise, ID, January 21, 2017, via Twenty20

But there are profound and irreconcilable differences between the two when it comes to the means of achieving economic and social goals:

For classical liberals, the precise direction of progress is unknowable. It must be spontaneous and from the bottom up — and it depends on the separation of powers, so that nobody nor any group is able to exert lasting control. By contrast the illiberal left put their own power at the centre of things, because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.

This difference in method has profound implications. Classical liberals believe in setting fair initial conditions and letting events unfold through competition — by, say, eliminating corporate monopolies, opening up guilds, radically reforming taxation and making education accessible with vouchers. Progressives see laissez-faire as a pretence which powerful vested interests use to preserve the status quo. Instead, they believe in imposing “equity”— the outcomes that they deem just. . . . The illiberal left believes that the marketplace of ideas is rigged just like all others. What masquerades as evidence and argument, they say, is really yet another assertion of raw power.

The authors even dare to quote Milton Friedman, with approbation:

Milton Friedman once said that the “society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither”. He was right. Illiberal progressives think they have a blueprint for freeing oppressed groups. In reality theirs is a formula for the oppression of individuals — and, in that, it is not so very different from the plans of the populist right. In their different ways both extremes put power before process, ends before means and the interests of the group before the freedom of the individual.

The technological revolution that enabled the advent of mass communications has also had a notable impact here, including the ability to weaponize networks. As The Economist also notes, large-scale social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have enabled “a determined minority [to] be amplified, and an uneasy centre-left [to] be cowed.” (Likewise, Twitter’s concern with the ease and convenience through which mass circulation could amplify certain views ultimately led to the “deplatforming” of a sitting president.) Big Tech has inevitably been caught in this maelstrom via an attempted, increasingly bipartisan regulatory overhaul — with inequality and “rigged” marketplaces alleged by the left and, on the right, the firms’ purported censorship of conservative views.

Ironically, several firms under regulatory scrutiny have adopted their own woke agendas. More will follow on both this and the infiltration of “wokeism” into academia and journalism along with how the aforementioned concept of deplatforming extends to college classrooms.

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