This article is inspired by, and dedicated to, those who have asserted that libertarianism (hereafter I will refer to as classical liberalism) is ‘wacky,’ ‘immoral,’ or ‘self-centered.’ I hope to convey to them that these assertions are not arguments, as they lack the necessary evidence to sate an actual logically valid and flawless argument.
Rather than provide evidence of why classical liberalism is a morally superior ideology, I believe it is more germane to provide why I, specifically, became and identify as a classical liberal. Quite often, I’ve said that I became a classical liberal because I wanted to help the poor. However, that’s not quite the full story.
I grew up poor. There were times that my parents couldn’t afford to pay for heat in the winters, causing me to catch pneumonia several times. When I was 10 years old, I was put in the care of the State of Rhode Island’s Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) because of my parents’ dearth of ability to care for my sister and I.
Since then, it became one of my life’s purposes to help the poor. Given my experiences, to be told, to read, or to hear that classical liberalism is ‘wacky,’ or that people who identify with the ideology ‘hate the poor,’ is not only false; but, even more so, it is grounded in a great deal of haughtiness. Those who assert these claims presume to know classical liberals’ feelings towards the poor. These two statements are not arguments, as they rely on several unfounded assumptions for their conclusions. Therefore, to espouse these claims, without knowing the intentions or feelings of classical liberals is the definition of naiveté and arrogance.
When I was young, to avoid going home, I stayed at the library to read and learn (that was also one of the few places I had access to the internet and heat). At first, I became interested in history and political science, because I believed those topics would provide clarity on how previous governments helped the poor. However, over time, I found the answer was much more grounded in economics and philosophy. It was within these topics, I found what specifically helps the poor. To show why it was in these topics I found the answers for which I was searching, a brief summary of the two is warranted.
Economics, in the methodology of Adam Smith, explains why some countries become wealthy and others stay poor – this is why Smith’s economic treatise is titled An Inquiry into the Causes of The Wealth of Nations (commonly referred to as The Wealth of Nations). While Smith made – as did many classical economists – some errors, he correctly asserted one of the causes of wealth is others’ ability to ‘truck and barter’ with each other.
When people have different preferences, needs, and wants, they barter with each other, each allowing the other to be in a better, more satisfied state than prior to the exchange (later on, these different preferences that caused exchange were called ‘marginal utility,’ by the early Austrian Economist, Carl Menger). This act of bartering is what guides the process of production, or what Smith called the ‘invisible hand,’ and was later called the ‘spontaneous order’ by Nobel Laureate Friedrich A. Hayek.
Moreover, Smith posited that certain government intervention was the cause of disruption of the ‘invisible hand,’ and therefore the cause of diminution, or impediment, of the wealth of nations. This is because, as mentioned before, each individual person has his or her own individual preferences and wants. No government has ever been able to allocate resources for individuals to satisfy each, diverging, set of preferences of individuals; nor has it the ability to do so. In Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, he stated:
The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would not only load himself with most unnecessary attention but assume an authority which could safely be trusted to no council and senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of man who have folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.
Some might object that these allocations can be determined through voting; however, that, too has been disproven by the work of Marquis de Condorcet, Kenneth Arrow, Duncan Black, and James Buchanan (While on the topic of Buchanan, I find it necessary to mention the most unfortunate belies written by him – some of which I mention in this article).
For these reasons, I always credit economics as being the reason why I became a classical liberal. Once I understood the market order and how it eradicates poverty, it was evident that there was no other political philosophy that provided the means by which ALL individuals could enjoy both prosperity and the utmost equality.
However, to be able to truck and barter requires a philosophical inquiry – not just an economical one.
After studying economics more, I noticed that relying strictly on the tools of economics can be a bit dangerous. This is because economics is not secluded to one school of thought: there are some economists who use the science beyond its limits to ‘socially engineer.’ Social engineering, by definition, is antithetical and inimical to a free, democratic-republic.
Prior to the advent of economics (or mainstream economics) done by Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, and later, Paul Samuelson, economics – as done by the works of Adam Smith, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Carl Menger, and other descendants (hereafter mainline economics) – economics was practiced as a branch of moral philosophy, that had its necessary empirical and predictive limits.
By the methodology of mainline economics, moral philosophy – with use of specific epistemological and metaphysical nuances – argued for the particular ‘institutions’ which allowed for nations – and individuals – to become wealthy. By definition, these institutions were framed around equality, dignity, and liberty. They are prices, private property, enforcement of voluntary contracts, and profit and loss accounting. Moral philosophy comes into play here, because private property and voluntary contracts are both ethical and metaphysical issues. The enforcement of contracts is an issue of political philosophy, being a necessary function of a government to protect private property and reduce fraud.
Additionally, in her trilogy on the causes of the wealth of nations, economist Deirdre McCloskey attributes the ability of a nation to become wealth on the freedom of, as she calls it, ‘having a go,’ without government interference. This is much more a mentality among people, and therefore philosophical.
There is much more to say about these topics; however, this is just a synopsis of the basic tenets upon which classical liberalism is based.
The characteristics of classical liberals listed above sometimes are misconstrued. When classical liberals advocate for capitalism, we are arguing for true, laisezz-faire capitalism. True, laisezz-faire capitalism wouldn’t allow for bailouts, subsidies, tax cuts, or any other policy that favors corporations at the expense of everyone else — other corporations not privy to the privileges, smaller businesses, and the consumers.
Being pro-capitalist and pro-corporation are not the same thing. We don’t fight corporate greed by redistribution policies, such as progressive taxation; rather, we tend to focus on the ‘rules of the game,’ to ensure that no entity or person can enjoy any rent-seeking type of policy — ranging from pork-barreling, log-rolling, and others.
We are not anarchists – we recognize there is a proper function for government; we just see it as a ‘protective state’ rather than a ‘productive state.’
We are for the environment – we just don’t believe in Pigouvian-type taxation to reduce pollution.
We are also not conservatives: we may share many similar ideological positions, but we disagree on many areas of social policy, environmental policy, foreign policy, and, to some extent, economic policy.
Where to Go from Here:
Disagreeing with the epistemological foundations of classical liberalism, or the methodology that the economists who tout the conclusions of classical liberals is one thing. The disagreement of economic methodologies is divisive even among classical liberals and other wings of libertarianism. But, to call it wacky, without evidence, is not helping drive progress. Rather, it is not only grounded in pure emotion, but it creates a false bifurcation of an ‘us-versus-them’ type of rivalry similar to that of a sports game. However, life is not akin to a sports game. Even if it were, we are all on the same ‘team’: we are all humans; we are all Americans. We should be willing to have discourse with our fellow humans, to find the way to make the world a better place.
Classical liberalism is grounded in equality, morality, logic, and, to stay consistent with this publication, ‘classiness.’ To those who have posited calumnies, called classical liberals ‘wacky,’ or have treated our political field as a sports game: I ask that you please refrain; rather, ask questions to those with whom you disagree. You might learn that you agree on more than you currently presume.
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