Why not “classical liberalism”?

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the avenues I’ve been exploring over the past few months is “classical liberalism”.

This has a lot to commend it, in particular its mistrust of governments and “technique” in favour of the free decisions of individuals within society. Hayek defines liberty as “that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society”, and that is a definition I find very appealing.

However, I have a number of difficulties with that form of liberalism, particularly as it plays out in practical politics. It seems to end up as a “where the music stops” form of politics: property relations and economic systems have been subject to constant, state-directed transformation over hundreds of years, but now we are to say, “Hold! Enough!” and say that property relations and patterns of ownership are no longer any business of the state.

In other words, the state’s actions in establishing what Marx would call “bourgeois property” – for example, the Enclosure Acts or the invention of limited liability companies – are to be accepted, but any proposals to change what we have inherited from those earlier actions is unacceptable interference in private property by the state. (If you’re a Christian, you can then throw the commandment against stealing into the mix, giving modern property rights an eternal and divine status.)

So what I continue to value in liberalism: its emphasis on freedom as opposed to coercion; on the “messy-but-free” over against the rational and orderly. One reason I find Co-operative politics intriguing is the apparent emphasis on voluntary association over central control. (Again: I recognise that this sits somewhat uncomfortably with the Co-operative party’s long alliance with Labour.)

But where I currently find myself parting company from “classical liberalism” (or economic liberalism): its acceptance of existing patterns of property ownership and inequality as simply part of the natural of order of things and outside the scope of legitimate state activity, ignoring the unobserved (because so pervasive) state interference and coercion that underpin those existing realities.

There is also the apparent ease with which classical liberalism can degenerate into the sort of populist libertarianism which denies almost any role for the state, and sees even taxation as an unacceptable “coercion” (unlike Hayek, who did not see taxation as inherently contradicting the principle of liberty as quoted above).

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One thought on “Why not “classical liberalism”?”

  1. I follow the criticism of those who don’t wish to look deeply into the kinds of intrusions that keep our current schemes of property intact. I see that as more endemic to conservatives than Classical Liberals per se. Plus I think the tools to remedy that could be found within Classical Liberalism itself. I would think that instead of adding another layer of regulations, though, we would want to remove layers, and carefully so as not to expose the vulnerable to worse conditions.

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