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Liberalism: True and False

Mises Daily: Wednesday, July 07, 1999 by

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With Hillary Clinton's decision to explore a possible run for the Senate seat vacated in New York State by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the political landscape appears to be gaining a clarity it hasn't had since the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House.

Bill Clinton has been the kind of politician folks refer to as a centrist, meaning by this that no one can really tell where he stands -- he follows the polls, period, and this gives him no core, only a style of flexibility. Bill Clinton can sound populist one day, liberal the next, and even libertarian now and then (as when he champions free market reforms everywhere around the globe, though, ironically, not in the US).

Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has never made any secret of her strong affinity toward the central theme of modern American liberalism, namely, the collectivization, nationalization of problem solving in all realms of human community life. She championed the politics of meaning--a seemingly vague notion signifying that government must assume the responsibility of fulfilling our lives. In her book, It takes a Village, Mrs. Clinton laid out what amounts to a no holds barred program for socialism. Though seemingly confined to local communities, as a vision it is quite possibly global, not unlike the international socialism of Karl Marx.

One should recall, by the way, that behind Mrs. Clinton's politics of meaning stood her friend Rabbi Michael Lerner, the editor of the Leftist Jewish magazine, Tikkun, whose entire intellectual history was steeped in various versions of Marxism. In his analysis of the recent American violence, Rabbi Lerner wrote that "this society needs a new bottom line, in which people's capacity to be caring, loving, and ethically, spiritually and ecologically sensitive are what counts. And it needs a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends individual selfishness. If admission to college, job promotions, and other public rewards were based in part on the degree to which people had learned to take care of each other, there would be far less likelihood of future Littletons."

While not the clear-cut call for collectivism that we find in Marx's writings, Lerner's polemic is far more specific than what we will be hearing from Mrs. Clinton in the coming months. This is mainly because practically no politician today has the courage to lay out explicitly what he or she believes about how a community ought to be organized. Thus we need to look to the books they like, the thinkers they admire, so as to learn where they really stand. And Mrs. Clinton stands pretty much where Rabbi Lerner does.

What Americans might wonder at this point is how something so clearly alien to their country's ideal of individual liberty has come to be embraced and christened "liberalism," a term that used to signify adherence to the principles of a free society. (In Europe, for example, a liberal is one who champions a free society, a social democrat one who champions collective power administered by means of elections.)

There is a fairly clear answer to this: what liberalism used to be involved a basic assumption about human nature that is no longer widely accepted by the intellectual community. It is the assumption that human beings can make basic choices, that they can take the initiative in their lives no matter where they are on the economic continuum between poor and rich. The liberty that classical liberals wanted had to do with being free from the intrusions of others, including, especially, governments.

In our time most intellectuals believe that human nature does not contain this element of personal initiative. People do what their biological, social and economic background makes them do. What they need to be free from is bad breaks, obstacles such as poverty, ignorance, misfortune, and the like, and the only force capable of attaining this kind of freedom is government which can arrange things favorably through its massive force.

From physics, sociology and evolutionary biology to genetics and economics, the scholars tend to favor the belief that we are all doing what we were made to do by our situations, that the slogan is not "carpe diem" but "que sera, sera." To seize the day, one must possess the capacity to take the initiative. If, however, what will be will be, initiative is a myth.

Thus liberalism--the struggle to achieve freedom--has changed from insisting that others not exercise power over us to insisting that power be used to engineer our lives.

No, you will not hear this issue discussed but you can detect its implications everywhere. Just consider that everyone who is poor is a victim-- none of us is responsible for our poverty, it is our circumstances that did it. Nor is anyone succeeding at anything anymore--some people are just luckier than others.

Now if that is the prevalent thinking, why should anyone be permitted to enjoy the fruits of success? There is no success, only luck, and then decency would require one to share it. And if people will not do the sharing of their own choice, they must be made to share everything, which is what the substance of modern liberalism comes to, especially of the more radical sort the Marxist-inspired Hillary Clinton embraces.

There is a basic flaw in modern liberalism, though, that is quite glaring. If everything happens as it must, there is nothing anyone can do, not the government, not you, not I, nobody, to fix things. The rich and the poor and the rest are all in the same inevitable historical stream and it is a myth to try to change anything. But, of course, modern liberals like Mrs. Clinton do not accept this logical implication of their doctrine. They excuse everyone except those who disagree with them -- those folks are guilty as sin for failing to think and do the right thing in not supporting a socialist society.

To realize this is to realize a basic flaw that plagues modern liberalism. Sadly, its champions do not. Thus they are promoting a kind of political order that is flawed from the ground up. And we are all paying the price for this in many areas of our lives.

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Tibor R. Machan is an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute.


Read What is Classical Liberalism by Lew Rockwell, or purchase Mises’s definitive Liberalism.