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Some Conservatives Want Americans to Abandon Classical Liberalism. Don't Listen to Them.

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Tags U.S. Economy


Donald Trump's economic populism, and his break with the established postwar conservative movement, has created an opening for new types of conservatism. Among these is the antimarket wing of the movement characterized by a renewed enthusiasm for trade controls, more spending on welfare programs, and more government regulation in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.

The economic agenda has been voiced perhaps most enthusiastically by pundit Tucker Carlson and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Both have attacked what they apparently see as "excessive" freedom. This freedom—especially when exercised in the marketplace—has led, they believe, to the decline of the middle class for consumers and businesses which Bannon and Carlson blame for creating economic hardship in the United States. As a "solution" both have pushed for the state to seize and control even more of the economy than it already has.

The fact that the United States has only become consistently less free, both in terms of markets and in everything else, is strenuously ignored. These attacks on markets are, frankly, based on poor economics and a poor understanding of economic history, as I've noted here and here

Not surprisingly, this way of thinking has led to new attacks on those who most support freedom in the marketplace (and everywhere else): classical liberals, also known as libertarians.

[RELATED: "'Libertarian' Is Just Another Word for (Classical) Liberal" by Ryan McMaken]

Carlson has specifically denounced libertarians for their free market views, as has Bannon. Both have even singled out "Austrian economists" as especially worthy of denunciation. Attacks on the laissez-faire liberals have proliferated, including unprovoked attacks from conservatives in First Things, the American Conservative, and The Spectator

Is Classical Liberalism Un-American?

But perhaps the most aggressive attack on classical liberalism comes from Patrick Deneen, who has attempted to claim that classical liberalism has no place in American history at all.

In a new column this week, Deneen attacks libertarians and the entire liberal tradition in general. Not content with merely criticizing the liberals/libertarians as too extreme, as Bannon and Carlson do, Deneen seeks to recast classical liberalism altogether as a pernicious, foreign, and dangerous ideology. According to Deneen, this ideology—the ideology of Thomas Jefferson, Lord Acton, and Frederic Bastiat, among many other defenders of freedom and natural rights—has nothing at all to do with "the American tradition."

This general thesis of Deneen goes well beyond his article this week, and his odd and ahistorical view of classical liberalism has already been explained here at mises.org by both David Gordon and Allen Mendenhall. But Deneen's new attack on libertarians helpfully serves as yet another example of some conservatives' deeply misguided enthusiasm for attacking classical liberals and even attempting to condemn them as "un-American." But just as Carlson and Bannon have employed bad economics to attack classical liberals in the past, Deneen now indulges in bad history.

Let's consider some evidence.

Yes, the American Revolutionaries Were Classical Liberals

Deneen's first mistake in this week's column is claiming that liberalism was not a central factor in the American Revolution. This rather unbelievable claim is derived from Deneen's belief that liberalism of all types "requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community."

As Mendenhall notes, this is not at all a sound definition of classical liberalism. But from this rather questionable premise, Deneen then concludes that the only real liberals in America at the time were the few disciples of John Locke (i.e., the Jeffersonians and their allies). After all, in Deneen's view, it was only the Lockeans who embraced the atheism, hedonism, and the mania for the accumulation of material possessions that Deneen thinks characterize the classical liberals. Thus, those Americans who still embraced institutions like church and family were not liberals at all. Deneen thus contrasts "a small number of Lockeans" during the Revolution to the "larger population of Christians" to illustrate that the classical liberals were at odds with the main nonliberal part of the population.

The real founding ideology of America, we are told, was a Christian "common good conservatism" which valued community above individual conscience and above individual rights. This claim is central to Deneen's basic thesis here, which is that any American revolutionary who was a Christian was necessarily not a liberal

But the Lockean view and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. As David Gordon points out, there is significant evidence that Locke "defended divine and natural law and argued for the existence of God." Moreover, in his history of economic thought, Rothbard shows that Locke, for all his deviations, was well within the natural law tradition handed down from medieval Christian Europe. It was easy for Americans to adopt the basic classical liberal and Lockean framework without abandoning Christianity. Indeed, Deneen's idea that anyone embracing Locke's ideas of "life, liberty, and property" must be some sort of avaricious atheist strains the bounds of plausibility. Yet Deneen treats this idea as if it were unassailable.

Moreover, a look at the actual historical record shows widespread adoption of liberal ideals during the Revolution. As Rothbard illustrates in the fourth volume of Conceived in Liberty, liberal ideals spread rapidly during the period, and in quite a radical way. Opposition to slavery spread, and indentured servitude declined precipitously. Old feudal laws were overturned. The system of land sales and distribution was democratized. Religious freedom was far more widely embraced. Rothbard notes that the Revolution was a civil war conducted by "fanatics" and zealots who rejected "the siren call of compromise."

Rothbard maintains that these legal, social, and military upheavals were animated by liberalism/libertarianism. After all, if slavery, indentured servitude, and feudal land grants were all perfectly acceptable to "the common good" by Americans conservative Christian one minute, how did these things become unacceptable just a few years later? The answer lies in the spread of liberalism among Americans during the revolutionary period. The very idea of "the common good" changed as the public embraced liberalism.

State-Sponsored Churches Declined Because America Embraced Classical Liberalism

Deneen also claims that the post-Revolutionary period was little affected by liberalism. Specifically, he asserts that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was designed not to increase religious freedom, but to increase the power of the established churches in the states:

The Bill of Rights was in fact proposed and ratified in order not merely to forbid the government from establishing a religion, butprevent the federal government from interfering in the existing State establishments. (emphasis in original)

In Deneen's view, the First Amendment's "original intention" was to help the state governments in "protecting these establishments." He insists that the American revolutionaries understood that the state governments must have state-supported churches or society would descend into "war of all against all."

Once again, the historical record is not on Deneen's side.

While there is not doubt that some revolutionaries were in favor in maintaining state-favored established churches, that fact is that most Americans—animated by individualistic classical liberal ideals—saw religion more as a matter of personal choice and conscience. This was already in play by the late eighteenth century, when, as Rothbard notes, "the previously hysterical-anti-Catholicism that had permeated the colonies" was abandoned in favor of toleration. During the Revolution no fewer than eight states moved to allow Roman Catholics to hold public office. These were hardly the actions of populations clinging to the idea of empowering the local state-supported churches.

At the same time, the established churches, those churches Deneen claims were so dear to Americans at the time of the Bill of Rights, went into steep decline and had disappeared by the 1830s. State governments ceased to support their established churches, and, as historian Ann Douglas has described it, "between the Revolution and the Civil War, the [formerly established] sects which were disestablished lost ground in every sense while the largest 'dissenting' groups, which had never received state support, flourished."

That is, the old established churches—the Congregational and Presbyterian churches, for example—were abandoned in droves by Americans who embraced the idea that religious faith was a matter of individual choice. In Deneen's mind, this seemingly illustrates a disgraceful march toward chaos. But most Americans were apparently unconcerned. Americans didn't abandon Christianity, of course. Their newfound liberalism required no such thing. But Americans did embrace a religious order based on purely voluntary, private institutions far from the old mindset of those who supported the established churches of old.

The American Political Tradition Is Liberal and Libertarian

These are just two examples of Deneen's rewriting of history, but they serve to show how he appears to have become convinced that classical liberalism is incompatible with the sorts of institutions that any social conservative would value. Consequently, he seeks to read classical liberalism out of American history almost in its entirety.

In actual practice, however, classical liberalism has never been a danger to the Christian civilization that Deneen defends. On the contrary, as Mendenhall concludes:

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism.

Indeed, liberalism has historically been a key component in providing the freedom necessary to allow institutions of civil society to flourish. A strong private sector protects churches and communities from the power of the state. A robust economy allows families to establish independence without a reliance on state largesse or on a small number of state-favored monopolistic firms. Without these freedoms, all of civil society becomes a hostage to the ruling junta or regime. That sort of dependence may seem fine so long as those who favor our social views are in power. But what happens when our friends are no longer in charge?

Today, we see precisely what happens. After decades of empowering the state with an ever longer list of prerogatives and prohibitions, those who control the state can now easily turn on those institutions that are so central to the kind of society Deneen would like to see. The solution lies in scaling back the power of the state and insisting that large sectors of civil society are simply off limits from the state's coercive power. The solution lies in allowing free association, free contracting, freedom in religious practices, and freedom to use our property as we like.

Throwing classical liberalism under the bus won't help.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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