Sunday, June 5, 2011

Yglesias on Classical Liberals

Matt Yglesias has a really great post on classical liberals and the mistaken idea that that terms is and that those men were synonymous with "libertarians". Readers know this is a big interest of mine too. Yglesias focuses specifically on the classical liberals' views on land redistribution and limited resources. Of course, one of the best classical liberals on this point is my favorite classical liberal - Thomas Jefferson:

"The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics, not labouring. They employ also a great number of manufacturers, and tradesmen, and lastly the class of labouring husbandmen. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured. I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state."

(Letter to Madison, 1785)


  1. There is no need to rescue the "good name" of classical liberalism, as Yglesias says, given that many classical liberals have no real good name.

    John Locke and Thomas Jefferson were mediocre thinkers.

    There, I said it. Jefferson was a smart man, smarter than me and most of us, but outside of his ability to learn multiple languages and absorb ancient texts in their original language (without student's notes), he was too taken in by empty political idealism.

    Two good examples would be his letter regarding poverty in France and letter regarding revolutions being a good thing. In the former, he seemed to believe that legislation and incomes policy would somehow somehow make poverty disappear. In the latter, he seemed to be unaware of the long-running philosophical arguments against civil disobedience, going back to the sound Christian arguments against civil disobedience and also those of ancient Greek society.

    Classical liberalism is not real philosophy, but pseudo-philosophy written by pop writer laymen who came in an age of the printing press and access of not so educated people to books - 17th century bloggers so to speak.

    There has been no real advancement in political philosophy since Plato, and Christianity's advancement comes from the fact that it borrowed from Greek thought. Classical liberals, socialists, progressives, American conservatives,.etc all believe they can throw it out and start back from the drawing board.

  2. re: "he was too taken in by empty political idealism."

    His idealism is pretty blaring. But look - when you're up against the divine right of kings, idealism isn't the worst thing in the world. Examining the late eighteenth century United States, I am able to find few that can compete with Jefferson. Had Jefferson been gifted with extreme longevity, and had he been able to live with us today I'm sure we would have seen an evolution in his idealism. Faced with obeisance to monarchy and church, and thinking about it in those terms and that historical context, one could do much worse than democratic idealism.

  3. Yes, oppressive rulers and monarchs have existed since time immemorial. And yet, people somehow survived through and put up with the rules of Nero and Caligula and whatnot. And they have had good reason.

    Jefferson once said, "The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty and happiness. It has its evils, too, the principal of which is the turbulence to which it is subject. But weigh this against the oppressions of monarchy, and it becomes nothing. Even this evil is productive of good. It prevents the degeneracy of government and nourishes a general attention to the public affairs."

    It's not up to ordinary people to decide what laws are to be followed or not followed. On what basis do they decide that they are? On mere grounds of violent uprising against laws that they don't like? Can we imagine the results those produce, given the frequent military coups in Africa and the Middle East?

    What are they going to do - conjure up their own arbitrary idea of "universal" justice existing organically or scientifically? Very well then, let all of us do that, and see how long we last, as we deem anything we want to do to be natural. All these people were born under parents and families, and never lived one independent day of their life. Why should they think that their sanction demands what is or is not to be done? They lived life through obedience and staying within other older people's mandates (often irrational, harsh, and absurd, yes), and benefitted from that. They are suddenly going to turn into something other than dependent creatures and turn from subjects to their own authority? And how?

    Looking at ancient Greek society, we see that the people believed there are not individuals, but tripartite souls - organic passions of one's own glands, society, and the gods. It is part supersition, but bear with me. I am not a "collectivist", as Objectivists might say, but breaking from "society" still leaves you to your passions and the "gods" or the forces of nature. Such tempests those two things are, that we all push ourselves back to consensus and demands of other people.

  4. The trouble is Classical liberalism has many different offspring:

    (1) progressive liberalism, already emerging at the end of the 19th century

    (2) libertarianism, which emerged from the Classical liberal wing of the Austrian school

    (3) possibly even modern libertarian socialism/anarchism, as Chomsky claims:

  5. Also, Thomas Paine was another Classical liberal who urges state intervenions to help the poor. There is the issue that Chomsky also raises about "pre-capitalist Classical liberals" who emerge as being not very impressed by the social effects of free markets.

  6. What we call "libertarianism" in the American sense seems to be some part anti-FDR, anti-New Deal tradition existing long before Viennese immigrant economists arrived in US, and part later spread of ideas by the members of the Mont Perelin Society.

    The former happens to have SOME common ideas with the latter, derived not from hard economics or political thought, but from pure casuitry and observation. Say, the likes of Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov.

  7. Who claims that the classical liberals were anarchists?

  8. "But look - when you're up against the divine right of kings, idealism isn't the worst thing in the world."

    Every time I can think of that a king was overthrown, the resulting government was far worse: Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Washington -- can anyone think of a counter-example? The divine right of kings was a perfectly sound principle, and we are far worse off for having abandoned it.

  9. "Examining the late eighteenth century United States, I am able to find few that can compete with Jefferson."

    In unrealism?

  10. And, in short. what Prateek said.

  11. "The divine right of kings was a perfectly sound principle, and we are far worse off for having abandoned it."

    Moreover, the king was not necessarilly one with absolute power, but one checked and monitored by an aristocracy.

    Strangely, the movements that culminated in the French Revolution pushed down the one (imperfect) institution that checked the king's power. And lo, afterwards the ruler had more power than before and only then did some men truly learn what absolute power was really like - under Napoleon.

    I'll eat my words when the need be - if there is a time machine, I travel back to old France, and live under the aristocracy, and if I find my life particularly unlivable for political reasons, I'll reconsider. But given what Tocqueville said in L'ancien regime, I think there is a good case to consider this standard conservative viewpoint.

  12. "Every time I can think of that a king was overthrown, the resulting government was far worse: Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Washington -- can anyone think of a counter-example? "

    Examples abound.

    The Roman Republic after the Etrusan kings?

    The Dutch Netherlands after they threw out the Spanish Habsburgs?

    France after Louis Napoleon III?

  13. "The divine right of kings was a perfectly sound principle, and we are far worse off for having abandoned it."

    Nice joke.

  14. The divine right of kings was a perfectly sound principle, and we are far worse off for having abandoned it.

    Getting influenced by Hoppe now, are we?

  15. Prateek,

    You have to remember that one of Louis XIV's "accomplishments" was breaking the very "balance of power" you're describing -- his absolutism came from stripping the aristocracy of much of their powers.

  16. Gene -
    I'm curious to know why you think Washington was worse than George III.

    Look, if the only difference is a tyrant that's non-hereditary clearly that's not an improvement. The authority of tyrants is just as objectionable as the divine right of kings, but of the suite of options available a democratic republic with a limited government is so substantially better than the alternative that a little idealism on Jefferson's part strikes me as forgivable.

  17. According to Thaddeus Russell, the Founding Fathers had no use for "sin" or private property when sin was committed on someone else's own property:

  18. There are lots of uncultivated lands in the Sahara and the Mojave.

    Lord Keynes,

    Libertarians have many mothers/fathers; the Austrian school being one of them. Of the mothers there are course three women - Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Patterson. That's not surprising; all three were successful in a world where women were not supposed to be successful authors or thinkers.

  19. The view expressed in this Jefferson quote was championed by Henry George more than anyone. I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with his work.

    Similar quotes:

    "Men did not make the earth. It is the value of the improvements only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property. Every proprietor owes to the community a ground rent for the land which he holds." - Thomas Paine (Agrarian Justice)

    "When the 'sacredness' of property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness does not belong in the same degree to landed property.” - John Locke

    "The land is the original inheritance of mankind. The usual, and by far the best argument for its appropriation by individuals is that private ownership gives the strongest motive for making the so loyal yield the greatest possible produce. But this argument is only valid for leaving to the owner the full enjoyment of whatever value he adds to the land by his own exertions and expenditure." - John Stuart Mill

    "As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce." - Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations)

    "...every improvement in the circumstances of the society tends either directly or indirectly to raise the real rent of land, to increase the real wealth of the landlord, his power of purchasing the labour, or the produce of the labour of other people." - Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations)


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