Monday, April 21, 2014

Wolfe on Liberalism

Since there has been so much talk of classical liberalism, liberalism, libertarianism, and left-liberalism lately I wanted to re-share this old EconTalk with Alan Wolfe from 2009 on liberalism. It is one of my favorite EconTalks. Wolfe is very much in agreement with my point that modern liberalism and "liberalism" in the sense of classical liberalism are one and the same, and that Kevin Frei and Dan Klein make a mistake in trying to narrow the definition of liberalism or classical liberalism on to libertarianism.

I don't agree with everything Wolfe says and anyone with an economics background would probably sympathize with me on this. First, his problem with what he calls the "hiddenness" of market solutions is misplaced I think. I agree more with Russ on this aspect of the conversation. However, I agree with his view of liberty and I think he could have gotten a lot out of talking about Amartya Sen on this point. Sen puts the claim in terms economists know and understand, and I think there is a lot less friction between the market and the capabilities approach with Sen.


  1. Modern liberals believe in a very large bureaucratic state accountable to the executive branch (while the legislative branch grants broad authority to such) and divorced from most court oversight except in a very narrow range of life.

    To confuse classical liberalism with its deference for multiple centers of power with modern liberalism and its deference for ever increasing centralization of power in a metropole and in the hands of one person is to confuse a lot.

    Anyway, Wolfe was fisked here some time ago:

    ~Wolfe is grossly naive about the democratic state. Because they lack both the requisite knowledge and incentives, government officials are not responsive to average people beyond the superficial gestures politicians have to make to get obtain and retain power. No one vote counts, and the governmental apparatus is inevitably captured by well-organized interest groups, predominantly associated with big business, that have the time, wealth, and motivation to have the system rigged to their advantage through exploitative, anticompetitive interventions. (Majority rule would be no better.) Any “welfare” for low-income people is more in the nature of hush money to prevent civil strife. Wolfe’s belief that the State can be the protector of the autonomy and equality of regular people is puzzling because government action–rooted in coercion—by its very nature undermines autonomy and fosters dependency.~

  2. Besides whether or not one wants to argue over the meaning words (a mostly useless enterprise based on symbolism rather than anything resembling substance) is the fact that Wolfe basically resembles lots of folks who have a big idea and wish to apply it everywhere (and who think that, like say Leo Strauss, think that we've gone astray from some gloried golden mean of the past):

    ~Wolfe, however, rarely concedes liberalism’s limitations. Take just about any issue facing the West today, Wolfe tells us — immigration, terrorism, the place of religion in society, government secrecy, the economic consequences of globalisation — sprinkle some of liberalism’s magic dust on it, and a solution is at hand.

    Wolfe identifies a realistic modesty as one of liberalism’s hallmarks, but he is offering a rather immodest vision. An implication, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, ripples across the pages of The Future of Liberalism: if we’d only taste of liberalism’s sweet reasonableness, then the world would be a better place. As Wolfe sees it, liberalism seems to encompass all that is right and good, and pity those who do not see things this way. At times, with his checklist of liberal virtues, he can be as rigid as a political commissar sniffing out smelly little heresies. Wolfe preaches an open mind — indeed, as he repeatedly notes, this is one of liberalism’s sacred tenets — but he tends to dismiss all those who stand beyond the pale of his own philosophy.

    Liberals are not the only ones who pass off their theories as a reflection of the natural order — for this, in many ways, is the central philosophy of conservatism — but they may be the only ones who forcefully deny they are doing so. This is dirty secret of The Future of Liberalism. Wolfe’s readings of Mill and Kant are bracing, and his defence of the welfare state generally solid, but if you press the logic of his claims, you end up with something very much like a liberal version of natural law. Wolfe holds liberalism’s truths to be self-evident, when they are no such thing.~

  3. Daniel, I haven't listened to this interview, but what is your 30,000-foot explanation of what happened? For example, did the classical liberals focus on the dignity and autonomy of the individual, and then think that limited government was the means to achieve these goals, then modern libertarians and liberals deviated, with the former focusing on the means while the latter focused on the ends?

    1. You have to keep in mind that Wolfe wrote a book in 2005 titled _Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What it Needs to Do to Recover It_; a year before that Richard Perle and David Frum wrote _An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror_. Now Wolfe is all about the danger of being "dependent" on the market. Indeed phrases like this one in the book can leave one gobsmacked:

      ~In seeking to bypass the dependencies associated with both markets and private charity, the welfare state aims to give individuals the autonomy they need to make their own choices about the kind of life they wish to live.~

      That's the sort of claim that requires some sort of evidence in my mind.

      As Alan Ryan notes in his work on modern liberalism (2012) one of the basic criticisms of modern liberalism is that it probably will not be able to deliver the goods and that in attempting to will undermine the gains of classical liberalism via bureaucratic necessity:

      "...the welfare state must employ an extensive bureaucracy whose members are granted discretionary powers and charged by law to use those powers for the welfare of their clients. This means that classical liberals' concern for the rule of law and the curtailing of arbitrary discretion is ignored: bureaucrats are given resources to disburse to their clients, and meanwhile the allegiance of the citizenry is undermined when the state fails to produce the good things it has been asked to provide."


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