Monday, April 21, 2014

Kevin Frei responds

As many of you know, when the subject of a post responds I like to pull it up into a main post. Kevin Frei responded to my take on his "liberalism unrelinquished" project. Nothing is particularly new here, but it's always nice to see people respond. I have thoughts below. He writes:
"Hi Daniel, thank you for posting about this! I guess I ought to clarify a little the motivation behind this project.

Some people make the argument that modern liberalism is really consistent with the earlier liberal tradition, but I think the general consensus is that modern liberal theory is really social democratic theory, and modern "classical liberalism" is much more in line with liberalism as it was understood in the 19th century. This is an initiative about classical liberals trying to reclaim their label.

Most people don't know what a classical liberal is, so classical liberals tend to refer to themselves as libertarians. But "libertarian" has a lot of extreme connotations. Within the libertarian umbrella there is a hardcore variety (Ayn Rand, Rothbard, etc) and a more moderate classical liberal variety (the ones who win Nobel Prizes in economics). So classical liberals have always been a little uncomfortable about the libertarian label, and many of us would prefer that libertarianism is a subset of liberalism, rather than the other way around.

Words evolve all the time, of course, but there's no law of linguistics that words can't revert back. With the word "progressive" currently coming back in vogue among the Left, it seems like a ripe time for classical liberals to assert their claim to "liberal" and try to carve out a spot for themselves in the political discourse.

Freedom of contract and freedom of association were centerpieces of 19th century liberalism, and it's a stretch to rectify those values with the labor regulations and other policies associated with modern liberalism. So I do think it's fair to say that the meaning of the word changed - at least, that is what all the signers are asserting. I guess you could say we're all liberals in the very broad sense that we're not monarchists or communists, but I think the term has a little more precision than that.

Anyway, I appreciate you engaging on this issue!"
So right - it's clear that many libertarians think classical liberalism is just libertarianism and that liberal is better suited to describe this crowd and it's not suited to describe "modern liberalism". But this is precisely the point I am disputing, and not a point that I think needs to be clarified.

I don't think you need to broaden the definition of liberal at all. I think it means the exact same thing it used to mean. Over time when a philosophical tradition gains more traction there is more diversity on specific views of course. New ethical and political theories develop that add new wrinkles to the liberal landscape. But my liberal values and priorities today are no different than they were in the 18th century.

It's not unreasonable to make a distinction between classical liberalism and liberalism generally. Classical liberalism is often associated with the view that property rights are implicit in any meaningful sense of liberty. That's certainly my view and I'm no libertarian. We might argue about some modern liberals who are liberals as much as Kevin Frei is but may start to wander away from classical liberalism in that sense. But I think they would be hard to find and hard to define. Modern liberals in the United States at least, even those well to the left of me, still have a strong respect for private property and the market economy. Is it enough respect for private property? Are property rights implicit in their understanding of liberty? For a whole lot of people that would be difficult to assess both because "enough" is tough to get a grasp on and because most people haven't thought about liberty with a sufficient degree of formality to take a position on whether property rights are implicit in a sound understanding of liberty or not. If Kevin Frei is of the "taxation is theft" internet libertarian variety (and I have no idea if he is - it's a hypothetical) then almost nobody makes the cut. But precisely why is Kevin Frei more qualified than somebody else to make the call?


  1. Thanks again, Daniel.

    Okay, fair enough: since we're all working within a framework of property rights and markets, and since we agree that liberalism isn't synonymous with hard-line "taxation is theft"-style libertarianism, it is kind of a question of degree. Adam Smith isn't necessarily the definition of liberalism, either.

    But consider that today the Democratic party is considered the "liberal" party, and that Paul Krugman's blog is called "the conscience of liberal." Both Krugman and Democrats define themselves as liberals *in opposition to* advocates of more limited government and a more laissez faire economy.

    Take for instance the minimum wage: it's regarded as a "liberal" policy, right? Yet to "liberalize" labor markets would be to deregulate them and eliminate the minimum wages and the like. The noun is associated with greater government intervention, but the verb retains the earlier meaning.

    It is sometimes argued that a minimum wage is a liberal policy because it improves the condition of the poor and liberates them from an asymmetric bargaining position, thus expanding the scope of human freedom. But I don't think that quite gets it. Everyone wants a better world for everybody, and most people on all sides recognize that a dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. It's not a question of ends but of means. The liberal *technique* is to not intervene in those private voluntary negotiations because of a belief that in competitive markets free of coercion, you get a better social outcome when you let individuals execute pareto improvements freely. You're an economist - you know the standard classical analysis says that minimum wages don't increase wages, they only reduce employment. Whether that simple analysis is adequate is another matter; my point is that the desired outcome is the same on both sides, but Krugman and the Democrats favor the regulatory approach while the other side favors a technique that is, I think, properly called the liberal technique. So if anything, Krugman's outlook is less liberal than someone like Greg Mankiw, right?

  2. I'm afraid this might be one of the issues where Daniel becomes offended and gets defensive, so let me try and sketch out the argument in less hostile terms.

    1) Social Democracy (Rawls) and Libertarianism (Rothbard) are subsets of Liberalism. - I don't think is being debated.
    2) There are things that are Liberalism that are neither Social Democracy nor Libertarianism.
    3) Americans currently using the word liberalism to refer to Social Democracy and the word libertarianism to refer to all other forms of Liberalism.
    4) This is a cultural practice that is particularly alienating to Liberals who, though not Social Democrats, find Libertarianism to be abhorrently disgusting and would rather not be associated with it.
    5) Therefore, the word liberal should be used to describe Liberalism, and the terms social democracy and libertarian should be used to refer to specific subsets of liberalism to which they correspond.

    6) As a happy aside, that would be American political linguistics more into line with the political linguistics of every other western country.

    1. Aaron, I like it! Though I think the situation is complicated by ambiguity about the word "libertarian," too. There's a huge gulf between Rothbard and Milton Friedman, though both identified as libertarians. Deontological, Rothbardian-type libertarians often don't recognize consequentialists as true libertarians. Richard Epstein is a famous libertarian, but I've heard him debate Walter Block and sound like an ardent socialist by comparison lol. And Epstein argues that the Rawlsian, utilitarian framework is the correct one, but that the Ralwsian means are mismatched to the Rawlsian ends. So all these terms are pretty loose.

    2. You mean Rawlsian and utilitarian as two different things, right?

      Also, the huge divide between Friedman and Rothbard for example is a great reason to not use the same word to mean both.

    3. I agree - my vote is to use the word "liberal" for milton friedman types, libertarian for rothbard types, conservative for Rick Santorum types, social democratic for Obama types, etc.

      I don't know a whole lot about Rawls, but my understanding is that his take was essentially utilitarian as opposed to the natural rights ethics of hardcore libertarians. Not knowing what would be our natural endowments, if we had to make the rational choice behind the veil of ignorance we would choose a high degree of social insurance because our utility functions are logarithmic. That's utilitarianism, right? But here's the thing: if you incorporate a theory of economic growth in which laissez faire expands the pie at a faster rate than does social democracy, and if you toss out theories in which utility is based on relative rather than absolute wealth, then the rational person in the original position may well choose laissez faire over a welfare state. So again it's not the objective that is liberal but the means chosen.

    4. aaron -
      This seems very much like my view of things, which confuses me a little as to what you think I would be mad about and also what Kevin likes about it!

      Kevin has already suggested above that Krugman is suspect as a true liberal, for example. Much of the discussion around this effort seems to me at least to be claiming that non-libertarians are not liberals or classical liberals of any sort. This does not seem to be what you are saying. Kevin's own statement doesn't say that he thinks more people should be called liberals (not a contested point I don't think - libertarians already are considered liberals as in "the liberal tradition" by most people). His statement says that he "takes exception" to current uses, which suggests to me that he does not see left-liberals as liberals.

      If I'm wrong on this then that's great and we're closer than I thought. My position has been from the start that the problem with the use of "liberal" in America is not that it is used inaccurately in describing left-liberals, but that it is used to narrowly and should also include libertarians and a many conservatives. If this is Kevin's position then great, but I don't think many people are reading him that way and that's certainly never been the impression I've gotten from Dan Klein.

    5. Apologizes for hi-jacking your thread Daniel, I will stop after this.

      Rawls was a deontologist, just as much as the natural rights libertarians are/were. The point of Rawls is not that utility is marginally decreasing with wealth, Mill or even Smith gets you that much. The point of Rawls is that the poor have a "natural right" (Rawls was a constructivist so "natural" is not the right word here, but I like to keep terms as easy to understand as possible) to a certain social order that explicitly benefited the worst off much as possible.

      There is some discussion of whether the veil of ignorance reduces to Benthamite utilitarianism, but thats only under the condition of perfect risk neutrality. Something Rawls specifically rejected.

    6. re: "I agree - my vote is to use the word "liberal" for milton friedman types, libertarian for rothbard types, conservative for Rick Santorum types, social democratic for Obama types, etc."

      OK see, I didn't think we were in agreement.

      I really don't mind the status quo too much, but I clearly agree that it's an accident of history that "liberal" has come to mean "left liberal". If I could magically make changes that were more sensible I would swap "progressive" for "liberal" as it's used in the U.S. and use "liberal" to refer to all but the most extreme libertarians that really start to move out of liberalism, all but the most left-wing progressives that really start to move out of liberalism, and all but the most extreme right wing conservatives that really start to move out of liberalism. To be a liberal we have to ask whether you prioritize liberty, equality, and self-government or not. It is not an easy call but it's certainly easy to say that the groups I outlined above do. There are tensions between and within these. Externality problems are the easiest example to illustrate these tensions - if I want the state to address an externality and Kevin doesn't is he abandoning the presumption of liberty or am I? But there are even more fundamental tensions like whether we should go with Milton Friedman or Amartya Sen as a guide for how economists should think and talk about freedom.

      The tensions are precisely why I reject Kevin's recategorization, particularly when it's so clear that we're all looking back to common classical liberal foundations and we're all reaching for the same sorts of values and we're all preferring the same sorts of liberal societies to illiberal societies.

    7. No please don't worry about stopping... threads are meant for conversation!!! Your list helps us to talk about what we think on this.

      I don't have much to add on questions of deontology, utilitarianism, natural rights, or anything else. I can tell you I don't believe in natural rights, I'm not really a utilitarian either (at least in any strict sense), and I don't think any of these are necessary positions to take to be a liberal.

    8. Aaron, I defer to you on all things Rawls - I'm out of my depth on that subject!

      Daniel, I agree with a lot of what you've said, but I guess I do think liberalism ought to mean something sufficiently specific that it doesn't incorporate both Krugman and Rothbard. You're saying the term should be expanded from Left to Right, but I'm saying it's really more of a Right term and it's up for debate how far it should be expanded Left.

      In the broad philosophical sense maybe we're all liberals. But in today's usage - in the circles I run in, anyway - "liberal" means minimum wages, the ACA, an expansive public sector, a high level of social insurance, etc. Some of those things may be desirable, but I think it only confuses things to call them liberal. Those of us who usually favor market solutions when possible would like to have something to call ourselves without being lumped in with Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard.

      A buddy of mine and I debate on a lot of these issues. We both believe in the power of markets, but on virtually every issue he believes some market failure makes more government intervention necessary, whereas I usually think the problem is due to too much regulation in the first place. If you ask the common observer which one of us is more liberal, I think everyone will point to my buddy; whereas I think that between the two of us, I'm the more liberal one. That's basically the linguistic change Dan and I are aspiring (perhaps vainly) to affect.

    9. Right. So what I thought was the point of contention is the point of contention.

      The argument is not "is social democracy a part of the liberal tradition?" But rather, "given that social democracy is a specific thing, does it make sense to use the specific term to describe it and leave the more general term for these things without more specific terms?"

    10. I am comfortable with specific or general usages. If you want to catch everyone in modern times that follows the classical liberals of the 18th century that seems to me like it's clearly got to be a big tent. If you want to use it in a narrower way it seems to me we should follow the general trajectory of the liberal tradition and the champions of these values in the most balanced way that constantly seeks to adapt liberal principle to new circumstances, then we should use the modern usage meaning "left-liberal". That may be an American bias on my part. I could see very similar European arguments going the other way, probably because the classical liberal tradition evolved differently in Europe due to much stronger and more combative socialist movements (we seem to have tamed our socialists, liberals in Europe seem to have been beaten back by theirs).

      Perhaps a better path is to have dual usage and understand from context whether we mean "everyone following in the path of the classical liberals" (i.e. the broader "liberal tradition" sense) or not. That's what's going on right now and honestly I'm perfectly fine with that too.

    11. If you take liberal values from the classical liberals, I see left liberals as doggedly pursuing those values, which is why I think they've maintained the label.

      Libertarians are in the liberal tradition but they are liberals that are often more focused on anti-statism than liberal values. That is the major stumbling block. And there is this very tough wall of language to surmount where liberty becomes anti-statism so that some of the strongest proponents of freedom that we have are dismissed as being anti-liberty today by libertarians because they would contemplate a meaningful role for the state. You wouldn't believe the stuff guys like me get accused of. That really seems more of an offshoot of the liberal trunk than the main trajectory of liberalism to me.

      I mean look - we're talking about liberalism here and you keep coming back to the minimum wage as a reason to exclude guys like Krugman? It seems like the primary value in an assessment like that is whether or not someone is anti-state, not whether they are pro-liberty.

    12. One last point - yes a lot of people in the West are liberals today in the classical liberal sense. There's a good reason for that - liberalism works and because liberalism works liberalism won.

    13. fwiw aaron I personally don't 100% know what to do with "social democracy" because my impression is a lot of it is essentially socialism which I think is harder to call liberalism. But if what we mean by social democracy is Paul Krugman then he clearly is a liberal. I don't know enough about the intellectual history of social democracy to come down hard one way or another.

      I want to repeat if we want to keep "liberal" specific I am fine with that. I don't need a broad usage. But then it probably makes sense to leave it with left-liberals (although then you do have this awkward differential usage in Europe, but I don't see why that means left-liberals should cede it particularly since a lot of people in the Liberal Party and even the Conservatives in the UK are more or less American liberals anyway).

    14. The responses you have offered here are a really good example of the problem. Earlier, you criticize libertarianism as anti-statism. This is true of the Rand-Rothbard-Murphy (RRM) wing, but not really true of the Hayek-Lomasky-Schmidtz (HLS) wing. You want "libertarianism" to mean RRM libertarianism. I agree, I want libertarianism to mean RRM libertarianism.

      You then equate the LibDems to American liberals. The big difference between the LibDems (HLS libertarians) and Labour (social democrats) is not the role of they place on the welfare state, specifically, or the demand to have less government, generally. Instead, the big difference is the role they place on democratic control of the economy itself, whether it's democracy through unions or democracy through the state. The point of social democracy is to democratize society, not just political governance. Social democracy has been explicitly capitalistic since at least Rawls. It's about creating a democratic capitalism.

      The LibDems on the other hand believe the goal is to have people free (both positive and negative) to direct their lives themselves, that requires a state, and the best states are democratic ones. Democracy is operative, not ideal.

      It's a question of "participation" versus "exit." Both often require many of the same things, but that doesn't make them the same thing. Now, which of those sounds more like the Democrats to you? The party that wants a society as democratized as possible, or the party that wants a society (I want to say "as liberalized as possible", but that would be to beg the question, however, I cannot think of another phrase)?

    15. I most definitely do not want libertarianism to be just RRM. Even Hayek types tend to associate liberty with non-state interference. Contrast Hayek's view of liberty with - for example - Sen's, which I think is the best expression in economic terms of a left liberal view of liberty.

      The way you describe LibDems sounds like American liberals to me, not American libertarians (not HLM or RRM).

    16. If you mean to include Hayek type libertarians, then the statement is objectively false. Hayek, Lomasky, Schmidtz, Gaus, Tomasi, et al are all trying to justify the state. They are no more anti-statist then Rawls, Sen, Locke, or even Hobbes.

      To your direct point: Hayek: freedom from the arbitrary will of others. Sen: freedom to live as one sees fit.

      The two are making basically the same point. Hayek's is just weaker. He allows for the imposition to exist as long as it is not arbitrary. The whole of liberal political theory, Hayek included, is to render a non-arbitrary social order.

      To pre-empt a possible exception, things that are not the product of a will Hayek does not include because he does consider them to be morally relevant, not because he doesn't consider them important. Just not violations of one's liberty. It makes no sense to say a hurricane violated my rights.

    17. The question is not whether they find justification for a state. If that is your line in the sand then libertarians are anarchists. That misses the point here I think. Most people take "libertarian" to include anarchist and minarchists (if anything they want to exclude anarchists as something different).

      re: "To your direct point: Hayek: freedom from the arbitrary will of others. Sen: freedom to live as one sees fit."

      Yes - this is why I say Hayek and Sen are both liberals. But Hayek is a libertarian and Sen is not.

    18. I'm not certain what minarchism means. It do mean one of two things: either it means the state should be as small as possible in order to fulfill it's essential functions (in which case it basically means governments should do the things it should do and not do the things it shouldn't do and applies to basically everyone, ever) or it can mean the state should be as small as possible to still be a state (in which case it doesn't apply to the Hayek group I've been talking about). So if libertarian is a minarchist or an anarchists then either everyone is libertarian, or Hayek wasn't a libertarian. Talking about places like Denmark and Sweden as minarchist is weird if you want minarchist to mean anything substantive.

      I'm also not sure what "The question is not whether they find justification for a state. If that is your line in the sand then libertarians are anarchists" is supposed to mean. If you mean that no libertarians find a justification for a state, you're wrong - unless you're defining libertarian to mean something that doesn't include Hayek et al, which causes the last sentence to be wrong.

      And this all gets to the root of the problem, you really, really want the Hayek-type group to be in the same group as the Rothbard-type group, which is problematic because the Hayek-type group is as close to the Sen-type group (at least as close) as it is to the Rothbard-type group. It is a complete historical accident that Americans (and only Americans) use one word to mean Hayek/Rothbard and a second word to mean just Sen that allows you to make this claim.

      That you even see a difference between the Sen and Hayek versions of liberty strikes me as incredibly strange - they are saying almost exactly the same thing. One is a contractualist (Hayek) and talks about liberty in terms of one's relations with others, the other is a consequentialist (Sen) and talks about liberty in the terms of the consequences it allows for, but they're saying the same thing.

    19. I don't know why there is still confusion here. I am saying that lots of libertarians think states are justified. It was never claimed that they don't and whether the state is justified or not is not the point. The point is the role of the state and on that there is quite a difference between Hayek type libertarians and left liberals which is PRECISELY why it is appropriate to use the word "libertarian" for Hayek type libertarians.

      You say I "really, really" want to put them together as if I am forcing this here. This is a quite standard way of using these words. Of course it's also recognized that there's great diversity within libertarianism, sure. There's diversity within left liberalism as well.

    20. Reading back through the thread, I don't see any explanation of why the early liberals would be closer aligned with left-liberals today than with modern classical liberals.

  3. Ah I posted before seeing your other remarks. Okay we agree that there has been a historical shift in how the word applies. Well here's something that maybe illustrates why I think it is a historical accident worth redressing: when I was in high school, I remember being explicitly taught that the Republican and the Democratic parties switched places at some point in history, such that Lincoln Republicans were really modern day Democrats and Democrat slavers were really modern day Republicans. We know this because Lincoln was a liberal, and the Democratic party is the liberal party. Somehow I made it through an undergraduate history degree without ever learning otherwise. And like a lot of people, I thought that "liberal" meant like a liberal portion of government lol.

    So I think it really confuses history. And I think it's unfortunate that economic liberties get conflated with racism and sexism and bible thumping and all the other bad things imputed to right-wingers. Restoring the earlier meaning of the term would help clarify a lot of things for average people who aren't really steeped in this stuff. When you're trying to talk politics with your mom in the kitchen, you realize how important it is to get the basic terms and outlines right lol.

    1. re: "Okay we agree that there has been a historical shift in how the word applies."

      I don't see a big shift, no. I really need to run but I'll try to make this clear. When you have a few people talking about big ideas in the 18th century that's obviously going to branch out two centuries later. So if we want to use the word in a specific way we have to ask - who is on the main trunk of that tree and who are the branches that hang more to the side? I think the main trunk of the tree is more or less American left liberals which is precisely why they've maintained usage of the word. There has not been a major shift although of course times are different and things might not map on perfectly. If you transported the 18th century classical liberals to today most (not all) would be what we have been referring to as left-liberals I'd wager.

      re: "Somehow I made it through an undergraduate history degree without ever learning otherwise."


      There have been major ideological realignments of the political parties. What "otherwise" are you referring to?

    2. Okay, so it sounds like where we really disagree is where the main trunk is today: the signers and I think it's the folks who call themselves classical liberals and sometimes libertarians. If you're right, then the whole LU thing is misguided. If we're right, then it clarifies a lot. I'm not sure how to settle that debate, though I'm sure a lot of ink has been spilled on it.

      By "otherwise" I just meant that if you hold the term "liberal" constant, then you see the parties pivoting around that term. But if you believe the term liberal changed to mean something different, and if you think modern classical liberals are the real torchbearers of a consistent liberal tradition, then the liberal Lincoln Republicans look a lot more like modern-day Republicans (at least of the libertarian/classical liberal variety) than Democrats.


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