Sunday, April 20, 2014

Making predictions is difficult, particularly about the future

Bob Murphy has an interesting comment on the last post:
"...But you're acting like it's totally crazy? Don't you see that there is a very real sense in which the terms conservative and liberal have come to mean almost exactly the opposite of what they did in the 1800s, at least in several key respects? If Bastiat came back today, I am not saying he would call himself an anarcho-capitalist, but I'm pretty sure he would not be a "liberal" in the way Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow use the term."
So "conservative" is tricky because as society moves the goal-posts move for conservatives. But I don't think the discussion is really about conservatives so much as liberalism, left-liberals, and libertarians (I would put many conservatives under "liberalism" too but that isn't the main point here - Ryan in the comments suggests many are Straussians and that's as good a word as any for others in the conservative movement).

I am of course not claiming that libertarians don't have a claim to the word "liberal". They clearly do. They are clearly in the liberal tradition, and Bastiat - a liberal in his own time - would be a libertarian today in all likelihood and of course in the liberal tradition. I have no dispute with Bob about that.

But Adam Smith? John Locke? Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Paine? That's a whole lot trickier. I could see anyone of them being solid left-liberals if they were transported to the future. I could also see them being libertarians. Keynes remarked in his 1925 essay "Am I A Liberal?" (referencing the Liberal Party but talking a lot about ideology as well) that he would have been what he called a "Conservative Free Trader" if he were around in the 18th century (basically the Bastiat crew is what he had in mind).

But that's kind of the whole point here. Unlike Bob I would not say anything has flipped here. I would say the liberal tradition is an active and progressive intellectual community that has sub-divided over time and there are a lot of genuinely liberal ways to be a classical liberal today.

Before closing this I'd also point out that many of us have in mind economic questions and liberal political economists when we talk about liberalism. Not everyone knows economics, though. I think we need to go a little bit deeper today than seeing whether someone gets worked up about trade with China to determine whether they are liberal. That's just one issue that can easily be remedied by some remedial economics education, and deep down they may still very much be a liberal at heart even if they get some things wrong. I think economists have this tendency to look at things through an economist's eyes too strictly.


  1. At some point you realize that all the epicycles and retrograde motion are absurd and you question the basics. Ideology is not a useful concept for understanding American politics.

    For example, endless debates about conservatism get much simpler when you realize that in 1950 the racists were split evenly between the two parties. In 1981 a realignment was cemented that put them all in one party.

  2. When you find yourself arguing over labels that is a pretty clear sign that the discussion has gone off the rails. Who gives a damn whether Adam Smith would have aligned himself with Krugman or Hayek if he were suddenly transported to the modern world? The issues and choices are very different now than they were in Smith's time.

    a "liberal" in the way Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow use the term."

    Which is meaningless since "liberal" as they use the term is basically a creature of their own imagining conjured up to frighten their audiences.

  3. Well, I'm glad you didn't say "The future is fundamentally unknowable", Daniel. :-P


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