Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What is Classical Liberalism?

People reading this blog tend to slap it with the label "Conservative." Conservatism is a reactionary ideology tracing its history to the French Revolution.

Guess what?

I think the French Revolution was a mess from start to finish. The post revolution reaction was as corrupt as the radical ideas that started the French Revolution.

I am committed to neither side of the Left/Right split that formed in the French Revolution because I think the French Revolution was bunk.

I believe that the best path to an open and prosperous society will be found in the American Revolution. To understand the American Revolution, one needs to know what was going on before the Revolution and not what went on after the revolution.

The thought system that developed before the American Revolution culminated in the American Constitution. The ideologies that developed in the generations after the American Revolution culminated in the Civil War.

(NOTE, the term "ideology" was coined by Destutt De Tracy (1754, 1836) during the French Revolution)

The thought system of the American colonies in the eighteenth century was clearly different from the thought system in the old world. The ideology of the American Revolution was also radically different from the ideologies that developed in the French Revolution.

DeStutt De Tracy was a friend of Thomas Jefferson. I think that Tracy was on the correct track in realizing that we needed different terms to discuss different thought systems.

In order to discuss the thought system of the US Founders, we need a term to describe it. I really like the term "Classical Liberalism" and I believe that we could improve our condition by studying and understanding this thought system.

The US Founders had a refined classical education. Their logic books include Isaac Watts and Arnauld. They read Xenophon not Plato. Like most thinkers of the Aristotelian tradition, the Founders had a distaste of paradox.

The US Founders were the generation after the "Great Awakening." So, they had a strong moral upbringing, but were livid at the excesses of the Great Awakening … such as the Salem Witch Trials.

The founders had a strong foundation in both faith and reason. Conservatives like Glenn Beck tend to ignore the reason part of the equation.

The founders of the United States were livid with the corruption of the old world. They applied their refined classical education to the question of liberty and came up with a radical new way of thinking.

I define "classical liberalism" as "the application of a refined classical logic to the question of liberty." The ideology stretches from Locke through to the penning of US Constitution and the development of the free market. It includes a number of voices including Adam Smith, Addison and the US Founders.

Reading the Wikipedia article on Classical Liberalism (drawn 10/19/2010) broke my heart. The article appears to be based on the ramblings of a wild-eyed progressive professor at the University of Utah named E. K. Hunt. As a progressive, Mr. Hunt's goal is to position classical liberalism as a quaint economic view that existed prior to the enlightened progressives.

The article starts with the declaration: "Classical liberalism is a political ideology that developed in the nineteenth century in Western Europe, and the Americas."

This is a misquote of Richard Hudelson (Modern political philosophy (1999), p, 37-38) who said: "By the middle of the nineteenth century a coherent vision of how society should be organized had taken shape in England, western Europe and the Americas. This vision is the political ideology of classical liberalism."

For those of you with a public school education, different prepositions mean different things. Changing the preposition "by" to the preposition "in" completely changes the meaning of the sentence. Note the sentence "I want our military in Iraq" is different from the sentence "I want our military out of Iraq." All I did was change the preposition.

I believe that classical liberalism developed over a long period of time and that it had become main stream by the nineteenth century. With the claim that the ideology was developed after 1800, the Wikipedia article negates my belief.

NOTE, the term "classical liberal" appeared well after the development of the ideas to differentiate it from modern liberalism which evolved through Rousseau, the French Revolution, Kant, Hegel and Marx.

Personally, I think the biggest difference between classical and modern liberalism is that classical liberalism rejected paradoxes, while modern liberals embrace paradox. Classical liberals held that freedom is freedom and slavery is slavery. Modern liberals march in step with Hegel and believe freedom is slavery and slavery freedom.

Classical Liberals believed that there is one eternal truth with is antithetical to progressivism which believes that truth changes with political expediency.

The Wikipedia article attributes the core principles of classical liberalism to E.K. Hunt. The article reads:

"According to E. K. Hunt, classical liberals made four assumptions about human nature: People were 'egoistic, coldly calculating, essentially inert and atomistic'."

This article is an absolute joke. Egoism is a preoccupation of modern philosophers such as Sidgwick (1838–1900) and Freud (1856–1939). Yes, some free marketeers of the modern age such as Ayn Rand were prone to wax eloquent about egoism. But, guess what? Ayn Rand was not claiming to be a classical liberal. She called her philosophy objectivism.

E.K. Hunt's assertion that ideas developed in the modern age were the foundation of classical liberalism is nothing but second rate disinformation. It is absurd to assert that the core of classical liberalism is a set of ideas that were developed after the theory became main stream.

These little assumptions stated by Hunt are used in game theory and mathematical modeling. Game theory is a thought system used in modern philosophies like Public Interest Theory. Game theory is not core to classical thinkers. One can't refine out a few attributes of a philosophy discussed in game theory and claim it to be the basis of classical liberalism. Classical logic, classical science and Christianity were the foundations of classical liberalism, not game theory.

Despite the fact that the Wikipedia article boldly claims that classical liberalism was developed in the 1900s, the history section of the article includes some of the primary names involved in the evolution of classical liberalism including Locke and Adam Smith. Like most pieces of propaganda that seek to discredit the free market, the article made Smith's illusion to an "invisible hand" the foundation of the Wealth of Nations. You actually have to read the book carefully to find this metaphor which is clearly used as an embellishment, and not as a foundational principle.

There is no mention of Franklin, the US Founders or Constitution, which are considered intellectual pariahs by the like of EK Hunt.

I felt physically ill after reading the Wikipedia article on Classical Liberalism. The goal of the article is to position the early works on liberty as simply a step in the progression toward the progressive's dystopia.

I, on the other hand, believe that there is a very sharp distinction between classical and modern liberalism and that if we wish to restore prosperity in America, we need to figure out this distinction.

The distinction has much more to do with the underlying rational theory than with the subject matter. The classical liberals had a completely different rational theory than modern liberals. We need to rediscover this rational theory.
Although the Wikipedia article on Classical Liberalism is total bunk, I will ignore it and continue to concentrate on this important distinction.

In the modern lexicon, Classical Liberalism is closer to the stated view of American Conservatives than it is to Modern Liberalism. Unfortunately, the corrupting influence of the reactionary impulse of Conservatives is almost as damaging to the ideas of classical liberalism as is the corrupt rational theory of modern liberals.

America is a nation being torn apart by the perversion of words, and I don't see any group effectively defending the lexicon of freedom.

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Pennywisdom said...

This post kind of coincides with one that I recently did on the concept of Enlightened Self-Interest and different philosophers' thoughts on the subject. I gather that you are obviously not a fan of Rousseau, but I do think that it is hard to ignore his critique of Classical Liberalism and the limits of Reason/Rationality as the foundation for a Society/People. I believe that people can exercise a reasonable self-restraint, but right now everything in our society militates against it, so if that is our goal we are going about it in a very backwards way.

Check out my post if you get a minute. The Indivisible Individual

y-intercept said...

Personally, I don't hold any grudge against Rousseau. There were many observations of Rousseau that I enjoyed, but he does not score high on my list of great thinkers.

The primary reason I dropped Rousseau's name is that some Conservatives dislike Rousseau, and I was trying to emphasize that the left/right split and conservatism arose were the products of the French Revolution which was steeped in actions and reactions inspired by Rousseau.

IMHO, Rousseau had an unfortunate tendency to push ideas to absurdities. In his critique of rationality he pushes rationality to an absolute and shows that absolutes are absurd.

The argument in my post is that the US Founders and other Classical Liberals had a different rational theory than modern liberals.

Classical logic is much more balanced than modern pundits pretend. Classical thinkers avoided absolutes and realized things like any virtue pushed to an extreme becomes a vice.

Modern thinkers love to push ideas to absolutes then revel in the paradoxes they create.

The point of my stream of thought post is that one cannot really understand classical liberal thought without taking time to understand the rational style of the day.

With the exception of Thomas Paine, classical liberals weren't demanding perfect rationality. They were seeking an age of freedom and not an age of reason.