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Post American Liberalism
Created by John Eipper on 10/10/11 9:53 AM

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American Liberalism (Alain de Benoist, France, 10/10/11 9:53 am)

In his comments to Gilbert Davis's post of 8 October, John Eipper asked: "Is it time to subject the whole notion of ‘American Liberalism' to a thorough critical analysis? How did liberalism come to take on a completely different meaning in the US than in the rest of the world?"

On October 9, Robert Whealey posted some interesting and useful elements to answer this question.

I think this is a essential topic, because the meaning of the word "liberal" is so different in America and in continental Europe that many misunderstandings can easily rise when we speak about "liberalism" on this Forum. Actually, it is necessary, once for all, that WAISers understand that "liberal" has, on the two sides of the Atlantic ocean, exactly opposite meanings.

For example, when I write something against "liberals" or "liberalism," I speak about people who: 1) adhere to the free-exchange free-market ideology, believe in the "invisible hand," in the virtue of laisser-faire and "free" concurrence, in "rational choices," etc.; 2) are individualists in the sense that for them a society is nothing more than an aggregate of individuals (instead of having as a whole properties distinct from the properties and characteristics of their constituent parts), which mean they stick to methodological individualism by opposition to holism ; 3) believe that human societies are born out of a voluntary and rational contract between individuals, either for maximizing their interests (John Locke), or to escape the sad realities of a "war of all against all" (Thomas Hobbes), which implies that they also believe that there was in the past a pre-political and pre-social stage of human life; in other means that men are not intrinsically social by nature; 4) believe that individuals have natural "rights" by virtue of their own nature, which means they stick to a subjective (and not objective) conception of the law; 5) give priority to the private sphere (seen as the "sphere of liberty") in opposition to the public sphere (seen as the "sphere of constraint and taxation"), are hostile to "big government," want to suppress as much as possible the interventions of the State (or want to reduce them to the guarantee of individual rights).

Liberalism does not have a single ideological father (like Marx for Marxism), which means that not all "liberals" share all of the above views, but most of them do.

In other words, "liberals," for Europeans, are very close to what the Americans rather call "conservatives"--the only difference being that US conservatives are generally more respectful of traditions, religion, family, states' rights, etc. (but here there is still a big difference between "paleoconservatives" and "neoconservatives"). For example, in the current language in (continental) Europe, Reagan, Thatcher or George W. Bush are typical "liberal" politicians. Differently said, for Europeans, "liberals" belong clearly to the Right.

In the US, it is exactly the contrary. The "liberals" are people who: 1) hold very anticonservative views on a variety of societal problems, like abortion, marriage between homosexuals, civil rights, etc.; 2) are in favor of more or less important interventions of the State in economic and social affairs, mainly to help the poor and disadvantaged popular classes. "Liberals" are clearly seen in America as belonging to the Left. What the Americans call today "liberalism" would probably be considered as "social-democracy" in Europe (but not as "socialism," because few US "liberals" would favor nationalizations). "Liberals" could be also called "progressive" people. "Liberalism" in America is a combination of social-democracy, social progressivism and mixed economy. It is associated with the memory of the New Deal program of Franklin D. Roosevelt or with the New Frontier program of John F. Kennedy. In 2004, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center estimated that the "liberals" represented around 19% of the US adult population (most of them having a higher socioeconomic level and a much higher educational level than the mean population).

In Canada and in Britain, the word "liberalism" is more or less understood as in the US. The Australian case is a bit different, as the Liberal Party of Australia has an ideology which is considered in Europe as more conservative.

In America, the "liberals" in the European sense are sometimes called "classical liberals."

The problem is still more complicated, by the existence of "national-liberals" in Europe and of "libertarians" in America. In Europe, the "national-liberals" are partisans of the free-market ideology who, however, give a great importance to the concept of nation (for instance, they oppose uncontrolled immigration, while the "liberals" want to suppress frontiers for people as well as for goods and merchandises). In Germany, some "national-liberals" support the "social market economy" (Sozialmarktwirtschaft) or the "ordoliberalism" of the Freiburg School (Wilhelm Röpke, Walter Eucken).

The libertarians, with people like Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Robert Nozick, etc., try to go back to the original sources of liberalism, which are to be found in Enlightenment philosophy. They want to maximize individual liberty at the expense of the common good. They profess a radical egoism and support extreme capitalist practices. Some of them want the complete privatization of all public services, including the police and the army, and the complete suppression of the State. That's why they have been sometimes nicknamed "anarcho-capitalists." In his famous text "Why I am not a Conservative," Friedrich [von] Hayek explained he could be defined as a "libertarian" though he thought that word was "artificial and not very attracting."

The reason why the words "liberal" and "liberalism" have acquired such so different meanings in the US and in continental Europe is a much more complicated question. Historically, the "liberalism" has been closely associated with the Enlightenment's rationalist philosophy (Smith, Locke). In the 18th century, it was the main opponent of the traditions of the Ancient Régime, which it described as "superstitions." As such, it was involved in the French Revolution and appeared at that time as quite leftist. In the 19th century, however the "liberals" were progressively pushed to the Right, first because they were linked to the bourgeoisie and because of their support of "economic freedom," but also due to the successive appearance of radical, socialist and communist parties. A new divide opposed the socialists, who give priority to social justice, and the liberals, who gave priority to individual liberty. Both socialists and liberals were equally the heirs of the Enlightenment, and were equally hostile to the bourgeois State, but for opposite reasons (for the liberals because it was still a State, for the socialists because this State was a bourgeois one). The socialists stayed on the Left, while the liberals went to the Right.

Anyway, what we have to remember is the importance of the meaning of the words. Remember Orwell's 1984 (the Newspeak). But remember also Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:

"When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'"

JE comments: When is a liberal not (a) liberal? Alain's primer should be required reading for anyone who runs for office or talks politics on TV. I'm also going to print this and share it with my students.  Just last week I was trying to explain "neo-liberalism" to them.  It's no surprise it didn't go well.  If neo-conservatives are, well, conservatives but newer and more gung-ho about nation-building, why--one would think--should neo-liberals be so different from American liberals?



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  • American Liberalism (David Gress, Denmark 10/13/11 7:14 AM)

    Small point to a very big topic, to which I may return.



    Alain de Benoist writes in his essay, which I have read, that "neo-liberalism," that is to say, an anti-state line of thought, took hold in Western governments in the late 1970s. That is simply not correct. Alain cites the excellent French political thinker Guy Hermet, who says the same thing. But this is sheer nonsense. All over the Western world, government spending rose in the 1970s and has done since. It is true that the Reagan administration did minimally reduce federal spending as a percentage of GDP during some years in the 1980s. But take Thatcher's Britain: when she became Prime Minister in 1979, public spending amounted to 44 per cent of GDP. When she left office in 1990, it was still 44 per cent of a much larger GDP.



    Liberalism? European style? Give me a break.



    Guy Hermet and Alain may be right that liberal (European-style) and free-market ideas had some purchase in certain departments of economics, notably in Chicago, but these ideas had nil, nada, nulla, rien purchase on policy, which went on as before, ever increasing the weight of government in people's pocketbooks and behavior.



    If European-style free-market liberalism had had any, even the least, impact on policy, we would be living in a very different world. One, for example, without a euro and with no bailouts for failed governments.



    I will comment on Alain's interesting distinctions between European and North American liberalism another time.


    JE comments:  As an attempt to synthesize Alain's and David's positions, perhaps we should comment on the phenomenon of the last thirty years:  neo-liberal ideals have taken hold over most of the world, but state spending has spiraled ever upwards.  Could it be that the former is a cunning way to mask the latter--i.e., I (we) can spend whatever we want, albeit reluctantly, because we espouse the virtues of neo-liberalism?

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