Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

“Classical Liberalism” Will Never Satisfy the Left | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on December 7, 2022

Mises and Hayek used “classical liberal” to distinguish themselves from the Left. Today the term is used primarily to appease the Left. Self-proclaimed classical liberals today mostly seek to distance themselves from MAGA Trumpism and the hated Deplorables, to convince progressives they are not like those awful right-wingers!

Jeff Deist

“Today the tenets of this nineteenth-century philosophy of liberalism are almost forgotten. In the United States “liberal” means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations.”

—Ludwig von Mises, 1962 (emphasis added)

F.A. Hayek is back in the public eye, thanks to a promising and weighty new biography from Professors Bruce Caldwell and Hansjörg Klausinger. Predictably, the book has brought Hayek’s critics out of the woodwork. Consider the recent backhand in The Spectator by Lord Robert Skidelsky, titled “Friedrich Hayek: A Great Political Thinker Rather than a Great Economist.” Readers quickly understand the author actually thinks Hayek was neither. This is perhaps not a surprise coming from Skidelsky, the fulsome biographer of John Maynard Keynes who clearly imagines that his subject “won” the debate against Hayek over planning versus markets (“He more or less gave up technical economics after his battles with Keynes and the Keynesians”).

But the ongoing criticisms of Hayek’s “neoliberalism”—i.e., his supposed political program1—ring very hollow even in hopeless outlets like Jacobin. Hayek and his mentor Ludwig von Mises were old liberals of the nineteenth-century variety. Neoliberalism, by contrast, is a derogatory catchall term used by the Left today to police what it sees as undue respect for markets and private capital among the Clintonite and Blairite factions pushing global social democracy.

But fundamentally there is only liberalism and illiberalism. Hayek and Mises steadfastly called themselves “classical liberals” out of necessity—to distinguish themselves from the modern liberal program.

Twentieth-century liberalism, the bad kind, had its roots in the Progressive Era. It manifested in Wilsonian expansionism and Franklin Roosevelt’s criminal New Deal, both deeply illiberal developments opposed by the two Austrians-cum-Americans. “Liberal” had morphed into a proxy term for individuals advocating left-wing economic and social programs rather than markets and laissez-faire. So regardless of the earlier strands of classical liberalism flowing from Adam Smith, John Locke, David Hume, or even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mises and Hayek used the term expressly in the context of midcentury Western politics.

After the Great Depression and two world wars, the old nineteenth-century liberalism was under open attack. But Mises and Hayek still advanced a liberalism of economic freedom and peace, in stark contrast to the central planning, interventionism, and positive rights (entitlements) promoted as scientific by Marxists and Keynesians. The quote at the top of this article, from the 1962 preface to the English translation of Mises’s foundational 1927 book, Liberalismus, demonstrates the critical distinction. The shift in the meaning of “liberal” over the thirty-five years between editions was clear and convincing. And it compelled the great economist to retitle the book The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth: An Exposition of the Ideas of Classical Liberalism to make sure Anglo-American audiences knew exactly which version of liberalism the book explained.

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