Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Posts Tagged ‘Classical Liberalism’

TGIF: Why Freedom Is the Goal | The Libertarian Institute

Posted by M. C. on December 12, 2022

The point is that any enlargement [of state authority], good or bad, reduces the scope of individual responsibility, and thus retards and cripples the education which can be a product of nothing but the free exercise of moral judgment…. The profound instinct against being “done for our own good” … is wholly sound. Men are aware of the need of this moral experience as a condition of growth, and they are aware, too, that anything tending to ease it off from them, even for their own good, is to be profoundly distrusted. The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed. [Emphasis added.]

by Sheldon Richman

In online interviews and conversations I’m hearing intellectuals in the national conservative movement say that the liberal Enlightenment “project” has mostly failed because people need more in their lives than freedom. I’ve also heard this from a few people who have lately become disillusioned with leftism but yet are uneasy about libertarianism.

My first response is to wonder whom these critics of classical liberalism, or libertarianism, its modern-day form, have in mind. Which important and widely influential liberal political, economic, or, social thinker even implied that freedom is the only thing worth valuing? Let’s name names, please. I can’t think of one, but perhaps I’m overlooking someone.

Those conservatives will also insist that freedom without virtue is not just worthless but a clear and present danger. But again, which past and present of genuine liberal stalwarts would disagree? I’ve always understood liberalism to be distinct from libertinism. I see no grounds for confusing the two.

Classical liberalism, in its consequentialist, deontological, and eudaemonist forms, has been concerned with what makes for a proper society by some articulated standard or other, starting with the most fundamental unit of analysis, the individual. The literature is saturated with positive observations about society, the division of labor, association, and rich communities — in a word, cooperation.

One way or another, all of that is related to values in addition to freedom; it all is related to virtue. Far from embodying an atomistic, licentious, to-hell-with-everyone-else (pseudo)individualism, libertarianism extols what I call Adamistic (Smith, that is) individualism, in which human beings “selfishly” flourish through mutually rewarding relationships of all kinds. I’ve also dubbed this “molecular individualism. Of course, some people will engage in vice and aggression (those aren’t the same things), but as long as the state is unavailable for social engineering, free individuals using private property in association with others can peacefully protect themselves and their children from what they find abhorrent. Live and let live is the rule.

For liberals, freedom was never just an end in itself. Freedom means freedom from aggression, whatever the source, but at least implicit in the liberal vision — and indispensable to truly understanding it — is the freedom to produce material and nonmaterial values in a social context. We want freedom so we may live fully as human beings and enjoy fruitful lives among other people. Successful long-term participation in the market and society more widely encourages honesty, justice, and conscientiousness — virtues by any reckoning. To understand the value of society is to understand the need for — yes — order, but it is specifically the bottom-up, emergent, spontaneous order that F. A. Hayek and other liberals have emphasized. (You find this in Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, and countless others.)

The critics of liberalism are right of course when they say that freedom is not enough to properly address the social problems we observe today. But again, which libertarian ever said it was? The libertarian point is that freedom is the condition in which people have the best chance of dealing with problems. Liberalism doesn’t promise a rose garden; it’s not utopian. In fact, freedom is not the answer to any problem. Rather, it — along with the resulting decentralization and competition — is essential to the discovery process that enables people to deal with problems as best they can. Since no one is omniscient, that discovery process is indispensable both for the good life and the good society.

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“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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The French Must Rediscover the Taste for Individual Freedom: An Interview with Professor Pascal Salin

Posted by M. C. on October 19, 2022

PS: It is true that we can consider this situation as surprising and regrettable. But it seems obvious that this is so because classical liberalism is not an objective for most French people, who, therefore, have no particular interest in classical liberal policies applied in other countries.

The same applies for US.

Matthieu Creson

Pascal Salin is an economist, professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Dauphine, and was president of the Mont-Pelerin Society from 1994 to 1996. Among the extensive list of books Professor Salin has published, mention can be made of the following titles: La vérité sur la monnaie (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1990), Libéralisme (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2000), Français, n’ayez pas peur du libéralisme (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2007), Revenir au capitalisme pour éviter les crises (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2010), La tyrannie fiscale (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2014; translated into English as Tax Tyranny [Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 2020]), Le vrai libéralisme: droite et gauche unies dans l’erreur (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2019).

Matthieu Creson (MC): How do you judge Emmanuel Macron’s first five-year term economically and socially? You said in an interview with Le Figaro magazine, at the time of the 2017 presidential campaign, that Emmanuel Macron was not a classical liberal, and you wrote in 2018 that his tax policy was fiscal tinkering. Is this still the case in your opinion?

Pascal Salin (PS): Indeed, I published an article in Le Figaro-Magazine in 2017 entitled No, Emmanuel Macron is not a classical liberal (contrary to what was then the case of François Fillon—who was then also running for president). France had experienced low growth in previous years because the policies that had been implemented, far from being inspired by classical liberalism, were on the contrary based on the growth of taxation and regulations. Emmanuel Macron was appointed in 2014 Minister of the Economy by President François Hollande. It then seemed obvious to me that he was not a real classical liberal, contrary to what was sometimes claimed. Public spending represented 59 percent of GDP in 2021 (and 63 percent in 2020), a slightly higher amount than in all previous years; and public deficit has also become more significant. It is obvious that one cannot consider as a classical liberal a president who increases public activities in relation to private ones. For example, health insurance expenses are public rather than private and the choice of retirement age is the result of a public decision and not a private choice.

MC: What do you think of the assumption (from which most of the media seem to start in their coverage of current political divisions) according to which there would be on one side the “globalists” and the “liberals,” and on the other the “populists”? For a long time, the main political and ideological dividing line was that between classical liberals, supporters of economic freedom and globalization through the market, and socialists, favorable to redistribution and state interventionism. Doesn’t the current cleavage which seems to serve, particularly in the media, as the one and only interpretative framework of today’s political world, mask the real cleavage, that is to say that which opposes the authentic classical liberals on one side, and the collectivists on the other?

PS: It is true—and regrettable—that the opposition between classical liberals and socialists is generally not highlighted in today’s world by politicians and by all citizens. Thus, it is not appropriate to consider that the political parties of the Left are socialist and the parties of the Right classical liberal. Both have more or less the same ideas and tend to make the same decisions. This is also why a book I published in 2019 is titled True Classical Liberalism—Right and Left United in Error (in French: Le vrai libéralisme: droite et gauche unies dans l’erreur). The examples in this book prove that equivalent (nonclassical liberal) policies have been taken over the past decades regardless of the parties in power.

MC: I’m going back to Emmanuel Macron and his economic policy. Do you think he has a chance (and already a real will) to lead, since the start of his second presidential term, some of the structural reforms that France has actually needed for at least forty years? Or is it more likely for you that other so-called “reforms” (in the continuity of those carried out by Chirac, Sarkozy, or Hollande) will see the light of day in the years to come, against a probable background of presidential and governmental communication centered on necessary “transformation” and “modernization” of France—a transformation and modernization which should indeed be a priority for our country?

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The Backstory of the Great Reset, or How to Destroy Classical Liberalism

Posted by M. C. on June 1, 2022

To understand the Great Reset, then, we must recognize that the project represents the completion of a centuries-long and ongoing attempt to destroy classical liberalism (the free market, free speech, and liberal democracy), American constitutionalism, and national sovereignty. The idea of resetting capitalism suggests that capitalism had previously been pure. But the Great Reset is the culmination of a much longer collectivization process and democratic socialist project, with their corresponding growth of the state.

Michael Rectenwald

As should be clear by now, Francis Fukuyama’s declaration in The End of History: The Last Man (1992) that we had arrived at “the end of history” did not mean that classical liberalism, or laissez-faire economics, had emerged victorious over communism and fascism, or that the final ideological hegemony signaled the end of socialism. In fact, for Fukuyama, the terminus of history was always democratic socialism or social democracy. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe noted in Democracy: The God That Failed, “the Last Man” standing was not a capitalist homo economicus but rather a “homo socio-democraticus” (222). The end of history, with all its Hegelian pretenses, did not entail the defeat of socialism-communism but rather of classical liberalism. Evidently, the big state and big capital were supposed to have reached an inevitable and final détente. The Great Reset is the consummation of this final détente.

The elite subversion of the free-market system and republican democracy had already been underway for many decades before “the end of history.” According to Cleon W. Skousen in The Naked Capitalist, elites positioned within major banks, large corporations, leading think tanks, influential publishing companies, the media, tax-exempt foundations, the educational system, and the US government sought to remake the US in the image of its (former) collectivist archrival since at least the early 1930s (57-68). As Carrol Quigley noted in Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time (1966), elites propagated socialist, communist, and other collectivist ideologies at home, while funding and arming the Bolsheviks in Russia and the communists in Vietnam and promoting international policies that led to the deliberate abandonment of eastern Europe and Southeast Asia to the communist scourge.

For many, the goal of advancing socialism has been most evident in the alacrity with which the institutions of higher education have absorbed and circulated Marxist, neo-Marxist, and post-Marxist collectivist ideologies in their various guises at least since the early 1930s—including Soviet propaganda, critical theory, postmodern theory, and the most recent variants, critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, and LGBTQIA+ ideology. The dreaded “long march through the institutions” was never a bottom-up, grassroots project. Rather, it was an inside job undertaken by elites in positions of power and influence. When the philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists of the Frankfurt school of critical theory emigrated to the US in 1933—armed with the Marxist theory of revolution and Antonio Gramsci’s model for socialist cultural hegemony—they hardly inaugurated this march. Rather, they were welcomed by elites and funded by tax-exempt foundations whose work was already well underway.1 The so-called long march through the institutions was a stampede within them.

To understand the Great Reset, then, we must recognize that the project represents the completion of a centuries-long and ongoing attempt to destroy classical liberalism (the free market, free speech, and liberal democracy), American constitutionalism, and national sovereignty. The idea of resetting capitalism suggests that capitalism had previously been pure. But the Great Reset is the culmination of a much longer collectivization process and democratic socialist project, with their corresponding growth of the state. Despite being pitched as the antidote to the supposed weaknesses of the free market, which World Economic Forum founder and chairman Klaus Schwab and company equate with “neoliberalism,” the Great Reset is meant to intensify and complete an already prevalent economic interventionism, and to use US-led military power to complete this process where economic intervention proves unsuccessful. This explains, in part, the West’s arming and funding of Ukraine against its Russian attacker.

I do not mean to suggest that the Great Reset’s global neo-Marxist economics, and its international rather than national economic fascism, are not new. They are new, as are the means by which they are to be brought about. But we must not be so confused as to think that the Great Reset project was born ab nihilo—it’s the culmination of decades of elite thinking and activism.

  • 1.The Frankfurt school theorist Herbert Marcuse, for example, was funded by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. See Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1964; repr., London: Routledge, 2002), p. iv, where Marcuse acknowledges such funding.


Contact Michael Rectenwald

Michael Rectenwald is the author of eleven books, including Thought CriminalBeyond WokeGoogle Archipelago, and Springtime for Snowflakes.

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TGIF: Racial Polarization Is Poison | The Libertarian Institute

Posted by M. C. on November 28, 2021

When social distrust is sown among groups, particularly on the basis of spurious identity considerations, a great deal of what we value but take for granted is put at risk. This doesn’t mean that America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, and less formal forms of racism can’t be taught and discussed frankly. They must be.

by Sheldon Richman

Be they “left” or “right,” those who agitate for racial polarization seem to have no sense of the harm they could do to everyone in our society. As the wise Glenn Loury would say, they are playing with fire. By polarization, of any kind, I mean more than merely a vigorous disagreement over issues or even basic principles. That’s fine. Rather, I mean something dogmatic, obsessive, and fanatical, in which virtually everything in the world is seen through a single lens and everyone is expected to act and speak in a certain way, with stern consequences for the noncompliant.

It can happen in politics, but it is becoming especially common with race, where some would have us interpret virtually everything through a racial prism. This is more than simply unfortunate; it threatens what the ancient Greek philosophers and later philosophers such as Spinoza — whose 389th birthday (Nov. 24, 1632) we marked this week — held to be the good life for human beings; it’s the conception of life in which being virtuous is seen as constitutive of happiness, or better: eudaimonia, and not separate from happiness or merely means to it.

Racial polarization threatens this not just in the obvious way, namely, with the potential holds for violence. I’m thinking of the more subtle way: through the narrowing and undermining of all sorts of social cooperation.

Formulators of the original (classical) liberalism, which has been refined into the libertarian political philosophy, took to heart what the Greeks and their intellectual descendants emphasized, namely, that we human beings are inherently social animals. Some went even further to note that, as reason- and language-bearing creatures, we thrive best when surrounded by people who exhibit their rationality in the fullest sense, not only as a tool to judge means but ends as well. Only in such a milieu can we live in ways most proper to rational animals, that is, with reason always in the driver’s seat. This entails, among other things, dealing with people through argument, persuasion, and consent rather than command, manipulation, and force.

A key way that social existence promotes individual flourishing is cooperation, which augments our otherwise weak individual capacities. While no collective brain exists, liberal society creates something analogous to it. As a result, we each gain access to an incredible volume of knowledge — moral and otherwise — any morsel of which we might never have thought up or encountered while living alone or in small groups during our limited lifespans. The marketplace of ideas is an example of this process that benefits us all beyond measure. In this day when free speech and free inquiry are increasingly under assault from reckless elements left and right, this would be good to remember.

The benefits of the broadest possible social cooperation are also abundant in the material realm. The early liberal political-economic thought demonstrated that living in isolation was to live in abject poverty. No one was better at pointing this out than Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century French liberal. In the opening chapter of his unfinished magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, he wrote:

It is impossible not to be struck by the disproportion, truly incommensurable, that exists between the satisfactions [any] man derives from society and the satisfactions that he could provide for himself if he were reduced to his own resources. I make bold to say that in one day he consumes more things than he could produce himself in ten centuries.

What makes the phenomenon stranger still is that the same thing holds true for all other men. Every one of the members of society has consumed a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone else….

We should be shutting our eyes to the facts if we refused to recognize that society cannot present such complicated combinations in which civil and criminal law play so little part without being subject to a prodigiously ingenious mechanism. This mechanism is the object of study of political economy.

If this was true in 1850, what would Bastiat say about our time? Think of all the things we have access to in the developed world, even those of modest means. (The people of the developing world want the same, which shows the cruelty of so-called climate policy, which would raise the price and reliability of energy.) The point which shouts from Bastiat’s passages is that we have much to lose if social cooperation were to break down or even narrowed. Society is exchange, as the liberals hammered home on many occasions. “Society is concerted action, cooperation,” Ludwig von Mises wrote in his grand treatise, Human Action, which he was tempted to call Social Cooperation, another name for specialization through the division of labor and knowledge.

Need more be said about the threat from racial and other deep polarization? To invoke another original liberal, Adam Smith famously wrote that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. The fewer the people with whom to cooperate, the more primitive the division of labor. And the more primitive the division of labor, the poorer we are. That should require no elaboration.

When social distrust is sown among groups, particularly on the basis of spurious identity considerations, a great deal of what we value but take for granted is put at risk. This doesn’t mean that America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, and less formal forms of racism can’t be taught and discussed frankly. They must be. But the cost will be unspeakably severe if frank conversation about the past and even aspects of the present transmogrify into polarization, hatred, and distrust.

Good people everywhere should speak out against polarization. Think about what we all have to lose. And once it’s lost, there may be no getting it back.

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A Brief History of Secession Referenda in Europe | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on June 16, 2021

But in all cases, plebiscites were employed to determine a question of secession, whether or not the end goal was ultimately full independence. In this, they have worked relatively well. In many cases, these plebiscites have helped to peacefully settle disputes and to send a message to central regimes about the prudence of granting independence to separatist regions that vote overwhelmingly for independence. 

Given all this it would be odd to regard a vote on independence in Scotland—or anywhere else—as some sort of outlandish or radical political strategy.

Ryan McMaken

Scotland still hasn’t given up on holding another independence referendum within the next several years. Although London opposes the measure, it is notable that the debate over Scottish secession is not over whether or not a secession vote is moral or legal. Rather, the question is over whether or not such a vote is prudent at this time.

This is quite a departure from American politics, in which any suggestion of independence for any region of the US—a country that is not even as old as the three hundred–year union between England and Scotland—is considered obviously illegal and beyond the pale of serious political discussion.

Moreover, in spite of the US’s (rather unwarranted) reputation for expansive local autonomy, we can find many cases in which European regimes were far more willing to compromise on local assertions of autonomy and independence than is the case in the United States.

Although fully or partially successful secession movements are not frequent occurrences in Europe, we can nonetheless look to a number of cases in which regions successfully carried forward independence movements at least to the point that a referendum was held. In some of these cases, independence won voter approval and was enacted.

Let’s look at some of these cases to learn more.

Local Autonomy and Plebiscites as a Component of Classical Liberalism

In his 1919 book, Nation, State, and Economy, Ludwig von Mises concludes that local independence is an assumed characteristic within a liberal (i.e., a “classically liberal” of “libertarian”) polity. He writes:

When a part of the people of the state wants to drop out of the union, liberalism does not hinder it from doing so. Colonies that want to become independent need only do so…. no people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.

Moreover, in his 1927 book, Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition, Mises encourages the use of plebiscites in carrying this out. Mises writes:

[W]henever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with.

To some readers, this might seem a very radical position that Mises is taking. But, writing in the late teens and 1920s, Mises was working from what was becoming an established—albeit infrequently used—strategy for maintaining or increasing local autonomy within European states.

European Independence Plebiscites: A Quick History

Perhaps the earliest uses of plebiscites to win local support for secession movements occurred in the late eighteenth century during the French Revolution. In an effort to enlarge the French state, plebiscites were used in the Papal States enclaves of Avignon and Comtat Venaissin in 1791, in Savoy in 1792, and in the Belgian Communes, Nice, and the Rhine Valley in 1793.1

In none of these cases was full independence contemplated, and these plebiscites only gave the voters a choice between the status quo and joining the French Republic. Nonetheless, pro-French sentiment was high in many of these areas and voters did indeed in many cases chose to secede from their status quo polities (i.e., the Papal States, Belgium, Sardinia) and join the French state.

By the nineteenth century, plebiscites were being increasingly used as part of the political process of changing which regime controlled certain districts and regions:

[Plebiscites] were held in the transfer of control of Rome from the Papal State to Italy in 1870, in Denmark’s sale of St Thomas and St John to the United States in 1868, and in Sweden’s cession of St. Bartholomew to France in 1877.2

The Ionian Islands were transferred to Greece by Great Britain after the move was approved by voters in an 1863 plebiscite.

Plebiscites were also used—beginning with the aftermath of the Treaty of Prague in 1866—in attempts to settle the so-called Schleswig question over the borderlands between Denmark and the German Confederation.

Secession in the Twentieth Century

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the idea of holding local elections to settle border disputes or the inclusion of a region within a certain polity was anything but novel.

In a 1905 plebiscite, nearly 100 percent of Norwegian voters approved dissolving Norway’s union with Sweden. Norway became a fully independent state three months later.

In a 1918 plebiscite, Iceland’s voters approved independence for the country in a personal union with Denmark under the Danish king. (The king would remain the head of state; Iceland became a republic after another plebiscite in 1944.)

In 1919, the Austrian region of Vorarlberg held a plebiscite to determine if the region should secede from Austria and join Switzerland as a new canton. Eighty-one percent of Vorarlberg voters approved the measure, but the movement failed due to opposition from the Swiss and Austrian governments, among others.

A plebiscite was held in Carinthia in October 1920 to resolve an ongoing border dispute between Yugoslavia and the new Austrian republic. Fifty-nine percent voted to attach Carinthia to Austria. In spite of opposition from Yugoslavian forces, the region ultimately became Austrian.

After World War I, several plebiscites were held as a means of implementing the Treaty of Versailles. These plebiscites, unlike locally driven plebiscites in, say, Vorarlberg and Iceland, were conducted under significant pressure from outside great powers—namely, the victorious Entente powers. Where plebiscites were actually held in German territory—such as in East Prussia—the results favored the Germans, but the Entente powers also simply transferred some areas of Germany to Poland and Czechoslovakia. (The Third Reich would later employ plebiscites in Austria and the Sudetenland as retribution for these territorial transfers.)

In 1946, a plebiscite was held to determine if the Faroe Islands should secede from Denmark. It narrowly failed.

In 1955, voters in the Saar, a French protectorate, voted to join Germany.

In 1964, Maltese voters approved independence from the United Kingdom in a plebiscite.

In 1990, Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia via plebiscite. The new Slovenian republic ultimately won independence after the nearly bloodless Ten-Day War. 

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, plebiscites were held in several Soviet republics including Ukraine and the Baltic states. 

(Outside Europe, of course, many more secession plebiscites were held throughout the twentieth century as part of the process of decolonization in Africa and Asia.)

Plebiscites in Perspective

As we can see from these examples, Mises’s position in favor of plebiscites to implement self-determination plans through secession were not especially radical in the context of the late 1920s. After all, by the early twentieth century, they had come to be used a tool for settling border disputes and as a means of allowing for local vetoes on international agreements involving attempts at changing which state controlled certain regions. In many cases, plebiscites did not offer the option of total independence, but provided an option to attach the region in question to a different sovereign state. But in some cases, plebiscites were used to establish the creation of new sovereign states such as Slovenia, Estonia, Iceland, and Norway. In many cases, the results of plebiscites were not carried out or were short lived even when implemented. For example, the Ionian Islands changed hands more than once after the 1863 vote.

But in all cases, plebiscites were employed to determine a question of secession, whether or not the end goal was ultimately full independence. In this, they have worked relatively well. In many cases, these plebiscites have helped to peacefully settle disputes and to send a message to central regimes about the prudence of granting independence to separatist regions that vote overwhelmingly for independence. 

Given all this it would be odd to regard a vote on independence in Scotland—or anywhere else—as some sort of outlandish or radical political strategy. 

  • 1. For an extensive description of nineteenth-century plebiscites, see Sarah Wambaugh, A Monograph on Plebiscites: With a Collection of Official Documents (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1920).
  • 2. Michael Hechter and Elizabeth Borland, “National Self-Determination: The Emergence of an International Norm,” in Social Norms, ed. Michael Hechter and Karl-Dieter Opp (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2001), p. 193.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power&Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado and was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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An American Classical Liberalism | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on May 8, 2021

Goethe’s Prometheus cries:

Do you fancy that I should hate life,
Should flee to the wilderness,
Because not all my budding dreams have blossomed?

And Faust answers with his “last word of wisdom”:

No man deserves his freedom or his life
Who does not daily win them anew.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr.

Every four years, as the November presidential election draws near, I have the same daydream: that I don’t know or care who the president of the United States is. More importantly, I don’t need to know or care. I don’t have to vote or even pay attention to debates. I can ignore all campaign commercials. There are no high stakes for my family or my country. My liberty and property are so secure that, frankly, it doesn’t matter who wins. I don’t even need to know his name.

In my daydream, the president is mostly a figurehead and a symbol, almost invisible to myself and my community. He has no public wealth at his disposal. He administers no regulatory departments. He cannot tax us, send our children into foreign wars, pass out welfare to the rich or the poor, appoint judges to take away our rights of self government, control a central bank that inflates the money supply and brings on the business cycle, or change the laws willy-nilly according to the special interests he likes or seeks to punish.

The President’s Job

His job is simply to oversee a tiny government with virtually no power except to arbitrate disputes among the states, which are the primary governmental units. He is head of state, though never head of government. His position, in fact, is one of constant subordination to the office holders around him and the thousands of statesmen on the state and local level. He adheres to a strict rule of law and is always aware that anytime he transgresses by trying to expand his power, he will be impeached as a criminal.

But impeachment is not likely, because the mere threat reminds him of his place. This president is also a man of outstanding character, well respected by the natural elites in society, a person whose integrity is trusted by all who know him, who represents the best of what an American is.

The president can be a wealthy heir, a successful businessmen, a highly educated intellectual, or a prominent farmer. Regardless, his powers are minimal. He has a tiny staff, which is mostly consumed with ceremonial matters like signing proclamations and scheduling meetings with visiting heads of state.

The presidency is not a position to be avidly sought but almost granted as honorary and temporary. To make sure that is the case, the person chosen as vice president is the president’s chief political adversary. The vice president therefore serves as a constant reminder that the president is eminently replaceable. In this way, the vice presidential office is very powerful, not with regard to the people, but in keeping the executive in check.

But as for people like me who have concerns besides politics, it matters little who the president is. He doesn’t affect my life one way or the other. Neither does anyone under his control. His authority is mainly social, and derived from how much the natural elites in society respect him. This authority is lost as easily as it is gained, so it is unlikely to be abused.

This man is elected indirectly, with the electors chosen as the states direct, with only one proviso: no elector may be a federal official. In the states that choose their electors by majority vote, not every citizen or resident can participate. The people who do vote, a small percentage of the population, are those who have the best interests of society at heart. They are those who own property, who head households, and have been educated. These voters choose a man whose job it is to think only of the security, stability, and liberty of his country.

The Invisible Government

For those who do not vote and do not care about politics, their liberty is secure. They have no access to special rights, yet their rights to person, property, and self government are never in doubt. For that reason and for all practical purposes, they can forget about the president and, for that matter, the rest of the federal government. It might as well not exist. People do not pay direct taxes to it. It doesn’t tell them how to conduct their lives. It doesn’t send them to foreign wars, regulate their schools, pay for their retirement, much less employ them to spy on their fellow citizens. The government is almost invisible.

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Contact Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is founder and chairman of the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of

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The Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on June 24, 2020

And yet, in Western countries, the state keeps on relentlessly expanding, colonizing one area of social life after the other. In America, the Republic is fast becoming a fading memory, as federal bureaucrats and global planners divert more and more power to the center. So the struggle continues, as it must. Two centuries ago, when liberalism was young, Jefferson had already informed us of the price of liberty.

Ralph Raico

[This article appeared in the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily, August 1992]

Classical liberalism—or simply liberalism, as it was called until around the turn of the century—is the signature political philosophy of Western civilization. Hints and suggestions of the liberal idea can be found in other great cultures. But it was the distinctive society produced in Europe—and in the outposts of Europe, and above all America—that served as the seedbed of liberalism. In turn, that society was decisively shaped by the liberal movement.

Decentralization and the division of power have been the hallmarks of the history of Europe. After the fall of Rome, no empire was ever able to dominate the continent. Instead, Europe became a complex mosaic of competing nations, principalities, and city-states. The various rulers found themselves in competition with each other. If one of them indulged in predatory taxation or arbitrary confiscations of property, he might well lose his most productive citizens, who could “exit,” together with their capital. The kings also found powerful rivals in ambitious barons and in religious authorities that were backed by an international Church. Parliaments emerged that limited the taxing power of kings, and free cities arose with special charters that put the merchant elite in charge.

By the Middle Ages, many parts of Europe, especially in the west, had developed a culture friendly to property rights and trade. On the philosophical level, the doctrine of natural law—deriving from the Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome—taught that the natural order was independent of human design and that rulers were subordinate to the eternal laws of justice. Natural-law doctrine was upheld by the Church and promulgated in the great universities, from Oxford and Salamanca to Prague and Krakow.

As the modern age began, rulers started to shake free of age-old customary constraints on their power. Royal absolutism became the main tendency of the time. The kings of Europe raised a novel claim: they declared that they were appointed by God to be the fountainhead of all life and activity in society. Accordingly, they sought to direct religion, culture, politics, and, especially, the economic life of the people. To support their burgeoning bureaucracies and constant wars, the rulers required ever-increasing quantities of taxes, which they tried to squeeze out of their subjects in ways that were contrary to precedent and custom.

The first people to revolt against this system were the Dutch. After a struggle that lasted for decades, they won their independence from Spain and proceeded to set up a unique polity. The United Provinces, as the radically decentralized state was called, had no king and little power at the federal level. Making money was the passion of these busy manufacturers and traders; they had no time for hunting heretics or suppressing new ideas. Thus de facto religious toleration and a wide-ranging freedom of the press came to prevail. Devoted to industry and trade, the Dutch established a legal system based solidly on the rule of law and the sanctity of property and contract. Taxes were low, and everyone worked. The Dutch “economic miracle” was the wonder of the age. Thoughtful observers throughout Europe noted the Dutch success with great interest.

A society in many ways similar to Holland had developed across the North Sea. In the seventeenth century, England, too, was threatened by royal absolutism, in the form of the House of Stuart. The response was revolution, civil war, the beheading of one king and the booting out of another. In the course of this tumultuous century, the first movements and thinkers appeared that can be unequivocally identified as liberal.

With the king gone, a group of middle-class radicals emerged called the Levellers. They protested that not even Parliament had the authority to usurp the natural, God-given rights of the people. Religion, they declared, was a matter of individual conscience; it should have no connection with the state. State-granted monopolies were likewise an infringement of natural liberty.

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Some Conservatives Want Americans to Abandon Classical Liberalism. Don’t Listen to Them. | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on June 23, 2020

But Deneen’s new attack on libertarians helpfully serves as yet another example of some conservatives’ deeply misguided enthusiasm for attacking classical liberals and even attempting to condemn them as “un-American.” But just as Carlson and Bannon have employed bad economics to attack classical liberals in the past, Deneen now indulges in bad history.

Let’s consider some evidence…

Donald Trump’s economic populism, and his break with the established postwar conservative movement, has created an opening for new types of conservatism. Among these is the antimarket wing of the movement characterized by a renewed enthusiasm for trade controls, more spending on welfare programs, and more government regulation in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans.

The economic agenda has been voiced perhaps most enthusiastically by pundit Tucker Carlson and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. Both have attacked what they apparently see as “excessive” freedom. This freedom—especially when exercised in the marketplace—has led, they believe, to the decline of the middle class for consumers and businesses which Bannon and Carlson blame for creating economic hardship in the United States. As a “solution” both have pushed for the state to seize and control even more of the economy than it already has.

The fact that the United States has only become consistently less free, both in terms of markets and in everything else, is strenuously ignored. These attacks on markets are, frankly, based on poor economics and a poor understanding of economic history, as I’ve noted here and here.

Not surprisingly, this way of thinking has led to new attacks on those who most support freedom in the marketplace (and everywhere else): classical liberals, also known as libertarians.

[RELATED: “‘Libertarian’ Is Just Another Word for (Classical) Liberal” by Ryan McMaken]

Carlson has specifically denounced libertarians for their free market views, as has Bannon. Both have even singled out “Austrian economists” as especially worthy of denunciation. Attacks on the laissez-faire liberals have proliferated, including unprovoked attacks from conservatives in First Things, the American Conservative, and The Spectator.

Is Classical Liberalism Un-American?

But perhaps the most aggressive attack on classical liberalism comes from Patrick Deneen, who has attempted to claim that classical liberalism has no place in American history at all.

In a new column this week, Deneen attacks libertarians and the entire liberal tradition in general. Not content with merely criticizing the liberals/libertarians as too extreme, as Bannon and Carlson do, Deneen seeks to recast classical liberalism altogether as a pernicious, foreign, and dangerous ideology. According to Deneen, this ideology—the ideology of Thomas Jefferson, Lord Acton, and Frederic Bastiat, among many other defenders of freedom and natural rights—has nothing at all to do with “the American tradition.”

This general thesis of Deneen goes well beyond his article this week, and his odd and ahistorical view of classical liberalism has already been explained here at by both David Gordon and Allen Mendenhall. But Deneen’s new attack on libertarians helpfully serves as yet another example of some conservatives’ deeply misguided enthusiasm for attacking classical liberals and even attempting to condemn them as “un-American.” But just as Carlson and Bannon have employed bad economics to attack classical liberals in the past, Deneen now indulges in bad history.

Let’s consider some evidence.

Yes, the American Revolutionaries Were Classical Liberals

Deneen’s first mistake in this week’s column is claiming that liberalism was not a central factor in the American Revolution. This rather unbelievable claim is derived from Deneen’s belief that liberalism of all types “requires liberation from all forms of associations and relationships, from family to church, from schools to village and community.”

As Mendenhall notes, this is not at all a sound definition of classical liberalism. But from this rather questionable premise, Deneen then concludes that the only real liberals in America at the time were the few disciples of John Locke (i.e., the Jeffersonians and their allies). After all, in Deneen’s view, it was only the Lockeans who embraced the atheism, hedonism, and the mania for the accumulation of material possessions that Deneen thinks characterize the classical liberals. Thus, those Americans who still embraced institutions like church and family were not liberals at all. Deneen thus contrasts “a small number of Lockeans” during the Revolution to the “larger population of Christians” to illustrate that the classical liberals were at odds with the main nonliberal part of the population.

The real founding ideology of America, we are told, was a Christian “common good conservatism” which valued community above individual conscience and above individual rights. This claim is central to Deneen’s basic thesis here, which is that any American revolutionary who was a Christian was necessarily not a liberal.

But the Lockean view and Christianity are not mutually exclusive. As David Gordon points out, there is significant evidence that Locke “defended divine and natural law and argued for the existence of God.” Moreover, in his history of economic thought, Rothbard shows that Locke, for all his deviations, was well within the natural law tradition handed down from medieval Christian Europe. It was easy for Americans to adopt the basic classical liberal and Lockean framework without abandoning Christianity. Indeed, Deneen’s idea that anyone embracing Locke’s ideas of “life, liberty, and property” must be some sort of avaricious atheist strains the bounds of plausibility. Yet Deneen treats this idea as if it were unassailable.

Moreover, a look at the actual historical record shows widespread adoption of liberal ideals during the Revolution. As Rothbard illustrates in the fourth volume of Conceived in Liberty, liberal ideals spread rapidly during the period, and in quite a radical way. Opposition to slavery spread, and indentured servitude declined precipitously. Old feudal laws were overturned. The system of land sales and distribution was democratized. Religious freedom was far more widely embraced. Rothbard notes that the Revolution was a civil war conducted by “fanatics” and zealots who rejected “the siren call of compromise.”

Rothbard maintains that these legal, social, and military upheavals were animated by liberalism/libertarianism. After all, if slavery, indentured servitude, and feudal land grants were all perfectly acceptable to “the common good” by Americans conservative Christian one minute, how did these things become unacceptable just a few years later? The answer lies in the spread of liberalism among Americans during the revolutionary period. The very idea of “the common good” changed as the public embraced liberalism.

State-Sponsored Churches Declined Because America Embraced Classical Liberalism

Deneen also claims that the post-Revolutionary period was little affected by liberalism. Specifically, he asserts that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights was designed not to increase religious freedom, but to increase the power of the established churches in the states:

The Bill of Rights was in fact proposed and ratified in order not merely to forbid the government from establishing a religion, butprevent the federal government from interfering in the existing State establishments. (emphasis in original)

In Deneen’s view, the First Amendment’s “original intention” was to help the state governments in “protecting these establishments.” He insists that the American revolutionaries understood that the state governments must have state-supported churches or society would descend into “war of all against all.”

Once again, the historical record is not on Deneen’s side.

While there is not doubt that some revolutionaries were in favor in maintaining state-favored established churches, that fact is that most Americans—animated by individualistic classical liberal ideals—saw religion more as a matter of personal choice and conscience. This was already in play by the late eighteenth century, when, as Rothbard notes, “the previously hysterical-anti-Catholicism that had permeated the colonies” was abandoned in favor of toleration. During the Revolution no fewer than eight states moved to allow Roman Catholics to hold public office. These were hardly the actions of populations clinging to the idea of empowering the local state-supported churches.

At the same time, the established churches, those churches Deneen claims were so dear to Americans at the time of the Bill of Rights, went into steep decline and had disappeared by the 1830s. State governments ceased to support their established churches, and, as historian Ann Douglas has described it, “between the Revolution and the Civil War, the [formerly established] sects which were disestablished lost ground in every sense while the largest ‘dissenting’ groups, which had never received state support, flourished.”

That is, the old established churches—the Congregational and Presbyterian churches, for example—were abandoned in droves by Americans who embraced the idea that religious faith was a matter of individual choice. In Deneen’s mind, this seemingly illustrates a disgraceful march toward chaos. But most Americans were apparently unconcerned. Americans didn’t abandon Christianity, of course. Their newfound liberalism required no such thing. But Americans did embrace a religious order based on purely voluntary, private institutions far from the old mindset of those who supported the established churches of old.

The American Political Tradition Is Liberal and Libertarian

These are just two examples of Deneen’s rewriting of history, but they serve to show how he appears to have become convinced that classical liberalism is incompatible with the sorts of institutions that any social conservative would value. Consequently, he seeks to read classical liberalism out of American history almost in its entirety.

In actual practice, however, classical liberalism has never been a danger to the Christian civilization that Deneen defends. On the contrary, as Mendenhall concludes:

The classical liberalism or libertarianism to which Christian individualists adhere promotes peace, cooperation, coordination, collaboration, community, stewardship, ingenuity, prosperity, dignity, knowledge, understanding, humility, virtuousness, creativity, justice, ingenuity, and more, taking as its starting point the dignity of every human person before both God and humanity. This individualism prospers in fundamentally conservative cultures and does not square with Deneen’s caricature of a caricature of a caricature of “liberal” individualism.

Indeed, liberalism has historically been a key component in providing the freedom necessary to allow institutions of civil society to flourish. A strong private sector protects churches and communities from the power of the state. A robust economy allows families to establish independence without a reliance on state largesse or on a small number of state-favored monopolistic firms. Without these freedoms, all of civil society becomes a hostage to the ruling junta or regime. That sort of dependence may seem fine so long as those who favor our social views are in power. But what happens when our friends are no longer in charge?

Today, we see precisely what happens. After decades of empowering the state with an ever longer list of prerogatives and prohibitions, those who control the state can now easily turn on those institutions that are so central to the kind of society Deneen would like to see. The solution lies in scaling back the power of the state and insisting that large sectors of civil society are simply off limits from the state’s coercive power. The solution lies in allowing free association, free contracting, freedom in religious practices, and freedom to use our property as we like.

Throwing classical liberalism under the bus won’t help.


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What Is Classical Liberalism? | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on November 4, 2018

Today’s “conservatives” aren’t even close.

Ralph Raico

“Classical liberalism” is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism. The qualifying “classical” is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France), because liberalism has come to be associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals. This version of liberalism — if such it can still be called — is sometimes designated as “social,” or (erroneously) “modern” or the “new,” liberalism. Here we shall use liberalism to signify the classical variety… Read the rest of this entry »

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