It’s always deliciously entertaining when someone in the mainstream media puts her ignorance on full display, just as MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid did with this tweet:
My first reaction was to do some ‘splaining to Reid about the actual definition of classical liberalism, and I’ll certainly do that, but there’s a greater lesson here than good old-fashioned schooling. Those of us who truly value freedom—the very essence of classical liberalism and the opposite of New Deal economics—need to take back language the Left has stolen and corrupted.
Words express ideas, and communicating ideas to change minds is essential to maintaining a free republic. When society is in decline, we bring about social change through debate and clash of ideas, not clash of arms. That’s the hope of every classical liberal.
Because of this, using words to formulate ideas is vital. If we allow those who are anti-freedom to define themselves with a word that at its very core is the opposite, then we have allowed language to corrupt minds. People begin to think social policies that are essentially anti-freedom are actually promoting freedom because they’re created and propagated by “liberals.” Anyone who opposes them must, therefore, be anti-freedom.
“Liberalism” today is erroneously equated with liberty, progress in human development, freedom from oppression, and tolerance. Nothing could be further from the truth, and at the core liberals know it, which is why they refuse to refer to capitalism—the economic cornerstone of classical liberalism—as a liberal system, even though it is the essence of true liberalism.
This is why it’s so important to correct Reid when she twists the meaning of the term “classical liberal.” Classical liberalism does not embrace New Deal economics—quite the contrary. It’s a philosophy of freedom that values individual liberty, material welfare for all (but through free markets not government intervention), rational thought, and capitalism. The New Deal marked a pivotal change in American government and economic life that fostered precisely the opposite, inaugurating major wealth redistribution through Social Security and other welfare programs, consolidating federal power at the expense of state and local power particularly through expanding the administrative state, and introducing unprecedented government meddling in private economic transactions.
Classical Liberalism’s Cornerstone Is Property Rights
Private property is foundational to classical liberalism, not redistribution of property, which is the darling of modern liberalism. Classical liberals “maintain that the only workable system of human cooperation in a society based on the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production,” writes economist Ludwig von Mises, one of the most pre-eminent classical liberal scholars.
“They contend that socialism as a completely comprehensive system encompassing all the means of production is unworkable and that the application of the socialist principle to a part of the means of production [New Deal economics], though not, of course, impossible, leads to a reduction in the productivity of labor, so that, far from creating greater wealth, it must, on the contrary, have the effect of diminishing wealth.”
Classical liberals value material wealth and want everyone to have an opportunity to attain it without government getting in the way, not because they are selfish or materialistic, but because they know that it is much more difficult for people to grow as human beings and find happiness when they’re struggling to survive amid poverty.
Capitalism is the most effective system to make this possible. The more production through free markets, the greater the benefit for individuals and society. Production accelerates when people know they will benefit from their own labor—when their property rights are secure. When people are free, productivity increases. This benefits the individual and society. Interventionist policies, socialism, and communism reject freedom through private property, taking from the people who produce to give to people who have not, and therefore productivity decreases under these schemes.
Equality Before the Law, Not Through Redistribution
Unlike today’s so-called “liberals,” classical liberals accept the inequality of wealth and income that comes from private ownership as the means of production. When people are free to produce according to their individual abilities and talents, the outcomes won’t be the same because people have unequal abilities and talents.
The only equality classical liberals recognize is equality before the law, without which society can’t thrive. They reject any government efforts to try to equalize society through interventionist programs.
Liberals today often try to discredit those who hold to this view by accusing them of opposing all government action, as if they’re anarchists living according to the harsh dictates of social Darwinism. This is a lie. Classical liberals value government, but unlike socialists and government interventionists, they simply prefer to keep the state in its proper sphere and not have it violate personal freedoms and rights.
“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society,” another foundational classical liberal, Frederic Bastiat, wrote in “The Law.” “As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”
They Support Government as Umpire, Not Nanny
Some like to paint classical liberals as heartless, cold capitalists who don’t care about society and are only concerned about individual accumulation of wealth. This simply isn’t true. Classical liberals recognize that people are not islands unto themselves, living in isolation with no moral rules to follow.
We are members of a society, and as such we need to consider our actions, not only as they affect us as individuals, but also how they affect those around us. “For the life of the individual in society is possible only by virtue of social cooperation, and every individual would be most seriously harmed if the social organization of life and of production were to break down,” Mises writes.
This is why government is important to the classical liberal. Government does not exist to provide for people, redistribute wealth, or use force to equalize society and materially improve the lives of its members. Government’s purpose is to require people to abide by the rules of society, so society is not dismantled through the violation of personal rights. When society breaks down, the individual is harmed.
“The [classical] liberal understands quite clearly that without resort to compulsion, the existence of society would be endangered and that behind the rules of conduct whose observance is necessary to assure peaceful human cooperation must stand the threat of force if the whole edifice of society is not to be continually at the mercy of any one of its members,” Mises writes.
That state must be able to compel a person who does not respect the freedom and rights of others to obey the rules of society. “This is the function that the [classical] liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.”
Classical Liberals Tolerate Different Views
Classical liberals also believe that essential to living in a peaceful society is the exercise of tolerance. This doesn’t mean classical liberals approve of every view or doctrine—unlike liberals, classical liberals don’t equate tolerance and approval, which must be attained through force. They tolerate that which they disapprove, because “only tolerance can create and preserve the condition of social peace without which humanity must relapse into the barbarism and penury of centuries long past.”
As you can see, classical liberalism is nothing like the “liberalism” of today, which has little tolerance for opposing views. It seeks to shut down free speech instead of tolerating it or answering it with an actual argument. It uses emotion instead of reason. It seeks to bring about change through force and intimidation, and manipulates ideas instead of engaging them. Its philosophy is one of tyranny, not freedom.
What we need today is a resurgence of classical liberalism in name and substance, but to do that, classical liberals need to win in the arena of ideas. Unfortunately, debate is silenced in conflict. Rationality—a cornerstone of classical liberal thought—has given way to delusion, which is spreading through our society like a disease with no cure, because, as Sigmund Freud said, delusion is based on fantasies, “resistant to attack by logic and reality.”