by Mario Rizzo
As one who has taught courses in classical liberalism at NYU both at the college and at the law school, I cannot help take an interest in the discussion about conservatism over at the Becker–Posner blog and by my colleague William Easterly at Aid Watch. So permit me to add something.
To the nominalists out there: What we call the philosophy of freedom is not simply a matter of stipulation. “Naming” is identifying with a literature, a history and an analytical core. It is no small matter.
Gary Becker and Richard Posner each identify the philosophy of freedom with some aspect of conservatism. Becker writes of tensions within conservatism. Posner wonders about its intellectual decline. Bill Easterly complains, quite rightly, that many definitions of “conservative” and “liberal” say nothing about individual liberty.
I do not believe that the philosophy of freedom has much to do, in an essential way, with conservatism. The relationship is largely due to historical accident. Furthermore, analytically speaking, the moral, political and economic basis of freedom does not fit coherently in the conservative intellectual framework.
The central reason for confusion on this matter is due to the peculiarities of the American (and English) political context. Our heritage is filled with the language, the ideals and the reality of liberty. Our Constitution exhibits a great concern for division of power, rights and limitations on the Federal (and state) government, and the importance of contract. So to “conserve” is, to an extent, to conserve these traditions. So American conservatism seems like a philosophy of liberty.
Another reason for the seeming identification of liberty with conservatism is the complex of compromises the political system has yielded. Those who are conservatives in a more literal sense found an uneasy alliance with those whose primary interest is liberty and only secondarily in the American traditions. There is much interesting political, sociological and even religious history here.
Nevertheless, the spirit of liberty (and I would say classical liberalism) is very different from that of conservatism. The conservative fundamentally doesn’t want to rock the boat. One can see it now in the intrigue about Nancy Pelosi and the CIA. The classical liberal (let me invoke the spirit of H.L. Mencken here) knows that both politicians and the CIA cannot be trusted. The true liberal is not afraid to recognize the corruption of power. The conservative, on the other hand, will say, “How can you question these hard-working people in the CIA who risk their lives for America?” Or: “How can you question the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Third-in-Line to the Presidency?”
To the conservative Faith in Power is very important. The conservative believes that we ought not to release pictures of torture perpetrated by “our” interrogators. The classical liberal thinks the truth is vital. The American public should know just how widespread all of this was (is?). If it stirs up hostility to American troops both in places where they ought not to be or where they possibly should be, that is part of what defending our liberty is about.
I could easily see a conservative cringe here. (I have purposefully chosen edgy examples.)
We could go on in the moral area. Conservatives are terrified at the prospect or possibility of moral evolution. The Truth was discovered at some early point in human history. Our task today is simply to apply it to our current circumstances.
I am reminded of Frank Knight’s characterization of the (classical) liberal as open to relentless questioning: one who sees that life is partly about questioning our values and trying to discover better values. This is the skepticism of freedom. Yet the liberal knows that freedom is the sine qua non of this process. Perhaps this is James Buchanan’s (a student of Knight) relatively-absolute absolute.
Not all liberals exhibit this fundamental skepticism. That is understandable. It perhaps the intellectualism of a J. S. Mill or Knight that gets over- emphasized here. For my own part, I plead guilty. Yet it is hard to imagine a liberal who doesn’t have some skepticism about institutions whether political, social or religious.
The true liberal knows that human beings will make mistakes in using their freedom. They will not always do what is best for themselves either in the economic sphere or in the personal sphere. But these mistakes are the necessary price we pay for our development as individuals. Let me quote Wilhelm von Humbolt:
“If men were left to their own deeds and devices, deprived of all outside help that did not manage to obtain themselves, they would also frequently run into difficulty and misfortune whether through their own fault or not. But the happiness for which a man is destined is none other than that which he achieves by his own energies. And it is these very situations which sharpen a man’s mind and develop his character.” (The Limits of State Action ).
This is the spirit of the philosophy of freedom. (Obviously there is much more in the details.) I have not said much directly about economic liberty. This is because I think it follows from more fundamental things: the freedom to develop one’s personality and voluntarily to associate with others. A free market is the locus of a broad interpersonal and international social cooperation. It is not simply an engine to produce material wealth. It often beneficially evades government; it has the potential to turn strangers into friends – but, if not friends, then at least into cooperators.
Outside of the United States I do not hesitate to call this liberalism. In the United States I call it classical liberalism or even “laissez-faire liberalism.” I rarely call it libertarianism anymore. This is mainly because the latter term does not have the rich history of the former. It is true that as names of a political party these liberal terms would be confusing in the United States. But I am not a politician. What I am concerned about is intellectual coherence and congruity with the tradition of liberal thought. In that sense, at least, I am a “traditionalist.”