Liberty Matters

Liberalism Remains Primary


Liberalism Remains Primary: Replies to Michael Huemer and Knud Haakonssen
My sincerest thanks to Michael Huemer and Knud Haakonssen—and to Liberty Fund.
My presentation of conservative liberalism involves a distinction between policy issues and polity issues. In a longer paper at SSRN I elaborate on the distinction.
The word "policy" is, in the present conversation, tailored for that distinction, such that speaking here of a policy reform tends to abstract away from how it would change the polity. Such will be serviceable especially when the reform does not, in fact, much change the polity.
Consider an analogy: An elderly fellow named Sam has for some years now developed a cataract problem. Sam now considers cataract surgery. That "reform" will improve his eyesight. But does it change Sam? Does it much change Sam's character or soul? There might be some change in the more essential being that Sam is, but it seems reasonable to say that, basically, Sam is still Sam, only now he sees better.
Likewise, for many policy reforms—liberalizing occupational licensing, the minimum wage, land-use restrictions—there is not much change in the polity. Its character and culture are not much changed, nor its stability jeopardized. Thus, these are policy issues in our sense here. Other issues, such as significant changes to immigration policy or schooling policy, some would say drug policy (marijuana, cocaine etc.), would raise questions about broader effects on the culture and character of the polity. Some such implicit comparison is in play with my distinction between "policy" and "polity." Think "change in what the polity does" versus "change in what the polity is."
But on top of the doing-versus-being aspect of my formulations, another important facet comes with the specific coordinate meanings of "liberal" and "conservative." In calling Smith, Hume, and Burke "policy liberals," I refer to issues parsable in terms of liberty—such as liberalizing occupational licensing, the minimum wage, and land-use restrictions. Issues that are not parsable in that way are not what I have in mind when I speak of policy liberalism. This point is important for responding to Knud (I go with first names, following Knud's example). Knud has doubts about Hume as a policy liberal and quotes a passage from a 1771 letter in which Hume notes a number of reforms and expresses dissatisfaction with the trend they represent. Many of the issues mentioned in Hume's list are not liberty issues in the grammar-like sense. The six issues mentioned by Hume and quoted by Knud are:
the right of displacing the Judges was given up; General Warrants are lost; the right of Expulsion the same; all the co-ercive Powers of the House of Commons abandon'd; all Laws against Libels annihilated … the revenue of the civil List diminish'd.[1]
Several of the six issues are about government rules governing the operation of government operations, and on that ground alone they are beside the point when assessing Hume as a policy liberal. I confess to knowing little about the brass tacks of the six issues in their historical context. Maybe a few of them (general warrants, libel laws, and the revenue) are parsable in terms of the liberty principle, as liberalization.
The passage counts for something but not much when assessing Hume's policy liberalism. The passage comes at the end of an unpublished letter dealing with practical affairs passing between Hume and his publisher. The passage is off-hand political kibitzing. Although Hume is unhappy about the general trend that the list represents ("this inundation of the Rabble"), I don't think we can conclude that he necessarily opposes each and every reform in the list. Finally, if some of the issues are liberty parsable and liberalizations, they may be ones for which Hume's polity conservatism kicks in—"the Rabble" and few lines later "the Odium of the populace." Hume's apparent concern about the relaxation of libel laws would probably stem from his concerns about political destabilization—then as now, talk of "mobs" was not only metaphorical. As for "the revenue of the civil List diminish'd," that is about monies flowing to the Crown, and Hume is concerned about the diminishing place of the monarchy. Again, policy liberalism does not imply an axiomatic allegiance to the liberty principle. No one is suggesting that our three thinkers made claims for the liberty principle like those made by Murray Rothbard.
My idea of policy liberalism is very much what Adam Smith had in mind when he joined in promulgating the original political meaning of "liberal," for example in highlighting "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way" to explain "the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice" (WN 664.3), reiterating "liberal system" (538-9.39), and so on. Tools utilizing the mass digitization of texts, supplemented by traditional scholarly methods, have enable us to establish (1,2) the origination of "liberal" in its first political meaning; the arc is clear. Once again we find that Hayek was right (Const. of Liberty, 1960, 530 n13). That meaning of "liberal" is explicit in Adam Smith.
Incidentally, the kinds of issues more likely to be "mere" policy issues in my sense tend to be regarded as "economic," and liberty in such matters as "economic freedom." That is interesting. As we've seen, policy issues in my sense are, first, not polity issues, and second, are parsable in terms of liberty. Why such issues tend to be dubbed "economic" is something we might want to explore.
Besides challenging me on Hume as a policy liberal, Knud challenges me on Hume as a polity conservative. Knud points out that the polity that Hume wished to maintain in Britain was quite young, having been born, as it were, after the Glorious Revolution or even 1707. How can one be called a polity conservative if the polity that one seeks to conserve is so modern?
Knud's point brings us to another way in which liberalism remains primary in conservative liberalism. The nature of the polity within a given national jurisdiction will evolve through time. In a sense there is a stream of polities—plural—succeeding one another through time, and, taken to an extreme, we never step in the same polity twice.
The conservatism of polity conservatism is about preserving and protecting some essential qualities of the polity. But what is essential? What are the historical benchmarks for these qualities? As I write in the longer piece:
As for the United States today: Is the spirit of the polity the vision of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers, or is it the current status quo? Suppose we were to roll back Social Security significantly: Is that a changing of the polity, against the presumption of polity conservatism, or a cancellation of a change to it, consonant with polity conservatism? Is James Madison still a leading spirit of the polity?
The problem to which we have arrived illuminates one reason why I say that the polity conservatism of Smith, Hume, and Burke is not otherwise neutral: While maintaining a polity conservatism generally, their polity inclinations would also lean liberal. Here, in the polity sphere, "liberal" is not so confined to the grammar-like parsings. Liberty-conducing qualities—e.g., checks and balances—would get special favor as things worthy of holding on to, even if those qualities were of only recent emergence. Their polity posture was conservative, but not only that.
I want to see a correction in the attitudes of certain libertarians, so as to better appreciate polity conservatism; I want to see more worldliness and maturity among libertarians. I want them to read the Burke of the 1790s, and to appreciate that stuff. I join Michael in lamenting in today's political scene "a kind of reckless disregard for institutions and established processes": We should not take stable and functional polity for granted. Also, I want to foster continuity and affiliation between those who identify as conservative and those who identify as classical liberal or libertarian. For reasons such as these it is useful to paint Smith, Hume, and Burke as conservative liberals. Yet another reason for the project is that it may help conservatives who think of themselves as opposed to liberalism to realize that they err in their tendency to fold together the liberalism of Smith and the so-called liberalism of leftism.
Knud is quite right in saying that the polity character that Hume upholds is modern. And no doubt Knud would say the same about Smith, who knocks the "ancient moralists" for not marking out commutative justice, with its "precise and accurate" rules, from ethics generally (TMS 328.1-3, 341.37). The marking out of commutative justice, and the appreciation of its specialness in being grammar-like, is crucial, because it is then flipped to enunciate liberty, which is then the spine of policy liberalism. So the liberalism of Hume and Smith is indeed modern. But "conservative liberalism" can accommodate the modernness of the polity that is to be established or maintained.
That the adjective "conservative" is there to modify, in a specific way, the noun "liberalism" is a point to underscore as I respond to Michael, who writes:
I take it that "conservatism," as used by Klein (and myself herein), refers to a political stance that values the preservation of the existing institutions and practices of one's own society, and would require a burden of proof to be met by those who propose significant changes.
Michael then proceeds to consider "The Case for Conservatism." But my "conservative liberalism" is not a mere blend of "liberalism" and "conservatism," as though we filled our soda cup half with Sprite and half with Orange Fanta, making "Sprite Fanta." My conservative liberalism is policy liberalism tempered by polity conservatism. Michael tells the reader that I make five central arguments for "conservatism." But those five arguments are made for polity conservatism, not conservatism simpliciter.
Michael's comments on my five arguments are, nonetheless, very valuable. The major lesson is that the arguments are sometimes cross-cutting, or countervailing. And I welcome his addition to the list of arguments, namely, that if, by global comparison, we have a pretty good polity, precaution recommends against significant change. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
One of the five arguments for polity conservatism is: "To some extent goodness is historistic and established ways are good because they are established." In response, Michael writes: "This is the one argument of the five that I see nothing in. A thing cannot be good merely because it exists." That is a rather stark way of rephrasing my point.
I think it is important to see that a big part of people's well-being lies in their ability to find enjoyment while plying that which they have become accustomed to. What it is that they have become accustomed to may not be good; it may be decidedly bad. Given lived experience up to this moment, however, there is something to be said for people being able to continue on with conditions that they have learned to live with, conditions that have generated proprieties, prompted solutions, and established expectations, now habitualized personally and conventionalized socially. When our sensibilities in ethics, morals, and politics operate on an ethical issue, the historical circumstances and color of the issue must be part of what those sensibilities work upon. The historical element of the problem is not dispositive, but it is there, it counts. The historical element corresponds to Smith's third "source" of moral approval "the perception of the agreement or disagreement of any action to an established rule" (and expectations) (TMS 327.16). Ethical judgment depends on historical contextualization of the conduct under consideration. Our ethical sensibilities are partly historistic. But only partly!
[1.] Hume to William Strahan, 25. June, 1771, in The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols., Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1969, vol. II, p. 244-45.