Saturday, October 16, 2010

In the name of reason and liberty

Classical liberalism is not necessarily what a lot of people (including myself at one point) think it is. Many of us have used some variation on "classical liberalism = today's conservatism and/or libertarianism". But is this really true? No. Liberalism in the 19th century was a far more complex political and ideological phenomena than we realize. In the post-WW2 era, the intellectuals who created the modern conservative and libertarian movements selected those 19th century thinkers that they thought would be useful in furthering their 20th century ideological goals. Also many who would recoil in disgust at the idea of "active government" nevertheless support a very active government when it comes to national security.

Daniel Larison:

[M]ost people who call themselves conservatives do not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” and when it comes to war and finance they are often defenders of an activist, centralized state. This actually makes a certain amount of sense, as most people who call themselves conservatives are, when you press them, essentially classical liberals, and classical liberals did not have a “dogmatic aversion to statism,” either. By comparison with their traditional conservative and monarchist foes in the 19th century, they were advocates for centralism and the expansion of the role of the state in the name of reason and liberty. Standardization, rationalization and uniformity in law and regulation were what most classical liberals prized, which is one reason why they tended to be strong nationalists hostile to the customs and privileges of regions and local parlements. The separation of modern strands of classical liberalism from nationalism (i.e., some forms of libertarianism) is a curious by-product of 20th century American politics, and I am guessing that this owes a great deal to influence of exiled liberals from central Europe on the evolution of these strands of American classical liberalism.

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