Reviving Classical Liberalism – Part 1

*Ok, I’m out of hibernation. I promise this will be an authentic first-class session of intellectual masturbation to make up for the neglect.

[Liberalism] came to be regarded as a “negative” creed because it could offer to particular individuals little more than a share in the common progress – a progress which came to taken more and more for granted and was no longer recognized as the result of the policy of freedom. It might even be said that the very success of liberalism became the cause of its decline. – Friedrich A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

As I’ve mentioned before, I was reading Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” which reflects my bias towards liberalism in a postmodern world, namely that it still works. Hayek argues that liberalism worked too well and we took it for granted, such that we lost sight of what it really meant and thus, allowed it to be synonymous with social democracy and socialism (leading to the totalitarianism regimes of the 20th century). It’s interesting to parallel this alongside Arendt, who blames the imperialist and bourgeoisie attitude for Hitler’s rise and anti-semitism. No doubt both Hayek’s and Arendt’s account give us a much fuller picture of the problem. It was not liberal democracies of the West that permitted imperialist rule, but socialist democracies under the name of liberalism. Liberalism, by its moral prerogative, does not permit inequalities of race, gender, etc. and advocates tolerance as a way for people to live together with their differences. No doubt this sounds like sunny idealism, but such moral prerogatives cannot be found in anywhere in the socialist or communist or fascist record and thus, they impede moral progress. The modern despair gripped the world too soon for liberalism to continuing actualizing itself.

Hayek also had a unique understanding of modernizing John Stuart Mill’s philosophy and bring liberalism “back” in vogue, as it were. As Hayek writes: “the limits of our powers of imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values more than a sector of the needs of the whole of society”. In other words, liberalism realizes that there are limits to collective organization as well as addressing all the needs of an individual in the great conglomerate and bureaucratic machine of the state. Allowing individuals to be the judges of their own ends empowers collective organization to be more effective in addressing these needs versus the state bearing the responsibility of the masses (enabling the minorities versus forcing a majority on everything). Rather than acknowledging minor differences  (see William Connelly’s Identity/Difference), socialism and even some forms of conservatism seeks to disregard such differences altogether.

As well, the Rule of Law (personified by Justice blinded, holding the scales) ensures equality by restricting the powers of the state, allowing it to intervene against the individual only in clearly defined cases. The socialist state reserves the right to intervene at its discretion and seeks to regulate everything, which is where we can bring in Foucault’s notion of governmentality and the Panopticon.

Socialist governments and planned economies are based on the production of agreement on every issue, so that in a paternalistic way, the state dictates what should matter to people (i.e. drawing attention to poverty primarily and commandeering liberal tolerance as a way to produce consent that such issues are important).  Indeed, socialism makes the same moral claims as liberalism in its mission, save that it believed that it was the state which must be held morally accountable and not individuals themselves.

Turning finally to the economy, I have never been an advocate of early 21st/late 20th century neoliberal economic policies nor Keynesian theories as suitable or functional for the developing world. The key lies in Hayek’s advocacy of an organic economy and spontaneous organization of the free market, where jobs are generated by individuals in a bottoms-up approach (rather than the Keynesian top-down enforcement).  I think protectionism is useful in countries where the capacity and capital are fairly primitive and need to be developed. Developing infrastructure and creating a stable political environment are prerequisites to generating a healthy, growing economy. I wholeheartedly encourage FDI and output based loans with debt forgiveness if progress is made, but not international aid handouts, especially to corrupt regimes (see Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid).

All in all, reading Hayek has stimulated my thinking at a rate that I’ve not felt since reading Foucault. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit.

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