The Success of Liberal Ideas has led to the Decline of Radical Liberal Parties

[The Chimera on a red-figure Apulian plate, c. 350–340 BC (Musée du Louvre)]

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

In a rather unfair and perhaps perverse result of its success over the past 250 years, the impressive success of CL ideas and organised movements (Richard Ebeling’s five “crusades” of CL) has led to its gradual attenuation or even disappearance as a separate movement. Since so many of its core beliefs have been taken up by other political ideologies it seems to no longer have a raison d’être or its own mouthpiece, with the possible exception of the modern American Libertarian Party (founded 1971).

Left wing ideologies like socialism, social democracy, Fabian Socialism, Australian and British “Laborism”, American “Progressivism” or the Democrat Party, as well as right wing “conservatism” in the form of the American Republican Party, the British Conservative Party, the Australian “Liberal” Party have all adopted what were once CL ideas about the rule of law, democratic elections, constitutionalism, individual rights, legal equality (women, gays), the greater efficiency and productiveness of free markets. They have incorporated CL ideas into their platforms which in my view makes them a kind of political “hybrid” (or “bastard” or “illegitimate child” if you are feeling churlish) of two very different political traditions. Their other ideological “parent” are various forms of statism, socialism, interventionism, and economic planning (“non-comprehensive planning” in Don Lavoie’s terminology)

This “ideological hybridisation” has given rise to what one might call LINOs and SINOs: liberals and liberal parties which are “Liberal In Name Only” and their socialist counterparts which are “Socialist In Name Only”.

LINO parties would say they have corrected the problems and weaknesses of CL and created a better kind of politics and governance, that they have “moved beyond” the limitations of the CL tradition and that this is a good thing. In other words, they have combined the best parts of socialism and interventionism (government guidance/direction), and the best parts of liberalism. SINOs would say they have done the same thing by finding a “Third Way” (Tony Blair and BIll Clinton) between the two ideologies.

Radical Liberals (and Libertarians) would, on the contrary, say that any “Third Way” between liberalism and socialism will fatally compromise core CL principles, and that the logical inconsistencies are unsustainable in the long run. In fact, they argue that this combination is fatally contradictory because the amalgamation of these ideas from totally different traditions is not stable, that there is an inbuilt and thus unavoidable tendency of the state to constantly expand its powers, and that there is always the problem of the “capture” of state institutions by those who work in it and those whom they regulate.

The idea that there can be a “Goldilocks” mixture (not too liberal and not too socialist) of different aspects of CLT and socialism (government regulation and interventionism) and that one can “mix and match” the different possible combinations to suit national, geographic, or religious differences/requirements/needs, is a false hope – “Utopian if you will.

Thus , on the “smorgasbord” table of political ideologies and policies the LINOs and SINOs can choose from the following plates. On the left hand side of the table one can select from the following

  • a little bit of government ownership and administration of economic activity (“socialism”) – roads, public transport, electricity supply, water, money and banking??, education, health/hospitals, national broadcaster (radio, TV)
  • a little bit of government “interventionism” (regulation of private economic activity) – health and safety, anti-trust/anti-monopoly, environmental regulation
  • a little bit of redistribution – in fact a lot of it, in the welfare state

On the right hand side of the table one can choose from:

  • a little bit of “political liberty” – a lot of “democracy in fact, limited freedom of speech (film censorship), the rule of law (much of the time but not always)
  • a little bit of “economic liberty” – free markets and freely determined prices – but not too much

However, these “hybrid” (or “bastard”) political traditions do not acknowledge the inherent, inevitable, and fatal problems of government interventionism of all kinds which have been repeatedly pointed out by CL/Ls for over a century. These include the following:

  • “the interventionist dynamic”(Mises) – one intervention causes problems which can only be rectified by introducing more interventions or abolishing the original intervention
  • the public choice problem (Tullock and Buchanan) of politicians and bureaucrats pursuing their own self-interest at the expence of the general public
  • the “government failure” problem vs. the much exaggerated “market failure” problem
  • the knowledge problem (Hayek) – the false belief that governments/bureaucrats have access to “better” information than private sector actors and can thus “plan” better
  • the “moral hazard” problem
  • people begin to believe that they have a “right” to be looked after by the state at other peoples’ expence; the erosion of the ethic of self-help, independence, and being responsible for one’s own actions
  • politics attracts a certain kind of people who want to rule/control others; Hayek’s notion of “the worst” who get on top
  • the benefits which politicians can dispense attract a certain kind of business “predator” who wants privileges for themselves and handicaps for their competitors
  • the “double standards” problem – that normal accepted moral standards of behaviour (do not use use violence against others, do not kill, do not take other people’s property without their permission) do not apply to politicians and bureaucrats

CLs think these problems are insoluble and cannot be ignored in the long term without there being serious consequences. This makes “hybrid” political parties univiable in the long run.