Classical Liberalism as the Philosophy of Emancipation II: The “True Radical Liberalism” of Peter Boettke

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

This year Peter Boettke from George Mason University and the Mercatus Center has published a collection of his talks and papers on The Struggle For A Better World (Arlington, Virginia: Mercatus Center, 2021). See the table of contents here and available online as a PDF. See below for a list of Boettke’s works discussed here.

A central theme of these papers is firstly,

  1. that from the very beginning the “liberal project” has been “an emancipation project” which has had to “struggle” for victory against very powerful entrenched interests over a period of several centuries;
  2. secondly, that this project was left incomplete at the end of the 19thC when the liberal movement began to fade out as an intellectual and political force;
  3. and thirdly, that it is the task and the duty of modern-day “true radical liberals”, like himself and his students, to complete the “liberal emancipation project” by reformulating liberal ideals to suit the changed conditions of the 21st century and showing how these ideals and the policies which they inspire can improve the lives of those who have yet to be “emancipated”.

[See the discussion of Richard Ebeling’s idea on the “Five Classical Liberal Crusades” for liberty in “Classical Liberalism as a Revolutionary Ideology of Emancipation” (13 Oct. 2021) online.]

What I want to do in this post is to summarize Peter Boettke’s views on “the liberal emancipation project” and to supply some thoughts of my own to add to those I have expressed in Part I.

The Liberal Project is an Emancipation Project

In my post on “What CL were Against” (12 Aug. 2021) I summarised my thoughts by saying that until the modern era CLs or rather “proto-liberals” identified as their main opponents “Throne” (the monarchy) and “Altar” (the established church). Boettke goes a few steps further, of which I very much approve, by adding four more, namely the Sword (the military), Slavery (one form of coerced labour), the Plough (symbolising two things: the other form of coerced labour, i.e. serfdom, and the traditional very low productivity of peasant agriculture), and Mercantile interests (the vested interests in the manufacturing and trading industries who were able to secure monopoly privileges, subsidies, and tariff protection for their goods from the state). His description of the long and hard “struggle” for emancipation from these impositions on people’s lives, liberties, and properties is worth quoting at length (from the Introduction to The Struggle For A Better World (2021):

The liberal project, I have argued repeatedly throughout my career, was born as an *emancipation project* — freeing individuals from subjugation by the Crown, from the dogma of the Altar, from the violence and oppression of the Sword, from the bondage of Slavery, from the miserable poverty of the Plough and from the special privileges granted to the Mercantile Interests.

We learn from the history of the struggle of the wars for religious toleration, from the long struggle for constitutionally limited democratic government and the rule of law, from the long process of economic development that delivered humanity from crushing poverty and improved the material conditions of billions who were able to live longer and more satisfying lives. Along the way, hard-fought battles for the abolition of slavery, for suffrage for women, for the right of individuals to love whom they want and as they want, had to be won. All of that did happen over the course of history. In fact, it might be impossible to understand the development of the disciplines of economics and political economy without understanding that it evolved simultaneously with the political institutions of liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that it must continually evolve in the context of 20th- and 21st-century understanding of liberal cosmopolitanism.

There are a couple of things to note from his account. Firstly, although he doesn’t used the phrase “crusades for liberty” as Ebeling does, his list is quite similar but with the addition of the right to live with or marry someone of the same sex which was very much a late 20th and early 21st century “crusade”.

Secondly, these “emancipations” had to be fought for by specific individuals, at specific historical moments, and these individuals had certain ideas about liberty and justice in their minds which provided them with the motivation to engage in these “struggles.” Boettke is correct to link the development of the disciplines of liberal political theory and liberal political economy with these more practical political movements, which one could say were the application or implementation of these ideas into practice. Thus there is an important interconnection between “Theorie und Praxis” (theory and practice) or as Ludwig von Mises put it, between ideas and human action.

And thirdly, that this liberal project of emancipation is not finished, both in the sense that it was not completed satisfactorily at the time and that there is a great need for several “new emancipations” in the present given the fact that societies have changed so much in the interim. Boettke goes on to say:

However imperfect that project has been pursued in our problematic past— and it has indeed been imperfectly pursued—the struggle remains to understand and pursue a coherent and consistent vision of a society of free and responsible individuals, who can prosper through the voluntary participation in a market society, and live and be actively engaged in caring communities with their family and friends. Humane liberalism, cosmopolitan liberalism, true radical liberalism— this should be the promise of the liberal society to everyone regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. People are people, and liberalism is liberal. We are, after all, one another’s dignified equals. Open and tolerant, peaceful and prosperous, and dynamic and evolving—these are the hallmarks of a humane liberal economic, political, and social arrangement of human affairs.

The Liberal Agenda of Liberty, Prosperity, Peace, AND Justice

The reason for the weakening and then cessation of the classical liberal emancipation movement in the 19thC, even after so much good had already been achieved, was due Boettke argues to a missing element in the “classical liberal” vision of a free society which tended to focus on “liberty, prosperity, and peace”. That missing element was something that “radical liberals” had in abundance in the late 18th and early 19thC and which which the “moderate liberals” (my term not his) of mid-century had largely lost was a passion for “justice”. This was the conviction that government issued privileges to certain groups, high taxes, multitudinous regulations and interventions in the free market, restrictions on what occupations people could or could not enter, were of course costly and inefficient, but the most important factor to the radicals was that they were morally wrong and unjust, that they violated the natural rights to life, liberty, and property that all individuals had by right, caused uncountable hardship and suffering to ordinary working people, and that therefore they had to be abolished immediately. This fervour, this anger, this impatience to see the right and just thing done, and done for all people not just a select few, was palpable in the thoughts and words of radicals like Thomas Paine, Richard Cobden, and Frédéric Bastiat, but it seemed to peter out in the classical liberal movement as the century wore on.

Boettke discusses this missing component in the CL vision in his essay “Fearing Freedom: The Intellectual and Spiritual Challenge to Liberalism” (2014) (reprinted as chap. 12 in The Struggle for a Better World):

As long as the state provides the appropriate laws and institutions—the rules of the game and their enforcement individuals can be left alone to pursue their own projects while realizing the values of liberty, prosperity, and peace through mutually beneficial exchange with one another. The classical-liberal ideal was never fully realized because although the intellectual vision captured the essential role of the state in providing the required infrastructure, there was a lack of attention to the distinction between the political structure and political intervention into the socioeconomic game. As a result, the structural constraints required to limit the negative consequences of politicized interventions were not established. Within a few generations, the classical-liberal ideal failed to inspire.

… critical to the failure to continually inspire was that the classical-liberal list of liberty, prosperity, and peace was incomplete because it omitted justice. The injustice of capitalist distribution inspired instead the socialist vision. The idea of justice, in both its Aristotelian senses of commutative justice and distributive justice, captures the intellectual imagination. The classical-liberal vision is one consistent with commutative justice (equity in the process), but its relationship to distributive justice (equity in outcomes) has always been dubious at best. …

Political machinations that undermine the generality of the rules and instead yield benefits to some at the expense of others must be constantly identified and resisted in a renewed defense of the justice of the classical-liberal order. Only by so doing will the twenty-first-century political economist complete his eighteenth century counterparts’ program and demonstrate the logical affinity between liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice.

Correcting the Intellectual Errors and Political Mistakes of the Past

In addition to the gradual attenuation of the liberal regard for “justice” for all people, the new “liberal state” which emerged in the 19thC in Britain, the US, in France, and elsewhere, faced a number of significant problems which made it very difficult for even well-meaning liberal reformers. These problems were caused by several theoretical and political errors on their part, which it is hoped 21stC radical liberals now better understand and can steps to avoid making in the future. They include:

  1. their misplaced hopes for democracy
  2. their faith in the benevolence and omniscience of the state and its officials
  3. the “presumption of state intervention” replaced “the presumption of liberty” to solve problems
  4. that “market failure” was more of a problem than “government failure”
  5. their belief that those who “make the rules of the game” should also “referee the game”, and even “play in the game”

For example, it was assumed that democracy itself was enough to bring about the emancipation of those whose rights were being systematically violated by previous state actions and entrenched and powerful vested interest. It was assumed that if only the “right people” got elected and introduced liberal reforms, and if the bureaucrats who administered the reform policies were impartial, fair-minded, and disinterested (as Bentham and James Mill expected them to be), then the liberal reform process would be successful. Without the proper institutional reforms to limit the self-interested behaviour on the part of politicians and bureaucrats who “ran” the state on the one hand (the problem of “public predation”), and the desire and ability of profit-seeking businessmen, industrialists, and financiers who most benefited from the “capitalist system” on the other hand (the problem of “private predation”), then the liberal state would fall victim to the same problems that plague all political systems – the rise to power of venal and corrupt politicians, self-interested bureaucrats, and a legislature which was ripe for the picking by vested interests seeking political rents for a price (what Bentham and Mill called “the sinister interests”).

The work of economists in the tradition of Hayek, Buchanan, and Rothbard have provided modern radical liberals with a much more clear-sighted, realistic, perhaps even cynical view of how politics actually works and thus one might hope that they will not make the same mistakes as their intellectual forebears in the 19thC. As Boettke and Candela observe about the three different forms of liberalism under discussion – radical liberalism, classical liberalism, and modern liberalism:

All three forms of liberalism, we contend, share similar goals, namely to achieve peaceful cooperation among diverse individuals and groups, to eliminate wretched poverty, and to free individuals from the tyranny of others over their lives. In our rendering, the radical liberal is essentially an updated classical liberal who, on the basis of social science and history, is more pessimistic about the constitutional project to constrain public predation and more optimistic about mediating institutions of civil society to ward off private predation. [Boettke and Candela, “Liberal Libertarianism” (2018), Note 3, p. 105.]

Rethinking a “True Radical Liberal” Vision

Given this failure on the part of 19thC liberal states to fully realise their emancipation agenda, liberals in the 21stC according to Boettke need to rethink their vision of what a free society would look like, making sure that they reinstate the notion of justice to its proper place, and how best to place limits on the political structure to make sure it cannot engage in predation itself (public predation) or encourage or enable others to engage in the predation of others (private predation). Boettke is confident that modern “true radical liberals” can develop a “vision of a society that exhibits neither discrimination nor dominion” and that:

Such a society can be made possible only through the establishment of an institutional structure that constrains ordinary politics while also providing the appropriate rules that enable the invisible hand of the market to operate. … (T)wenty-first century political economists must be unwilling to treat rules and their enforcement as given and instead must focus their intellectual attention on the emergence and establishment of the rules of the game themselves. We can see how institutions transform situations of conflict into opportunities for realizing the gains of social cooperation by witnessing how groups across a variety of countries and cultures engage in bottom-up constitution making to solve their societal problems. We can learn to live better together and establish a social order that simultaneously achieves liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice. Such a vision of the “good society” can and must inspire the citizenry not only with the scientific demonstration of the efficacy of freedom, but also with the aesthetic beauty and spiritual meaningfulness of the extensive social cooperation that are possible among free individuals.

The Contribution Liberal Historians can make to this Project

As an historian I would add that 21stC liberal historians also have an important role to play in re-invigorating the classical liberal vision of a free society which would be an important complement to the activities of the political economists. This would include research in the following areas:

  1. “market failure”: showing with historical examples that many (most? all?) of the failures attributed to “capitalism” and the free market system (the boom bust cycle, inflation, the tendency toward the formation of monopolies, the growth of inequality, environmental degradation) are not an inherent part of the free market system but the result of government interventions which prevent the market system from operating efficiently and justly.
  2. “government failure”: debunking the commonly held view that the government is made up of a group of well-meaning, disinterested people who “are here to help”; that governments have access to more and better information that other people and are thus in a better position to make plans about the future direction the economy and the society should be moving in; that the government can identify “market failures” and have the means and the will to rectify them
  3. “the ruling elite”: identifying those individuals and groups (the “vested interests”, the ruling class) who actively seek and get benefits paid for at taxpayer and consumer expence; showing how over time they have become entrenched and very powerful, and how they defend their interests
  4. “the great emancipation”: documenting in detail how the “great emancipation” was inspired by classical liberal ideas; who took action to campaign for and bring about these emancipations of serfs, slaves, ordinary working people, women; the opposition they faced and the difficulties they had to overcome; assessing the successes and failures of these movements
  5. “the CL tradition”: providing an intellectual history of the origin of the key ideas which make up the ideology of “liberalism”, its sources in the ancient world, its evolution during the medieval period, its emergence in the 17thC in a recognisably modern form, the enormous impact these ideas had in the “era of revolutions” (America and France), the setbacks and failures it experienced and the reasons for this
  6. “spontaneous orders”: studies of historical examples of how, when, and why spontaneous orders have emerged, especially endogenously generated legal rules and norms
  7. “the state”: histories of how the state arose, who controlled and ran them, how its major institutions emerged and evolved over time (the army, the courts, the bureaucracies, taxation, prisons, central banks, etc), the social and economic crises they caused and how they attempted to solve them, their relationships with other states

My hope is that the theory provided by the new radical liberal political economists and the political philosophers (something I have not written about yet but which deserves its own post) will join with the empirical work of the historians to build a more inspiring and attractive vision of a truly radical liberal society which is based upon the principles of liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice, firmly anchored in the admirable achievements of the emancipations it has already inspired and achieved in the past, and willing and able to seek the much needed emancipations of other oppressed and neglected groups in the future.

Bibliography of Works mentioned above

Peter J. Boettke, The Struggle For A Better World (Arlington, Virginia: Mercatus Center, 2021). Online at The Struggle for a Better World | Mercatus Center: F. A. Hayek Program. It contains:

  • Introduction. “Economic and Political Liberalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”
  • chap. 1 “The Battle of Ideas: Economics and the Struggle for a Better World” – Speech given as the 12th Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture at the New Zealand Business Roundtable in Wellington, New Zealand, 2006. Published in 2007.
  • chap. 3 “Liberty vs. Power in Economic Policy in the 20th and 21st Centuries” – – originally published as “Liberty vs. Power in Economic Policy in the 20th and 21st Centuries” in the Journal of Private Enterprise 22, no.2 (Spring 2007): 7–36. This speech was first delivered as a Plenary Lecture at the 2006 Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings in Las Vegas, Nevada.
  • Chap. 12 “Fearing Freedom: The Intellectual and Spiritual Challenge to Liberalism” – Published in The Independent Review 18, no. 3 (2013/14): 343–58.
  • Chap. 13 “Rebuilding the Liberal Project” – “Edited version of a paper presented at the special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Stockholm, November 3–5, 2017. Originally published in Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy Magazine 33, no. 4 (2017): 25–35.”
  • Chap. 16 “Pessimistically Optimistic about the Future” – Originally published in The Independent Review 20, no. 3 (2016): 343–46.
  • Conclusion. “Liberalism, Socialism, and Our Future”

Peter J. Boettke and Rosolino A. Candela, “Liberal Libertarianism,” in The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. Edited by: Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz (New York : Routledge, 2018), pp. 92-107.

Peter Boettke, “The Reconstruction of the Liberal Project,” in F. A. Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 257-81.