History, Politics

Confusion About -Isms is Compounding Schisms

America has a deeply confused understanding of liberalism, neo-liberalism, conservatism and progressivism. Thanks to the outsize influence of US politics on global discourse, this confusion is slowly infecting other countries. It’s a dangerous disease because it prevents the articulation of a consistent framework for analysing policy, which leaves the voter in thrall to sloganeering, issue-baiting and crude policies formulated along only vague ideological grounds.

As many of these confusions pertain to some variety of liberalism — classical, neo, libertarian — let’s start clarifying things there. Classical liberalism begins roughly with Hobbes. He experienced the horror of a civil war and argued that a ‘leviathan’ was needed that could enforce ‘the rule of law’ to control the human tendency towards violence. He argued that all individuals should cede some of their innate sovereignty to this sovereign. Note this fundamental appreciation of the individual’s sovereignty over herself. This is something you don’t find in fascism, which prioritises the state, or progressivism, which prioritises the class or marginalised group.

Locke comes next and suggests the separation of powers to tame the leviathan. The sovereign will be split into the elected legislature, the executive (Crown or President) and the courts. These institutions will share power and jealousy guard their patch against encroachment from each other, ultimately making the leviathan accountable to the sovereigns of the populace, who are the source of power. The checks and balances of parliamentary process develop around this time and find perhaps their most cogent articulation in the constitutionalist debates of the American founding fathers.

Locke also writes the first widely popular essay on tolerance in response to Catholics and Protestants massacring each other on various pretexts founded in dogma.

The French revolution saw major contributions to the ideational history of liberalism, conservatism and progressivism. Paine pens the Rights of Man, which articulates inalienable human rights as a fundamental institution of liberal society. Meanwhile, the Jacobins, early flag-bearers of progressivism, execute all who oppose their glorious attempt to bring about greater equality. Burke, disgusted by this slaughter, articulates the founding principle of conservativism. Namely, the current order evolved for a reason, and one should be very careful that in trying to change it one does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. Policy change should be incremental, not wholesale. Note that Burke was not a fan of traditionalism — he was a Whig, not a Tory. But he was a fan of order — a consistent theme in conservative thought.

Around this time, Adam Smith hits upon the free market. People left to their own devices will more efficiently allocate scarce resources than any central planning government ever could. Leave capitalism to deliver wealth (grow the pie) and government to deliver equity (split the pie). Smith was writing especially in the context of trade restrictions, price setting and government monopolies.

Fast forward. Bentham and the utilitarians develop a secular principle to guide public policy formulation. What is ‘good’ is what brings the greatest benefit to the greatest number. This is a rational calculus that can be argued over, unlike religious morality. It also enshrines social welfare as an aggregation of individual welfares.

John Stuart Mill develops the harm principle: the only grounds on which the state can restrict the freedom of a citizen are if leaving them free would cause harm to another citizen. The obvious example is violence, though the concept of harm remains open to contestation. Critically, Mill emphasises that while institutions must protect liberty, individual morality behoves the individual to refrain from doing harm. For example, you have a right to free speech, but also a duty to be polite.

The notion of positivism coalesces in jurisprudence. The law is not natural in the sense that it is handed down from God or written into the firmament. Instead, the law is an institution of social expediency and open to cyclical reinterpretation. This is compatible with the conservative notion that new legal matters, like copyright law, should be dealt with by extending existing legal frameworks to cover the new issues.

Finally, in the 20th century, among other things, Popper formulates fallibilism as a core principle in liberalism. Due to the peculiarities of empirical reality, we can never be absolutely certain of a theory, only of its refutation. As such, we should ever be fallible, meaning that we are open to counterarguments and willing to criticise our existing paradigms, including in politics and social organisation. Fallibilism thoroughly undermines moral absolutism.

Fallibilism was developed as part of a theory of science, but in The Open Society and its Enemies Popper extended it to public policy. He suggested that we should pursue incremental policy change rather than wholesale system change because revolutionary change assumes we know the full consequences of our actions. This is not a fallibilistic attitude because it assumes we can perfectly predict the future based on our limited evidence from the past. The larger a change the more likely it is to trigger intermediating factors of which we are unaware or for which we are not accounting, with potentially devastating consequences.

That’s a very brief history of (classical) liberalism. A lot more could be written, but it will do. By way of a quick summary, the emphasis in liberalism is on the enhancement of individual agency. Note that agency is more than negative freedom. It is one’s ability to be and do things. Being the lone actor on a desert island sees you perfectly free, but you have very little agency.

Liberalism offers a range of institutions — human rights, property rights, the separation of powers, constitutions, innocent until proven guilty, no imprisonment without charge, the harm principle etc. — that provide for human agency. Liberalism puts great faith in the emergent order that arises out of high-agency individuals acting in their self-interest to provide prosperity and justice. By extension, it is more interested in equality of opportunity than equality of outcomes.

Arguably, classical liberalism defines the centre of modern western thought and politics. The doctrines of conservatism, progressivism, neoliberalism and libertarianism are wings that depart from this centre. They all lay claim to liberal ideals to some degree, and none deny liberty’s importance, unlike fascism and theocracy. We will now explore the way in which these doctrines depart from classical liberalism.

In contrast to liberalism, libertarianism is about freedom, not agency. It is a very American school of thought, fitting of that country’s pioneer spirit. It begins with Thoreau’s work on civil disobedience, the right to be left alone and the dignity of self-reliance. It finds its most influential expression in the work of Ayn Rand and its most philosophically coherent articulation in the ethics of Robert Nozick. Libertarianism sees taxes as egregious because they infringe on individual freedom. Classical liberalism does not because taxes pay for public education, health and infrastructure, all of which enhance the agency of all. Progressivism cares about equality of outcomes, classical liberalism about equality of opportunity, and libertarianism just doesn’t care about equality.

Neo-liberalism is another thing again. It is the application of the economic way of thinking to social theory more generally. This includes rational actor theory, the Pareto efficiency criterion and the notion that emergent orders (like markets) are much better able to leverage diffuse tacit knowledge than governments are, which makes them more efficient at allocating scarce resources and more productive with those resources. The more prominent writers in this school are the Chicago School economists Hayek, Becker and Friedman.

It is in libertarianism and neo-liberalism that the small government mantra is strongest. Classical liberalism is mostly about limits on government rather than limited government. Many classical liberals supported public health, public education, law and regulations, like anti-trust, that required large governments, both in terms of legal presence and in terms of percentage of GDP. Even Adam Smith wrote extensively about the need for government institutions to allow markets to function smoothly. By contrast, libertarianism wants government consigned to providing defence and law and order, notably in the enforcement of contract and property rights. Neo-liberalism sees a wider but still circumspect role for government in facilitating the market mechanism by correcting market failures like externalities and providing public goods.

Finally, let’s talk about progressivism. As befits its roots in the French Revolution, progressivism’s intellectual grandfather is Karl Marx. Where classical liberalism emphasises equality of opportunity, progressivism favours equality of outcomes, that is, absolute equality. In Marx’s day this was mostly in terms of class or financial equity. While financial inequality remains, we are nowadays significantly wealthier in absolute terms than in Marx’s day, and this partially explains why the focus of progressives has shifted to other inequalities, notably those pertaining to race, gender and sexuality. This was driven first by feminist, post-modern and post-colonial theorists, and more recently by the final stage of post-modernism, namely Derridian language theory.

As it is fundamentally about equity, progressivism always needs an underprivileged group to fight for. As Marxist analysis is all about power rather than agency or liberty, and thinks of power as zero-sum, it tends to consider the promotion of the underprivileged a matter of transferring power from ‘the ruling class’ to the underprivileged classes. This was relatively straightforward when progressives cared almost entirely about financial class. But nowadays things are a lot more complicated. For example, white men are apparently the global ruling class. Yet they also make up a huge portion of America’s working class, and are dying in disproportionate numbers from drug abuse, among other ailments.

There really isn’t much overlap between liberalism and progressivism, so it is odd that the American political discourse often labels progressive policies as liberal. Progressivism values liberal institutions and ideas, like human rights, to the extent that they serve the underprivileged. When they stop doing that, as apparently they do in open campus discourses, progressives are happy to suspend liberal institutions. Progressivism has historically been at its most influential when utilising the language of agency, as in the civil rights movement and first and second wave feminism, and at its most divisive when seeking the revolutionary overthrow of the existing order.

It is very important to emphasise that liberalism sees failure and inequality of outcomes as inevitable and important. Inequality encourages people to work hard. When more competitive firms buy less competitive ones using their profits it ensures that resources go to where they are the most productive. Innovation and progress come from the drive to ‘get ahead’. Equality of opportunity is critical in this paradigm for ensuring competition. But close equality of outcomes is counterproductive. This is the most fundamental point of divergence between liberalism and progressivism.

In our contemporary political discourse there is a profound confusion between the many -isms. The democratic party is called liberal (as a slur!) when its cultural politics are progressive and many of its economic ideas, at least under the technocratic Obama administration, are neo-liberal.

The republicans are called conservative, which they are, but they are also libertarian. They are miss-labeled neo-liberal. Few economic rationalists would support the farm subsidies, military industrial complex, lack of a carbon price, or brain-dead health insurance market ideas that the republicans campaign on bitterly. These policies are more a function of cronyism, which afflicts the democrats as well.

Both parties are very ‘liberal’ in the classical sense, with strong respect for the constitution, parliamentary process, the separation of powers and individual rights. However, the libertarianism of the Republicans often differentiates them, such as on gun control, which classical liberalism sees as a threat to agency whereas libertarianism sees it as fundamental to protecting individual freedom.

Finally, there is a strong split on the left between centre-left liberals and further left progressives, yet both get lumped in together. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the contemporary feminist movement. Both groups sign up to the notion of the equality of the sexes. But liberal feminists are inclined to approach this through a paradigm of agency (e.g. through child care policy and campaigns that bring men into the tent) and institutional change (e.g. equal pay for equal work legislation and universal suffrage), while progressives (the radical feminist wing) has long called for the overthrow of the entire cultural system of patriarchy, in which men have outsize zero-sum power, and a transfer of zero-sum power from men to women.

It is important to stress that all of these streams in the history of ideas and politics have made invaluable contributions to human progress. That’s one reason why democracies almost always operate at the centre of politics. None of these -isms are outright wrong or evil. Arguably the more extreme arms of each paradigm are a little on the silly side, but that’s an argument for another time.

What we need now is to get these concepts straight. When progressives can call universal freedom of speech neoliberal, when immigration control is considered conservative in a country built by migrants, when people think classical liberalism advocates for government being limited to a certain portion of GDP, and when the party of neoliberals doesn’t realise that there are very strong theoretical and empirical reasons to believe a single-payer health care system is the most economically efficient way to deliver health insurance, you know your politics is suffering for lack of conceptual clarity.


Mark Fabian is a doctoral candidate in economics at the Crawford School for Public Policy, The Australian National University. He blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com.au

Filed under: History, Politics


Mark Fabian is a doctoral candidate in economics at the Crawford School for Public Policy, The Australian National University. He blogs at markfabian.blogspot.com.au


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