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Please Don't Lay the Crimes of the Coercive State at the Feet of Liberalism
My reply to Toby Rogers asking "Did Liberalism Fail?"
“So what next?”
That’s the question pretty much everyone in the medical-freedom movement is asking. We all recognize how very broken – broken beyond what many of us had imagined – our political and economic systems are. But how to fix them? And what to put in their place?
To further complicate matters, most of us – even long-time medical-freedom advocates – have been brought up with the official narratives regarding political and economic systems. Foremost among these narratives: That freedom – economic freedom in particular – can be a dangerous thing, and sometimes we need the government to “step in” and make things safe.
So when I reply to Toby Rogers, as I did about a year ago…
…it is that narrative that I am addressing.
Toby had another piece up last week, in which he poses the question:
“Underneath our pleas for bodily autonomy I think that we’re actually arguing for a return to political and economic liberalism (free people and free markets). But I think that we need to have a conversation about the limitations and contradictions of that approach. The question I would like for us to discuss is...
“Did liberalism fail?”
My response follows:
There is a lot to respond to here, but I'll just try to hit the most important points, and make an attempt at answering your questions:
1. "But we immediately come upon a paradox: The wealth of Scotland during Smith’s era did not come from the baker, the brewer, and the butcher."
But there is nothing paradoxical about your example, which is simply an example of market activities being intertwined with non-market activities (in this case, slavery.) I'm not sure what point you are trying to make with this. If it is that markets cannot function in the absence of non-market, coercive enterprises (slavery, empire, etc.), then it fails – because there are far too many examples of markets functioning very well in the absence of support from slavery, empire, etc.
Adam Smith's observation about wealth being created by the "invisible hand" of people pursuing their own interests holds up. The fact that non-market institutions such as slavery, empire, and the mercantilist system (which Smith vehemently opposed, in his "Wealth of Nations"), exist alongside free markets is hardly an indictment of free markets. Nor is it evidence that liberal society, or liberal economic activity, is dependent upon such coercive institutions.
Indeed, as I mentioned in an earlier reply to one of your essays, the material benefits of the British empire did not enrich average Britons – just the opposite, in fact. The costs of empire were borne by taxpayers, and the historical record shows that colonial empire was a net drain on those taxpayers. Any benefits of empire were enjoyed by the crony class alone.
2. "Economic liberalism created cycles of boom and bust."
Are you familiar with Austrian business-cycle theory? The idea that booms and busts are not the product of free markets, but rather of government intervention in markets for money and credit? If you are familiar with Austrian theory, can you explain why you have rejected it in favor of the (mainstream/Keynesian) anti-liberal theory? And if you are not familiar with this theory, then I really recommend that you familiarize yourself with it. I think it will help to clarify some of what you are wondering about, and is an important piece of the puzzle you are trying to put together.
3. "Unbridled liberalism can produce sweat shops, child labor, sex trafficking, and environmental exploitation."
I don't know if you've ever visited a "sweat shop", but I have. I've also seen trainloads of peasants making their way to the cities that had them, just to camp out on the sidewalk by the train stations in the hopes that someone might come and give them a job in one.
It's easy to decry someone else's situation, and their choices, from a position in a highly developed (thanks to whatever degree of economic freedom we have had over the centuries) economy. And it's probably hard to imagine that there are situations much, much, worse than "sweat shops" and that millions of people have been living in those situations for a very long time. But there are. I've seen what rural life in China was like before economic liberalization, and I promise you, it was absolute shit.
"Sweat shops" – and yes, child labor – are immeasurably better than the level of grinding poverty that most Westerners can't even imagine. Yes, they are "horrible things" to those who have never lived in that kind of poverty, but they are a way out for those who have.
4. "In the space of just 75 days at the start of 2020, political liberalism disappeared from the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand… Economic liberalism disappeared shortly thereafter:"
Economic liberalism in the US has been disappearing for well over a century. Crony Capitalism is not a new phenomenon here. Yes, 2020 saw a massive assault on economic freedom. But it was simply the most recent in a long history of such assaults.
If liberalism is so great, how did we end up with Stakeholder Fascism run by the very same people who claimed to be liberals?
We ended up with Stakeholder Fascism because we (not you and me, obviously, but the folks who have been making these decisions for the past couple of hundred years) abandoned liberal principles to a great extent. Because they allowed things like the regulatory state to take power, in order to "protect us" from big business; they allowed antitrust law, again, for our "protection." But anyone who has paid attention to business regulation over the years knows how that has turned out.
We ended up with Stakeholder Fascism because "we" (someone, not me) were foolish enough to believe that an entity that is founded in coercive power can ever be an an effective instrument for the protection of ordinary people against the more powerful.
2. Can liberalism ever survive on its own in the absence of empire? Can liberalism exist in the absence of the trillions of dollars of stimulus generated by exploitation?
This question is based on a falsehood – the false idea that empire somehow enriched domestic society. Again, the historical record shows that it did not. The British empire enriched certain participants in the economy – just like US empire enriches the Blackrocks and the Raytheons, etc. But it is simply incorrect to say that it enriches society as a whole. The non-crony classes end up paying for empire, while the cronies profit from it. Sound familiar?
The fact that relatively free markets have existed alongside empire, and even slavery, does not establish some relationship of interdependence between the two. And nothing you have said here supports the idea that empire is, or ever has been, a necessary condition for free markets or a liberal society.
3. A different way of saying that is, has liberalism actually ever been tried top to bottom in a society, and if so, would it work and what would it look like? I’ve got a feeling that it looks like a sort of Mennonite community with very modest incomes and standards of living. (Not Amish, but Amish-adjacent = Mennonite.) No one is driving a Tesla in those communities because the baker, the brewer, and butcher don’t actually generate that much economic activity.
If you mean a 100% pure liberalism, with no state intervention at all, perhaps only the enforcement of common-law laws against murder, theft, etc., then probably no, it has never existed in a pure form anywhere. But 20th-century Hong Kong came very close, and it didn't look much like Mennonite society. I wrote about it here, comparing it to the US.
4. And if a return to liberalism is what we want, what safeguards need to be in place so that the fascists don’t take over again the next time they want to increase quarterly profits?
The safeguards we need are safeguards against coercive entities. We must not give the state the power to do anything other than enforce common law (laws against murder, theft, etc.)
Of course, this is easier said than done. Because once we give any entity a monopoly on this kind of power, we lose any control over what it can and can't do. It will simply redefine the terms (as it has all these years with the Constitution) in order to grant itself the power to do whatever it damn well likes. So the real answer is: We cannot allow a monopoly state of any kind. Ever again.
"If we are going to survive, we need to tell a better story than them. Right now it feels like the story we are telling is that when we take power we will just return to classical political and economic liberalism — and things will be better this time. But what I’m trying to suggest is that there are holes in that story."
You seem committed to the belief that there are "contradictions inherent in liberalism," yet you have not made a good case for these contradictions. You decry the existence of slavery and violent empire alongside functioning markets, as if these evils were the product of adhering to liberal principles – when in fact they are themselves evidence that those principles were not adhered to.
Surely you see something wrong with asserting that the problem with a society that engages in imperial conquest is that it adheres too rigorously to the principles of individual liberty and self ownership?
It make no sense to say "…we will just return to classical political and economic liberalism – and things will be better this time." Because we were never there to begin with! The failures you lament, the existence of slavery, of militaristic empire, of mercantilism, and other coercive abuses, are not the result of having upheld liberal values, but of having abandoned them.
So perhaps the story we need to be telling, the vision we need to put forth is something along these lines:
"We humans have a mixed history. We have created relatively free societies, and we have created outright tyrannies. And every society we have created has been some mix of both. But we can see that, to the extent that we have been free, we have prospered by every measure imaginable. And to the extent that we have been ruled over, we have suffered. Our vision then, is to do more of what allows for human flourishing and happiness, and less of what doesn't. Our vision is that of a world that respects and protects individual sovereignty and liberty above all else."