The State of Classical Liberalism at Year's End

In a blog dedicated to formulating and promoting classical liberalism, it is useful at year’s end to evaluate the state of these ideas in the politics and culture of our nation. And sad to report, classical liberalism is now weaker than it has been for decades.

Classical liberal ideas are losing traction in both political parties. At its best, the Republican party has been a fruitful fusion of classical liberalism and conservatism. No classically liberal party can take power on its own, because there simply aren’t enough liberals in the classic sense. But the Republican party has generally espoused liberal economic policies-deregulation, free markets, limited government, freer trade and even relatively open immigration so long as our immigration policy requires assimilation and does not threaten security.

But this year Republicans have their most serious illiberal candidate for decades, an opponent of freer trade and no friend of limited government. I have argued before that Trump’s policies along with his emphasis on national greatness rather than individual liberty resemble even more virulent nationalists in Europe, who have opposed liberalism as strongly as European socialists. Trump now even evinces sympathy for a nemesis of liberalism in both domestic and international affairs—Vladimir Putin. And while some other Republican candidates do endorse aspects of a classical liberal agenda, they spend almost no time discussing the greatest threat to limited government—the burgeoning entitlement state—or plans to reform it.

On the Democratic side, the candidate currently in second place is a proclaimed socialist. In prior years, openly identifying with socialism would have been disqualifying, even in a Democratic primary. Of even greater concern is how far to the left the front runner, Hillary Clinton, has moved, as measured by comparison with her husband. As President, Bill Clinton governed as New Democrat in favor of free trade, welfare reform, and even a measure of deregulation, in part because of the climate of the times. By contrast, Hillary Clinton advocates for more market intervention, not less – from much higher minimum wages to equal pay provisions that would have government bureaucrats assess what jobs are comparable to others. And she has abandoned her support of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the negotiation of which began when she was Secretary of State.

And then we have a new wave of political correctness on college campus, which has been enabled in part by the burgeoning diversity bureaucracy.  But college students are also more militant and intolerant than at any time since the 1960s. And in this case, they are stirred not by an overriding but evanescent issue, like the draft, that directly affects most of them. Instead, they seem more diffusely and thus more permanently on the left. This generation is not likely to march under the classical liberal banner in the decades to come.

There are some cheering countertrends. Technological change tends to disrupt statist structures as never before. Witness the power of Uber to win out over regulations. But if the material conditions provide some ballast for classical liberalism, political and intellectual trends are as unfavorable as they have been in my adult lifetime.