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The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is in the worst shape since I began these year-in-review columns. Some may blame this radical decline on the President, certainly no classical liberal. But that would be wrong. Classical liberalism faces stronger headwinds than Donald Trump and they extend far beyond the United States.

The United States

Domestically, the greatest danger to classical liberalism is the sharp left turn of the Democratic Party. This has been the greatest ideological change of any party since at least the Goldwater revolution in the Republican Party more than a half a century ago. Not only is an avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders, a serious candidate for the President, he has pulled other Democrats along toward his positions. Elizabeth Warren, until recently the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is the second most radical contender in the last five decades. She demonizes people who have made a lot of money, wants to control the health care system, expand social security with new taxes, and force corporations worth more than one billion dollars in equity to serve the interests of ill-defined stakeholders rather shareholders and take direction from directors elected by employees. Ramesh Ponnuru has rightly characterized Pete Buttigieg as Warren-lite. For instance, he too wants Medicare for All–but not just yet. The danger to long-term innovation in health care, however, comes just from the prospect of future government control as it dries up investment. Warren and Buttigieg threaten the rule of law as well—a core pillar of classical liberalism—with proposals to change the membership of the Supreme Court by statute.

It is certainly possible that such candidates will lose to Joe Biden or that they will not win against Trump. But they are transforming the Democratic Party just as Goldwater did the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party will win the presidency at some time in the future. Recessions and voter fatigue guarantee rotation of parties in office.

Great Britain and Europe

And in Great Britain, the nation besides America that has historically been the best home of liberty, the similar drift of the Labour Party and the waning of Thatcherism in the Conservative Party show that we are dealing with a decline in classical liberalism that far exceeds any one leader’s power to cause or correct. The Labour Party has moved farther left than the Democrats, combining massive spending plans with new plan for nationalization, including the telecom industry. To be sure, because of the utter incompetence of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the party lost this December’s election badly, but no one thinks that the party will reinvent itself again in the manner of New Labour, the avatar of a left party that had made its peace with the market economy.

The Conservative Party has also drifted away from classical liberalism, with plans to grow the state through a blizzard of new spending largely paid for by the kind of borrowing the conservatives condemned in the years of the previous Labour government. Boris Johnson’s victory speech had not a word about limited government or competitive reforms of public services. Instead, it was all about plans for what he proudly terms record spending. Johnson has been a great champion of Brexit, but he seems content to move Britain closer to the model of a continental European economy, all on his own—without any help from the EU.

And that continent—never very friendly to classical liberalism—is certainly not embracing it either. The best parts of French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda—on pensions and taxes—is stymied by huge protests in the streets of French cities. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who moved her party away from free market economics and openly calls for more restrictions on speech, has left the Christian Democratic Party in bad electoral shape. Italy has a government of the left with a wholly populist opposition on the right that has no plan for market reforms that the nation desperately needs to rid itself of a corrupt political and patronage system.

The Adversary Culture

Old ideas of individual liberty are under threat in the culture as well. On the left, identity politics continues its relentless rise, particularly on university campuses. For instance, history departments, like that at my own university, hire almost exclusively those who promise to impose a gender, race, or colonial perspective on the past. The history that our students hear will be one focused on the West’s oppression of the rest rather than the reality that its creation of the institutions of free markets and free thought has brought billions of people out of poverty and tyranny that was their lot before. And it has extended by journalists eager to promote that version of history, most notoriously in the New York Times’ 1619 project. How will classical liberalism survive in the future if the left has control of the narrative of the past?

On the right, many of its most assertive voices are calling for national or social conservativism to replace the fusionism that married concern with liberty and respect for tradition. It is hardly clear that whatever its philosophical merits, of which I am doubtful, that this can be a winning coalition.

Difficulties in Good Times, Likely Worse in Bad Times

And perhaps most worrying of all, both the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good. Previously, pressure on classical liberalism most often occurred when times were bad. The global trend to more centralized forms of government and indeed totalitarian ones in Europe occurred in the 1920s and 1930s in the midst of a global depression. The turbulent 1960s with its celebration of social disorder came during a period of hard economic times. Moreover, in the United States, young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose.

But today the economic is good, the best it has been in at least a decade. Unemployment is at a historical low. Wages are up along with the stock market. No Americans are dying in a major war. And yet both here and abroad parties that want to fundamentally shackle the market economy are gaining more adherents. If classical liberalism seems embattled now, its prospects are likely far worse in the next economic downturn or crisis of national security.

The President, to be sure, is no constant friend of limited government. He has rejected entitlement reforms and runs a budget with continual deficits projected into the distant future. He has agreed to new trade agreement with NAFTA that requires foreign nations to pursue substantive social policies—a position that classical liberals have rightly rejected. But classical liberals are wrong to focus so much on lapses of a particular President rather the generally unfavorable currents. My New Year’s Resolution is to identify the deeper forces arrayed against liberty and suggest new forms and programs for classical liberalism to address them. I hope other friends of liberty will join me.

Reader Discussion

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on December 31, 2019 at 09:44:51 am

The "deeper forces arrayed against classical liberalism" are universities and law schools teaching John Rawls over Aristotle and Madison. We can have liberty and justice, but not liberty and distributive justice.

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M. Baughan
on December 31, 2019 at 10:07:59 am

I suspect this is mistaken. The fundamental ideas of classical liberalism are extremely powerful and there’s a ready audience for them - people are dissatisfied with the status quo and political rule of, by, and for elites. The so-called populism is really just this dissatisfaction.

Contemporary libertarians have badly botched the argument for classical liberalism by trying to make common cause with the left, and by foolishness like defending totalitarian China in the name of free trade, arguing that borders should be entirely opened to welfare cases, sharia supremacists, and terrorists, buying into the Black Lies Matter and similar pro-criminal movements, and even endorsing universal basic income (go figure). Contrary to the author’s contention, Donald Trump is arguably the most classically liberal president since Reagan, and surpasses Reagan in some ways. Classical liberalism has a great future - it just needs to be promoted competently.

If cutting regulation, battling the administrative state, and battling the cultural marxists are all uninteresting to you because you’re more concerned that Huawei could provide 5G tech cheaper and and insufficient numbers of uneducated non-English speakers are sneaking across our borders, you’ll not understand what I’ve written, of course. (This dig is not, BTW, directed at author McGinnis, whom I think is fairly sensible.)

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Charles N. Steele
on December 31, 2019 at 11:31:31 am

Does one see the connection between the 1st and the 3rd paragraph of McGinnis' essay?
Could it be that the leftist shift of the Democrat party may be the direct result of the phenomena alluded to in the 3rd paragraph? - oh how well the academy has served this leftward thrust. Indeed, if one examines the actions of the academy, one may conclude that the academy has achieved its purpose(s).

One way to accomplish this effect is to re-categorize any "distinctive" group as victims as was done with the Hispanic, or now Latino community. See below:

https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/the-invention-of-hispanics/

Oddly enough, some time back I wrote that the choice of the term "Latino" was somewhat odd as, if anything, it signified past experience as a group that was once dominated, oppressed and / or victimized by Latin conquerors, i.e., Rome.
Being somewhat slow on the uptake, it took me some time to realize that "victimhood" status was, in fact, the very objective of such re-categorization.

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on December 31, 2019 at 11:39:31 am

“[In] Great Britain, the nation . . . that has historically been the best home of liberty . . . “ seems limiting.
For validity, this statement may be modified to liberty within theism, in specific Christianity, in particular formal church partnership through assigned seats in Parliament.

The introduction of “classical liberalism” followed by the switch to “Britain . . . home of liberty” illustrates how scholars bait-and-switch and bemuse the reader. In saying so, I point to error more than intentions, because the innocent practice bemuses the thinker: I don't question Professor McGinnis' goodness.

Google tells us “Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom.” Plato.standford.edu tells us “From the eighteenth century . . . classical liberals have insisted that an economic system based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live her life —including employing her labor and her capital — as she sees fit.”

Five oligarchs for the rule of law (republicanism) wrote the purpose of the U.S. Constitution, in its preamble (the U.S. Preamble). They received an erroneous draft that had no proposition. Perhaps they were influenced by Greeks from 2200 years before them. In my view, one Greek suggestion is that humankind can develop equity under statutory justice.

I formed this view about the Committee of Style by studying and interpreting the U.S. Preamble’s civic, civil, and legal proposition, and my interpretation this morning is: We the People of the United States consider, communicate, collaborate, and connect to establish and maintain 5 public disciplines---integrity, justice, peace, strength, and prosperity---to empower responsible human liberty to living citizens. The standard by which civic integrity may be measured is the developing extent of responsible human liberty among fellow citizens. As the entity We the People of the United States perfects written law enforcement so as to approach statutory justice, dissidents and aliens lessen on evidence-of and encouragement-to success. Traitors are eliminated.

My view is for my life only: Fellow citizens may either interpret the U.S. Preamble to order their civic lifestyle or be dissidents to equity under statutory justice. However, the statutory law stands until amended so as to lessen past errors: dissidents invite subjugation to the rule of law. Readers who find my statement too absolute may recall the Greek suggestion that justice is based on equity some citizens reject. For example, some citizens think crime or tyranny pays until they face the rule of law.

I doubt American liberalism that is achievable by accepting the U.S. Preamble’s proposition is “classical.” The U.S. preamble's 5 public disciplines invoke neither spirituality nor property, yet the proposition covers these two private pursuits. Responsible human liberty offers individual happiness with civic integrity rather than the happiness either a tyrant, an institution, or a doctrine such as "classical liberalism" would impose on citizens.

It seems to me imposing British ideas on Americans fails to accept the psychological results of the American Revolution. The Committee of Style captured civic discipline for the benefit of “ourselves and our Posterity.” That’s us. In 2020, we can establish responsible human liberty after over 230 years of neglect.

Readers who think they are annoyed with my “preambling” might consider the civic discipline required by the U.S. Preamble’s proposition. Write your own interpretation of the 52-word sentence and communicate it. Readers who are inspired to consider the U.S. Preamble but doubt an achievable culture of responsible human liberty may recall acceleration. Promotion of responsible human liberty as viewed from the U.S. Preamble could go viral. Writers in this forum are qualified and individual enough to make it happen.

Professor McGinnis could, within his New Year’s Resolution, consider the civic integrity he’d like to promote, interpret the U.S. Preamble’s proposition to support his goals, and publish it here. The AI labeled “gabe” could reform from ridicule and share his interpretation, but I doubt there's enough programmed-humility to avoid ridicule. No one should overlook “ourselves and our Posterity,” where having been posterity we are now the "ourselves."

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Phillip Beaver
on December 31, 2019 at 11:43:31 am

Is the problem the message, or just the marketing, as Mr. Steele suggests? Hayek, von Mises, and a cast of luminaries debated this same question at the famous colloque Lippman in Paris in 1938. At the colloque, the only one who thought it was just a matter of shouting the same thing louder was Mises. Hayek and the others all knew this would not work, regardless of the strength of the message. The result: Hayek and the rest of the the classical liberals there added something to the message: the "safety net" dear to Ronald Reagan. For many reasons, the safety net has dissapeared from classical liberal rhetoric in the decades since Reagan. This is a huge mistake, resulting in a populism that wants nothing to do with classical liberalism.
But the remedies of the 1930s are not enough for the 2020s. Classical liberals need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: climate change. We need to propose classical liberal solutions, market-based solutions, before it is too late. A 100 billion dollar prize for whomever comes up with an efficient way to remove CO2 from the air and store it? A serious, revenue-neutral carbon tax? These ideas are not really the point. The point is that if classical liberals have nothing useful to say about the most important problem facing humanity, humanity will not think that freedom is useful.

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Alan Kahan
on December 31, 2019 at 12:59:16 pm

I share few of McGinnis’s political preferences, but I share his concern about the rise of populism/tribalism around the globe.

I sense that in bad economic times, people retreat into tribalism; they seek the safety of the group. Indeed, some econ profs have recognized that the collectivist morality of the tribe differs from the atomistic morality of the meritocratic market, and have designed their intro econ classes to address these differences explicitly. https://econjwatch.org/articles/econ-101-morality-the-amiable-the-mundane-and-the-market.

Libertarianism tends to be a superior good, demanded primarily when people are feeling hopeful. The quirk of our current time is that compassion is ALSO a superior good. As we grow richer, we can afford to allocate more social resources toward those we see as excluded. And since the rich have grown so much VASTLY richer than any group in history, concerns about burdening them have diminished.

Libertarianism has achieved its successes largely by combining with other, often antithetical, views (“fusionism”). Thus, Republicans have long campaigned on social issues, but then primarily delivered tax cuts for the rich. But with the rise of LGBT issues, the tension between true libertarians and social conservatives has become untenable. (This is not so different than the tension between libertarians and progressives. Note that the ACLU supports free speech—including the rights of Nazis to speak in public forums and support for Citizens United—to the consternation of many progressives.)

That said, many people feel alienated by change—especially people who feel that they have lost status. Libertarianism asks people to ignore status concerns; for better or worse, people seem disinclined to do that. These people are retreating into tribalism.

Old white rural Christian men have become the archetypical example of people who see their lifestyle being eclipsed by various kinds of change. Sensible, moderate policies have little appeal to them because any sensible, moderate policy will simply ensure the continuation of most of the patterns that will lead to their continued decline. Thus, this group has become a pawn to any snake-oil salesman who comes along. Along comes Trump, promising to rig the free market to somehow bring back coal; encourage greater agricultural exports to China; ban Muslims, Hispanics, and refugees; and “make America great again.” And if he has no practical plan to achieve any of these results—well, he has symbolic plans such as building a wall. What do other candidates offer? Retraining programs? What’s the symbolic value of that?

Similar dynamics seem to be prompting Brexit. Likewise in India, where Modi as risen to power by promising to rig India’s laws to favor Hindus over Muslims. In each case, what unites a party is less what it is for than what it is against. Persuade people that there’s trouble in River City, and thus we need to unite against the new pool hall, and no one will care that your proposed remedy of a boy’s marching band bears no practical relationship to the alleged problem. The snake oil practically sells itself.

McGinnis resolves to seek out the deeper forces arrayed against “liberty.” I suggest that these forces are tribalism and compassion. I look forward to reading McGinnis’s programs to address these forces. I have to suspect that the most viable program will be the old program: snake oil.

And happy new year.

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nobody.really
on December 31, 2019 at 13:45:25 pm

I wasn't clear. My point wasn't that the marketing is wrong, it's that the point is being abandoned. Contemporary libertarians have substituted being anti-government for being pro-liberty; when government actually promotes liberty, contemporary libertarians are at a loss. Many of them also adopt leftist conceptual frameworks -- worrying about non-existent things like "white privilege" or an imagined war on young black men by police or imminent catastrophic climate change.

Re this last, the IPCC's own models and projections don't show imminent disaster, and the solutions proposed by IPCC or Green New Deal do not yield meaningful reductions in greenhouse gasses. In IPCC's most recent major report (SR15), the chapters dealing with "what to do," (Chapters 4 & 5) promote many things unrelated to climate (government control over finance, major international wealth transfers on a govt-to-govt basis, new philosophies such as Buen Vivir, for example). The IPCC's opposition to nuclear power and promotion of biofuels gives away the game; either the climate issue isn't serious or it's been hijacked. Either way, climate issues are neither a case for socialism nor a case against classical liberalism.

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Charles N. Steele
on December 31, 2019 at 15:39:37 pm

"Sensible, moderate policies have little appeal to them ..."
Yep, like the sensible policy of denying biology, forcing bearded men into a womens restroom and destroying womens sports by allowing the same hairy testosterone loaded male, who may outweigh, outlift, outdistance and outrun the wretched female athlete who may be so bold as to protest against this idiocy.

Yep, now that is what must be sensible.
Nobody.really believes this happy horsehit!

BTW:

Happy New year (and may the New year reveal eleven or twelve more new non-binary genders for me irascible old buggers to contemplate as we shoot beebees at the kids crossing our lawns).

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gabe
on December 31, 2019 at 15:40:37 pm

should read "WE old buggers... NOT "me" although I must be. Ha!

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gabe
on December 31, 2019 at 15:56:59 pm

Please clarify: Which of the policies that you have identified would reverse the rise of younger people, people of color, urban people, non-Christian people, or women?

It is far from clear to me that old white rural Christian men have been the dominant force driving women's sports in America. But it is certainly clear that snake oil salesmen have got found a steady customer in gabe.

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nobody.really
on December 31, 2019 at 16:25:32 pm

I have a 60 percent chance of not voting in the 2020 election, but i have serious concerns that we are not in a consevative vs progressive choice. The last time i actually supported a candidate of a national party was 1972 when i figured that George McGovern knew a little more a bout the consequences of war than Nixon due to the folks who worked for my dad installing damage cameras in bombers.

Let's put it this way, the Weimar Republic was not brought down by a right wing party. There was a battle between Hitler's national view of socialism and Stalin's advocacy of world socialism. The battle was and in the next few years will be between different views of government control of society, markets and individual liberties. There is no Goldwater out there and if there were the candidate would be irrelevant to the process.. I worry that I can do nothing in this matter that ill prevent the ultimate confrontation that will leave people dead and broken. There are no easy answers.

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Earl Haehl
on December 31, 2019 at 18:37:35 pm

It's statist vs statist-lite.

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anony
on December 31, 2019 at 20:40:58 pm

And AGAIN, the rather *clever* fellow, operating under the nom de plume of nobody.really manages to insuate into the discussion that old white rural christians have a bias or a hostility to any of the listed and usual "suspect" categories of "non-Christian, people of color, urban people, etc, etc."
BTW: I am caucasian and I have a heck of a lot more color than the monotone "people of color" - both literally and figuratively. Another example of the destruction of language by our eminent nobody and the rest of the Professional Left. BTW2: You may be interested to know that a number of my golfing buddies - Yep, People of color - also object to the lunacy of the modern left. Did I mention that they are all urbanites; some are Jewish, some are non-believers and, indeed, some are Christian.

Nobody, as do his compatriots on the left, always manage to throw in ad hominem slanders in their communications; admittedly, this is done in an offhanded and NOT overtly opffensive manner but nonetheless, it is still a slander and, O<G, something that the Left purports to disdain - a generalization.

Nobody - try starting the New year off by limiting these offhand slanders. Howdat4 a New years Rez?

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gabe
on January 01, 2020 at 01:01:35 am

Nobody, i have an idea for a New Year’s resolution for you. Instead of spewing contempt for white people, Christians, males, older people, and those with whom you disagree, try making rational arguments. Our discourse will improve and you’ll be a better person for it.

To make yourself stick to this New Year’s resolution, post under your real name so that you’ll be taking responsibility for what you say.

Happy New Year.

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Charles N. Steele
on January 01, 2020 at 01:08:32 am

nobody,

You make some interesting observations, but I cannot say whether I agree with you or not because there are a couple of points that are unclear, at least to me. Please clarify:

1. Professor McGinnis's essay references "classical liberalism" but your comment addresses "libertarianism." Are these the same, and if not, what is the reason for the distinction?

2. You state that you share Professor McGinnis's "concern about the rise of populism/tribalism around the globe." Are you making a distinction between tribalism and populism, or lumping them together? Do the same factors that give rise to tribalism also give rise to populism? Is tribalism a species of, or is the term a synonym for identity politics?

3.) In your last paragraph, you suggest that tribalism and compassion are forces arrayed against "liberty." Is compassion promoted by, inhibited by or indifferent to tribalism? Is there a useful distinction between compassion within the tribe and compassion to those outside it?

4.)If in fact tribalism and compassion are forces opposed to liberty, what are we to make of Tip O'Niell's dictum that "all politics is local?" Is this an endorsement of a type of tribalism?

Happy New Year to you as well.

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z9z99
on January 01, 2020 at 01:47:15 am

An article titled "The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism" solicits the comment that "Sensible, moderate policies have little appeal to old white rural Christian men. " I think we're done here. (Rawls 1, Burke 0.)

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M. Baughan
on January 01, 2020 at 08:35:00 am

The climate issue IS serious and it HAS been hijacked. And if classical liberals don't propose solutions that take it seriously, classical liberalism will belong in the dustbin of history.

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Alan Kahan
on January 01, 2020 at 12:30:26 pm

1. Professor McGinnis’s essay references “classical liberalism” but your comment addresses “libertarianism.” Are these the same…?

I use the terms interchangeably, but tend toward libertarianism to avoid the miscue associated with the contemporary use of the term “liberalism.” I sense that people who identify more closely with either term find nuances and distinctions that I don’t.

2. ….Are you making a distinction between tribalism and populism, or lumping them together? …. Is tribalism a species of, or is the term a synonym for identity politics?

I regard tribalism as a reflexive us-vs.-them dynamic in politics. In particular, tribalism refers to the group that people fall back on during times of stress/threat—the group that people will support regardless of merit, and from which they expect unconditional support in return.

I hadn’t considered the relationship between tribalism and identity politics. Consider: Kevin Spacey is accused of some level of sexual predation against younger, less powerful men. I have not observed that gay people have rallied to Spacey’s side simply because he’s gay. Thus, whatever “identity politics” exists among homosexuals, I have not observed that it resulted in a tribal defense of Spacey.

In contrast, O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby each responded to their accusers by claiming to be victimized due to their race—and seemed to have received some measure of support from some black people in response. Here, identity politics did lead to (some measure of) tribal defense.

3.) ….Is compassion promoted by, inhibited by or indifferent to tribalism? Is there a useful distinction between compassion within the tribe and compassion to those outside it?

Perhaps the archetypical example of compassion is the story of the Good Samaritan—an account of a traveler who extends aid to a stranger of a (presumptive) rival tribe, without any expectation of recompense or reward.

In contrast, tribalism would dictate expending resources only for the benefit of your own tribe—and maybe even exploiting or killing members of rival tribes. As cross-cultural exercises with the Ultimatum Game show, people who live in non-market economies have less expectation of equitable treatment from strangers, and are less willing to extend equitable treatment in return. That’s rather antithetical to compassion.

Which is not to say that tribalists lack morals. They may sacrifice EVERYTHING they have on behalf of their tribe. They just do not regard people outside of their tribe as warranting compassion.

4.)[W]hat are we to make of Tip O’Niell’s dictum that “all politics is local?” Is this an endorsement of a type of tribalism?

I don’t know the context of O’Neil’s remark, but it certainly suggests that people DO act tribally. I’d cite Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society: “As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.” Or MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but … groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.”

This is one of the unknowns associated with the decline of Christianity in the West: Christianity is associated with various kinds of oppression—including oppression of women, gays, and non-Christians. But it is also associated with the promotion of compassion. Of course, many values are honored as much in the breach as the observance. But as Christianity fades, will compassion fade as well? Will the general culture become suffused with a libertarian indifference to the stranger? Or will it be replaced with a tribal concern for people who are like you, and animus toward people who are different, regardless of their plight? Many current trends are not encouraging for Team Compassion.

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nobody.really
on January 01, 2020 at 16:22:36 pm

In fact, it has been hijacked! However, the mere fact of the "hijacking" does not lend credence to an otherwise woeful record of dire predictions, none of which have materialized as in the following:

https://www.foxnews.com/us/top-5-most-outrageous-2020-doomsday-predictions

Let us first ascertain the actual science and all the actual inputs and variables affecting climate - NOT weather.
Once this is accomplished, we may then apply classical liberal solutions to the *problem*, such as it may or may not be.

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gabe
on January 01, 2020 at 22:46:29 pm

Dr. Kahan, your conclusion doesn't follow. The market system is the only economic system that can sustain an advanced economy. And the case for individual rights is independent of climatology. Proposed "solutions" from IPCC, Green New Dealers, Extinction Rebellion, and Greta Thunberg (heh) are not only ineffective, they're ridiculous and suicidal. And you conclude Classical Liberalism is on trial and headed for dustbin?

And just how serious is the climate problem? William Nordhaus' modeling still concludes that unmitigated climate change will reduce the world economic growth rate, which would still remain positive. Lemoine and Rudik (well respected mainstream economists, their earlier work is cited by IPCC) conclude that the total cost of an optimal carbon tax has been overestimated by a factor of at least 10, because forcing and decay were not included in standard models. That is, the cost of controlling carbon emissions is 1/10 of what has been assumed. (AER Oct 2017).

IPCC SR15 rejects nuclear power and carbon capture; clearly IPCC isn't serious. Entrepreneurial innovation is far more likely to develop these and solve any problems of excess greenhouse gasses than authoritarian bureaucracy, and those are our alternatives. Entrepreneurial innovation requires the kind of economic system promoted by Classical Liberalism. Hence your argument makes no sense to me.

This assumes that the climate problem is real and hasn't been hasn't been cooked up for ulterior political motives, the way the overpopulation scar was. As an economist, I do not take a professional position on climatology.

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Charles N. Steele
on January 01, 2020 at 22:57:57 pm

Leonard E. Read (FEE) rote a piece in the late 1950's or early 60's explaining that "liberal" always meant individual rights and limited government, but that the term was adopted ("stolen") by progressives and other leftists, hence "libertarian" as the new word for what used to be called liberal. Mises and Hayek both said similar things in an exchange of unpublished letters. Classical liberal refers to the older pre-progressive liberalism. I think the terms are synonyms, usually.

I think by "classical liberal" McGinnis means individual rights, free markets at home and internationally, and very limited government. That's libertarian, yes?

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Charles N. Steele
on January 01, 2020 at 23:18:18 pm

Good point, Gabe. Here's a set of predictions that I follow which are telling. One set of climate researchers has predicted that climate change will mean much milder winters in Michigan, where I live. Another group has argued climate change will trigger more polar vortexes and give much harsher winters. I suppose that's a legitimate scientific debate, but the amusing thing is how, no matter what happens in winter, climatistas and the mainstream press are able to say "see, it's just what the climate change hypothesis predicts." There's much hokum from climate change advocates, and they act less like people with serious arguments and more like fanatics.

I'm waiting for Dr. Kahan to explain his credentials in climate science, since he assures us he has ascertained that the climate problem is serious.

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Charles N. Steele
on January 02, 2020 at 01:24:45 am

Charles, the hokum is due to the fact that no scientists today, climate or otherwise, can model cloud formation. As the most prevalent greenhouse gas by far is water vapor, that's a problem. No matter, climate modelers beg the question and pop in an assumption germane to the model's purpose, hence the wide range of results.

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M. Baughan
on January 02, 2020 at 13:21:16 pm

"it is certainly clear that snake oil salesmen have got found a steady customer in gabe.

Now who more closely models a snake oil salesman.
Me, who simply insists that we recognize that which is objectively before our eyes?
OR
Some traveling NOBODY who offers a variety of potions, lineaments, exotic drugs and a few cuts and slices and promises that he can make a male into a female and then has the temerity to insist that we accept his rather obvious HOKUM-POKUM (Oops, I forgot in the case of Male-to-Female Medicine Show transitions, the subject is NO LONGER ABLE TO POKE-EM!)

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gabe
on January 02, 2020 at 17:04:15 pm

A couple of points:

1.) As regards the relationship between economic downturns and classical liberty, I think nobody.really has the more robust view. Economic downturns are simply one type of stress that challenge classical liberalism, and are a subset of factors that can be most generally described as "change." An economic downturn is a type of change that provokes natural and, if not predictable, at least understandable responses. Among the more remarkable capacities of the human mind is its ability to accommodate novelty and uncertainty. The strategy the human mind uses is a result of evolution and, in fact is related to the process that makes artificial intelligence possible.

If a person suddenly finds himself lost, or in a novel situation, the rational thing to do is to try to find something familiar; something by which the person can orient himself to the novel situation and assess the situation for its perils and opportunities. A more sophisticated manner of doing this is to search for patterns that may give insight into the nature of the situation. This is what deep learning does in artificial intelligence. It is therefore not surprising that when confronted with a change ( a change that may be either detrimental or beneficial), that a person seeks the familiar, or more particularly the population in which the person is most experienced in recognizing patterns. This creates the outward appearance of retreating into tribalism, so much so that the description is not necessarily unfair. Whether or not this is an optimal, desirable, ethical, etc. response, it is natural. It is worth noting that the change that stimulates this response need not involve novelty. A recurrent stress invokes resort to the exact same principle, i.e. seeking out the familiar, that occurs in more novel circumstances.

Professor McGinnis's correctly notes that many of the challenges to classical liberty arose in a period of economic prosperity, a circumstance that he interprets as dire when economic prospects decline. This is understandable, but does not necessarily follow. Prosperity engenders as much change, and even more novelty and uncertainty as does economic adversity. The natural history of any sentinel human achievement is for people to try and make it more efficient and for lack of a better term, elegant. This process inevitably involves contemplating how dependent the achievement is on the circumstances of the past, and whether those circumstances, including the traditions and institutions that underlie them, are necessary. This, again is a natural, if perilous process. The tenets of classical liberalism, specifically free speech, economic freedom and personal autonomy, are inevitably the types of things that get taken for granted in times of affluence and prosperity. One may note that the most prominent voices for change, for disregarding, and even demonizing the principles of classical liberalism, come from the academy, which is largely a sheltered environment in which theories may be mistaken for facts, delusions for reality and which prosperity and affluence permit the indulgence in ideological fantasies. The next economic downturn may in fact knock some sense into some of these people. Chesterton's fence is one of the great metaphors of world literature.

2. There is one concept that accompanies progress or beneficial change that results in a great deal of upheaval and strife: scalability. This is where significant opposition to classical liberal values arises. The natural tendency for humans is to take any perceived virtue or social good and scale it up to the widest population possible. This manifests in pushes for globalization, Medicare for all, wealth distribution, open borders, etc. These are attempts to scale up more localized achievements, and may even, in some cases, result in objective goods. But they also challenge classical liberalism for a very good reason. Classical liberalism recognizes the fundamental source of human flourishing: the unique contributions of free individuals who have unique talents, ambitions and affections, as well as the most basic and natural clement of society, the human family. The notion of "economies of scale" has a generic appeal. It seems to make sense that some beneficial innovation that originates in a small portion of the population be distributed as widely as possible, even when doing so antagonizes classical liberal values. Thus, the desire to "scale up" the health care delivery system, the social safety net, participation in economic benefits, as well as amorphous and poorly described notions such as "inclusion" and an evolving notion of safety. The reality however is that some of these are scalable and some are not, and this is a consequence of a universal truth, that I will address in another comment, so as not to run afoul of length limits.

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z9z99
on January 02, 2020 at 18:19:04 pm

3.) One of the basic principles of classical liberalism is that individual human beings are sui generisand their ability to contribute to their own happiness and to human flourishing does not depend on their class, or other emoluments of social status. It also recognizes that this can be inhibited by larger social structures that do not value individual attributes, except to the extent that they conform to some fashionable ideal. The universal truth that confounds a great deal of social engineering, and utopian ideology is this: is is often the case that progress requires focusing on smaller communities rather than simply decreeing that what is beneficial to a small group must apply to all .Ancient Rome was able to make its empire larger by making the functional unit of its military smaller. It is also observed that one measure of educational quality is fewer pupils per instructor, i.e. that in general, quality improves when the class becomes smaller. This observation is the basis of subsidiarity, and is seen in nature and among human institutions. The benefits of specialization result from the specialist making his area of interest smaller. One may surmise for example, that wealth distribution is both easier and more beneficial if undertaken within a discrete community, or even tribe, than among a heterogeneous and amorphous population. In general, small adaptable units are more efficient than large, less responsive ones. This is not merely a matter of philosophy or ideology. The human body would not survive long if cells did not have the capacity to differentiate and adapt. The resilience of the human body over a lifetime is due to the resilience at the microscopic level. The fact that complex systems require flexibility and adaptability at smaller levels of organization is a universal truth that, if ignored makes classical liberalism unfashionable, but does to make reality any more forgiving. In short, it is reasonable to expect alternating periods of trying to scale and standardize human achievement, but natural limits to these efforts result in reactions that reassert classical liberal values. It is the natural course of progressive thought to eventually become heedless of perils, or to think that those perils can be managed by elites, but such theories inevitably succumb to universal truths.

One illustration of the principle that populations, no matter how large or complex, require attention to local considerations is the murmuration of starlings. The intricate and amazingly complex patterns formed by a flock of birds requires that individual birds keep track of the position, speed and acceleration of six or seven nearest fliers (apparently starllings have an innate knack for tensor calculus). The thought is that murmurations form in response to the presence of predators, such as peregrine falcons, birds being smart enough to not ignore real-world perils out of fidelity to fashionable ideologies. The key point, the universal truth, is that the flock is able to succeed in dazzling flight maneuvers because each individual tends to local conditions. If each bird only paid attention to a few "leaders" you would have a lot of starlings with concussions.

So in response to Professor McGinnis, I would say that classical liberal values wax and wane as a function of innate human behavior, and the quirks of how humans react to change. It is worthwhile to note that current politics is a reaction to long-standing trends that we really do not fully understand; changes brought about by instant global communication, birth control, mechanization, profiling done by large tech conglomerates, the changing role of not only religious belief but of religious authority, and a spiritual ennui paradoxically brought about by affluence and prosperity. New theories and new doctrines, some of which devalue classical liberal values will wax and wane, but to the extent that those values are based on truths and not merely preferences, they will survive. There is no end of history.

4.) I am not satisfied with replacing "classical liberal" with "libertarian," for a couple of reasons. One is that it leads to awkward substitutions like "contemporary classical liberalism," and "classical liberal indifference to the stranger." The term "libertarian" is also more vague and ambiguous than classical liberal, in that it is, well, not classical. Some libertarians believe some nutty things, like the IRS is illegal, or that the only legitimate government authority is the county sheriff, or that there should be no background checks for grenade launchers. I think that using "libertarian" and "classical liberal" interchangeably invites straw man arguments, based on what libertarians, an amorphous and heterogeneous group, are "supposed" to believe.

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z9z99
on January 03, 2020 at 16:40:59 pm

3.) One of the basic principles of classical liberalism is that individual human beings are sui generis and their ability to contribute to their own happiness and to human flourishing does not depend on their class, or other emoluments of social status.

Huh? If human beings are sui generis, then how can you make GENERAL conclusions about the relationship between their happiness, class, and social status?

That said, I agree that not every policy that succeeds at a local level can achieve equal success at a national or international level. And I agree in the merits of protecting some measure of autonomy, and of (my understanding of) subsidiarity.

I ALSO value promoting the general welfare and equality before law—which often means seeking to secure benefits for all that were previously enjoyed by only a few.

Thus, the challenge is not in identifying values or obstacles; the challenge is in identifying the optimal combination of values given obstacles. Industrial Organization is a field of economics that explores how well classical economics applies in a variety of real-world contexts, and the policies that might produce better results. In short, there is a lot of theory and empirical research identifying circumstances under which free markets predictably fail to produce optimal results, and policies that might remedy these shortcomings.

I tend to think that government does a reasonably good job of taxation and wealth transfer, so I favor these kinds of policies. I have less confidence in government providing direct services (and such policies may needlessly constrain free markets), so I have less enthusiasm for those policies.

The human body would not survive long if cells did not have the capacity to differentiate and adapt.

Fair enough. But if the lungs were to tell the rest of the body, “Hey, I’ve got my supply of oxygen; the rest of you are on your own,” and the digestive system said, “I’ve got my supply of nutrients; the rest of you are on your own,” I suspect both the lungs and digestive system would suffer in the long run. There’s even a biblical text that supports this premise.

I sense z9z99 regards classical liberalism/libertarianism as a “natural” or default position. I don’t. I find much laudable about that position, but it is as artificial as any other. I suspect tribalism is as close as we come to a “natural” state of social affairs—with all its attendant benefits and burdens.

The resilience of the human body over a lifetime is due to the resilience at the microscopic level. The fact that complex systems require flexibility and adaptability at smaller levels of organization is a universal truth that, if ignored makes classical liberalism unfashionable, but does to make reality any more forgiving. In short, it is reasonable to expect alternating periods of trying to scale and standardize human achievement, but natural limits to these efforts result in reactions that reassert classical liberal values. It is the natural course of progressive thought to eventually become heedless of perils, or to think that those perils can be managed by elites, but such theories inevitably succumb to universal truths.

One illustration of the principle that populations, no matter how large or complex, require attention to local considerations is the murmuration of starlings.

RadioLab had a recent podcast about the study of migration. The consensus that animals migrate in winter—rather than simply hibernating where humans can’t see them, or transforming into some other kind of animal that we DO observe in winter—has been embraced fairly recently.

But the podcast also addressed instinct and variation. Turtles will travel enormous distances to lay their eggs where they were born, even when turtles of the same species lay their eggs on a much nearer location (which is where THEY were born). Instinct utterly dominates this behavior, apparently permitting very little variation. In contrast, the story concludes with an observation of a bird that declined to make the migration to the southern hemisphere for the winter, and simply decided to hang out in a London landfill—and seemed to survive just fine. Indeed, migration patterns have reflected almost CONSTANT (albeit incremental) variation, with early settlers describing their astonishment at seeing (say) a cardinal—a bird that seems quite unremarkable to Americans who have now grown accustomed to their new, more northern migration.

In short, beware nature metaphors. Nature exhibits more variation and change than many people realize, and provides a counter-example for almost any example.

4.) I think that using “libertarian” and “classical liberal” interchangeably invites straw man arguments, based on what libertarians, an amorphous and heterogeneous group, are “supposed” to believe.

Fair enough—but this reflects the challenge of categorical thinking generally. (For example, gabe is fond of saying things such as “Nobody, as do his compatriots on the left, always ….”) When I want precision, I eschew discussions of categories of thought and simply discuss the statements of a specific person. (For example, I ask gabe to quote me when he wants to attribute ideas to me, but apparently this task exceeds his capacities.)

Yet what I gain in precision, I lose in generality. And since the world contains more complexity than I can appreciate, let alone retain, I cannot avoid relying on categorical thinking to some extent purely as a simplifying heuristic. But I strive to use the categories contingently, and surrender them quickly.

In short, I still discuss the libertarian/classical liberal category, even with the understanding of the shortcomings the labels entail.

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nobody.really
on January 03, 2020 at 16:43:05 pm

Thoughtful!

1.) I share z9z99’s view that many minds look for patterns, and will look seek comfort in familiar patterns when under stress.

One chapter in Thinking Fast and Slow includes a dispute between two authors about the power of expert intuition. Author Kahneman argued that a person’s confidence is rarely a good indication of the person’s accuracy. But a rival cited contrary evidence, praising the intuition of expert firefighters and surgeons. Kahneman eventually concluded that the two authors were largely discussing different cases: Under circumstances when people gain expertise through long experience in a familiar, predictable, setting, in which they receive regular and accurate feedback, they can develop useful intuitions. The archetypical example would be chess masters and card players, who work in entirely predictable contexts and receive immediate feedback. The archetypical counter-example would be psychiatrists, who often see patients for brief periods, and do not receive feedback about what happens to their patient afterwards. A psychiatrist may congratulate himself that a given patient must have gotten better because he never returned—not realizing that the patient never returned because he got arrested or overdosed or committed suicide.

In each case, people will look for patterns, and base their decisions on the patterns—but the conclusions they draw from patterns may not reflect anything more than folktales. I sense this dynamic accounts for the kinds of discrimination that the law seeks to ban. Humans, living in an uncertain world, seek to draw conclusions based on the little data they can obtain at low cost (and long distance). Thus, we draw immediate assumptions based on the facts we can obtain with our eyes: general age, race, sex, physical ability, social class, other indicia of group identity, etc. Why don’t we have prejudices based on blood type? Perhaps because it’s so difficult to acquire that kind of information about strangers—and by the time we have that information, we likely have other information that provides a better basis for judging them.

In a high-risk world of the jungle, prejudices may be better than nothing. In the world of hiring office staff, however, a resume and reference check may be better indicators. But our minds did not evolve in an office environment, so we need extraordinary measures to overcome our innate inclinations.

Professor McGinnis’s correctly notes that many of the challenges to classical liberty arose in a period of economic prosperity, a circumstance that he interprets as dire when economic prospects decline.

Liberals design policies for a world a plenty; conservatives design policies for the zombie apocalypse. Since humans evolved in a world more akin to the zombie apocalypse than our current world of unprecedented wealth, they get the benefit of intuition. And the more frightened you can make people, the better conservative (and tribal) policies seem.

The tenets of classical liberalism, specifically free speech, economic freedom and personal autonomy, are inevitably the types of things that get taken for granted in times of affluence and prosperity. One may note that the most prominent voices for change, for disregarding, and even demonizing the principles of classical liberalism, come from the academy, which is largely a sheltered environment in which theories may be mistaken for facts, delusions for reality and which prosperity and affluence permit the indulgence in ideological fantasies. The next economic downturn may in fact knock some sense into some of these people. Chesterton’s fence is one of the great metaphors of world literature.

I agree that affluence and prosperity encourage innovation much more than necessity. And innovators get blamed for the problems arising from their innovations, whereas conformers rarely face blame for the problems that arise from their conformity.

That said, I don’t recall members of the academy claiming that the free press is the enemy of the people, or banning Muslims, or chanting “Jew will not replace us.” I have a greater fear of the mob than of the academy.

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nobody.really
on January 03, 2020 at 17:39:35 pm

Thanks for the responses. A couple of quick points:

Liberals design policies for a world a plenty; conservatives design policies for the zombie apocalypse.

This, in my opinion is a natural reflection of the bipolar nature of human instincts (e.g. fight/flight, explore/avoid, etc.). It has long been known that editors prefer bad new to good news, and Steven Pinker discusses this at length. In terms of evolutionary prudence, the key fact is it doesn't matter how many times you succeed, you only get one fatal mistake. Therefore there is a heightened vigilance for perils, and greater cognitive resources devoted to them.

That said, I don’t recall members of the academy claiming that the free press is the enemy of the people

The student editors of the Daily Northwestern may have a different perspective. Speech codes, deplatforming conservative speakers, hazy and hysterical allegations of "hate speech," advocacy of jailing climate dissenters, etc. are endemic on college campuses.

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z9z99
on January 03, 2020 at 17:54:11 pm

Huh? If human beings are sui generis, then how can you make GENERAL conclusions about the relationship between their happiness, class, and social status?

This is a dispute that seems to come up frequently on these threads. It is also not new. George Bernard Shaw supposedly made the comment that "all chairs are different," to which Chesterton responded something along the lines of "if they were all different we could not call them 'all chairs.'" The statements that "all human beings are different," or "all humans beings are individuals" simply reflects the fact that all human beings have characteristics that 1.) define them as humans, and 2.) other characteristics that distinguish one from another. There is no inconsistency in this observation.

I sense z9z99 regards classical liberalism/libertarianism as a “natural” or default position.

I don't. I think that classical liberalism is a doctrine that developed (beneficially) through human experience and it waxes and wanes in sync with other forces that affect human affairs. There is no practical default state or inevitable end state.

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z9z99
on January 03, 2020 at 18:04:05 pm

Oh, I forgot. My original comment contained the phrase

...the most prominent voices for change, for disregarding, and even demonizing the principles of classical liberalism,

You response was

I don’t recall members of the academy claiming that the free press is the enemy of the people, or banning Muslims, or chanting “Jew will not replace us.”

I would dispute that banning Muslims or chanting "Jews will not replace us" are "principles of classical liberalism."

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z9z99
on January 04, 2020 at 14:04:39 pm

I would dispute that banning Muslims or chanting “Jews will not replace us” are “principles of classical liberalism.”

Perhaps I have misunderstood you. What do academics do that seems threatening to principles of classical liberalism that Muslim bans and people chanting "Jew will not replace us" doesn't? Mostly academics engage in free speech, which seems consistent with principles of classical liberalism. That seems rather different than government policies designed to restrict the movements of people who have not been convicted (let alone accused) of any wrongdoing.

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nobody.really
on January 05, 2020 at 11:49:46 am

"(For example, I ask gabe to quote me when he wants to attribute ideas to me, but apparently this task exceeds his capacities.) "

Bullshit. You simply evade / avoid my references / responses to your comments. Perhaps, I have been mistaken in assuming that you are mentally alert enough to recognize that although i do not re-quote you, I am in fact referencing your comments.

You admit that you seek precision. Perhaps, that is why your responses are so long and involved. I, on the other hand, am not particularly enamored with the sound of my own (electronic) voice and seek concision - yet, at the loss of precision. Apparently, my compression algorithm needs to be modified so as to make it unnecessary for you to discern the multiple thoughts in the compressed form I am prone to employ.

As an example:

Gabe: "In fact, it has been hijacked! However, the mere fact of the “hijacking” does not lend credence to an otherwise woeful record of dire predictions, none of which have materialized as in the following:"

In two sentences rather than two paragraphs, I made the point that claiming environmentalism has been hijacked is not a justifiable excuse for the paucity (falsity ?) of observable evidence and dismal record of predicative validity.

Then again, maybe I should type longer responses as you are apparently unable or unwilling to make connections and instead prefer to posture as the rational, statistic based commenter (FIX this silly spellchecker) vs (me) your favorite ignorant foil.

Neither is correct.

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gabe
on January 06, 2020 at 13:53:21 pm

One of the major problems that essays like this face, is that we live in an era of terminological confusion - (see the debate about libertarianism v classical liberalism in the comments). I've been increasingly thinking about classical liberalism as the fusion of the Protestant Reformation (Athena) and the Classical Enlightenment (Apollo), in opposition to the Radical Enlightenment and Post-Modernism (Dionysius). You can parse these intellectual strands out a number of ways:
desire (body) v reason/practical intelligence (mind) v ethics/wisdom (soul)
literates v numerates
hedonists v stoics (sustainability advocates)
statism v markets v pluralists
id v ego/super ego
nature v nurture
iconoclasts/discontents v civilization
globalists v nationalists
atheists v theists
welfare v liberty v social capital

We have a lot of cafeteria/buffet goers when it comes to ideas, so people are going to have debates all the time about what a "true" classical liberal or a "true" populist or a "true" socialist is.

While it may seem like an ebb tide for classical liberals who identify more on the globalist, practical reason, markets, liberty side of the spectrum, there may be some fresh shoots to cultivate going forward along other dimensions.

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SCJ
on April 05, 2020 at 18:31:55 pm

A new age dawns. An age without such sub human thins like you. An age where we can ensure a population that is happy, without having to be kept worrying about idiotic concepts that don't affect them. An age of a good state and a stability.

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Stalin's Wraith

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