Come the Revolution…

by Don Boudreaux on October 11, 2011

in Civil Society, Hubris and humility, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s a letter to the New York Times Book Review:

Sheri Berman relates that Corey Robin defines conservatism as “an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elite privileges against challenges from below” (“The Conservative as Elitist,” Oct. 9).  Ms. Berman rightly ridicules this straw-man definition of conservatism, pointing out that it describes the ideology neither of Edmund Burke nor of Sarah Palin.

True.  But that Mr. Robin’s description is a sham is best revealed by the fact that much of what today is called “conservatism” (and much of what Mr. Robin loathes) was originally in Britain and America, and is still in many non-English-speaking countries, called liberalism.  It’s a philosophy that champions the right of individuals – regardless of rank or creed or color – to be free of the choking grip of enforced traditionalism, free of the stupidity of superstition (including the hyper-lethal superstition that is nationalism), and free of the arbitrary will of their ‘betters.’

Classical liberals (and many “conservatives”) champion free markets and private property rights, therefore, not to defend “elite privileges against challenges from below” but out of a sincere conviction that markets and property are necessary for maximum possible freedom and for astonishing material abundance – both of which, were Mr. Robin to get his way, would be crushed by the unbearable weight of what he elsewhere Orwellianly describes as the “far greater, and more robust, freedom of choice” served up as diktats, decrees, favors, extractions, and sanctions issued by the ever-oh-so-well-intentioned state.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux

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{ 23 comments }

Jon Murphy October 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I’d be interesting in finding out when, exactly, “liberal” came to mean “conservative” in the American political lexicon.

And to sum up your final line in other words, Prof. Boudreaux, I find most of my modern-liberal friends arguments can be summed up thus: let him live in freedom if he lives like me.

John H October 11, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I believe it was around the FDR era

Economic Freedom October 12, 2011 at 2:08 am

http://www.amazon.com/Decline-American-Liberalism-Independent-Political/dp/1598130277/ref=pd_rhf_ee_p_t_1

See:

“The Decline of American Liberalism”
by Arthur Ekirch
(forward by Robert Higgs)

Dan J October 11, 2011 at 10:15 pm

I think most non-elected people who call themselves Conservative would not link their selves with either description of Conservatism as exclaimed by both Prof Boudreaux, Robin, or Berman.
I am not one….. But I would align myself with them before progressivism.

Dan Phillips October 11, 2011 at 10:32 pm

“…much of what today is called ‘conservatism’…[i]s a philosophy that champions the rights of individuals – regardless of rank or creed or color – to be free of the stupidity of enforced traditionalism, free of the choking grip of superstition…and free of the arbitrary will of their betters.’”

That’s how you see conservatives of today? Really? Conservatives, the ones who want to bomb much of the Middle East even further back into the Middle Ages than it already is? Conservatives, who would reinstitute the military draft if they thought they could get away with it? Conservatives, the ones who would put a policeman in the medical examining room of a pregnant young woman, threatening jail if she even thinks the word abortion? The ones who criminalize drugs. Criminalize prostitution? Criminalize gambling? Who would put up “Berlin-type Walls” keeping out the riff-raff from other countries.

Until we libertarians come to realize that conservatives are not our friends we will never get anywhere. We do not have closer ties with the so-called right-wing than the left. They are both politically evil. They are both enemies of individual liberty. Those of us who think conservatives have anything in common with libertarians are being duped.

Sorry, good Doctor, this is your worst letter. It is not helpful to the cause of liberty. It perpetuates the myth that the right wing is “better” than the left. This letter disappoints.

Don Boudreaux October 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Read Corey Robin. He correctly ridicules neocons, but much of his vitriol is aimed at free markets – the champions of which are today, regrettably, all stuffed under the label “conservative.”

Robin is the one who introduced into this discussion the use of the label “conservative” – not I. But Robin is, it must be admitted, consistent in following common practice today.

The point of my letter is not to defend conservatives, but to defend free minds and free markets – positions that (whether you and I like it or not) are associated by most people with “conservatives.”

And please do not overlook the fact that I took pains in my letter to explicitly note that the positions that I defend against Robin’s misunderstandings are really liberal positions.

Dan Phillips October 11, 2011 at 11:26 pm

You make no sense to me. You seem to be saying that you want to defend free minds and free markets, and since most people equate that with conservatism you must defend conservatism. Isn’t that a rather circular logic?

Frankly I thought Robin’s definition of conservatism (as stated in your letter) was spot-on! It gave you an opportunity to set the record straight, to let people see that libertarians see them that way too.

And from there you could have shown the real meaning of free minds and free markets, absent the usual right wing/left wing jabberwocky.

Like it or not half our population leans to the left. Your letter reinforces their notion that conservatives are capitalists, and since conservatives are wrong about virtually everything, then capitalism is to be avoided.

I almost always like your letters. Some of them I love. Many times I’ve thought “damn I wish I had thought of that way to put it.” But this letter…this letter was a flub.

Economic Freedom October 12, 2011 at 2:14 am

Like it or not half our population leans to the left.

Not so.

http://www.gallup.com/poll/120857/conservatives-single-largest-ideological-group.aspx

June 15, 2009

“Conservatives” Are Single-Largest Ideological Group

Percentage of “liberals” higher this decade than in early ’90s

by Lydia Saad

PRINCETON, NJ — Thus far in 2009, 40% of Americans interviewed in national Gallup Poll surveys describe their political views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 21% as liberal. This represents a slight increase for conservatism in the U.S. since 2008, returning it to a level last seen in 2004. The 21% calling themselves liberal is in line with findings throughout this decade, but is up from the 1990s.

Economic Freedom October 12, 2011 at 2:17 am

According to Gallup, 75% of the population lean center-right.

Only 21% lean to the left.

kyle8 October 12, 2011 at 6:57 am

Your problem Dan is that just like the progressives you do not differentiate among those who are conservatives. There is no nuance in your rather extreme and just a little bit ridiculous description of a conservative.

There are all sorts of conservatives. There are neocons, and paleocons, there are libertarian conservatives and there are purely fiscal conservatives, and there are traditionalists and those who just would like everyone to leave them alone.

You lump them all together and take the most extreme examples to smear them with, therefore your arguments fail just as those of the left do.

It also is simply a stupid political viewpoint since it precludes you from having any allies among those who are conservatives even when they would agree with you on political or economic positions.

Don Boudreaux October 12, 2011 at 8:39 am

I’m simply saying that so much of what is really liberalism – or even libertarianism – is lumped under the term “conservatism.” I’m not defending conservatives – I never defend them – but I do defend freedom ideals even when they mistakenly popularly labeled “conservative.”

Economiser October 11, 2011 at 10:38 pm

Robin’s other article (on “neoliberalism”) is downright scary. He completely ignores the fact that one can choose whether or not to participate in complications arising out of the market (e.g., managing investment accounts), whereas complications arising out of government are forced upon us (e.g., most everything else).

Don Boudreaux October 11, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Yep. He’s economically illiterate.

Economiser October 11, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Freedom is slavery…

Methinks1776 October 12, 2011 at 2:07 pm

And slavery to the state is freedom.

The Other Eric October 11, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Corey Robin’s definition is an obvious version of insulting the mirror.

Borrowing from Sowell’s brilliant work we could rewrite it:

American Liberal Democrats espouse an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elitist, ‘enlightened,’ planning against challenges from the open market.

“Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” — W. F. Buckley

Rob October 11, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Don,

(Serious question). Do you include religion as part of “the choking grip of enforced traditionalism” and / or “the stupidity of superstition”?

Don Boudreaux October 12, 2011 at 8:47 am

I, personally, am not in the least religious. Despite K-12 in Catholic school, and despite very devout parents, religion has never as much as whispered to me much less spoken.

But my personal views about the supernatural are irrelevant. What I have in mind in the letter is (classical) liberals’ courageous championing of ALL peaceful actions and thoughts, even when those offended the sensibilities of princes as well as priests.

No true liberal can oppose religion (or any other belief system) as long as that religion isn’t enforced by the state. That liberal need not share the particular doctrine.

David October 12, 2011 at 4:15 am

From Robin’s blog: http://goo.gl/Tlllx

“Freedom is, in part, freedom from the tyranny of choice (as imposed by the market).” Indeed.

That’s not comforting…

Political Observer October 12, 2011 at 9:06 am

Again we get caught up in the wrong arguement. It is not whether conservative or progressive are the labels as to which side of liberty you are on. Both idealogies assume an expanded role of government over individual rights – just focused on different means to achieve that control. The real issue is the role of government in relationship to individual rights and freedom. Thus the discussion (as the Founders understood) if the proper role of government in finding the balance between Anarachy (their fear of a complete democracy or mob rule) and totalitarianism (the monarchy they just dispatched).

nailheadtom October 12, 2011 at 9:47 am

” Anarachy (their fear of a complete democracy or mob rule) and totalitarianism (the monarchy they just dispatched).”

Assuming you mean “anarchy”, how is it “complete democracy or mob rule”? Anarchists in general are opposed to government, not pro democracy or mob rule. The idea that the absence of organized government, ie. anarchy = mob rule is one that has been put forward by the various states and their apologists for centuries with zero evidence. The book and movie “Lord of the Flies” is a great example of statist, pro-government, anti-anarchy propaganda. On the other end of your misconceived spectrum is totalitarianism (the monarchy they just dispatched). There is no reason that a monarchy must be totalitarian, in fact historically the most totalitarian governments don’t seem to have been monarchies. The British parliament, a democratic or at least representative institution, was the creator of the most egregious policies to which the American colonists were objecting, not George III. Describing government in a linear manner, with no government on one end and monarchy on the other is just as erroneous and over-simplified as the tiresome and fallacious left-right political dichotomy.

david nh October 12, 2011 at 1:57 pm

” Classical liberals (and many “conservatives”) champion free markets and private property rights, therefore, not to defend “elite privileges against challenges from below”

I would add that classical liberals champion free markets and private property rights to defend the ability of ordinary individuals to enjoy freedom of action and the product of their labour without interference and seizure from ABOVE.

Corey Robin October 12, 2011 at 8:17 pm

You and your readers might be interested in my response to Professor Berman’s review of my book: http://coreyrobin.com/2011/10/07/the-new-york-times-review-of-the-reactionary-mind-my-response/

I would further suggest that before dismissing my argument on the basis of that review — or indeed on the basis of blog posts unrelated to the book itself — your and/or your readers might want to actually read the book. As you’ll see, not much of the book’s “vitriol,” such as it is, or even content, is aimed at free markets at all.

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