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Friday, October 22, 2010

Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century: Essays in Honour of Norman P. Barry

Longtime readers of The Freeman may have noticed the absence of articles by Norman Barry. A contributing editor, Barry died in October 2008, at the age of 64. (His last Freeman article, “The Americanization of Japan,” was published in May 2007).

This splendid volume, which had been in the works before Barry’s death, contains one essay by him and 11 others by scholars who knew him and appreciated his work. Their writings all deal with topics that were of great interest to Barry.

Taken as a whole, the book amounts to a wonderful coda to Barry’s intellectual symphony: his demonstration that a free society with a minimal, “night watchman” State is vastly preferable to all of the megastate alternatives. In contrast with many modern academics who settle into a narrow subfield and exhaust its every nook and cranny, Barry worked on a large number of issues regarding classical liberalism. The essays in the book similarly address an array of related topics, each making important contributions. Alas, in a short review there isn’t enough space to discuss them all.

One of Barry’s foremost concerns was the inevitable tendency for the State, whenever empowered to “solve” perceived social problems, to expand and crowd out voluntary action. Professor Martin Ricketts drives that point home, writing, “In the place of charities, churches, trade unions, clubs, mutual cooperatives, families, friendly societies, public companies, private companies, partnerships and a host of variants structured by individuals to meet local circumstances, state action imposes regulatory conformity. This is capable of making financial systems less stable, the environment less protected and social capital more vulnerable to erosion as life ebbs away from the very spontaneous institutions that nurtured it.” That is to say, there is an opportunity cost to State action.

Barry tried to combat the childish notion that our choices are between government control and doing nothing. In recent years that false dilemma has most clearly been illustrated by the debate over environmental policy. The book contains two essays presenting classical-liberal stances on environmental protection.

First, Colin Robinson argues that it’s a mistake to adopt an “atheistic” position in the face of the questionable science cited by climate-change alarmists (flatly denying there is any climate problem); rather we should instead be “agnostics” who argue that even if there is such a problem, relying on State coercion to deal with it will turn out badly. Robinson observes, “Such actions, by governments or international organizations, concentrate on consensus views (which have frequently been wrong in the past) creating informational monopolies and suppressing dissenting opinions. It suffers from the same problems as does the now discredited central planning.” He presents a strong case that we’ll do far better by relying on market institutions rather than government mandates and prohibitions.

Julian Morris follows with an essay exploring common-law remedies for environmental degradation. He suggests that organizations dedicated to environmental problems should rethink their overwhelming reliance on lobbying and legislation, pointing to the success of groups like the Anglers’ Conservation Association.

Another essay I find particularly appealing is Elaine Sternberg’s on the topic of business ethics and corporate social responsibility. She argues that those notions are subversive because they “undermine the negative freedom that is intrinsic to classical liberalism and to ethical conduct.” For years we have been hearing the claim that businesses have “social obligations” and must consider the well-being of all “stakeholders,” but Sternberg sees such demands as a way of browbeating business executives into substituting other people’s goals for what ought to be their focus, namely efficiency and profit maximization.

I also strongly recommend Terence Kealey’s essay, “Science Is Not a Public Good.” Kealey offers a bracing, iconoclastic argument against the prevalent notion that basic science is a “public good” that would be underproduced without government funding. Contrary to popular belief, it does pay for companies to invest in basic science because doing so helps them learn from others who are doing research and capitalize on it through “second-mover” advantages. When government steps in, scientific research is not increased or enhanced. On the contrary, political funding diverts resources into research that pleases politicians and their supporters.

Another Freeman contributor, Stephen Davies, has an essay on Barry’s contributions to modern classical-liberal thought. Davies covers the four main areas Barry concentrated on (constitutionalism, business ethics, welfarism and communitarianism, and spontaneous order) and finishes with the observation that, despite the appearance that classical liberalism gained ground during the 1980s and 1990s, Barry was pessimistic. Communism and central planning may have been discredited, but statist welfare thinking continued to dominate political discussions.

This excellent book is a fitting tribute.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.