It's Not a Black-and-White World

Find the good among the bad.

Last Saturday night I attended Sarah Skwire’s “Evening at FEE.” In her excellent lecture, Skwire, a poet and Liberty Fund fellow, debunked the myth widely held by classical liberals (and others) that Charles Dickens was consistently anti-market. She presented impressive textual evidence to demonstrate that while Dickens indeed portrayed some businessmen negatively, and wrote books like Hard Times that were critical of industry, he also created characters who were kind and capable businesspeople, who respected the value of hard work, and who were wise with their finances.  Like any great author, his world was a variety of complex characters.

Because so many classical liberals believe this myth, or have only read one or two of Dickens’s novels, they often assume that the rest of his 15 novels (totaling over 4,000,000 words) are along the same lines. As Skwire’s talk (which will be available on the FEE website later this month) made clear, if we reject Dickens completely, we turn our backs on positive portrayals of businesspeople, work, and personal responsibility–and give up ground in the humanities we need not give up.

What struck me about this argument is that it applies to a larger problem in the freedom movement. We have a tendency to divide the world into “good guys” and “bad guys,” seeing thinkers and politicians in strictly black-and-white terms. So Dickens quickly goes in the “bad guy” column despite evidence that the record is mixed.

Orwell: Good Guy or Bad?

As Skwire’s argument suggests, this is a problem because it means we often throw away good arguments unnecessarily. Consider George Orwell. Yes, Orwell was no friend of free markets, and he made arguments for various forms of socialism. He was, however, a trenchant critic of totalitarianism, including the communist variety. Whatever we might think is wrong with some of his views, novels such as 1984 and Animal Farm remain powerful visions of the horrors of the State, and his essay “Politics and the English Language” is an equally powerful indictment of the way governments corrupt language and thought. To view Orwell as a “bad guy” because he was a socialist, as a few classical liberals do, is to toss out unbelievably effective arguments for a free society.

Classical liberals have been known to do this not just with fiction writers and essayists, but with important social philosophers. Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls often get dismissed for supposed errors in their systems, although all three (yes, including Rawls) have made important contributions to our understanding of a free society. For example, Mill’s On Liberty is hardly pure in its classical liberalism, but his elucidation of the “harm principle” remains at the core of modern rights-based libertarianism, and his arguments for intellectual freedom and “experiments in living” are ones we should not give up because he was wrong on other issues.

F. A. Hayek

Even economists have gotten this treatment. The silliest example is some purists’ dismissal of F. A. Hayek because he allowed the State a larger role than many classical liberals do and because his argument for competitive currencies was problematic.  However, Hayek’s understanding of the way markets work and the failures of government are second to none. To dismiss him is to give up some of the best defenses of freedom we have. The same is true for Milton Friedman.

Less ridiculous but equally mistaken are the attempts to vilify economists who did some good work during a career of mostly less-than-stellar contributions. Even in John Maynard Keynes we can find good arguments, such as those in Economic Consequences of the Peace. And Paul Krugman’s Pop Internationalism remains an excellent contribution to the arguments for free trade and globalization, regardless of the fallacies he peddles in his New York Times column.

I suspect that one reason contemporary, especially American, classical liberals tend to take the good guy/bad guy approach is the joint influence of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, who, in a perfect example of my point, both tended to view their intellectual opponents as either evil or stupid or both. Their shared habit of trying to identify the pure while excising those who didn’t follow the plumb line has unnecessarily turned too many young freedom lovers away from thinkers whose work can contribute to the cause.

Classical liberals have to stop judging others in black-or-white terms. The world is not just about good guys and bad guys, but about real people whose ideas are good and bad in various mixtures. We need to appreciate them when they are good, even if it isn’t all the time. If we don’t, we will throw away good arguments for freedom.

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