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Friday, November 1, 1985

Liberalism and Change

Mr. Boaz is vice president for public policy affairs at the Cato Institute.

The United States is a society based on change. We have no cultural memory of generations or centuries when life remained much the same. The one constant to which Ameri cans have become accustomed is change.

Many explanations can be adduced for this phenomenon—our society’s relative youth, constant new frontiers, continual immigration. But the fundamental explanation is that the United States is the world’s most liberal society in the classical sense of the term. It was founded by liberals, on explicit liberal principles, and it has remained largely true—despite many deviations—to those principles.

The benefits of change are obvious. We can point to new developments from the cotton gin to the automobile to the computer chip that have made our lives better. The clearest way to understand the benefits of change is to recognize that our society supports more than 200 million people at the highest standard of living in the history of the world, in a land area that once provided mere subsistence to only a few million.

But change has costs. As consumer preferences shift or new competitors arise, some people lose their businesses or their jobs. Their skills become outmoded. When an industry or even a firm shuts down, a whole way of life may disappear. Millions of Americans have had to give up farm life. Millions more are faced with the loss of their lifetime jobs as smokestack industries decline. Some people find this change too much to bear.

Many of us today may think of the 1920s—when Mises wrote Liberal-ism—as the good old days, even a golden age, and certainly a time well before the harrowing pace of modern life. Yet even then people were complaining about the need to adjust to change. They argued, said Mises, that “the material advances of recent generations . . . have, of course, been really very agreeable and beneficial. Now, however, it is time to call a halt. The frantic hustle and bustle of modern capitalism must make way for tranquil contemplation.” (p. 189)

Few people today are so explicit in their hostility to change. They don’t want to stop all change, just the particular changes that infringe on their patterns of life. Modern “liberals” and leftists find a receptive audience among displaced workers and others beset by economic change for their programs of stagnation: Rent control, farm parity, plant closing restrictions, limits on automation. Similarly, New Right conservatives appeal to middle Americans fearful about today’s lifestyle changes with their programs to “restore traditional moral values.”

There are, it would appear, few things that Ludwig von Mises and George Will would agree on, but one of them is this point, as phrased by Will: “The essential aim of liberalism, and the central liberal value, is the maximization of individual choice.” Mises wrote about the maximization of choice primarily as a means to achieve greater wealth for everyone in society. But he did not limit his liberal principles to what George Will would call the “merely economic” sphere of life. Here is Mises on liberal policy toward what we might today call lifestyle issues: “If the majority of citizens is, in principle, conceded the right to impose its way of life upon a minority, it is impossible to stop at prohibitions against indulgence in alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and similar poisons. Why should not what is valid for these poisons be valid also for nicotine, caffeine, and the like? Why should not the state generally proscribe which foods may be indulged in and which must be avoided because they are injurious? . . . We see that as soon as we surrender the principle that the state should not interfere in any questions touching on the individual’s mode of life, we end by regulating and restricting the latter down to the smallest detail.” (pp. 5354)

The problem for conservatives like Will is that capitalism means individual choice. And, as Mises noted, when people are allowed to be free, some of them will choose courses of action that others disapprove. When that happens, some want the government to step in. Whether it is to control rents, prevent disinvestment in farming, or keep women in the home, they are willing to use the state to keep society from changing.

This is a fundamentally reactionary view of the world, a lingering impulse from pre-capitalist times. Before capitalism, and in a few parts of the world still largely untouched by capitalist society, life did stay much the same for generations. Men and women knew that they would grow up, live, and die just as their fathers and mothers did. This was not a pastoral ideal; it was a life that was nasty, brutish, and short, and the subsistence society could support only a few people compared to today’s population.

Into this stagnant world came liberalism. By freeing people from ancient bonds, it showed them that progress was possible. They could change their lives, they could have more material comforts, their powers of creation and achievement were liberated. And with the coming of liberalism came an end to settled society. Change became the only constant.

Liberalism gave people the freedom to make choices. Economic freedom created prosperity, which gave more people the wherewithal to take advantage of the new choices available to them. This process of choice and change is the distinguishing characteristic of capitalism.

Liberals must recapture the progressive spirit that characterized liberalism in its early days. We must make it clear that liberalism, and only liberalism, is the political philosophy of progress, and that those who seek to resist change stand in the way of what Mises called “an ever progressing improvement in the satisfaction of human wants.” (p. 192)

  • David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and has played a key role in the development of the Cato Institute and the libertarian movement. He is the author of The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom and the editor of The Libertarian Reader.