The Challenge of Liberalism

Mr. Brown of Syracuse, New York, is s free-lance writer and student of individualism.

In our era the age-old assault of the state upon the individual has reached its zenith. Through such horrifying manifestations as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the twentieth century has seen the rise of despotic utopias whose power to destroy seems all-encompassing. Meanwhile, the growth of welfare-statism in those polities not yet explicitly totalitarian increasingly restricts the scope of human action even as its advocates proclaim the futility of individual effort. The lone individual unwilling to participate in the game of power and dependency finds his resources and integrity strained to the crumbling point as he seeks the path to independent living.

In this context, the emerging influence of an individualist movement dedicated to the preservation of individual rights deserves both applause and scrutiny. Among its guiding lights are Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Robert Nozick. Whatever their differences, they and their followers agree that the state must shrink, that its intervention in the economic and social realm is disastrous and illegitimate, that the individual must be allowed room to breathe and live. But is their argument against the collectivist philosophy sufficient? And have they made their case for the individual?

The modern libertarian movement has received scant serious attention from writers outside its mainstream, but its swelling ranks—and its intellectual challenge to statist privilege—are hard to ignore. A recent survey, Liberalism at Wits’ End by Stephen Newman, grapples with the libertarian phenomenon. He concludes that although the libertarian position is timely (if anachronistic), and its critique of state power often valuable, libertarianism at best offers only a partial solution to “the crisis of public authority,” at worst actually betrays liberty.

Given Newman’s professed allegiance to concepts like liberty and rights, it’s not surprising that his answer to libertarianism rests in part on misconceptions regarding what those terms imply politically. In traditional collectivist fashion, he contrasts human rights with property rights as if these two were opposite and inimical. The limiting of government to the “night watchman” role of retaliation against the use of force and fraud, in Newman’s view, leaves uncountered the autonomy-threatening “tyranny of economic power.” In striving to refurbish the Lockean undergirding of the original American republic, the libertarian neglects this economic tyranny in the name of property rights. In brief, libertarianism “calls for the renewal of liberal theory, but it demonstrates liberalism at wits’ end.”

Liberalism—not today’s “liberalism,” synonymous with economic interventionism, but the classical liberalism that respects the sovereignty of the individual and the inviolability of his rights—of course upholds the right of private property. But far from implying an abrupt lack of sensitivity to the abuse of power “at the entrance to the market place,” the consistent preservation of property rights is the only means of protecting men’s lives and achievements both from criminals in general and the government in particular. Such stark limiting of the government’s purview does not mean that the individualist is indifferent to nonviolent iniquities which he would forbid the state from acting against. But he disagrees that legal coercionis an omnipotent and benevolent corrective of social ills, and he comprehends the role of ideas in shaping human events. Error cannot be refuted with a club. The only lastingly influential weapon man has against ignorance and prejudice is his reason.

Since the concept of rights is validated by reference to what man requires in a social context to pursue values successfully, any use of coercion extending beyond that needed to defend the individual from hoodlums and defrauders inevitably undercuts the freedom that best promotes every honest man’s struggle. To ignore this must lead to disastrous consequences, such as are evident throughout history.

Respect for the Individual

The liberal philosophy is grounded on a profound respect and sympathy for the individual and an optimistic view of his potential. The liberal sees man as fundamentally efficacious, worthy of the fruits of his achievement, and able to accept responsibility for his own life. This is the vision that must be articulated if liberalism is to be persuasive. If man were the helpless entity some depict him to be, freedom would seem of little practical value, certainly few would be inspired to defend it.

Mr. Newman himself does take summary cognizance of a time and place—the United States before the turn of the century—when capitalism enabled the general widening of prospects that its admirers laud. “Free-market capitalism . . . served the interests of rich and poor alike by opening the avenue of success to ambition and talent,” he admits. Unfortunately, with the rise of economic concentration, large-scale wage labor, and the End of the Frontier as the nineteenth century drew to a close, it became obvious that “political and economic liberty could no longer guarantee persona] autonomy or equal opportunity . . . The changed conditions brought about a new politics and the expansion of state power.”[2]

No Urge to Compete

This scenario inverts the historical reality. In the free market, no inefficient economic monolith could outlast superior competition and the unchecked exercise of consumer choices. Monopoly power as such, in the sense of prohibiting or burdening participation in the marketplace, was always conferred and enforced by governmental edict. The burgeoning of economic controls in fact led to diminished options, not vice versa. The controls were rationalized by collectivist dogma urging the sacrifice of the individual to the group, and supported by people who did not want to stand on their own. The first “antitrust” legislation, the Sherman Antitrust Act, was backed by cotton farmers whose product was losing competitive ground to jute, while those unwilling to compete against the sugar and petroleum industries also unfurled the antitrust banner.

At the time, the productive output of these trusts was generally rising as prices fell, a trend opposite to what the trustbusters were alleging. The trusts were organized as a means of making large-scale enterprises more economical, but had they attempted to raise prices above the dictates of supply and demand, such a move would have signaled other producers to enter the field.[3] The opponents of efficiency and freedom, far from seeking to reclaim their independence and autonomy as Newman argues, were forfeiting them in a quest for unearned gain.

Newman’s critique of the unhampered market obviously rests on something more fundamental than historical fallacy. In reality, the free market system, by releasing human energy to reach its full potential, enriches man’s life and multiplies his opportunities. But Newman doesn’t see it that way. Ignoring the role of personal effort and initiative, he maintains that “in the modern corporate economy . . . the great majority of persons will find their autonomy gravely circumscribed,” inasmuch as they may be obliged to accept unpalatable employment for the sake of physical survival.[4]

How Jobs Develop

The fact that the very existence of a job in the first place depends on some employer’s successful productive effort, or that marginal employers (often the very ones ready to challenge corporate complacency) will be progressively forced out of business as controls and taxes grow, has apparently eluded Newman’s attention. A free economy is not a static economy. Any worker discontented with his current station in life can save money, learn new skills, and so on in order to rise as high as his talent and energy will take him.

An independent man who knows the value of freedom and who respects the rights of others will not demand handouts and market-out-come “amendments” at the first sign of difficulty. As Ludwig von Mises writes, “If the longed-for success is not forthcoming, if the vicissitudes of fate destroy in the twinkling of an eye what had to be painstakingly built up by years of hard work, then he simply multiplies his exertions. He can look disaster in the eye without despairing.”[5]

Liberalism at Wits’ End does have merit. Despite some condescension and occasionally creaky scholarship, Newman manages to fairly summarize many common libertarian ideas, while tracing their origins to such radical forefathers as Locke and the American revolutionaries. And he makes relevant criticisms of such aberrations in the movement as anarchism, subjectivist self- indulgence and Pollyanna expectations. But the heroic ideal that inspires so many individualists is grossly misconceived, and there is no awareness of a psychological literature defending the liberal attitude.

In the end, Stephen Newman’s struggle against liberalism is a losing one. Too often, he doesn’t anticipate how his numerous, altogether unoriginal objections would be and have been answered by libertarian thinkers. This is especially disturbing since, given the weighty values at stake, not even the sketchiest alternative to an admittedly untenable status quo is provided in the book. Even so, perhaps Newman’s arguments against the individualist philosophy are the best that can be presented from a collectivist, “public-interest” perspective. In which case, we might rightly conclude that they represent statism at wits’ end.

1. Newman, Stephen L. Liberalism at Wits’ End.’ The Libertarian Revolt Against the Modern State (Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London, 1984), p. 11.

2. Ibid., p. 16.

3. For example, see “Competition (Except Where Prohibited by Law)” by Thomas J. DiLorenzo in the February ‘85 issue of Reason magazine.

4. Newman, op. cit., p. 46.

5. Mises, Ludwig Von. Liberalism: A SocioEconomic Exposition (Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc.), 1978, p. 15.