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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The Impossibility of Dogmatic Liberalism

Free-Market Liberalism Is Hardly Dogmatic, Intolerant, or Even Impatient

On the day I decided to write on the impossibility of dogmatic liberalism (you know what I mean by “liberal”), I thought it would be helpful to have a quotation from some prominent person referring to this imagined intellectual offense. Wouldn’t you know it that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman would oblige? In a March 18 column about the World Bank and its new chief, Paul Wolfowitz, Krugman writes, “Dogmatic views about the universal superiority of free markets have been losing ground around the world.”

It may be true that belief in the universal superiority of free markets (over what?) is not as popular as it was a few years ago. I don’t know. But if true, it is partly because the “free market” label has been attached promiscuously to “reforms” in the ex-communist and developing countries. For example, when a regime sells state factories to cronies who formerly ran them as government officials, it is wrongly regarded as privatization.

But that’s not the subject of today’s discussion. Instead I want to examine this notion of “dogmatic views about the universal superiority of free markets,” or dogmatic liberalism for short. It strikes me as incoherent in all but the most trivial sense. Liberalism ultimately is a set of ethical ideas. “It is wrong to initiate force” is a moral principle. Liberalism is universalizable, which is to say that since it is derived from requirements imposed by human nature and the nature of the world, it is valid for all human beings everywhere. And yes, liberals regard their principles as demonstrably true. Of course, anyone may question it—but only to the extent he is free to question anything; that is, to the extent he lives in a society that honors liberal principles, of which intellectual freedom is one. On the other hand, there is no liberal claim to omniscience or revelation. That’s why liberals favor the competitive division of labor and knowledge. Claims of omniscience are happily left to the advocates of central planning.

There of course is a side to the term “dogmatism” that connotes a wish to impose something on someone. And it is in this sense that the charge of “dogmatic liberalism” shows itself to be incoherent. Free-market liberalism is the philosophy of non-imposition.“Anything that’s peaceful,” Leonard Read said. That hardly sounds dogmatic, intolerant, or even impatient.

A liberal society embodies the greatest degree of decentralization, of both knowledge and authority. It has no center of control over information or planning. Individuals are free to discover their own knowledge, choose their own authorities, formulate their own doctrines, and make their own plans. They need no one’s approval. All they must do is respect life, liberty, and property. Professor Krugman should say what he regards as superior to that.

To grapple with the uncertain future, people evolve institutions and traditions, and they cling to them tenaciously in the face of challenge. But absent government backing, they cannot prevent others from building alternative institutions and traditions.There is always a rising generation full of people who believe things can be done better. In a market liberal society, they are free to try.While most will eventually come to terms with the prevailing mores, others will persist and in the process make significant and lasting changes at the margin. The accumulated changes of several generations can be dramatic. Market societies are moderately dynamic. No vested interest can find state-imposed shelter, but change is rarely disorienting.

It can hardly be dogmatism to advocate such a society. In fact, the idea that liberalism can be imposed on societies with little or no tradition of freedom is to misconstrue the philosophy.

F. A. Hayek wrote in “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” “[T]he liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. …[I]t seems to require a certain degree of diffidence to let others seek their happiness in their own fashion and to adhere consistently to that tolerance which is an essential characteristic of liberalism . . . the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution.”

Is this dogmatism? Or is that term more properly applied to those, such as Professor Krugman, who presumptuously call on government to disrupt the peaceful cooperation of the marketplace?

* * *

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  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.