Recently, Matt Bruenig wrote an article in The Week called, “Why U.S. conservatives should embrace socialist, European-style economics,” subtitled, “The benefits to the traditional family are clear.” His arguments are not easy to dismiss, and I think it is about time someone made this case—not that I would necessarily agree that he is right. In fact, Mr. Bruenig starts getting it wrong by the sixth word. Like most Americans, he has no idea what Socialism is.
The brunt of his argument rests in the second to last paragraph, in which he writes:
Consider Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Speaking broadly, women tend to work less, if at all, while men are the primary breadwinners. According to Lane Kenworthy, these countries have the lowest numbers of hours worked per working-age adult in the developed world. The proximate causes of this are very strong unions that push for more vacation, shorter work weeks, and earlier retirement. Additionally, their dominant Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties construct welfare states that dwarf our own, and include generous paid maternity leave as well as robust public health insurance systems.
Are those positive ends? Yes. Are they socialist means? No.
For most of American history—maybe until the First World War or thereabouts—it would be difficult to allocate an ideological tether to America’s political parties. Mostly they were an assortment of regional or trade interests. Some candidates appealed to the South, or to agrarians; others appealed to the North, to industrialists and merchants. And there is some virtue in being largely innocent of ideological warfare. I am not inclined to heckle the folks who think our politics should be pragmatic rather than ideological, un-pragmatic as I think that wish is in the modern world.
But one significant detriment we have suffered for it is that, as a country, we are politically illiterate.
For Americans, “Conservatism” means small government and/or big business, which is labelled “corporatism”; some Conservatives are also very fond of Jesus. Liberalism, Progressivism, and Socialism are all synonymous terms that mean big government and abortion. The rest of the world looks at that and scratches its head.
Now I am not a Europhile like some folks in the Democratic National Committee; “But Europe does it!” is not a sound argument in my book. Yet I do think we stand to benefit from brushing up on our terminology. So let us consider this:
Liberalism is a political philosophy that emphasizes individual liberty.
Economic Liberalism or Classical Liberalism is a variant of Liberalism that believes the Liberal objective is best served through free international trade, free domestic markets, and a minimal or non-existent welfare state.
Social Liberalism is also a variant of Liberalism that believes the Liberal objective is best served through robust social welfare measures, examples being public education, old age pensions, unemployment benefits, and universal access to healthcare. Social Liberalism does not necessarily have to do with “social issues” as we understand them, like same-sex marriage.
Neoliberalism is, depending on whom you ask, either the same as Classical Liberalism, as Social Liberalism, or sort of a middling-ground.
Socialism is an unrelated economic philosophy that strives towards a cooperative or collective ownership of the means of production by the working class or a worker-dominated State.
With our mini-dictionary at hand, we should square a few things away:
(1) “Obamacare” and other state-provided healthcare measures, have nothing necessarily to do with Socialism, because there is really no such thing as a “means of production” in healthcare. No doubt many or most Socialists do support nationalized healthcare; but Obamacare and European nationalized health services are a variant of Social Liberalism, and have been embraced by right-wing Capitalist parties such as the UK’s Conservative Party, Canada’s Conservative Party, and Australia’s Liberal Party (very aptly named).
(2) Trade unionism in the West is very rarely a strictly Socialist enterprise. The Republican Party as late as the 1970s had factions we would otherwise call “Conservative” that maintained strong ties to trade unions, precisely because of the benefits to working families outlined in Mr. Bruenig’s article. Modern parties with strong trade unionist sympathies—the UK’s Labour Party, Canada’s New Democratic Party, and Australia’s Labor Party—have all rather given up on trying to “socialize” the economy, and have become radical Social Liberal parties. They spend heavily on welfare, employ steeply graduated taxes, and will always be advocating the nationalization of this industry or the abolition of that fee; but they do not go for Socialization as such.
(3) Classical Liberalism won its first substantial victory in Britain in 1846 with the Anti-Corn Law League and came to dominate the reformist half of the two-party system around 1859 with William Gladstone and the formation of the Liberal Party. Social Liberalism took the reigns sometime around 1905 with the election of Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister. As such, Classical Liberalism’s claim as the economic philosophy for Conservatives is rather weak: only being about forty years its senior, at that only in the nineteenth century, and still being considered variants of radicalism or reformism.
(4) When Richard Nixon professed himself a Keynesian, he meant something like, “I am a Social Liberal.” Neoliberalism’s acceptance of a limited welfare state, from Ronald Reagan right up through Mitt Romney and beyond, means that we have two major parties in the United States that are embrace variants of Social Liberalism.
(5) The Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul Revolution, et al. are the true heirs of Classical Liberalism. Even von Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek recognized that their philosophies were not at all groundbreaking, but simply new defences of old Classical Liberal principles. Hayek himself anticipated Americans would begin to conflate Classical Liberalism with Conservatism and, recognizing that this was rather confused, proposed that his followers take on the mantle of Libertarianism instead.
So we are, indeed, all some variant of Liberal now. And what do we do about that?
Firstly, we need to stop making a bogeyman out of Liberalism. There are only a handful of Conservative economic schemes that entirely predate Liberalism. Traditional Mercantilism is one, as is Tory Corporatism, but those do not appear on the American register. Distributism may be another, but its ties are so close with the Liberal tradition that it is difficult to say the break is clean.
Secondly, we need to begin approaching ideas rather than labels. This should not be too hard for Imaginative Conservatives, who know that Conservatism inherently transcends ideologism. But where we rightfully oppose Marxism for adopting a soullessly ideological worldview, we should be careful to note that Liberalism, though as dangerous as any other ideology when adopted with fanaticism, is also too close to home for us to dismiss in the same way. Again, the majority of those who read this essay will probably be a Liberal, be it one of the Left or of the Right.
As a corollary to the second point, we also need to start thinking seriously about policy. I think, not controversially, that Obamacare is a bad piece of legislation. But I also think there is a distinct need to be absolutely sure that every American receives the medical treatment that they require. I do not think simple market forces will guarantee this. And I think Conservatives, if we move beyond our Liberalphobia, could break up the Left’s grip over nationalized or nationally subsidized healthcare, taking that noble goal and advancing it by more sensible means. If the answer is in the middle—between Obamacare and total privatization, between complete nationalization and market fundamentalism—the Conservative anti-ideologue should try to find that place. Armed with Russell Kirk’s Ten Principles, Edmund Burke’s Reflections, and T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, we should be neither partisans of Statist Social Liberalism nor of pure Classical Liberalism. If the answer happens to lie in one camp or the other, so be it! But when it does not, we have got to break down that severe division and do what is right rather than what is (thought to be) right-wing.
Thirdly, I think we should indeed begin taking a look at marginalized philosophies. Dr. Ralph Ancil’s writings in this journal on Wilhelm Röpke’s work in drawing out the market economy’s dependence on a humane, ethical social order are a great place to begin. Röpke is counted among a group of thinkers known as the Ordoliberals, who recognized that State intervention was needed to ensure a healthily competitive environment was guaranteed against monopoly. Distributism strikes me as being in line with Röpke’s Humanism and the Ordoliberals’ recognition of the need for relatively small-scale participation in the economy in order for markets to function properly; Distributism might even be called a radically localist Ordoliberalism. (But I will not get into that now.) Dr. John Médaille’s essays in The Imaginative Conservative are an excellent introduction to nuts-and-bolts Distributism.
The point of this all being, we need to wash off all the nasty connotations associated with the L-word. None of us really exists outside of it. Most of us are far more Liberal than we think. And that is a good thing: Liberalism began simply as a rejection of arbitrary state power, as an exposition of human liberty. Nor does it mean we cannot be “Conservative” as well: We are only, as Eliot said, conserving the right things rather than relaxing discipline. And we do not have to be revolutionary; the permanent things can—and should—come with us.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.