Why right libertarians take semantic refuge in classical liberalism

Classical liberalism in action – Victorian workhouses were prisons for the poor

Recently, I’ve noticed the numbers of right libertarians who have suddenly started claiming that they’re really “classical liberals”. Like cockroaches when they’re exposed to the light, vigorous scrutiny of their soi-disant libertarianism sends them scurrying into the gap between the skirting board and the floor of discourse. There, in the darkness, they feel safe. There they can claim that they are “classical liberals”. But their new-found old position relies entirely on the mass ignorance of the term “classical liberalism” and the historical materialism of the 19th century when classical liberalism (then called liberalism) was first applied as an economic doctrine.

These born-again classical liberals will apply the same narratives that exponents of neoliberalism will use as a defence of their doctrine: that wealth can only be created for all  if the state is “smaller” and business is freed from “bureaucracy” and “red tape” and that wealth will consequently trickle down to those below. This, they argue, will bring forth ‘freedom’ but the freedom that they speak of only applies to a small section of the population: the factory owners and the rentier capitalists. Trickle down doesn’t work, yet these born again classical liberals will claim that it does – though none of them can point to examples of where trickle down has succeeded.

So what are the key defining features of classical liberalism and how does it differ, if at all, from right libertarianism?

Classical liberalism’s key features are

  • Individual liberty
  • smaller state/limited government
  • Laissez faire capitalism/free markets
  • Freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly
  • Disregard for the poor and the needy
  • Social Darwinism
  • Utilitarianism

Right libertarians

  • Individual liberty
  • Laissez faire capitalism/free markets
  • Smaller state/limited or no government
  • Freedom of speech. religion, press and assembly
  • Disregard for the poor and needy
  • Social Darwinism

As you can see, there isn’t much difference between either of them and when right libertarians suddenly proclaim that they are “classical liberals”, they are dishonest in making this largely artificial distinction. The real reason for declaring themselves as classical liberals has more to do with romanticism, nostalgia and outright dishonesty than anything else. They want to go back to a time when people knew their place and stayed there. Social mobility did not exist; the working class stayed in their place. They were denied access to higher education and were tied to their places of work. Knowledge was reserved for the privileged and the powerful. In the eyes of the dominant political hegemony, knowledge in the hands of the subaltern classes was considered dangerous (think of William Tyndale’s struggle to publish the Bible in English). Because with knowledge and ideas came the possibility that authority could be questioned, which could lead, in turn, to civil disobedience and insurrection…even though this happened anyway and was met with considerable force.

The neoliberals and those right libertarians who subscribe to the small state notion are actually the  descendants of classical liberals. They can no more return to the past, then I can become the King of Tonga. They have selectivized the past by appropriating certain memories of the classical liberal period, which always seem to orbit the sun-like narrative of the British Empire. When one puts the point to them that Adam Smith’s assertion that “free markets will lead to world peace” is fallacious proposition, they will respond by asking, “did free market states go to war against each other”? It’s a red herring. There were plenty of wars, many of them waged by free market states against other nations. Free trade relied on wars and the colonization of other countries. It also meant outdoing the competition from other free market nations. Presumably, for our apologists, the Opium Wars were not waged in the name of free trade but were waged to punish the Chinese for not accepting opium rather than silver as payment for silk? It’s a fatuous argument but it’s the sort of defence right libertarians would use.  In the 19th century, the British Empire was the biggest drug pusher on the planet- there is no getting away from it.  It was because of this idea of  “free trade” that countries like China were forced to “open” their markets and thus open themselves to decades of foreign domination.

Classical liberals denied the right of workers to organize. It was only when the last of the Combination Acts was repealed that workers were able to organize in any meaningful way.  Socially, classical liberals were very much against the idea of the relief of poverty and sought to contain it within the Poor Laws. The workhouse, which had been around since the 14th century, saw an expansion in the 19th century after the passing of the Poor Law of 1834. Today’s born again classical liberals have similar ideas with regards to the poor and the unemployed, for whom they have resurrected the artificial distinctions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. Any money spent on the relief of poverty was seen as another impediment to the freedoms of the rich and powerful. One ‘argument’ that I encountered was “The working class were richer (sic) in 1899 than they were in 1801″. But this is another red herring: the working class were never “rich” and lived in overcrowded rented accommodation. Few of them moved up the social ladder. Those that did became the petite bourgeoisie: the shopkeepers, market traders or were otherwise recruited as instruments of oppression, nor did they buy their own properties in leafy districts of the industrial cities nor did any of them become industrialists. There was a glass ceiling preventing those at the bottom from becoming say, MPs, because of the property qualification.

The right libertarian is a dishonest creature that substitutes myths and tropes for facts. They extrapolate their arguments from sets of numbers in the hope that no one will spot the flaws in their thesis – which always overlooks society in favour of cold economic statistics. This decontextualization of numbers from the societal whole is their only defence and it’s a weak one. But the worst offence is to claim that they are “classical liberals” when they are really right libertarians looking for a way to divert attention away from their very postmodern interpretations of  selfishness and greed by hiding in the darkness of the past.

The use of the phrase “classical liberalism” by right libertarians is therefore an exercise in semantic subterfuge and should be laughed off as such.

UPDATE 11/5/11 @ 1213

I found this interesting blog written by an anarchist. Right libertarians don’t live in the real world.

2 Comments

Filed under 19th century, Economics, History, History & Memory, Ideologies, Labour history, Language, Society & culture, Trade Unions, workers rights

2 responses to “Why right libertarians take semantic refuge in classical liberalism

  1. Jonathan

    You’re a fool.

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