The Free-Marketeers of Yesteryear Would Be Called “Socialists” Today

“Classical liberals” are heralded by today’s conservatives, despite having little in common

Scottish economist Adam Smith (left) and German philosopher Karl Marx (right)

The Republican Party seems dead set on using the fear of “socialism” as leverage in the 2020 election. Despite the fact that none of the Democratic candidates are actually socialists in the original sense of the word, Republicans know that if you throw out a claim often enough, it tends to stick. This was, of course, the tactic they used against Barack Obama for eight years, despite Obama’s relatively moderate, cautious, and technocratic approach, and his various attempts at bipartisanship. “Socialist,” has simply become a catch-all term used to describe any policy goal that Republicans oppose.

It can hardly be overstated that in political terms, the “right” and “left” are not as monolithic as partisan commentators make them out to be. Just as left-of-center movements have always been notorious for splitting into factions, the modern right is also a hodgepodge of different world views, strung together more by a perceived common enemy (the “left”) than any single ideology.

While the populist/nationalist right (embodied by Donald Trump) no longer even pays lip service to the value of liberal-democratic government, the conservative, libertarian, and other “free-market” factions of the right still love to name drop “classical liberal” ideas and intellectuals from the past, while decrying the “socialist” left.

Right-leaning think tanks often cite these liberal standard-bearers of the past as champions of small-government conservatism, arguing that modern liberals have bastardized the laissez-faire philosophies of old. But upon closer examination, it becomes clear that modern liberalism is the natural evolution of what is now called “classical” liberalism. Furthermore, many of these old school liberals expressed ideas that are anathema to the modern right.

Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish economist known for writing the great capitalist tome The Wealth of Nations, held views that were radically egalitarian for his time. Smith envisioned a free society of equals in which competition would no longer be stifled by the state, the church, or powerful land-owning aristocrats.

Smith believed that a healthy economy that had not been rigged by the powerful would not result huge concentrations of wealth. He also defended an income floor, writing in The Wealth of Nations:

“A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him. They must even upon most occasions be somewhat more, otherwise it would be impossible for him to bring up a family, and the race of such workmen could not last beyond the first generation.”

This tradition of free-market egalitarianism was continued by many of America’s founders. Thomas Paine believed that true freedom would be found in self-employment. Like others of his time, he glorified the rugged yeoman farmers and artisans who were neither employed nor employers. Paine was also an abolitionist and an early advocate for a form of Basic Income, which he believed would ensure each individual’s right to live a self-sustaining life.

A century later, American economist Henry George followed in Smith and Paine’s footsteps. While opposing most forms of taxation on the grounds that ordinary people were entitled to the full fruits of their labor, George specifically advocated a progressive land-value tax (now practiced in several countries) that would limit the power of the wealthy to capture private property and deplete natural resources. He beleived that landlords were able to accumulate wealth illegitimately by simply sitting on their assets rather than producing anything of value.

For all their wisdom and foresight, none of these great thinkers could have predicted the changes that would be brought about by the Industrial Revolution. As soon as factories became the most efficient way of mass-producing goods, the romantic idea of the self-employed yeoman farmer went the way of the dodo. Now, most laborers were left with two options: spend six days a week toiling away in a dangerous factory, or go hungry.

While the rapid changes of industrialization did eventually lead to higher overall living standards, the brutal conditions in the factories, and the increasingly monopolistic power of those who owned them, naturally resulted in a new kind of egalitarian critic, exemplified by Karl Marx, the father of revolutionary socialism.

Marx and Smith shared a similar vision: an egalitarian society in which a powerful few are not able to exert control over everyone else. But while Marx may have correctly identified many of the problems with the economy of his day, his ideas were ultimately used to justify some of the worst human rights atrocities of the 20th century. As a consequence, contemporary Marxists, though few and far between, are usually met with an understandable degree of skepticism.

But even today, echos of the bad old days persist in workplaces all over the developed world. Employees working for large corporations still regularly endure harassment, surveillance, and unreasonable demands from their bosses. They continue to work long hours, often at the expense of their personal health. Large companies (particularly big tech) are showing increasingly monopolistic tendencies. In some extreme cases, the conditions people are subjected to are comparable to the factories of the gilded age, where employees are required to do intense manual labor for long stretches of time and not even given bathroom breaks. If they wish to leave and search for work elsewhere, their only option is likely another company that exerts the same level of control over them. Professor Elizabeth Anderson likens this to citizens of the former USSR fleeing from one communist dictatorship to another, remaining trapped behind the iron curtain. Some conservatives and libertarians like to imagine that this constitutes “freedom of choice.”

As Anderson observes in her book, Private Government:

“Images of free-market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities.

So who can carry the torch of liberalism today? Well, liberals. Modern liberalism (sometimes called “social liberalism” in Europe), picks up where Smith, Paine, George, and others left off, taking into account all the ways the modern world differs from the pre-industrial world. Despite accusations of “socialism,” or “Marxism,” from the right, modern liberalism still attempts to maximize individual sovereignty and personal autonomy by creating a fair market economy in which competition flourishes, rather than being stifled by monopolists, cronies, and bureaucrats.

It was liberals, after all, who ended up placing restraints on the runaway inequality of the gilded age — strengthening the market economy by busting up large corporations, therby leveling the playing field to allow for greater competition, while also establishing the first social safety nets.

There is an old adage that social democrats are socialists who compromised with reality and made peace with democratic pluralism, while liberals are essentially anarchists who did the same thing. They still place a strong emphasis on individual rights and liberties, while acknowledging that these are actually less likely to flourish in a chaotic free-for-all without the rule of law or safety nets in place.

Today, liberal parties in Europe (and to a large extent, the Democratic Party in the US) tend to occupy the idealogical middle ground between center-right conservatism and center-left social democracy. Liberals seek pragmatic approaches to ensure that even the least well-off have a shot at competing in the marketplace, acknowledging that there are often multiple ways to arrive at the same goal.

Liberals will fight for safety nets and basic regulation against negative externalities, not a centrally-planned economy or an unfettered free-market. They proudly defend the many benefits of globalization, free trade, and open immigration from populist critics on the right and the left. They champion diversity, seek to protect civil liberties (often neglected by powerful governments), and attempt to rectify past injustices that have left certain communities more vulnerable than others.

Their approaches may change with the times, but the goal remains the same as it was in Smith’s day — creating open societies where people enjoy maximum freedom to make their own choices. And while liberal politicians or governments may sometimes fail to live up to these values, this is no reason to abandon them. Just as the answer to weak science is more science, not less, the answer to weak liberalism should be more liberalism, not less.

Despite all of this, many right-leaning politicos would have you believe that modern liberalism is some kind of strange perversion of the classical variant. In reality, the libertarianism of today ignores much of what the early liberals stood for. Even as late as the mid-20th century, Austrian economist and libertarian folk hero F.A. Hayek was saying things like this:

“There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision.”

Hayek would likely feel more at home in a European liberal party today than either a social democratic party or a conservative party, and would almost certainly have fewer issues with the largely moderate US Democrats than the nationalist Republicans, not despite his strong fear of government overreach, but precisely because of it. Hayek made his suspicions of the right abundantly clear in his classic essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”

Another strange phenomenon is the resurgence of right-leaning people (particularly on the internet) self-identifying as “classical liberals.” The label has become popular with the so-called “intellectual dark web,” a group of loosely affiliated commentators united by their preoccupation with “political correctness.” These people tend to obsess over inconsequential non-issues, like college students overreacting to things, while simultaneously rubbing elbows with the far-right.

Why would people who identify as “classical liberals” find more common ground with authoritarian neo-reactionaries than other types of liberals? The answer is likely that these people are not liberals at all, but simply a different breed of conservative — one that might be OK with decriminalizing drugs, or comfortable around gay people, but still fundamentally sees the world through a change-wary, identitarian lens.

Liberal societies’ track record of improving human well-being over time speaks for itself. Truly liberal values need defending now more than ever, as they continue to come under siege from demagogues and strongmen with dictatorial aspirations. Academic Robert Kagan summed this up perfectly in his detailed policy brief on the global resurgence of authoritarianism (which I highly encourage everybody to read). In Kagan’s words:

“We seem to have lost sight of a simple and very practical reality: that whatever we may think about the persistent problems of our lives, about the appropriate balance between rights and traditions, between prosperity and equality, between faith and reason, only liberalism ensures our right to hold and express those thoughts and to battle over them in the public arena.

Liberalism is all that keeps us, and has ever kept us, from being burned at the stake for what we believe.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store