In practise, the ideology always leads to welfarism
Taking Liberties by Jamie Whyte is a new discussion paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs, a free market think tank. It is a defence of classical liberalism against ‘post-liberal’ thinkers like Philip Blond and Nick Timothy.
Whyte’s key point is that the post-liberals are wrong to blame liberalism for the contemporary ills of the western world. He acknowledges problems like family breakdown, but pins the blame on government intervention.
He claims that post-liberals make a fundamental error by conflating the classical liberalism of free markets with the progressive politics of the bloated welfare state. Post-liberals argue that the former leads to the latter, because the state has to expand in order to help individuals satisfy their desires. Whyte’s key objection to this linkage is that classical liberalism was never about government intervening to supply what people want, but rather allowing people to make their own decisions so that they can take responsibility for themselves.
Ideologically, it’s a coherent position; but in the real world it doesn’t work. Look back over the modern history of every western nation and classical liberalism always turns into social liberalism, often followed by full-on social democracy. The size of the welfare state may vary somewhat — from Singaporean parsimony all the way up to Scandinavian levels of largesse — but in all cases welfarism expands far beyond its starting point.
In theory, it doesn’t have to be this way, but in practice it invariably does. Unless the classical libs want to adapt the Left-wing excuse that ‘real communism has never been tried’, they need to accept that liberalism inevitably leads to welfarism.
And no wonder. Whyte is correct in stating that capitalism has massively enriched the world, but the enrichment of a society is precisely what makes deprivation among the have-nots increasingly intolerable. The state therefore expands to fill the gaps that the market leaves behind.
It also expands to regulate markets. For all of Whyte’s talk of the “spontaneous order” of a liberal society, there is also a tendency towards chaos. Does he really imagine that we could make our traffic laws voluntary? Or allow the global banking system to meltdown, as it would have done in 2008 if governments hadn’t intervened? So the neat distinction between a state that merely allows individual decision-making and one that indulges individual desires is much messier in the real world.
From Singapore to Sweden, state intervention is required to provide the order that enables individual decision making. And furthermore how the state intervenes goes well beyond pure pragmatism. Every intervention has moral content — i.e. it should be informed by judgments as to how things ought to be, not just how they need to be.
Whyte makes some questionable claims about post-liberalism. For instance, he asserts that both Marine Le Pen and Theresa May “espouse roughly the same ideas as the intellectual post-liberals” — a sentence in which the word “roughly” does an awful lot of work. However, he’s spot on when he says that “postliberals reject the liberal idea that the state should be neutral about the nature of ‘the good life’”.
We do indeed. However, because we’re not anti-liberals, we would regard a conception of the good life as being integral to a truly liberal society. Without this moral sense the alternatives are a state of total anarchy, absolute tyranny or complete capture by vested interests.