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Book Review: After Liberalism


After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State
by Paul Edward Gottfried (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001); 185 pages; $35.

IN THE 1960s, Friedrich A. Hayek published a monograph entitled The Confusion of Language in Political Thought. He emphasized that one of the greatest difficulties in clarifying and arguing for the idea of freedom is the misuse and abuse of words. One of the leading examples of this is the meaning of the word “liberalism.”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, liberalism meant and represented a belief in individual liberty, limited government, and the free-market economy. In 20th-century America it came to mean virtually the opposite. A liberal now is someone who believes in the interventionist-welfare state and the regulated economy. Government, in this more modern conception of liberalism, is viewed as a benevolent force to improve the social and economic conditions of man through directing and restricting the market in various ways.

While the trend in usurping the meaning of “liberalism” had begun much earlier, the 1930s was a watershed for the change in the American political lexicon. In 1935, for example, Lewis W. Douglas, who had served as Franklin Roosevelt’s first director of the bureau of the budget in 1933 and soon resigned in disagreement with the statist direction of the New Deal, delivered the Godkin Lectures at Harvard. He published the lectures later that year under the title The Liberal Tradition: A Free People and a Free Economy. He warned that true liberalism was being threatened in America by the expansion of governmental powers over economic affairs and national life in general.

Our goal, Douglas said, should be a “liberal economy.” He explained,

Under it the free play of democratic, competitive forces and man’s individual creative genius, resting upon a foundation of a certain limited number of governmentally established stable prerequisites, will automatically and unconsciously operate a liberal system for a free people, just as unconsciously the breathing functions of man go on and make of him a living, vital being.

Just how far the conception of liberalism has moved from this view is the theme of Paul Edward Gottfried’s book After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State. His purpose is to trace out part of the intellectual and ideological process by which the meaning of “liberalism” has been transformed as well as the political implication of this transformation in 20th-century America.

In the 19th century, he explains, the great contrasts were between the old monarchical order and the European liberal ideal of individual freedom, on the one hand, and the emergence of a new collectivist movement that spoke of socialism and democracy that confronted the liberal ideal, on the other hand. Liberalism, he suggests, was grounded in a number of social, cultural, and political-philosophical conditions of the time.

In essence, Gottfried argues, it was middle-class and “bourgeois” in its make-up and outlook. It was premised, among other things, on the idea of the business-oriented private property owner who was anchored in the notions of self-responsibility, family commitment and obligation, and forward-looking hard work in the form of saving and investment. Voluntarism and personal liberty were hallmarks of the liberal ideal.

Democracy and freedom

Democracy and the democratic ideal were not considered by many of the advocates of liberty in the 19th century as part of or even necessarily consistent with liberalism. The will of the majority was in no way a protection of the freedom of the individual. Indeed, as Gottfried explains, many liberals were deeply concerned that the spread and extension of the democratic process and the voting franchise would threaten to undermine the free and liberal society as “the masses” attempted to use political means to plunder men of property and enterprise.

But because “the people” in fact cannot directly rule through the democratic process there inevitably emerged an intellectual and political elite, what Gottfried calls a managerial class, who come to man and manage a managerial state. The presumption is that this elite guides “the masses” through their control of the political apparatus. Central to the ideology behind this “new liberalism” was the insistence that the older liberalism was purely negative in its opposition to government abuse and unwarranted privileges and power bestowed by a government unrepresentative of the will of the people.

The new liberalism argued that government could and should play a “positive” role in improving and enhancing the personal and social condition of man. Thus it came to be argued that regulation and redistribution were natural extensions of the liberal idea, one that liberated man from ignorance, poverty, discrimination, and various barriers to opportunity and betterment. Gottfried rather carefully details the many ways the proponents of the new liberalism have attempted to show the supposed continuity between the old and the newer meaning of “liberalism” — and how all of them are weak and unsubstantiated rationalizations to defend an entirely different conception of “freedom.”

Social engineering and planning, Gottfried says, have been natural outgrowths of the new meaning of “liberalism” and “democracy.” A “positive” liberalism that is to use the state to do good things for the people must have a plan as to what is to be done and design techniques for engineering it into existence. This becomes the self-appointed role and responsibility of the managerial elite. Thus in the name of the rule of the people, a new privileged minority comes to hold the reins of political power over the masses they claim to represent.

A new political and ideological “orthodoxy” has developed along with the domination of the social engineering elite. It has become a standard and a barrier establishing the ground rules for legitimate debate over the role of government and the limits to freedom in society. To go beyond these bounds is to place oneself outside the range of acceptable policy discourse. Thus, the advocate of the older free-market and limited-government liberalism is classified as being outside the boundary of reasonable “liberal” discourse.

Gottfried also wonders whether the older and truer liberalism can ever be restored, given the undermining and passing away of many of the cultural, ethical, and historical conditions that fostered its emergence and success in an earlier era. In particular, he fears that in a world in which the special and specific values and traditions of the West are no longer dominant in the global arena, they may be beyond recovery. And he hints that if the Western nations, including the United States, are to retain and recover the institutional foundations of a truly liberal order it may be necessary to isolate these Western nations from an influx of alien peoples and cultures.

The fact is, the native populations of Western Europe and North America are either static or in decline. Other parts of the world, with its different peoples and cultures, are growing both in population and material wealth. The older liberalism cannot be restored or preserved through isolation and containment in the Western nations. If classical liberalism is to prevail it must be triumphant by offering an ideal and a vision for a good society that can appeal to all men anywhere.

The liberal ideal must be modernized and streamlined to contain those minimal and essential principles and concepts for individual liberty, private property, the market economy, and voluntary association that can be applied to any society regardless of its particular cultural, religious, and social traditions and history. The ideas of tolerance and diversity of belief and conduct among individual men must be formulated in such a way and in such a manner that emphasize the importance of the free-market economy in the liberal society, that liberalism can be adaptable, in principle, anywhere around the world.

If this is not the goal, liberty may very well be lost. The liberal idea of freedom may have been born and nurtured in the West over the centuries. But its vision has been and should be one for all people everywhere.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).