When I was 30 years old I would have laughed if you had told me that by the time I was 35 I would no longer be liberal.
The liberal world-view made sense to me. Liberals, I believed, were clearly the enlightened ones. We were the caring ones. We were on the side of the downtrodden, the “little guy.” We wanted to make the world better.
Unfortunately, there were boulders blocking the path to a better world. Not everyone, it turned out, cared about others. Conservatives didn’t want change for the better. It seemed to me that they wanted government to support racism, religious zealotry and greed. The conservatives were the world’s Archie Bunkers (bigoted character from the television show All in the Family), Jerry Falwells (anti-gay Christian televangelist), and JR Ewings (greedy oil baron from the television show Dallas). Sorry for the dated references, but I came of age in the late 1970s, and those were my “conservative” icons.
The first shift in my thinking came when I picked up The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich A. Hayek. I think it intrigued me because I had heard conservatives repeatedly identify Hayek as an influence.
The Road to Serfdom made me less comfortable with government power. As a liberal, of course I wanted lots of robust government action to make things better. And since liberal government action would be well intentioned, it would naturally, I thought, have good results. In The Road to Serfdom Hayek pointed out that even governmental action motivated by the best of intentions could have bad consequences.
In the democracies at present [Hayek was writing in the early 1940s], many who sincerely hate all of Nazism’s manifestations are working for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny. . . . They believe that our economic life should be ‘consciously directed’, that we should substitute ‘economic planning’ for the competitive system. Yet is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavour consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?
I had always assumed that actions based on good intention would inevitably produce good results. Hayek made me reexamine that assumption.
Still, like most liberals, I was leery of that “competitive system” of free markets. The supposedly “free” exchange of goods and services was, I felt, really about exploitation. Buyers and sellers were essentially in a power struggle, I thought, and whoever was in the stronger position took some sort of advantage of the other. Otherwise, why would they exchange goods and services? Consequently, I liked seeing government involved to ensure “fair” wages and prices, and I supported lots of regulation of businesses, to protect workers and customers from greedy capitalists. I wanted government, in short, to control the free market.
Then I read Free to Choose, in which Milton and Rose Friedman described the benefits of the free market. Contrary to what I thought, when a big corporation like Exxon sells a gallon of gasoline to a driver, or a delicatessen owner sells a tuna-on-wheat to a customer, both seller and buyer benefit from the transaction. Both sides “win.” If both parties didn’t win, the Friedmans pointed out, they would not enter into the exchange at all. In discussing Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the Friedmans wrote:
Adam Smith’s key insight was that both parties to an exchange can benefit and that, so long as cooperation is strictly voluntary, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit. No external force, no coercion, no violation of freedom is necessary to produce cooperation among individuals all of whom can benefit.” (emphasis in original).
The free market, they explained, is where the millions and billions of individual choices and decisions are expressed every day, effectively coordinating the production of the goods and services that feed and clothe and house people. And it all happens voluntarily and without plan. The free market is not rapacious greed run riot, where the rich dominate the poor. In fact, the power of an individual, be he ever so rich, was small, as long as there are other businesses to buy from and other employers to work for. It was excessive government that was far more dangerous. Returning to Hayek:
[T]he competitive system is the only system designed to minimize the power exercised by man over man. Who can seriously doubt that the power which a millionaire, who may be my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest bureaucrat possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends how I am allowed to live and work?
As I learned about the importance of freedom and free markets, and the danger of too much government, I felt like a fundamentalist Christian learning about the age of the earth. I didn’t want to stop being liberal. Besides, how could I join the dark side, the side of Archie Bunker, et al?
So to bolster my liberalism I got out some books and essays by liberals. But after Hayek and Friedman and others, the liberal arguments seemed thin. For instance, liberals base much of their liberalism on the supposed power of corporations. The rise of big, powerful corporations, liberals assert, make the old “laissez faire” economic concepts obsolete. Conrad P. Waligorski in Liberal Economics & Democracy: “Conditions for individualism have altered with organizational growth, economic change, and concentration of economic power; so preservation of individuality requires new means, at least some of which necessitate intervention.”
John Kenneth Galbraith based much of his influential book The Affluent Society, published in 1958, on this very argument. Corporations, he asserted, control such a large amount of wealth and market power that demand for their products can be “contrived” through clever marketing. The old rules of supply and demand had been overturned by “the most obtrusive of all economic phenomena, namely, modern want creation.”
But Galbraith and other liberals consistently exaggerate the power of large companies. These supposedly super-powerful corporations frequently lose market share to newer, smaller companies. And they shift, change, and even die off. Of the 500 biggest companies in America in 1980, fewer than half (202) were still in existence in 2000.
The year Galbraith published The Affluent Society, 1958, arguing that big corporations are so immune to market forces that they can “create their own demand,” happens also to be the year that the Ford Motor Company used all of its powerful marketing to introduce a new car. It even sponsored a television show named for the car, with appearances from such top stars as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Hope. The name of the show: THE EDSEL SHOW. Despite Ford’s extensive marketing campaign, using all of its power to “create demand,” the new car, the Edsel, was a flop. Undoubtedly to Galbraith’s surprise, buyers did not walk zombie-like into Ford dealerships to buy Edsels. The word Edsel has remained synonymous with marketing failure ever since. So much for being able to “create demand.”
In retrospect, I realize that part of what kept me liberal was my dislike of particular “conservative” individuals or groups. Which is probably true for many liberals today, I think, although Archie Bunker and Jerry Falwell have been replaced these days by Donald Trump or George W. Bush or people in the National Rifle Association or Karl Rove or the Koch brothers. But the hatred is probably more intense in today’s internet-connected world of constant outrage.
So when the liberal hears someone arguing against raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, for instance, the liberal often does not pay much attention to the argument. He can’t get past seething at his perception of a mass of selfish, bigoted conservatives out there, who just don’t get it! Regardless of what this particular conservative is saying, the liberal hears the words as support for the real conservative agenda of racism and greed. So the liberal skips over the argument and angrily replies with something like: “The Koch brothers makes billions, but conservatives won’t support a living wage!”
It was a habit of thought for me for years. If I talked with a conservative, I immediately sought to categorize him: was he racist, religious, or selfish? Once I’d labelled him, I could ignore him. It was not until I began focusing on the issues directly that I better understood the issues – and better understood the people on all sides of the issues.
So, over time, I moved away from liberalism and toward free market principles. I became what is called a libertarian, or a classical liberal.
Why a libertarian and not a conservative? As usual, I go back to Hayek and Friedman. I was surprised initially that both Hayek and Friedman referred to themselves not as conservatives but as liberals. When I read their books, I had to adjust to their use of the term, because on economic issues their views were what I understood to be “conservative.” But they were accurately describing themselves. “I use throughout the term ‘liberal’ in the original, nineteenth-century sense,” wrote Hayek in his Forward to the 1956 American Paperback Edition of The Road to Serfdom. “In current American usage it often means very nearly the opposite.” Hayek and Friedman, as “liberals” in the proper sense of the word, advocated freedom on “social” issues as well as “economic” issues. Milton Friedman, for example, supported gay marriage long before Barack Obama supported it.
Today, this political stance is often called libertarian, or classical liberal. Unlike many conservatives, libertarians want freedom in “social” areas such as gay marriage and separation of church and state. And unlike many so-called liberals, libertarians support freedom in “economic” areas such as international trade and business regulation. Libertarians support individual freedom. Libertarians are, in fact, the true liberals.
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I would recommend anyone interested in learning more to begin at the website of The Cato Institute https://www.cato.org/ a highly-respected libertarian think tank that supports freedom and free markets. And besides the already mentioned The Road to Serfdom and Free to Choose, here are a few of the many enlightening books I discovered:
*Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, an excellent issue-by-issue argument for freedom and free markets.
*Modern Times by Paul Johnson, a global history of the 20th century, and the series of experiments in massive government control (the Soviet Union, Germany, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, Eastern Europe) that resulted in unprecedented suffering and death.
*The Mystery of Capital by Hernando De Soto, a study of developing nations, and the crucial importance of legal systems to memorialize and protect private property.
*A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles by Thomas Sowell, an assessment of the differences in thinking that underlie the left-right political split. Sowell is always excellent — read any of his books and you will see our world more accurately.
*The Noblest Triumph by Tom Bethell, a history of the importance of the rule of law and private property.
*Eat the Rich by P.J. O’Rourke is, of course, funny, but O’Rourke makes some very serious points about capitalist and socialist systems.
And over my morning cup of coffee I read the columns of George Will and Jonah Goldberg, who discuss the issues of the day with wit and wisdom.