shutterstock_116713288-e1362543011142Recently, Matt Bruenig wrote an article in The Week called, “Why U.S. conservatives should embrace socialist, European-style economics,” subtitled, “The benefits to the traditional family are clear.” His arguments are not easy to dismiss, and I think it is about time someone made this case—not that I would necessarily agree that he is right. In fact, Mr. Bruenig starts getting it wrong by the sixth word. Like most Americans, he has no idea what Socialism is.

The brunt of his argument rests in the second to last paragraph, in which he writes:

Consider Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Speaking broadly, women tend to work less, if at all, while men are the primary breadwinners. According to Lane Kenworthy, these countries have the lowest numbers of hours worked per working-age adult in the developed world. The proximate causes of this are very strong unions that push for more vacation, shorter work weeks, and earlier retirement. Additionally, their dominant Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties construct welfare states that dwarf our own, and include generous paid maternity leave as well as robust public health insurance systems.

Are those positive ends? Yes. Are they socialist means? No.

For most of American history—maybe until the First World War or thereabouts—it would be difficult to allocate an ideological tether to America’s political parties. Mostly they were an assortment of regional or trade interests. Some candidates appealed to the South, or to agrarians; others appealed to the North, to industrialists and merchants. And there is some virtue in being largely innocent of ideological warfare. I am not inclined to heckle the folks who think our politics should be pragmatic rather than ideological, un-pragmatic as I think that wish is in the modern world.

But one significant detriment we have suffered for it is that, as a country, we are politically illiterate.

For Americans, “Conservatism” means small government and/or big business, which is labelled “corporatism”; some Conservatives are also very fond of Jesus. Liberalism, Progressivism, and Socialism are all synonymous terms that mean big government and abortion. The rest of the world looks at that and scratches its head.

Now I am not a Europhile like some folks in the Democratic National Committee; “But Europe does it!” is not a sound argument in my book. Yet I do think we stand to benefit from brushing up on our terminology. So let us consider this:

Liberalism is a political philosophy that emphasizes individual liberty.

Economic Liberalism or Classical Liberalism is a variant of Liberalism that believes the Liberal objective is best served through free international trade, free domestic markets, and a minimal or non-existent welfare state.

Social Liberalism is also a variant of Liberalism that believes the Liberal objective is best served through robust social welfare measures, examples being public education, old age pensions, unemployment benefits, and universal access to healthcare. Social Liberalism does not necessarily have to do with “social issues” as we understand them, like same-sex marriage.

Neoliberalism is, depending on whom you ask, either the same as Classical Liberalism, as Social Liberalism, or sort of a middling-ground.

Socialism is an unrelated economic philosophy that strives towards a cooperative or collective ownership of the means of production by the working class or a worker-dominated State.

With our mini-dictionary at hand, we should square a few things away:

(1) “Obamacare” and other state-provided healthcare measures, have nothing necessarily to do with Socialism, because there is really no such thing as a “means of production” in healthcare. No doubt many or most Socialists do support nationalized healthcare; but Obamacare and European nationalized health services are a variant of Social Liberalism, and have been embraced by right-wing Capitalist parties such as the UK’s Conservative Party, Canada’s Conservative Party, and Australia’s Liberal Party (very aptly named).

(2) Trade unionism in the West is very rarely a strictly Socialist enterprise. The Republican Party as late as the 1970s had factions we would otherwise call “Conservative” that maintained strong ties to trade unions, precisely because of the benefits to working families outlined in Mr. Bruenig’s article. Modern parties with strong trade unionist sympathies—the UK’s Labour Party, Canada’s New Democratic Party, and Australia’s Labor Party—have all rather given up on trying to “socialize” the economy, and have become radical Social Liberal parties. They spend heavily on welfare, employ steeply graduated taxes, and will always be advocating the nationalization of this industry or the abolition of that fee; but they do not go for Socialization as such.

(3) Classical Liberalism won its first substantial victory in Britain in 1846 with the Anti-Corn Law League and came to dominate the reformist half of the two-party system around 1859 with William Gladstone and the formation of the Liberal Party. Social Liberalism took the reigns sometime around 1905 with the election of Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Prime Minister. As such, Classical Liberalism’s claim as the economic philosophy for Conservatives is rather weak: only being about forty years its senior, at that only in the nineteenth century, and still being considered variants of radicalism or reformism.

(4) When Richard Nixon professed himself a Keynesian, he meant something like, “I am a Social Liberal.” Neoliberalism’s acceptance of a limited welfare state, from Ronald Reagan right up through Mitt Romney and beyond, means that we have two major parties in the United States that are embrace variants of Social Liberalism.

(5) The Libertarian Party, the Ron Paul Revolution, et al. are the true heirs of Classical Liberalism. Even von Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek recognized that their philosophies were not at all groundbreaking, but simply new defences of old Classical Liberal principles. Hayek himself anticipated Americans would begin to conflate Classical Liberalism with Conservatism and, recognizing that this was rather confused, proposed that his followers take on the mantle of Libertarianism instead.

So we are, indeed, all some variant of Liberal now. And what do we do about that?

Firstly, we need to stop making a bogeyman out of Liberalism. There are only a handful of Conservative economic schemes that entirely predate Liberalism. Traditional Mercantilism is one, as is Tory Corporatism, but those do not appear on the American register. Distributism may be another, but its ties are so close with the Liberal tradition that it is difficult to say the break is clean.

Secondly, we need to begin approaching ideas rather than labels. This should not be too hard for Imaginative Conservatives, who know that Conservatism inherently transcends ideologism. But where we rightfully oppose Marxism for adopting a soullessly ideological worldview, we should be careful to note that Liberalism, though as dangerous as any other ideology when adopted with fanaticism, is also too close to home for us to dismiss in the same way. Again, the majority of those who read this essay will probably be a Liberal, be it one of the Left or of the Right.

As a corollary to the second point, we also need to start thinking seriously about policy. I think, not controversially, that Obamacare is a bad piece of legislation. But I also think there is a distinct need to be absolutely sure that every American receives the medical treatment that they require. I do not think simple market forces will guarantee this. And I think Conservatives, if we move beyond our Liberalphobia, could break up the Left’s grip over nationalized or nationally subsidized healthcare, taking that noble goal and advancing it by more sensible means. If the answer is in the middle—between Obamacare and total privatization, between complete nationalization and market fundamentalism—the Conservative anti-ideologue should try to find that place. Armed with Russell Kirk’s Ten Principles, Edmund Burke’s Reflections, and T.S. Eliot’s Idea of a Christian Society, we should be neither partisans of Statist Social Liberalism nor of pure Classical Liberalism. If the answer happens to lie in one camp or the other, so be it! But when it does not, we have got to break down that severe division and do what is right rather than what is (thought to be) right-wing.

Thirdly, I think we should indeed begin taking a look at marginalized philosophies. Dr. Ralph Ancil’s writings in this journal on Wilhelm Röpke’s work in drawing out the market economy’s dependence on a humane, ethical social order are a great place to begin. Röpke is counted among a group of thinkers known as the Ordoliberals, who recognized that State intervention was needed to ensure a healthily competitive environment was guaranteed against monopoly. Distributism strikes me as being in line with Röpke’s Humanism and the Ordoliberals’ recognition of the need for relatively small-scale participation in the economy in order for markets to function properly; Distributism might even be called a radically localist Ordoliberalism. (But I will not get into that now.) Dr. John Médaille’s essays in The Imaginative Conservative are an excellent introduction to nuts-and-bolts Distributism.

The point of this all being, we need to wash off all the nasty connotations associated with the L-word. None of us really exists outside of it. Most of us are far more Liberal than we think. And that is a good thing: Liberalism began simply as a rejection of arbitrary state power, as an exposition of human liberty. Nor does it mean we cannot be “Conservative” as well: We are only, as Eliot said, conserving the right things rather than relaxing discipline. And we do not have to be revolutionary; the permanent things can—and should—come with us.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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17 replies to this post
  1. European liberals like soccer,…enough said regarding any desire to emulate those people.

    My own political dictionary:

    Liberal: a minnie commie whose primary trait is her assiduous efforts to annoy just by existing.

    Marxist: a commie who’s read at least part of “Das Kapital,” or “Mein Kampf.”

    Democrat: an American commie who wants the state to kill as many babies as possible.

    Socialist: a wanna be commie.

    Neocon: a Republican commie.

  2. I doubt very much that Europe is quite the happy playground described above, all those good things, and “free”! What started out as the Bismarckian welfare state as metastasized into stagnation, unemployment, moral vacuity, corruption, and ethnic hostilities, the last a dagger at the remnants of a once great civilization. Distributism of course goes back at least to Chesterton and Belloc, lucky for them they didn’t see it’s fruition.
    I question the citations of Kirk, Eliot, and especially Burke, who seems totally out of place in this. Kirk had severe apprehensions of the mega- state, it’s power and it’s smothering paternalism. In my readings of Eliot, and I may have missed this, he was hardly immersed in economic theory.
    An odd post given what we face emanating from the slum by the Potomac, is some reflection in order?

  3. MASSIVE round of applause for this meditation.

    Far too often, I see people saying stupid things like, “That’s not a Conservative position,” as if conservatism were an ideology. Alas, too many conflate and confuse Right, Libertarian, and Conservative. There is an insane plethora of Rights, Libertarianisms, and Conservatisms.

    Here in Southern Arizona, we have an expression, “the ice breaking on the Santa Cruz (river)”. As the Santa Cruz is a dry wash most of the year, the idiom refers to when the local temperature goes over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (“It’s a Dry heat.”) So far as the intellectual ferment in conservative circles, from what I read on the various websites, the ice is breaking on the Santa Cruz. The triumphalist logjam since the days of Ronald Reagan is breaking up, and actual, honest-to-God thinking is going on. About time!

    • Mr Naas. The divergence of opinion you criticize is an indication of independent thought, usually interrelated with similar opinions but thankfully not uniform. It is hardly “insane”. On the other hand the illness called “progressivism” is and has been frozen in it’s lust for central, federal power since the 1890’s at the least. I prefer the former.
      Triumphalism?, I missed it. Opposition I saw, both to Carter and Clinton but hardly triumphalism. When did it begin? Certainly not now with the affliction currently defaming the Presidency, Arrogance is hardly a problem in our media culture for Republicans. Note the various abominations and attacks visited upon them over the years.
      Please regard this as a critique, not an attack.

  4. “All great peoples are conservative”

    – Thomas Carlyle (another who was not unconcerned with fairness, i.e. a concern that has unfortunately gotten downgraded in MSM-America and popularly “rebranded” as “social justice”)

  5. No specific political philosophy, as such, timelessly endures the test(s) of Time.

    What may perdure, however, if they are diligently respected and protected are the most inclusively operative principles enfleshed within human inclinations and modulated to maximize proper human ends within the context of differing forms of ‘politeia’.

    As for accepting the mantle of ‘liberal’, I should think this would go against the grain of anyone who truly and faithfully espouses the principles and their implications enshrined in the United States’ Constitution since the term inescapably bears historical connotations of centralized statism to achieve economic or cultural outcomes.

    Unfortunately, even ‘conservative’ has occasionally been tainted with similar connotations.

    Still, ‘Constitutionalist’ and many colloquial cognates tend to elude such baggage.

  6. Mike,

    Unfortunately, terms have changed.

    Terminology is extremely important, however,

    We need to use terms that correspond with our intentions.

    Traditional-Americans is a much better term than “conservative.” It can encompass many social, economic, and political meanings.

    The opponents of Traditional-Americans are Politically Correct Progressives. Their belief system is based on a fundamental loathing of Traditional-America and aggressive actions to “change” Traditional-America.

    The only thing left is to understand where PC-Progressives’ belief system originated:

  7. I reflect on my time as a student of Dr Kirk, then read this article and the comments and am nearly moved to tears. Were only despair not such a grievous sin.

  8. bobcheeks,

    I’m not especially in favour of European liberalism either, but I might point out that European liberals aren’t necessarily that enthusiasm of football, at least in England. But, anyway, football is a good game. It isn’t cricket or rugby league, but it is a good game nonetheless. I don’t think Americans have much to brag about when it comes to sport. Gridiron (and why watch Gridiron when you can watch rugby!) and Ice Hockey are the only decent mass sports in America. I’m sorry Baseball and basketball are terrible.

    Anyway, I found this article strange. Distributism and traditional conservatives should keep our distance from the social democrats and the free market ideologues. We should also not just split the difference or blend these viewpoints Both of these ideologies have real dangers and we can chart our own course.

    Kirk and Eliot did have a problem with both contemporary corporate-capitalism and with free market ideologues. They both showed sympathy to distributism and agrarianism.

  9. Dear all,

    Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. I’d like to make two clarifying comments, if I may.

    Firstly, there are undoubtedly political philosophies that are definitively illiberal—that’s to say, they don’t have a particularly high regard for individual liberty. We can again name Feudalism, Mercantilism, Corporatism, Socialism, and all breeds of Communism. So perhaps we can’t take “Liberalism” as such for granted.

    Secondly, I don’t necessarily mean this to be an argument in favor of such a high regard for individual liberty. By all means, there are abundant arguments that the liberties we take on the individual level severely limits the range and depth of liberties we might enjoy with greater emphasis on social liberty. (I suppose this would be, “Do we value the individual freedom to do drugs more than the freedom to live in a healthy, upstanding society?” and the likes.) It only seems to me that the high emphasis on individual freedom—i.e. Liberalism—has been the dominant philosophy throughout American history. So those of us who do indeed oppose authentic Liberalism might: (a) have a clear understanding of what Liberalism is; and (b) argue against the philosophy itself, rather than the specter of some vaguely rude and petulant ideology.

    Thank you all again for your insights!
    — mwd

  10. As far as I can tell, American liberalism died the day Kennedy was shot. What we have in its place is a radical left, America hating, abortion loving, gun grabbing, freedom hating atheistic ideology that is obsessed with destroying traditional values and creating an ever more powerful centralized State with themselves (meaning: left wingers) occupying almost all the positions of power.

    Or, to put it another way:

    Conservatives read Orwell’s 1984 and see it as a warning.

    Left wingers read 1984 and see it as an instruction manual.

  11. Wessexman, thanks for the critique. My son-in-law is a ruffian rugby player, seemingly immune to concussion. I do, prefer American football as an old time Picksburg Stiller fan! I have a great fondness for European stuff, but, usually, that stuff appeared in the Middle Ages.

  12. “Distributism may be another, but its ties are so close with the Liberal tradition that it is difficult to say the break is clean.” Wh-a-a-t?? Are you speaking of Belloc’s distributism, as in The Servile State? Nothing could be further from the truth! Distributism IS feudalism, as you term it, and insofar as liberalism in any of the variations you name make an absolute good of Mademoiselle Freedom, whereas distributism/feudalism regulates for the common good, freedom be damned, they are oceans and eons apart.

    • Dear Ms Baker,

      Respectfully, I think you’ll find that there are critical differences between Distributism and Feudalism. While both are basically agrarian systems, under feudalism, broad ownership of land and the means of production is impossible. The feudal system is organized around fiefdoms—individuals or families who own vast tracts of land on which many other individuals and families live and work. The Distributist ideal, informed by the Liberal ethic of individual liberty and economic self-determination, insists that no individual or family be subjugated to any other. It is, in fact, even more radically liberal than laissez-faire capitalism, in that it accepts no scenario whatsoever of one man’s dependence on another for a wage, property, etc.

      Feudalism is the exact opposite: by definition, it entails a total dependence and unquestioning loyalty to one’s social superiors. The serf and his family have nothing except what’s given to them by the lord.

      Remember, there’s no necessity for state action in Distributism either. While Distributism is fundamentally a grass-roots, voluntary, and moral reform movement, Feudalism is an entrenched system of hierarchies and power structures that are their own justification.

      Again, except for that they’re both agrarian, there’s no resemblance between Distributism and Feudalism at all.

      Thank you for your comment!

      All the best,

  13. I have enormous problems personally with Bruenig’s paragraph in gray. I’ll state my problems as the paragraph raises them. First, why should women work less, because a man incapable of nurturing children? Is a married couple incapable of making independent decisions about which one works more or less? Is it a desirable social end for women to work less and be economically dependent on their partner? I answer no to all these. Second, how it is desirable to have the lowest number of hours worked by working age adult in a country? What gets built? Is work undesirable or a harm? I remember reading Ben Franklin’s words as a boy, “A machine is destroyed by rust much faster than by use.” Who supports these people when they aren’t working, future generations through deficits? I enjoy work. I find purpose in my life through my work. I build a future no just for myself and the next generation through work but for my grandchildren hopefully. How in the world is the future of a nation ambitiously grown by a generation of adults who don’t work?

    How do these societies with early retirement, short work weeks, lengthy paid vacations, generous health benefits, and the like absorb large numbers of immigrants and integrate them into society without animosities that the immigrants receive benefits they didn’t pay for, or two-tier levels of society where immigrants get benefits but remain ostracized in their new nation? The United States was able to assimilate tens of millions of Gilded Age immigrants because they received next to nothing, but worked and fought their way to equality.

    I found the paragraph depressing. Then again I’m working at home late, and Bruenig’s paragraph is the antithesis of that.

  14. Consider Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Speaking broadly, women tend to work less, if at all, while men are the primary breadwinners. According to Lane Kenworthy, these countries have the lowest numbers of hours worked per working-age adult in the developed world. The proximate causes of this are very strong unions that push for more vacation, shorter work weeks, and earlier retirement. Additionally, their dominant Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties construct welfare states that dwarf our own, and include generous paid maternity leave as well as robust public health insurance systems.
    Are those positive ends? Yes. Are they socialist means? No.

    You quote B’s article, then say that the ends listed are positive while not socialist. But I beg to differ on both counts. He mentions these European countries have lowest number of hours worked in the developed world. But I don’t see why it is inherently good that people can get more pay/goodies for less work. There is more to life than vacation, shorter work weeks, and early retirement. Who is paying for these? Today Germany is raising their retirement age and working longer hours so that Greece can continue to have shorter work weeks and earlier retirement. How is that good for either country?

    And these Democratic parties construct welfare states that dwarf our own — is that a good thing? How is it right or fair ever to take money earned by one man and give it to another? No systems like that are ever truly just.

    Then later you say that government-run health insurance is not socialist, but then (rightly) define “socialist” as government-run business. Your notion that the only way poor people can have access to health care is through government-run health insurance is misguided. Imagine if the same thinking were applied to any other significant purchase: In 1970, a computer was the size of a small office building, and only governments and large corporations could afford them — so what if we assumed the only way poor people could have access to computers is for the government to buy them for us. Look at the innovation, R+D, and technology over the last 40 years we would NOT have had.

    You also mention that Kirk, Burke, and Eliot should be our guides. Couldn’t agree more. But in addition to their conservative political theories, each of these men believed that THIS world is not all there is, and that Christian tenet inspired all that they stood for. The Good cannot be gauged only by how it affects the time we have between conception and death. The real political struggle of our day is between those who (Kirk quotes Voegelin saying), “who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.”

    So the work you do here is actually encouraging the wrong side of that debate, and while doing a good job of clarifying terms, actually misapplies them.

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