Conservatives must not drop the ball on classical liberalism
In a recent article over at The Federalist, Josh Herring asks, "Can classical liberalism operate in a post-Christian America?" It's an intriguing question. However, near the beginning of the article, Herring makes an astonishing claim about classical liberalism, one that calls for a response:
It's led to unprecedented levels of international collaboration through organizations like the UN, European Union, and the International Monetary Fund, each of which has profoundly affected the world. This way of collaborating in a common political and economic sphere is called classical liberalism.
This is entirely mistaken. Classical liberalism is not a way for nations to collaborate in politics and economics by means of international organizations.
The term "liberal" comes from the Latin liber, meaning "free." Classical liberalism is all about individual liberty. Even Wikipedia gets this right. Classical liberalism "advocates free market and laissez-faire economics; civil liberties under the rule of law with especial emphasis on individual autonomy, limited government, economic freedom, political freedom and freedom of speech." In short, it's the political philosophy of the American founders.
There is not universal agreement about the origin of this usage of the term liberalism, but many thoughtful students of the subject believe Adam Smith was the inspiration. For example, in a characteristic passage in his book The Wealth of Nations, he wrote of "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice." No one has stated it better.
Classical liberalism is about citizens living in liberty, pursuing their own interests their own way. A world of proliferating trans-national and supra-national organizations such as the U.N. and the International Monetary Fund is the project not of classical liberalism, but of progressivism — and the progressives are the avowed enemies of classical liberalism. The progressives are dedicated to getting beyond —"progressing" beyond — the classical liberalism of the American founders.
Internationally, American progressives push to involve the federal government more and more in the affairs of other nations. Domestically, the progressives push to involve the federal government more and more in the private lives of Americans. Whether internationally or domestically, progressives are always striving to increase the reach of government. That is precisely the opposite of the classical liberal vision of limited government.
The American founders had a vision of limited involvement in the affairs of other nations that is simple to state: America minded its own business and left other people to mind theirs. That policy was followed with scarcely a misstep by America's leaders from the time of the founders through the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. It succeeded spectacularly, and America rose among nations.
The election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912 brought an end to that policy and to the era of America's peace among nations. America's progressive elite swiftly imposed a new foreign policy that rejected the principles that had worked so well — and plunged America into eleven disastrous decades of international discord.
This story is brilliantly told in Angelo Codevilla's splendid book, published this year: America's Rise and Fall Among Nations: Lessons in Statecraft from John Quincy Adams. Codevilla begins with these words: "This book contrasts the successful foreign relations under presidents from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt with the disarray resulting from Progressive management ever since."
Although it was practiced by America's leaders throughout America's long era of peace with other nations, America's original foreign policy was most clearly articulated by John Quincy Adams. Codevilla presents Adams' view with simple clarity:
[J]ust as others' business, others' quarrels, and others' objectives are rightfully and inescapably their own, America is the sole, sovereign judge of its own business, of what our own safety and welfare require. This, Adams argued, is international law as well as common sense.
The focus of the classical liberalism of the American founders is the liberty of the American citizen, but classical liberalism also defined the proper conduct for America among other nations. In addition, it gave the founders a clear understanding of the purpose of the American military. Minding our own business among nations and having military strength sufficient to prevent other nations from meddling in our business are the two sides of the commonsense foreign policy of classical liberalism.
Wilson tried and failed to get America into the League of Nations. The American people balked. They rejected progressivism's fundamental foreign policy postulate. Codevilla puts it like this:
The American people rejected the self-contradictory notion that Wilson's League of Nations could at once insure all would go to war for each, and that it would relieve each and all, especially Americans, of the need to go to war at all.
We today need to take a lesson from those earlier Americans and reject the progressive foreign policy that has dragged America into more and more conflicts abroad and dragged Americans into more and more conflicts over foreign policy here at home. We also need to reject the changes to America the progressives are imposing in their top-down war on the American people.
When America was the commonsense nation the founders designed, Americans were dedicated to liberty at home and peace abroad. Sensible Americans understand that we must put an end to and reverse what the progressives have been doing here at home, but that is not enough. If we are going to prevent the progressives from succeeding in their project of putting an end to the America the founders gave us, we must also put an end to progressive foreign policy. Angelo Codevilla shows us the way.
Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute. He is the author of Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World and Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea. Both are published by Encounter Books.
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