On classical liberalism

Matt Yglesias:

An idiosyncratic intellectual project of mine is trying to rescue classical liberalism’s good name from the clutches of contemporary libertarianism. A big issue here is that classical liberals were very concerned with binding resource constraints. In their day, that meant primarily arable land. John Locke, for example, famously noted that individual appropriation of land as property was legitimate “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

The particular problem of arable land isn’t a big deal in a modern rich democracy. But the basic issue that individualistic solutions don’t work when you have binding resource constraints is applicable to a lot of modern day issues. The atmosphere has a finite ability to absorb carbon dioxide emissions before we hit some kind of devastating climate tipping point. It’s striking that seven of the world’s ten highest revenue firmsare in the oil business. And a huge share of the recent action in the high-tech space is intimately bound up with the finite quantity of radio spectrum. Tim Lee, who identifies as a libertarian but who I see eye to eye with a huge range of issues, has a thoughtful post about the application of these Lockean issues to the AT&T/T-Mobile merger.

Meanwhile, for the countervailing forces ledger note that the Communications Workers of America are strong proponents of the merger because AT&T is unionized and they think this will help them organize T-Mobile’s workers.

This is something of an idiosyncratic intellectual project of mine as well, though I haven’t settled on whether I’m trying to rescue classical liberalism from contemporary libertarianism or rescue liberalism from the clutches of technocratic progressivism. Maybe both.

It’s also quite possible that I’m just in it for the money.


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the editor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.


  1. It’s also quite possible that I’m just in it for the money.

    Ha! Aren’t we all.

    You know, this post brings up a question I bat around in my head pretty often. Because, despite what the more right-wing commenters on this site may say about my communistic-socialistic-Stalinistic leanings, I find myself very, very often in agreement with Yglesias and believing that on economic matters a more equitable system of taxation is really the only typically leftist policy plank that I deeply believe in. Perhaps my belief in the necessity of regulating Wall Street would fall under the technocratic progressive spectrum, too; but how else can one react to the behavior of the financial sector in the past generation?

    • Would “letting banks fail when their investments turn out to be toxic” fall under “regulating Wall Street”? If so, count me in.

      • Christopher Carr:

        “Would “letting banks fail when their investments turn out to be toxic” fall under “regulating Wall Street”? If so, count me in.”

        The problem is, as anybody paying any attention for the past few years knows, is that Wall St is quite capable (and willing and eager) to create situations where the failure will be a string of failures leading to a second Great Depression.

        • We have quite a few empty lampposts.

          Let them.

          This will, at least, push depressions in such a way to make them further apart.

        • Good thing we have anti-trust legislation. Half the problems in this country come from not enforcing existing laws. If only we put as much effort into busting trusts and punishing anti-competitive behavior as we did to putting crackheads in jail.

  2. The number one question I want answered for any given policy is “how close is this policy to Prohibition?”

    The closer it is, of course, means that either “we need to repeal our laws” or “we really shouldn’t try to write these laws in the first place.”

    So my take is that you need to save Liberalism from Technocratic Progressivism.

  3. What’s in a name? Is it really all that important to “rescue” classical liberalism’s good name? If a modern-day libertarian wants to claim that some or all of their ideas and policy preferences derive from classical liberalism, we still have to judge those ideas regardless of their genealogy.

    If Adam Smith was right about a lot of things, it wasn’t because he was Adam Smith, it was because his reasoning and evidence were good. If his ideas apply today, it isn’t because they were advanced by Smith, it’s because his arguments still obtain and the modern-day evidence still tends to support those arguments.

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