Liberalism in the 19th century focused on opposing concentrated power and entrenched privilege, whether it was monarchy, slaveholding, or protectionism. In the 20th century, the American left became infatuated with concentrating power in the hands of democratically-elected governments. The libertarian movement arose to counter this trend and defend the original, bottom-up conception of liberalism. Since the fall of communism, the left has largely (though not entirely) backed away from its 20th century infatuation with central planning. And the result is what critics call “neoliberalism”: a left-of-center ideology whose egalitarianism is balanced by a healthy skepticism of concentrated power.

Timothy B. Lee, “The Return of Bottom-Up Liberalism,” Bottom-up, January 19, 2011

Lee’s post argues that liberals have been forced to internalize libertarian critiques, and he might be right. I sort of don’t think so, however. Part of this might be because I’m Australian, and much of the economic reforms the UK and America undertook during the ’80s and ’90s were, in Australia, helmed by the center-left Hawke-Keating governments. (And as a result, were kinder, gentler, and do much to account for Australia’s current and anomalous prosperity as compared to the former dominions of Thatcher and Reagan.) I simply do not agree that, for instance, discarding a 90 per cent top tax rate is an anti-liberal idea.

But Lee’s history, as I quoted above, is fairly reasonable, with one caveat. I am thrilled to see him argue that liberalism is about “opposing concentrated power and entrenched privilege,” because I’ve described it in the same terms myself. However, liberals play the ball as it lays, and in the 20th Century, concentrated power and entrenched privilege existed in ways that could only be opposed by an empowered federal government. I consistently say that libertarians radically overrate (federal) government as the only source of oppression, and the 20th Century saw that play out exactly: when black folks in America were being oppressed by segregation or housing covenants, libertarians sided with Barry Goldwater because he didn’t like the federal government. Liberals sided with whomever would rid the country of segregation and housing covenants. When big corporations wanted to dump toxins into the environment, libertarians sided with the big corporations because they didn’t like the federal government. Liberals sided with whomever would side with the individual against concentrated power and entrenched privilege.

The economic picture is less straightforward, but based on the same idea. The “infatuation with central planning” Lee describes wasn’t always successful, but it was a common sense way to help the individual by taking advantage of economies of scale in a world that required larger institutions. State roads were all very well in the days of the horse and buggy, but cars shrunk the world to where interstate travel required interstate highways. Since that time, the challenge has been to effectively wield the size of powerful institutions but incorporate local variations and beliefs. This is the “bottom-up” liberalism Lee describes; not a new philosophy, just the right way to realize the same goal liberalism has always had. After all, qua John Maynard Keynes: when the facts change, we change our mind.


EDIT: I’ve cross-posted this at the USSC. If anyone feels they might like to link it, I’ll request they link to there.