A new, old idea is bubbling up at the nation's cocktail parties.
Pictured above: Rage Against The Machine fan Paul Ryan.
Pictured above: Rage Against The Machine fan Paul Ryan.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

The world would not be quite so riven with death and destruction if America’s political elite had better taste in music. Classic rock, for instance, is a fraud. It never existed. Jimmy Page never turned to Robert Plant and said, “Hey, let’s start a classic rock band.” Led Zeppelin did not imagine itself to be part of a sonic movement that included Billy Joel ― that idea came from corporate radio gurus in the 1980s, and they called their marketing concoction “classic rock.”

The same is true for “classical liberalism,” a moniker currently en vogue among a particular right-wing set that would very much like to be described as intellectuals, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss and YouTuber Dave Rubin.

“Classical liberalism is the idea that individual freedom and limited government are the best way for humans to form a free society,” Rubin said in a recent video, citing “great thinkers” such as Adam Smith, John Locke and John Stuart Mill.

Alas, the term “classical liberal” would have been novel to Smith, Locke or Mill. Mill called himself a socialist, Locke called for a state ban on Catholicism, and Smith favored all manner of encroachments against the free market. The corporate radio gurus of political theory ― Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman ― popularized the notion that these thinkers represent a coherent, libertarian-esque school of thought in the 20th century.

Over the years, these men debated a handful of different names for the intellectual movement they organized ― “classical liberalism,” “neoliberalism” (now a slur in Democratic Party circles) and “libertarianism” (now a particularly aggressive strain of the classical liberal bug), among others. They traced their lineage back to Smith et al., but their political vision was contemporary and unique, insisting that unfettered markets offered a better path to social deliverance than the unpredictable currents of political democracy.

Just as you should avert your ears from any band in the 21st century calling itself “classic rock,” so too should you be alarmed by today’s purveyors of “classical liberalism.” Whatever classical liberals say about their ideas, in practice they have always functioned as a respectable intellectual veneer for authoritarian politics.

In his 1927 book Liberalism (reissued with the subtitle “In The Classical Tradition” in 1962), Mises applauded Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party and “similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships” across Europe, saying they had, “for the moment, saved European civilization,” a “merit” that would “live on eternally in history.” In the 1970s, Hayek defended his decision to advise Chilean butcher Augusto Pinochet by saying he would “prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism” ― in the classical sense, mind you.

But the most influential of the original classical liberals was Friedman. One of National Review founder William F. Buckley’s skiing buddies, Friedman was a brilliant economist who focused much of his career on providing statistical evidence that government efforts to solve problems really just made them worse. Medical licensing for doctors, he argued, ultimately raised costs for patients. Rent control inevitably made housing more expensive.

Former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), the Republican Party's 1964 nominee for president.
Former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), the Republican Party's 1964 nominee for president.
Bettmann via Getty Images

He was also an adviser to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, at a time when “in academic circles, admitting to Goldwater leanings” was “close to wearing the scarlet letter,” according to the contemporary Wall Street Journal (cited in Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion). Goldwater sewed up the Republican Party’s nomination by uniting delegations from the South and the West against megarich Northern Republican Nelson Rockefeller. The campaign was almost entirely about racial politics ― specifically, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Rockefeller, a financial supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., wanted Republicans to get behind the new law. Goldwater, who had voted against it, represented a bloc of Republicans who, according to conservative columnist Robert Novak, “want[ed] to unmistakably establish the Party of Lincoln as the white man’s party.”

Friedman insisted that the Civil Rights Act and other federal maneuvers to end segregation would backfire. The path to black liberation, he insisted, was a firm commitment to laissez-faire, free-market economics. Racism, according to Friedman, was a competitive disadvantage. Firms would miss out on the best talent by discriminating against black workers, and white customers who refused to shop alongside black customers would miss out on lower prices. In time, the market would administer racial harmony more efficiently than the federal government could.

He believed the same was true in education, where Friedman called for the government to provide families with school vouchers, which they could spend to purchase a spot for their children at a school of their choice, public or private. The resulting competition in the market for education would empower black America better and faster than integrating schools by busing in kids from different neighborhoods.

Of course, rank-and-file Republicans who pulled the lever for Goldwater in 1964 thought Friedman was totally wrong about all of this. They didn’t oppose Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act because they believed these landmarks would prevent integration. They liked Goldwater because they thought he would defend the Jim Crow social order. Friedman’s classical liberalism just gave elite conservatives an excuse to ally with the nation’s most belligerent racists ― something to say at a cocktail party to establish a bit of rhetorical distance between themselves and the rabble.

So, Paul Ryan may well be the purest classical liberal in today’s revival, despite his relatively recent conversion. After spending his entire career touting his “conservative” credentials, Ryan announced a few weeks before the 2016 election: “I really call myself a classical liberal more than a conservative.” As the top Republican in the House, Ryan often bemoans Trump’s coarseness, while dutifully supporting almost every single Trump policy initiative.

Never-Trumpers like Weiss use similar rhetorical maneuvers when they discuss policy (though many, including Weiss, prefer to write about famous conservatives).

“It kills me that Trump and the Republican Party are turning Israel, which should be a progressive issue, into a right-wing one,” Weiss told HBO’s Bill Maher in May. Weiss doesn’t support the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem because she is a conservative. Don’t confuse her with a common Trumper when she dismisses the deaths of more than 50 Palestinian protesters from Israeli sniper bullets. And certainly don’t suggest, as Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie recently did, that the "Intellectual Dark Web" that Weiss has been lionizing is really just a team of people who “totally agree … that Islam is a religion of hate.”

On the contrary, Weiss is a classical liberal. She doesn’t listen to classic rock, you see. She only listens to vinyl.

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