Is Liberalism Dead?
Liberalism has been decaying for several decades, and may finally have died in the year 2009
August 30, 2009
Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

Liberalism has been decaying for several decades, and may finally have died in the year 2009. To explain this tragic loss, we need to understand what liberalism is.

The word "Liberal" comes from the same root as "liberty." Liberalism is the ideology of equal individual freedom, the natural right of all persons to do anything that is peaceful and honest. It is implemented by a constitutional law that prohibits coercive harm to others and avoids restricting or imposing a cost on all other human action.

In the modern era, liberal philosophy blossomed after the publication of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. The United States of America was the first government founded on liberal principles. Although this at first applied only to males that were not enslaved, the founding ideal led to the emancipation of the slaves and equal rights for women. The liberal idea bloomed in the 1960s with the passage of civil rights laws that ended coercive segregation.

Internationally, liberalism became a global ideology with the recognition of universal human rights by the United Nations. But during the early 1800s, liberalism already started losing its way. While it marched forward for civil rights, such as the equal right to vote, liberalism became confused in the economic front.

Classical liberalism called for freedom on all fronts, including the economic, where it opposed state-imposed monopolies as well as restrictions on trade. Pure liberalism implies a truly free economy. But some liberals saw poverty as a flaw in free markets, and sought government welfare for the poor. Socialists went further, thinking that markets are inherently deficient.

But there was no free market. The enclosure movement in the United Kingdom forced farmers off of the village farming commons and into crowded cities, where they became the proletariat compelled to work for low wages and poor conditions. Elsewhere the land was monopolized by the aristocracy, while mercantilist policies prevented free trade. Taxation hurt the poor the most, as the rich got their tax money back by public works that subsidized their rent and land value.

Liberalism also includes the spirit of tolerant generosity, the acceptance of diverse viewpoints. Tolerance is the heart of liberalism. Economic liberalism died with the Great Depression of the 1930s, and now we are witnessing the death of liberal tolerance.

Those who consider themselves to be "progressive" or "liberal" no longer tolerate viewpoints different from their own. An example is the anti-liberal reaction to the views by Whole Foods chief John Mackey on the reform of financing medical services. In an article in the Wall street Journal, he proposed reforms that in the direction of greater user choice rather than state controls. The illiberal reaction has been a boycott of Whole Foods by the left-wing. This boycott will hurt the employees of the company as well as the movement towards better diets that prevent illness and high medical costs. But the left-wing today does not tolerate opinions that differ from their politically-correct dogmas.

A second signal of the death of liberalism is the restoration of medieval blood libel against Jews in once-liberal societies such as Sweden. Blood libel is the malicious and completely false claim that Jews murder people to steal their blood and body parts. Since the 12th century, blood libel has been a central feature of anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews. Now, blood libel has made a comeback in Europe. Liberal free speech does not include such libel and slander.

The largest Swedish newspaper committed blood libel in 2009 in an article that claimed that Israeli soldiers are abducting Palestinians to steal their organs (click here).

The author of the article admitted he does not really know whether it is true, yet the malicious accusation, originating in the Palestinian Authority’s newspaper, was published as though it were true. The Palestinian Authority has published other libelous claims, such as the false claim that the Israeli government is giving dangerous drugs and poisonous food to Palestinian children. The government of Sweden refuses to take any action against such libel in Sweden, even though it previously shut down web sites that depicted cartoons that offended Muslims by mocking Muhammad.

For centuries, blood libel has fueled persecution of Jews by governments and mobs. The publication of blood libel in once-liberal Sweden is a signal that this European medieval malicious accusation against Jews is making a comeback. The blood libel against Israel will provide an opening towards the blood libel against Jews, which governments such as that of Sweden will condone, if not encourage.

Religious persecution and intolerance of out-of-fashion ideas are signs that liberalism is dead. Libertarians, recognizing that modern liberalism is illiberal in economics, have favored the term "classical liberal," but with liberal tolerance now extinguished, perhaps it is time for libertarians to forget about rescuing or preserving the term "liberal" in the classical sense. "Liberal" now means the opposite of freedom in economics and in free speech and in respect for minority religions.

Liberalism is gone. We now just have libertarianism and geoism (Georgism) as ideologies of freedom, and even there, most libertarians today have a royalist position on land, and many geoists have an illiberal mercantilist position on free trade and monetary policy. How many people believe in both equality in land and freedom in trade and money? Can I count them wearing shoes?

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Fred Foldvary, Ph.D.
Economist

FRED E. FOLDVARY, Ph.D., is an economist and has been writing weekly editorials for Progress.org since 1997. Foldvary's commentaries are well respected for their currency, sound logic, wit, and consistent devotion to human freedom. He received his B.A. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has taught economics at Virginia Tech, John F. Kennedy University, Santa Clara University, and currently teaches at San Jose State University.

Foldvary is the author of The Soul of LibertyPublic Goods and Private Communities, and Dictionary of Free Market Economics. He edited and contributed to Beyond Neoclassical Economics and, with Dan Klein, The Half-Life of Policy Rationales. Foldvary's areas of research include public finance, governance, ethical philosophy, and land economics.

Foldvary is notably known for going on record in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology in 1997 to predict the exact timing of the 2008 economic depression—eleven years before the event occurred. He was able to do so due to his extensive knowledge of the real-estate cycle.