There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding regarding the political doctrine currently called Libertarianism. A left-wing friend of mine recently referred to Ayn Rand as the “high priestess of libertarians.” This is certainly wrong, since Rand condemned libertarianism. Another complained of the semi-libertarian Canadian Reform Party, some years ago, that it violated the traditions of Canadian conservatism, and was a foreign import (i.e., from the evil United States). Yet an American friend objects to the libertarians on the grounds that they have no history there, unlike the mainstream Republicans.
Obviously, many people think libertarianism is something new. I am not sure why this seems to them to be a telling, indeed a decisive, criticism; I am not sure what they really mean by this. But the claim is certainly false. Only the name is new. It was coined by HL Mencken in the 1930s, as a new term for the doctrine traditionally called liberalism, because that term had been co-opted by FDR to describe his New Deal. The New Deal was essentially the opposite of liberalism, which had always stressed personal autonomy and limited government.
In other words, libertarianism is simply liberalism. It is the political stance championed by Thomas Jefferson, and, more broadly, the founding assumption behind the US Declaration of Independence. Hardly something foreign to the American experience. In Canada, it is plainly the same political creed held by Laurier, the Clear Grits, Baldwin and Lafontaine, and Joseph Howe; certainly within the Canadian mainstream. In the UK, it is Gladstone’s program. If you doubt this, simply check the policies they campaigned for, the party platforms of the day: smaller government, freer trade, less regulation of our daily lives, no foreign adventures. The consistency of the liberal/libertarian doctrine over time is in fact striking.
|Lafontaine and Baldwin.|
Far from being new, therefore, this thing currently called “libertarianism” in the US can be traced directly back to the philosophy of John Locke (17th century). He in turn had his clear antecedents among the early Jesuits, who built on St. Thomas Aquinas, who built on some principles clearly stated in the Bible. You don’t see a longer philosophical pedigree for any other political stance.
So why does it seem to so many to be something new and radical? Because in the US, the general public was subjected to a verbal shell game in the 1930s, when a political approach that really was new, the New Deal, was marketed with the euphemism “liberal.” This was done because its proper name was unsalable. The British euphemism of the day was a bit more direct: “labour.” On the continent, it was called “socialism.” But at the time, the proper moniker in current use might even have been “Trotskyism”—that’s what Orwell called his own brand of democratic socialism. Bit of a tough sell in the USA, then or now. So they used, and still used, “liberal” or “progressive” in the US.
This illegitimately appropriated a fake pedigree for social democracy, as if it were the culmination of the ideas of Jefferson and Jackson. At the same time, it left the ideas of Jefferson and Jackson looking like orphans. This may be behind the insistence that libertarianism is something “new.” The modern left does not want to accept the truth that their own pedigree is bogus. But the plain historical fact is that it is. The pedigree of the modern left goes back to Marx.
The influence of American culture is such that the same verbal sleight-of-tongue has confused political terminology elsewhere, although in most of the world even now liberal still means liberal. In Canada, more influenced by the US than anyone, it has led to the myth of the “Red Tories.”
|Last of the red-hot Tories.|
There are not now and never have been any “Red Tories.” The “Red Tory” program is simply the Tory program, traditional conservatism, Burkean conservatism, which likes big, paternal government. The non-Red Tories are the traditional liberals, the Clear Grits. There is a reason why, in Laurier’s day, the Liberal party dominated the Prairies, while today, the non-Red Tory Conservatives do. The politics of the West have not changed; only the party programs.
If all of this is clear so far, a further interesting question arises. What caused this major political shift, which seems almost like a switching of roles between left and right? What caused a political philosophy that used to regularly command about 50% popular support, in Canada, the US, and the UK--liberalism--to fall back to a minority movement—libertarianism in the US, the Liberal Democrats in the UK? And in all three countries, at about the same time? The last clearly liberal administration in the US was Calvin Coolidge’s, elected in 1924; although Reagan ran as a liberal, he did not succeed in actually reducing the size of government. The last large-l-Liberal Prime Minister of Britain, Lloyd George, resigned in 1922. In Canada, Mackenzie King went from being a traditional liberal, in his early years in power, to a New Dealer in the 30s. But by that time, he was actually imitating RB Bennett's conservatives in the switch: if the Liberals had not occupied this new turf, the Tories would have.
The obvious answer, and I think the traditional one, is that the Depression changed our perspective on traditional laissez-faire liberalism. John Maynard Keynes's new economics supplanted the traditional liberal economics as a response to this crisis. A re-evaluation of both Keynsian economics and traditional liberalism in light of the stagflation of the Seventies then led to the revival of classic liberalism under Reagan. But this explanation does not really work. Look again at those dates: the shift was already apparent in the 1920s, before the Depression hit.
|In the long run, he's dead.|
We may even be reversing cause and effect here.
There is another major political event that seems be be a better contender in explaining the shift. There a sudden doubling of the electorate at about this time in all these countries. It should hardly be surprising if this had some effect. Women got the right to vote in Britain in 1918. No Liberal government has been elected since that date, although they were in power then. Women got the right to vote in the US in 1922. Only one further liberal government, two years later; the re-election of an incumbent. After that, never again, with the possible exception of Reagan.
In Canada, the franchise was extended in 1917. In the very next election, 1921, there was an unprecedented electoral earthquake. A new party, the Progressives, formed only the year before, came from nowhere to win the second-largest number of seats in parliament.
Their program was ideologically mixed: they have traditionally been painted as a regional party representing the West, and an agrarian party. But something obviously had changed. They called for freer trade, a liberal position, but rather more radically, for the nationalization of key industries, notably communications and transportation. They wanted fixed grain shipping rates. In other words, their program was largely socialist. The great majority of the “Progressives” then melded into the Liberal Party, while the more “radical” among them became the CCF/NDP.
There you have it. Men and women are different, and want different things. Men in general want freedom and independence. They want government to stay off their backs, and the right to manage their own affairs. Women in general want to be taken care of. They want security and seek to avoid personal responsibility. No surprise if this is reflected in their voting patterns, and has changed the political landscape.
|Prohibition: A good way to raise prices.|
The original and overriding “feminist” issue was Prohibition—in itself, whatever its other merits, a major intrusion into daily life. Its failure briefly held back the progress of the “women’s movement,” but by the Sixties feminism was back on track. The personal is again political. And, while serious liberalism could command 50% of an all-male electorate, it manages only about 25% of a mixed male-female electorate.
So what? Don't women have the same right to choose their own government that men do? Surely yes, as a question of natural right. However, this may be a big problem for practical purposes. There may, in the end, be a practical reason why our ancestors so often sought to ban women from the council fires. Ibn Khaldun, the great Arab historian whom Arnold Toynbee has called the founder of the social sciences, collated a great deal of evidence in support of a theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. Civilizations inevitably decline, he theorized, because the burden of government inevitably grows to the point at which it drains the vitality of the state.
Restricting the vote to men only might have been a practical way to slow this decline. Extending it to women might be a good way to hasten the process.
Indeed, it seems clear that Western Civilization as a whole has been in some kind of a funk since about 1918. Another obvious correlation with votes for women...