[This review was published in the Summer 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 253-257.]


Book Review 


The Challenge of Liberty: Classical Liberalism Today

Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close, Editors

The Independent Institute, 2006


            Readers who are interested in the “philosophy of a free society”—known as “classical liberalism” and sometimes equated with “libertarianism”—will find this compendium of twenty articles from The Independent Review valuable on two very different levels.  For those who are already well versed in the classical liberal canon, and especially in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment (Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Bernard Mandeville, and such latter-day figures as Carl Menger, F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises), this will serve as a follow-up volume that shows what contemporary classical liberal scholars are making of their work.  For those who are not well acquainted with those earlier writings, the value of this collection will mostly lie in attracting the attention of the reader to the writings of the founders.  This is so because that foundational knowledge is almost certainly needed for a full understanding of much that is discussed in these essays.

            The subtitle “Classical Liberalism Today” might be misleading.  As a collection of articles on a variety of subjects, the essays make no attempt to be a systematic examination of all schools of thought within contemporary classical liberalism.  They represent the particular point of view of the Independent Institute and its refereed journal The Independent Review.   

            Some of the authors espouse “anarchocapitalism” (a market economy and no government) while others favor “the minimal state.”  This “libertarianism” hardly equates with the totality of classical liberalism, even though at least one of the authors does treat them as synonymous.  Even within the more restricted sphere of “libertarianism,” the articles here are highly critical of “rationalistic, rights-based” theories, which make up a good deal of libertarian thought.  The compendium is heavily weighted toward those who prefer the “evolutionist” and “spontaneous order” rationale expounded by the Scottish thinkers and their heirs, especially Hayek in his later writings.

              An interesting thing about the articles is the extent to which they illustrate how much all social philosophies have become the subjects of elaborate academic explication during the past century.  One now finds references to such things as “one-dimensional continuous variables,” “transaction costs,” “forming the template,” and “games of human interaction.”  Over time, it will be interesting to see how much, if at all, these artifacts of modern social science impact on the philosophy’s substance.  If they do, it will probably be by way of detracting, since it isn’t apparent to this reviewer that they have added anything appreciable to the content of the founders’ thinking.

            In fact, these outer trappings of contemporary erudition seem to run parallel to an unsavory syndrome that is itself characteristic of much of the social science of the past century: the tendency of many working in the academic vineyards to contribute nothing original of their own, to hew closely to the ideas set down by the authorities they cite, to adhere unthinkingly to established conventionalities, and to wear ideologically-induced blinders that create a certain tunnel vision.  The Independent Review is a refereed journal, which means there is a systematic use of gate-keepers.  Gate-keepers are unavoidable in all but self-publication, but unless great care is taken they have a propensity to squelch original thinking, turning the results into something akin to “thought by committee.”  Of course, modern academic social science totally embraces “refereeing.”

            There is much that is provocative in The Challenge of Liberty that deserves detailed attention.  Although we can hardly attempt such attention in a brief review, here are some aspects, among the many, that catch the eye:

            1.  Even though a theme that runs through the book, as we have seen, is to prefer “evolutionist” theory over “rationalistic, rights-based liberalism,” which the authors see as “ahistorical,” the authors seem to have stayed tightly within the confines of theoretical models, hardly looking at the actual living world at all.  It seems odd that they wouldn’t see the United States as the primary historical vehicle for classical liberalism, and thus consider the fate of the United States as a matter of central importance.  Instead, we see not just an absence of concern about this, but references to “nationalism” as “the archetypical example of an ideology of collective action” and as “dangerous.”  One author considers “loyalty” an evil.  Consistently with this deracination, “open immigration” is seen as “one of the pillars of classical liberalism,” with no reflection whatsoever about the potential effects of a massive Third World influx on the United States and the West in general.  What all this suggests is that the body of thought has become self-contained within a narrow circle—not unlike a form of intellectual belly-button scrutinizing—, and  prefers to have little to say about the political, social and cultural matters that will go far toward determining the fate of classical liberalism among living, breathing human beings now and in the future.

            2.  Notwithstanding the added terminology of sophisticated social science, the ideology seems caught in a time-warp.  The essays could just as well have been written in 1950, since there is nothing about developments within the past half-century that seems to impact the thinking.  Have globalization, with its on-going search for ever-cheaper labor, and the increasing introduction of non-labor-intensive technology created any sort of crisis for the publics, and especially the middle classes, of the advanced societies, and hence for free-market capitalism?  There is no hint in the essays that the issue even exists.  Nor have the authors taken up a subject that has received considerable attention from the Ludwig von Mises Institute, another libertarian think tank: the dangers to a free society of undertaking a messianic quest to transform the other cultures and polities of the world in the image of Western social democracy.

            3.  It is interesting that James Buchanan, Nobel laureate economist and a founder of the “public choice” school, sees in his essay that classical liberalism failed to blossom in the mid-nineteenth century when it went on the defensive in response to the rising ideology of the Left and at the same time became preoccupied with economic science and its theory of self-interest.  In his terms, it “lost its soul,” becoming involved in “piddling puzzle-solving” and becoming drained of “genuine intellectual adventure and excitement.”  Buchanan says frankly that he is “in intellectual difficulty” on this subject, about which he mainly has an “intuitively derived argument.” 

            Buchanan has struck on a point of major significance in the modern history of ideas.  But he needs to go beyond the threshold of intuition and into a more complete analysis of the fateful implosion of classical liberalism a century and a half ago.  When under the impact of the Romantic Movement and the early nineteenth century revulsion against the Enlightenment the great bulk of intellectuals moved to the left, there were no longer the thinkers at hand to make classical liberalism a full-blown theory of civilization, with philosophical subsets in such areas as jurisprudence, aesthetics, culture, the arts, historiography, education, politics and spiritual aspiration.  Those who immersed themselves in classical and then neo-classical economics are to be given immense credit—but they weren’t enough.  And in its defensiveness, classical liberal thinking became increasingly encapsulated within the tight circle of its own mental world, producing an “ideology” in the less favorable connotation of the word.  A result was that classical liberalism lost its reforming zeal, no longer spotting abuses but rather championing a status quo.  The loss of “soul” and “excitement” arises from this circumscription.  It is a mental confinement that is well illustrated, in fact, by the articles in this compendium.

            4.  We will close this review with a minor point that seems worth mentioning in light of the unflattering references to “ideology” we have made so far.  In their Introduction, the editors say “we use the term ideology nonpejoratively to mean people’s fundamental understandings, valuations, and aspirations with regard to social relations.”  In so saying, they are right on the mark.  This more favorable connotation of ideology describes something that is inescapable for human beings.  The reality of human affairs is so immense that it cannot be grasped directly.  It requires conceptual ordering and simplification, and this produces what we might call a “mediated reality.” 

            The gigantic systems of thought making up the world’s “ideologies” deserve much more study than academia gives them.  In fact, the academic world likes to pretend they don’t exist—and ever since the many divisions of modern social science arose a century ago to supplant “the philosophy of political economy,” little attention has been given in any college curriculum to the students’ understanding of “left” and “right” and “social democracy” and “classical liberalism,” even though those labels will be the stuff of public discourse during the students’ adult lives.

            This review has expressed some serious caveats, but The Challenge of Liberty remains valuable for the purposes expressed in the first paragraph here.

                                                                                                                                                                                                           Dwight D. Murphey