Russ Roberts

Wolfe on Liberalism

EconTalk Episode with Alan Wolfe
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Alan Wolfe, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and author of The Future of Liberalism, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about liberalism. Wolfe argues that the essence of liberalism is giving as many people as possible control over their own lives. Wolfe traces the evolution of liberalism through Western civilization. He rejects the distinction between modern liberalism and classical liberalism seeing Adam Smith as a liberal but not F. A. Hayek. The conversation closes with a discussion of the role of competition in encouraging religiosity in the United States.

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0:36Intro. [April 30, 2009] Liberalism, book, Western civilization, political philosophy, politics, economics. Three aspects of liberalism: substantive, procedural, and temperamental. Definition: Liberalism has a set of principles; liberals are committed to the principle that as many people as possible should have control over their lives as feasible. Substantive: In competition with other ideologies, so if you are a substantively liberal, you are not a conservative or a socialist, etc. Also, liberalism is about procedures: commitments to open government, separation of power, checks and balances, suspicion on absolutist rule. Can be a substantive conservative and still be a procedural liberal. Temperament: openness to the world, willingness to experiment and be inventive. A lot of Manhattan leftists who have tenure and live in rent-controlled apartments who temperamentally are not liberals because they are so completely shut off to changing anything. Traced some back to debate between Rousseau and Kant. Still relevant. Rousseau viewed as devil by conservatives at the time, e.g., Burke: "insane Socrates of the French Revolution." Idea of a general will held to be foundation of totalitarianism. These days loved by conservatives because critical of over-civilization and held that people have basic predispositions, harmony with nature. Kant; liberalism has much deeper roots than the New Deal. Rousseau's idea is that we are better off in a state of nature; everything civilized and artificial is bad, is one of the core convictions against which liberalism emerged. Defend the idea of culture against nature, people are capable of transforming nature and using it for their own purposes. Value found in Kant, who talks about civilization and culture. What we do, what we take from nature that is valuable. Rousseau hated the idea of improvement, which he called "perfectabilité." Also Locke: take land and transform it through our labor. Also associated with Adam Smith. Smith and Kant born within a year of each other. Theory of Moral Sentiments, book club. Smith saw human enterprise as involving the transformation of the world. German term: "das Adam Smith problem," how did the same Smith who wrote The Wealth of Nations" also write The Theory of Moral Sentiments? Smith is very much a liberal, product of the enlightenment, globalized European world. "Artificial" in modern jargon has negative connotation, but roots are "artifice" and "art." Similar in German. Art takes a picture of nature and turns it into something beautiful. Artisan, worker, not looked down on.
8:21Substantive aspects of liberalism, deliberately making no distinction between modern and classical liberalism for now, left out equality. Snuck it in back door. Control over our lives--that is what we usually mean by liberty. Kant's word was autonomy, or self-governance. Has to be understood in the context of European history. When the State and Church combined--Lilla, political theology--those forces determined for you how you lived your life. Liberalism developed against that. As many people as possible: if autonomy is good for one person, it's good for all--that's the equality dimension. Today, talking about swine flu. During pandemic, one person can't protect himself against a contagious disease unless everyone is protected. Similarly, impossible to be autonomous without everyone autonomized as much as possible; can never be perfect. Can't live free of crime unless society takes steps to reduce crime. Equality and liberty reinforce each other. Interesting idea to express idea of what is human about me. If those around me are not autonomous, not free, akin to trading with a slave state. Liberty should be as wide as possible. What role should coercive powers of the state play in expanding autonomy or creating equality? Equality of autonomy, but not equality of liberty. More comfortable with the word "autonomy" because the notion of self-governance gets at things--what Isaiah Berlin would call negative liberty--doesn't get at. That there's much more of the idea of positive liberty in autonomy. Isn't just the idea of being free from the coercive state, but having the capacity to live out the idea of autonomy. Quote: "Modern liberalism promises equality.... only to the few". Mastery: What's the ability of the State to give mastery. At most basic level, living below a certain level of subsistence makes it impossible to master your life. If you are crippled, etc., Margaret Thatcher's Britain would want to see State help people. Want to go much further: when you have a society that is extraordinarily unegalitarian, in the pressures of modern society--not Adam Smith's society--there is the inevitability of equality. Equality has become an idea that most people want. If people want it and can't get it, any of the autonomy that the most unequal people have will be illusory, subject to all kinds of violent shocks and not really stable. Any person committed to a stable liberty, and even to a stable capitalist market-based liberty, would want a fair amount of equality to stabilize it. Don't know any modern Democratic State willing to organize itself along Hayekian lines. Thatcher inspired by Hayek but constrained by political forces.
16:56Disagree. Cripple example: Thatcher a bit of a straw woman. Not advocating cripples should fend for themselves, but rather in voluntary mechanisms that would emerge that the State precludes. Equality, not saying egalitarian. Why wouldn't that be a liberal vision? Might be in theory. Liberalism and libertarianism emerge out of same general concerns. Book not about logic, sociology, not logy. Modern liberals distrust, sense that voluntary mechanisms have failed, fuel a sense of urgency, don't want to wait around; what's going to work in this world now. Practice, what works. There are certain points where liberals might want to question, if principle is spreading autonomy, but there may be situations in practice that the State doesn't do that; ought to rely on something else. Example: school choice, vouchers. Political liberals, Democrats, wealth to not send their kids to public schools but want other kids to go to them. Concessions. Welfare reform, Bill Clinton's view: welfare itself had created so much dependence that how could it be pursuing the goal of autonomy? Question of what works. Could distinguish between libertarians who push virtue of self-interest; economists think of themselves as pragmatists, minimum wage laws, unions help people at the expense of others, regulations that end up hurting the consumer. Hayekian vision more compatible with Wolfe's version than Randian one. Romanticism; Ayn Rand is a romantic; heroic vision. Hayek: sympathetic with "Why I am not a conservative" but bothered by being in control of your life: great virtue of the market is that it makes things invisible to us, hides things behind our backs, coerces us into behaving in ways that aren't fully rational to us. If the State can make things more transparent, good reason for liking the State.
24:48Highlights what economics has to contribute to the discussion. Quote: "Under the influence of liberal ideas..."--going back into the past, 1787-1815, flowering--"rendering all efforts toward human improvement futile." Not just a change in beliefs; people had more autonomy and less futility. Challenge: idea of hidden side is the beauty of the market, Bastiat; decentralizes power. Not being controlled by anyone. Rousseau; Smith. Why is hiddenness a negative? Artifice of nature chapter: Hayek toward end of his life got fascinated by evolution, neuroscience. Virginia Postrel. Cybernetic view of world, invisible hand metaphor. Rock-bottom difference; power is necessary. Autonomy is not something that emerges against power but uses power, sees power as necessary. Mastery and control synonyms for power. Powerlessness means cannot be autonomous. Empowerment has more positive connotation. About us taking the power for ourselves, requires a greater sense of knowing the full range of alternatives. Vs. crucial point, ability to impose my will on you, one form of power, scary one. Just think different things are scary? Power diffused in market, have to entice. A little romantic, can't force you. Interaction has to be voluntary, limits my power over you. Classically liberal economic exercise; in Smith and Ricardo view, room for everybody. Ricardian world darker. Smith shockingly optimistic.
31:30Evolutionary psychology. Determinism unattractive. Real world, Dover, Pennsylvania, number of places, fundamentalist Christians, hating Darwin and evolution. Darwinists atheists, angry atheists, Dawkins. Very little difference between the two camps. Both have neo-liberal conception of human purpose. For the Calvinists, fundamentalists, everything predetermined, God has already settled it. For socio-biologists, we are driven by our genes, not subject to rational control. Popularizers of socio-biology. Dan Gilbert, Stumbling Toward Happiness Everything we think we are doing is wrong; good outcomes, same argument as Mandeville's Fable of the Bees. Dan Ariely vs. Milton Friedman, New Republic piece. Idea that we are fundamentally irrational is more reactionary. Why? Some of the people think of themselves as more on the left than Friedmanites; pre-enlightenment idea, not based on religion but more disturbingly on scientism--not science but scientism. Liberalism emerged as reaction against religion. Religion is no longer a threat to liberalism; scientism and socio-biology in particular are. Hayek big critic of economics as scientism, false patina of science. Schumpeter, something of a romantic. Evolutionary psychology: why dangerous? Depressing, bad science; dangerous to the liberal enterprise. Science is key source of our authority. God's view as authoritative. Hide the idea of irrationality behind the notion that science proves something. Science doesn't prove. Evidence comically unconvincing. Ariely's experiments. In 1950s, Milgram experiment--all potentially Nazis. Two grounds for worry: intellectually wrong, moments of irrationality; Hayek worried about the power of experts to claim more knowledge than we have as individuals. Knowledge problem, knowledge diffuse; opens door for totalitarianism. Modern liberalism's embrace of paternalism is slippery slope. Slight difference: see tendencies, try to argue that is modern progressivism. Woodrow Wilson. Kant: "crooked timber of humanity." Modern liberalism seeks same goals as progressivism but is more willing to pursue indirect ways of achieving it. Ironic dimension to the world, unanticipated consequences. Resign yourself to not doing anything--conservatism. Futility, can't just say it's futile to try. Nazis and Fascists were also anxious to straighten that timber out in repugnant ways. Irving Berlin. Positive liberty, intervention on the part of the State; philosophically, whatever rights I possess need some realization in the world as opposed to just being abstract rights. Free speech: if you interpret it as corporations should be allowed to donate as much as they want to politics, a positive conception of liberty would say, if you create the playing field so that anyone can do anything they want then some people are going to get the right and others won't, so have to take positive steps to make playing field fair. Sometimes corporate donations lead to positive outcomes for consumers despite their motivations. Red herring.
44:55Areas of agreement. Smith modern liberal? Reject the distinction between modern and classical liberals, underlying similar conception. Agreement: hopefulness about the future. Conception of humanity. The seven dispositions, hopefulness that the world can be improved. A couple: disposition to grow, humans defined not by what they are now but by what they are capable of being. John Stuart Mill, borrowed from Humboldt, essay On Liberty. Inclination to deliberate, argue things through, talking. Greatest weakness also. Cass Sunstein podcast, different ways we make decisions, voting, prediction markets, deliberation; critical of deliberation. Deliberating right now. Hopefulness for the future, Virginia Postrel, dynamism vs. stasis. Immigration: see left and right; but liberals should be in favor of it. Paul Berman, terror and liberalism, terrorist has all the advantages; but open society has much greater advantage in any clash. Liberal societies have great advantages in the world. In 1950s and 1960s overestimated success of Soviet Union in production and in war, but it turned out they weren't. Knowledge not aggregated.
51:06Religion in America, unusual nature of America, aspect of the marketplace for religious ideas. Use of economic models to describe religion actually works. 1787 Amendment, same environment as Smith; efficiency by avoiding cartels and monopolies; same for religion. Where there is a State Church, nobody is coming.

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COMMENTS (41 to date)
Ted writes:

I greatly admire Russ's cool restraint in this podcast. I kept wishing he'd go Limbaugh on this guy, however, which of course is why Russ is the host and I'm not.

I do think Rand was slighted a bit, though. Her advocacy of the pursuit of one's rational self-interest was based on her view of the individual as an end in himself rather than as a means to anyone else's end. I think this could've been brought to bear in the discussion of autonomy - if you are the means to the ends of others (as in when your wealth is forcibly redistributed to help others "master" their lives) then you are NOT governing your own life . . . and neither are they!!

gappy writes:

The podcast made me want to read the book. I should point out that prominent conservative economists (e.g., Feldstein, or Friedman) favor policies in favor of the worse-off. There is a point of contact between modern liberalism (as embodied by Rawls) and classical liberalism. In the same non-empty set I would put Amartya Sen, who emphasizes not equality, but enablement ("functioning") for the poor. However, I think that the relationship between utilitarianism and substantive liberalism is not an easy one. If individual autonomy is the organising, self-evident principle, there is no direct connection between it and equality as a welfare objective. A fortiori, there is hardly any prescription on government size. Wolfe offers a consequentialist argument ("it's about what works"), and is in my opinion very weak.

I cannot imagine how Hayek (and Popper and Wittgenstein, to complete my austrian trinity) could not be considered mainstream liberals. Wolfe COMPLETELY misunderstands Hayek's view of the "market". The market is a metaphor for voluntary exchange, and the latter is not hiding anything. It is actually eliciting information and making it more visible but on a local scale. Wolfe is thinking like a mid 20th-century humanist with no training in the sciences. Hayek's intuitions about resilience and adaptability are much easier to grasp by people educated in Biology, Physics or Economics. And I see Wolfe's dim view of the reach of Evolutionary Psychology equally ignorant. The claims from these researchers are actually very tentative and qualified.

From what I understand about Wolfe's thesis, he really views liberalism as an anthropological cathegory, which is better described by experience and culture. In this respect, a large chunk of social conservatives and big-government liberals should be classified as anti-liberal, whereas a minority of moderate politicians in both parties qualify. I essentially agree.

Stephen Monrad writes:

I'm definitely a liberal.

Luck is a big component of success in a market economy. An aspiring actor needs a lucky break to launch his career. The chemistry between job candidates and interviewers has a big impact on who gets hired. While hard work and dedication is helpful, luck makes or breaks people's careers.

If luck is a big component of people's success, does it make sense for successful people to earn a lot more than those who fail? If it were possible, I'd want to pay people based on their effort instead of the outcomes.

Adam writes:

Stephen,

And luck plays no part in who benefits from government-imposed redistribution?

All of life is luck. Not just whether or not you get a break in your career or invest in the right stocks; but how talented you are, whether you come from a healthy family situation, whether or not you have any physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Whether or not you live in an economically prosperous and politically stable country. Whether or not you have good friends. Whether or not you find yourself suddenly in some legal category that it is politically favorable to discriminate against; by legal restrictions on what you can do or by taking away a greater share of your wealth.

Luck plays no more or less a role in the market than anywhere else. Attempting to judge the merit of a system by how much luck is involved in doling out the benefits is an analytically useless exercise.

Lee Kelly writes:

It is nice when someone is empowered, but not when someone is empowered at the expense of someone else. Increasing the autonomy of one person should not come at the cost of decreasing autonomy for another. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the position of Alan Wolfe. Why? Because people demand "equality" (i.e. greater autonomy for some at the expense of others), and, when "equality" is denied, they will get violent. In other words, we have an ultimatum: "increase my autonomy, or else!" The same strategy used by kidnappers, terrorists, and others extortionists since time immemorial. Wolfe suggests appeasement in the form of social programs (seemingly regardless of their actual efficacy), but what incentive does that create?

Lee Kelly writes:

While there are interesting questions about evidence, testability, and method, for the most part, "science" is merely a political tool to delegitimise particular beliefs. Some of the first "philosophers of science" were explicit about this, and made it clear there goal was to banish some ideas, like those of metaphysics, from sensible and rational debate. In accordance with that goal, they developed methods of "science" to control what kind of beliefs would be acceptable.

As Wolfe observes, science is today an authority, and its official stamp of approval is much sought after. Intellectuals develop methods by which it is not possible to arrive at particular undesirable beliefs, and then label that method "scientific". The authority and prestige of science is thereby preserved for only good thoughts. Unfortunately, Wolfe continues to play this perverse game with his attack on evolutionary biology.

It's either the genetic or ad hominem fallacy depending on how you look at it.

Daniel Klein writes:

Great podcast.

If Alan Wolfe thinks Adam Smith or Wilhelm von Humboldt would be supportive any extensive welfare state, I think he's mistaken, and again if he thinks they would support min wage, OSHA, occ licensing, FDA, etc. etc.

I agree with Wolfe that a concern for positive capabilities better identifies the deeper warrants for our positions, but I don't like calling that "positive liberty" or "liberty." By doing so we confuse and subvert the Locke-Hume-Smith-Mill-Gladstone-etc. understanding of liberty, which deserves to be focal.

Gladstone was Liberal prime minister four times. I think he represents liberalism pretty well. I'm not so sure Wolfe would really agree much with Gladstone.

Wolfe says he's not a romantic, but I suspect that he subconsciously derives great meaning from the idea of Us, by Our administrative arm, the govt, advancing autonomy. It is the endeavor of advancing, not actual advancement, that carries romantic meaning. I always suspect this because I don't know what else would keep someone who is concerned with autonomy and empowerment from being more decidedly in favor of the presumption of liberty.

Kit writes:

On this side of the pond the term liberal still means liberal and someone sharing Alan Wolfe's world view would call themselves a socialist or social democrat. So this "what is a liberal" debate is very much US centric.

Eric H writes:

Russ--

Thanks for another great podcast. I was excited to listen to this one because I impugned Wolfe's understanding of Smith in the Econtalk book club, after reading this piece in the New Republic.

I feel a little less strident in my distrust of Wolfe's position, but not by much. It's great that Wolfe thinks his ends match those of Smith and Keynes. But it's the means Wolfe seems to prefer that are disquieting. Wolfe has tried admirably, as have Richard Thaler and other modern paternalists, to mask his preference for state power. Wolfe uses words like "empowerment" and "autonomy." Creating empowered, autonomous individuals, rather than letting power and autonomy arise spontaneously through free association and mutually beneficial exchange, requires other empowered, autonomous individuals. The irony of this illiberal position seems lost on him, though his suspicion of Hayek implies he is aware those first-order autonomy-givers are needed. Who else would harness the unseen Hayekian forces shaping us against our will?

Wolfe's distrust of the unseen means he offers autonomy as a rhetorical distraction. Declaring that every individual should be autonomous and empowered is itself empowering; it feels good to say it enough times that you actually believe it, and there is little argument about it across ideological lines. But the real work to be done is in the "how," which requires a central authority to measure inequalities and apply just the right amount of "autonomy" to remedy them.

In Wolfe's TNR piece he mentions Keynes' distrust of monopoly. One assumes Wolfe shares that distrust. Government has no competition, though Wolf is thankfully aware that it should, at least in the form of school choice. Why is he not more distrustful of the monopoly government has given itself over empowering people?

Eric H writes:

I don't know what happened to the links I included, but they are, respectively:

http://blogs.tnr.com/tnr/blogs/wolfe/archive/2009/04/13/tk.aspx

and

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB117977357721809835.html

Sorry!

AHBritton writes:

A couple of quick comments.

The first relates to the example of the "cripple" and his/her basic necessity to be assisted in living an "empowered" life (sorry if my parenthesis are excessive). Russ's response seems to be that private enterprises will pick up what the state drops off as soon as the state stops preventing private enterprise to do this.

My question is, how exactly is the state preventing private enterprise from helping the disabled? As far as I know the local and federal governments aren't too eager to prevent private charities from helping the disabled. It seems private charities could easily take over the assistance that the state provides for these people and effectively run them out of the market if they would be so much better at it.

AHBritton writes:

Lee Kelly,

You seem to act like power, or empowerment, are not zero sum games. In most cases, possibly all, they basically are. If you gain a power someone else has to lose it. If the states gain a power it is a power the federal government has lost. People opposed to same sex marriage lose the power to live in a society without endorsement of same sex couples and the effects it has on the lives of their children, families, and the culture around them. This to me seems like a minor trade off in liberties but to those apposed it is a deal breaker.

You ask what incentive is created by egalitarianism? I could similarly ask what incentives are created by an un-egalitarian society?
I understand the argument that social programs will create a moral hazzard that encourages individuals to be less productive members of society... I truly do. I also think that that there is a moral dilemma inherent in an un-egalitarian society. Are people really going to be as productive as they can be if they believe that the deck is stacked against them? Even if this is only a perception it still would have a very real effect on productivity.

Russ Roberts writes:

AHBritton,

There are two issues here. One is what would happen to people who struggle to take care of themselves if the government got out of the welfare business. Some critics of "markets" seem to think that without government, such people would be left to their own devices. This is not true. There would be voluntary collective efforts to help the helpless. Whether this private emergent world would be preferable to the current coercive solution via the government is an interesting question. I have written some on that question here:

http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Charity.html

That article also looks at the impact of public welfare on private charity so that the current situation is not the best way to judge what would exist if government left the field to private, voluntary efforts.

I put markets in quotes in the first paragraph above because people use it as a short-hand to mean laissez-faire or classical liberal. This is confusing because while we economists sometimes mean markets to mean voluntary emergent behavior, others take it to mean the stock market or the farmer's market or the market for shirts or the labor market. These markets are not going to always be good to the less fortunate...

burt writes:

One thing that I find puzzling about the self-automation concept, is that Wolfe implies that there is a certain critical level (or objective level) of automation that needs to be reached before people can be considered self-powered.

I think that Hayek and Schumpeter may have had the insight that new innovations can come from strange sources - people are self-powered regardless of their circumstances. Even people from poor circumstances can be self-powered in their situation without having a third-party tell them what to do to improve their lives. For example, the guy in Nepal Robert Frank talks about in one of Russ's CafeHayek posts, seems to be pretty empowered since he can do all those tasks which seem to be useful in Neepal.

I find the idea of someone else having to impose a system of empowerment around people who they consider "unempowered" very strange. I also don't think that "empowerment" projects work, as Will Easterly continues to show in Africa. When can you conclude that someone is empowered enough? How do you measure that?

Lee Kelly writes:

AhBritton,

I don't know which Lee Kelly you were reading, but it certainly wasn't me. My complaint was that Wolfe's vision of empowerment must too often come at the expense of disempowering someone else. That said, even an individual stranded on a desert island could empower himself, because people can learn and master their environment. My comment that it is nice when someone is empowered, was actually made with voluntary charity in mind.

Moreover, my question about incentives was not directed at egalitarianism, (which I generally have no problem with), but at appeasing threats and violence in the name of egalitarianism.

Eric H writes:

AHBritton--

I'd like to explore your idea that empowerment is zero sum game.

It is, most definitely, if pursued using government as the means. Government is not inherently powerful, nor is it wealthy. Government power is on loan from the governed, at least in a democratic republic. In order for government to empower an individual, or a class, it must first take power from someone else.

But what about mutually beneficial exchange? Is it a form of zero-sum empowerment? Definitely not. It's not only by definition good for each party involved, it's better for each party involved, because each party is getting more than what they had in the first place. Things are sold or bartered because their owners value them less than what they get in return. They are thus empowered by owning something of more utility to them than what they sold or bartered away.

Should government assert itself into the exchange, strange things start to happen. Quotas must be met. Metrics of need, value and ability to pay must be established. Parties once merely self-interested become mutually antagonistic; each one sees the other as a competitor for protection and favor from the government.

If you don't think this is the case, I recommend you watch this segment from John Stossel's program last Friday night. At about five seconds from the end, when asked about what younger generations can do to make sure Medicare exists when they retire, one elderly gentlemen smiles and says "Tell them to change the law. If the kids can get the votes then they can get it done!" This fellow is empowered with free medical care at the expense of the income of a couple generations' worth of younger workers, an expense agreed upon before those generations were alive to give their consent. Is he willing to trim his benefits so that they might thrive in their old age? No--it's up to them to petition the government for their own empowerment.

In a very real way, government has empowered one generation at the expense of another, and created antagonists where there should be mutual respect and love.

Lee Kelly writes:

Well put, Eric H.

Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

Wolfe is wrong to say that Hayek is not a liberal. One of Hayek's major contributions is the articulation of the "knowledge problem", how knowledge is dispersed in society and how it might get aggregated. Understanding this point is fundamental when trying to achieve "the most control over one's life, for the largest number of people".

My puzzlement cleared up however when I realized that Wolfe has probably not read much about or by Hayek. Not knowing that Hayek launched in a legendary diatribe against "scientism", for instance, is a clear indication of superficial knowledge.

Nate Alderson writes:

Does Wolfe's book explain more the claim that modern day conservatives love Rousseau? This is definitely news to me. Since Edmund Burke had such strong disagreement with Rousseau should we considered him in the liberal tradition? I wonder how Wolfe would respond to the Thomas Sowell's constrained/unconstrained spectrum which puts Rousseau at the root of the unconstrained vision.

Eric H writes:

This podcast is a great example of Russ's value as a teacher and popularizer of freedom's fundamental principles. I think it's great that Russ so eagerly searches out competing viewpoints and gives them airing here. Econtalk is a rarity in our hyper-partisan world. I'm glad this show ended on a note of agreement.

I am still suspicious of some of Wolfe's claims. His idea that rights need to be realized instead of abstract, that they must have some kind of "realization in the world" leaves open the possibility not for government censors but perhaps government "parsers" that continually investigate, vet and suggest proper modes of speech. Imagine loudspeakers parked on street corners reminding you what is within your "right" to say. The "liberal" (and I have to put quotes around "liberal" now, thanks to Wolfe!) conception of liberty always leaves room, implicitly or explicitly, for more knowledgeable people to supervise and suggest. If that's what being liberal means, then I am most emphatically not a liberal!

Adam writes:

I was skeptical from the summary, but this was a good discussion between two intelligent people who disagree and could talk about it like civilized human beings. Very nice.

The Rousseau-Kant dichotomy is all part of the same, to me; the idea that human convention exists outside of the natural world. The debate is simply one of whether or not the path of righteousness is in abandoning human artifice and returning to nature, or designing the best, most moral, most scientific conventions/institutions. It is one of anarchists vs. technocrats, naturalists vs. Platonic Guardians.

Wolfe follows Kant, thinking that all you need is to reform our conventions along the lines of the right universal principle (categorical imperative). For Jeremy Bentham it was "the greatest happiness for the greatest number", for Wolfe it is "the greatest autonomy for the greatest number" but it comes down to the same basic notion that human beings are malleable creatures that can be remolded based on right principles rather than arbitrary tradition.

Hayek is someone more in line with my own beliefs, that human society is a part of the natural world, we cannot depart from or return to it any more than we can fly by flapping our wings.

Wolfe is deeply uncomfortable with this point of view because he doesn't like to think of human beings in terms of their limitations. He thinks we can alter the natural world. But so can ants and beavers; that doesn't mean that there's anything rational about it. If powerlessness and a lack of control are illiberal, then liberalism is a utopian dream. Human beings are fundamentally powerless; they cannot control their circumstances. They can control what decisions they make but they cannot control the circumstances they will end up in or what exactly they will end up having to choose between.

Life is not a blank canvas you can simply put whatever you feel like onto; it's more like Football. You can only start from the line of scrimmage; you as the Quarterback have no control of where that line will be. You do the best you can with your limited skills and rely on the assistance of others to get the job done.

Blackadder writes:

I once ate at an "authentic Tex-Mex" restaurant in Krakow, Poland. The food looked and tasted like it had been prepared by someone who had never eaten Mexican food, but had once had it described to him. I got a similar feeling listening to Alan Wolfe. Rousseau is a beloved figure for conservatives? Really? Has Wolfe ever actually *read* conservatives?

muirgeo writes:

Wow. A great discussion. I will likely listen several times and read the book as well.


Professor Wolfe,

I submit there may be no getting around evolution but who's to say it's not selecting for genes that give greater autonomy to individuals and their decisions which ultimately guide us into organizing and planning a better and more autonomous society. Or to state things another way but maybe even more poorly. Aren't the determinist possibly rebuked by the idea that genes for autonomy and free thought are increasingly being chosen for.


If you haven't already read it I'd suggest Bert Holldobler and E O Wilson's The Super-organism.

Tony writes:

Good podcast. This felt a lot like the Richard Thayler podcast from a while back. Richard and Alan come off a little scared and defensive(most of the time for no reason) and you Russ are very good at navigating the conversation with people in this mode.

Juan C. de Cardenas writes:

Adam, you said beautifully what I was itching to say while hearing the podcast.
Yes, we can modify Nature but not Nature's laws. We can build a plane according to the laws of physics and fly but we cannot say "I want to fly" and just flap our arms and do it. Furthermore, as individuals we are pretty much at the mercy of forces that because of their complexities we cannot shape or forecast.
Understanding our constraints are crucial if we want to increase our odds, however marginally of success.

gringo writes:

I've listened to this twice, and either I'm missing something, or Wolfe is attempting to re-invent terms. The first issue I have concerns the relationship between autonomy and equality. There are implications in each term, beyond the essence of what they mean, and it baffles me how this is being missed here.

Ted and Bob are equal because they are autonomous?

Perhaps they are equal because they have autonomy in common, but autonomy implies that Bob and Ted are not equal at all because they are self-ruled. The concept of equality means that Bob and Ted are ruled the same, and this simply isn't true in an autonomous society. A simple model would bear this out.

The very next topic also confuses me, in that Wolfe seems to contradict himself. If his idea of the modern liberal distrusts the private sector, then it implies that they embrace non-autonomy. However, charter schools are a good idea? In other words, Bob and Ted can't be trusted to take care of a cripple, but it's okay to enroll your children in their charter school?

This makes no sense.

The positives I pulled from this: The concept of modern liberalism is noble, when it's pure. I've always believed this; that the motives of modern liberalism wants to make the planet better place, and the modern liberal seems willing to take any vehicle necessary to make it happen. Wolfe capitulates at times, I admire anyone who has the ability to transcend their own ideology.

The most fascinating comment by Wolfe comes at the end, where he is almost anti-Keynesian in proclaiming that human beings are defined by what they are not now, but by what they are capable of becoming.

And Russ, you really are outstanding in discussions with guests who are ostensibly diametrically opposed to your own ideology.

Wolfe is very likeable, regardless of where one lies next to his ideology.

Sam Field writes:

Although admitedly a fan of the "new athiests", I found myself very sympathetic to the concerns raised by Roberts and Wolfe regarding the dangers of "scientism". One response to this concern that I find appealing was raised in a recent Nature podcast which discussed the historical tensions between the humanities and the sciences. It was suggested that although the two branches of academia are often add odds, they don't have to be. I've been trying to imagine what an interdiscplinary approach to natural and social scientific research would look like. What if I recieved a comment from a reviewer of my recently submitted (and fictitous) National Institute of Health research proposal wrote back: "where is your philosohper - your literary critic? Who on your proposed project is there to moderate, infuse with irony, and otherwise put into a broader, human context the scope of any scientific claims that might emerge from this research?"

Burt writes:

Well said Gringo

I agree with you completely about the issues of equality and autonomy.

What I don't understand about Wolfe and liberalism is that some objective third party has to decide for people whether their equal enough in their autonomy. Wolfe says he doesn't mind the government helping people be more autonomous. Well how do they know when someone is autonomous? Can they measure that and even if they can measure it, how do you force someone to be autonomous?

Gary writes:

Wolfe's mention of market economies working behind peoples' backs made me think of this quote from Milton Friedman:

What most people really object to when they object to a free market is that it is so hard for them to shape it to their own will. The market gives people what the people want instead of what other people think they ought to want. At the bottom of many criticisms of the market economy is really lack of belief in freedom itself.
Adam writes:

That's a great quote, Gary! Where'd you get it from?

Gary writes:

@Adam:

In 1961, Milton wrote an op-ed in the WSJ called "The New Liberal's Creed: Individual Freedom, Preserving Dissent Are Ultimate Goals". I can't find the original article, but you can see excerpts from that WSJ essay and several others here.

Ray Gardner writes:

It is ironic that he rests so much on precariously balanced semantics, and then "rejects" any sub-classifications of liberal.

Bottom line is that he is an advocate for state paternalism to manufacture more equality among a supposedly free citizenry.

Slicing through the semantics, he seems to be saying that freedom cannot be trusted to the people, but the state has to step in and engineer the proper amounts of it for the people.

He might qualify as some kind of liberal in that he wants some kind of change or dynamism, but his story doesn't stand up well to the rigors of basic logic. What he advocates does not lead to more individual autonomy. Period.

Matt Wavro writes:

Dr. Roberts,
I want to commend you on your great interview. It brought out the important points of agreement and disagreement between you and the author in a thoughtful and intellectual manner. A true instance of academic engagement. I have listened to Econtalk for a while now and it has significantly influenced my thinking on incentives, politics, and public policy. More importantly it has reveled a fundamental disagreement between philosophy of science that supports classical liberalism research goals vs. the goals of the not so classical liberals. That being said, I look forward reading the federal/state regulations that make us all more autonomous.

JayB writes:

Fantastic discussion.

I can only hope that *someone* will attempt to bring professor Wolfe up to speed on some of Hayek's central ideas before the man goes any further in his baffling and misguided efforts to exile him from the ranks of liberals.

If anything, Wolfe's refusal to let the insurmountable information problems that form the central obstacle to (successful) central planning in Hayek's "fatal conceit" temper his enthusiasm for a degree of state interventionism that pays no heed to what's technically possible position *him* well beyond the proper boundaries of the liberal tradition. Ditto for his seeming indifference to any damage that essential rights and liberties would invariably sustain in the event that the state was granted sufficient power to reshape society without limit, much less endeavored to use it in such a project.

Paraphrasing Wolfe:

"Just because it's demonstrably impossible is no reason not to try. Further, making any concessions to realities beyond our control amounts to accepting impardonable constraints on our capacity to reshape society in a manner that's consistent with our wishes. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not a true liberal."

All of which is quite baffling in light of his criticisms of scientism, the efforts of evolutionary psychologists to advance claims far bolder than the quality of their evidence warrants. "Beware hubris...except in the hands of social engineers at the helm of the state."

*This* is philosophically consistent with Smith? Huh?

If anyone thinks this is an unfair or inaccurate summary of the views that the professor put forth in this podcast, or in his other works (I'm not familiar with his ouevre), please let me know.

R. Lavaux writes:

I don't see how reasoned dialog with liberals is possible if they won't be honest with language or history or logic.

First, "libertarian" and "classical liberal" are tortured monikers assumed by proponents of individual liberty when American progressives, who advocate collectivism and statism, snaffled the label "liberal" for themselves. Therefore, no unbroken progression of evolving ideas can be traced from Mr. Wolfe and his ilk back to, say, Smith or Bastiat. Instead, the schism that separates liberals and classical liberals occurred after the time that progressives swiped the liberal label.

Second, if liberty is to be properly understood as the power to command the circumstances and conditions of one's own life, then the state of nature is the least free but most equal state possible. This exposes the truth that Mr. Wolfe ignores: The more a society progresses economically and technologically, the less equal it becomes. Therefore, inequality is an inescapable byproduct of liberty, as Mr. Wolfe defines it.

This is why liberals apply standards of measure to identify social progress that diminish the weight of wealth production and technological advance while increasing the weight of equal access to the same. See the slight of hand? By such standards, a society of cavemen is more progressive than America because all the cavemen are poor and their technology is so rudimentary that it can be mastered by everyone. However, the caveman society also enjoys far less liberty than America. Therefore, the liberals are equating human progress with equality and not liberty, as Mr. Wolfe defines it.

Finally, I would dearly love someone to answer the following question: If America's property and contract laws are just and thus economic conduct that abides by the same is just, then how can such economic conduct produce unjust results, that is, social injustice? If just conduct produces unjust results, then either the conduct is unjust or the results are being falsely characterized, not so?

AHBritton writes:

Russ,

Thanks for your reply. I read your essay on charity and found it interesting. I have not researched the subject much myself. I was struck by the way you handled the evidence. It seems like the kind of ex post story telling you dislike so much. Beyond the difficulties of measuring "charitableness" it seems like some of the evidence somewhat contradicts your point. The private charitable donations by nation you mention don't seems to correlate much, if at all, to state welfare spending. Sweden is the closes of the nations in private donations to the US and yet would be considered by most to have the biggest welfare state of the countries mentioned. I'd be interested to see more research on this subject even though I'm skeptical if anything concrete would come from it.

Sweden seems like a good example in another way. If they really are so privately charitable you would think that their charitableness could crowed out the need for state welfare. You make the point that the state monopoly can crowed out competitors. It seems like this could work both ways. If a more efficient private charity arose it could theoretically erode support for state run programs.

Adam writes:

Sweden seems like a good example in another way. If they really are so privately charitable you would think that their charitableness could crowed out the need for state welfare.

This doesn't make much sense to me. How exactly would private charity of any magnitude "crowd out" state welfare?

Of course you said it would crowd out the need for state welfare, which would seem to assume that welfare exists only because there is a need for it. Care to defend that point of view? Because it seems to me that whether or not you think welfare is "needed" is irrelevant to the political process that produces the welfare state.

AHBritton writes:

Adam,

I appreciate your comments and honestly I think I am grappling through understanding the world like most people.

That being said I have not completely given up on the democratic process. You ask "how exactly would private charity of any magnitude 'crowd out' state welfare?" If you follow through with this argument I think you will realize the flaw. If private sources were providing any and all desirable services it would be very unlikely you would be able to muster the political will to continue or create new social programs. If you think about certain aspects of the Reagan revolution and the Republican resurgence during the Clinton years there was a strong drive to eliminate what were thought of as unnecessary and wasteful social welfare programs. Although this isn't directly related to private sources of charity making these programs unnecessary the same drive could theoretically arise as a response to an emergence of efficient private charities.

Maybe I was reading what you said too literally. I understand that state monopolies are difficult to dismantle and maybe the scenario I illustrated above is somewhat unrealistic.

True the political process is separate from the need it is suppose to serve. That being said I have yet to see a society not based on a social democratic process that I would like to live in.

Tim writes:

Another excellent podcast.

The discussion on Adam Smith as an observer of religion was especially interesting.

Maybe Russ should explore this theme more. I would recommend an interview with the sociologist and historian of religion, Rodney Stark.

Stark explicitly leverages off Smith's analysis and has written several eye-opening and myth-busting books on the history of western and mid-east religions, all within this "Smith-ian" paradigm.

Stark would be a great non-economist interviewee for EconTalk.

Adam writes:

If private sources were providing any and all desirable services it would be very unlikely you would be able to muster the political will to continue or create new social programs.

I disagree. I don't think these things get started because of the outcomes that they or a private alternative produce; I think they get started because people want to look like they care, and looking like they care is more important (politically) than actually helping the poor.

Not saying I can prove that, but it's my sense of things.

I have yet to see a society not based on a social democratic process that I would like to live in.

Hey, in the end I'm still a believer in Winston Churchill's famous description of Democracy as the worst form of government except for all the other ones :)

RD writes:

Very interesting, and I may even read Wolfe's book, but as others have said, it's hard to take him seriously with such a misreading of Hayek. This goes to the general worldview of the left (i.e. "liberals"), they will simply be unable to accept certain realities about markets, I suppose he should be credited for at least trying to grapple with Hayek.

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