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The Long Sweep of History
Don’t let short-term drama fool you: The future of market liberalism is bright
By Daniel M. Rothschild
There’s an old joke that half of Jewish holidays and festivals can be summed up in nine words: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
Like a lot of Jewish humor, it subsumes tragedy under a facade of farce; persecutions and pogroms are remembered and mourned, and then set aside as we pass the wine and brisket.
The joke also captures the importance of looking at the long sweep of history, not just current misfortunes (also a venerable vein of Jewish humor); no matter the situation today, things were worse in the past. That’s not to minimize the misfortunes and horrors of history; to the contrary, it serves as framing to keep tragedy from becoming all-consuming.
For any group whose members span across generations, there is an inevitable tension between focusing on the here-and-now and looking at the broad sweep of history, whether ancient or recent. Especially in moments of relative success and triumph, there is a temptation to look at history through a teleological lens, where progress is viewed as preordained and permanent. Similarly, in periods of decline and poor fortune, it can be hard to envision a better future or even recall a better past.
Many market and classical liberals suffer from such a blindness today. When growing political authoritarianism, economic interventionism, social atomization and epistemic nihilism have given new energy to illiberal forces that are by and large exhuming failed ideas and ideologies of the past, it can be easy to mistake short-term setbacks for long-term trends.
But the fact is, there’s a lot for liberals to be excited about—especially when looking at the long term.
On a macro scale, it’s striking how uneven the advance of market liberalism has been, and how many times free markets and liberalism have been counted out and written off. In 1947, when Friedrich Hayek organized the first meeting of what became the Mont Pelerin Society, the number of market liberals in the world numbered quite literally in the hundreds. Keynesianism and Marxism were the watchwords of what would soon come to be called the first and second worlds, respectively, and there was virtually no appetite for humility, spontaneous orders and market processes. To most intellectuals of the time, the post-Great War era of relative laissez-faire had been a hideous mistake caused by embracing ideas that has been once and for all refuted and buried by the global depression of the 1930s.
Not only was classical liberalism on the outs, but so were most ideas that didn’t fit into the technocratic managerial spirit that was dominant in the decades immediately following the Second World War. In 1950, Lionel Trilling famously wrote, “There are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation” in the United States. Within 15 years, however, not only had traditional conservatism emerged as a going force in American public life but so had fusionism, neoconservatism, objectivism, libertarianism and much more besides.
Within a generation of the Mont Pelerin meeting, not only were market liberal ideas back in circulation, they enjoyed a level of influence and popularity that was unimaginable in 1947. Indeed, 27 years after the fateful conference, Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.
The fortunes of ideas can change momentously, and on a relatively brief timeline. That’s the story of market liberalism in the mid-20th century—a story that gets short shrift.
Pulling back the lens further, core liberal ideas that today are so enmeshed in the fiber of Western life that we can’t contemplate that it would have ever been otherwise were so outre as to be almost inconceivable as recently as five generations ago. As a member of parliament, for instance, John Stuart Mill in 1867 argued in favor of women’s suffrage and cheekily tabled an amendment (that failed by an overwhelming margin) to replace the word “man” with “person” in the Reform Act (which would itself, upon passage, double the size of the electorate in England and Wales). At that time, almost nowhere in the world allowed women to vote on equal footing with men.
Within 30 years, the horse was out of the barn and women were beginning to be treated equally for electoral purposes, starting in New Zealand in 1893. In 1920, the United States passed the Nineteenth Amendment, and eight years thereafter Mill’s once-radical idea became law in England and Wales. Nobody today aside from internet edgelords suggests the restriction of the franchise to men.
In the realm of popular media, consider this exchange from the “Blackadder” episode “Dish and Dishonesty,” set in roughly 1801, between a political pundit and the candidate representing the Standing at the Back Dressed Stupidly and Looking Stupid Party in a by-election:
Candidate: We’re for the compulsory serving of asparagus at breakfast, free corsets for the under-5s and the abolition of slavery.
Pundit: I’m sure many moderate people would respect your stand on asparagus, but what about all this extremist nonsense about abolishing slavery?
Candidate: Oh, that! We just put that in for a joke!
Today, we have seen compulsory vegetables argued before the Supreme Court—and yet, aside from anonymous internet trolls, there’s literally zero constituency for pro-slavery arguments.
A student of Milton Friedman’s in the 1950s once told me that, among all the freedom-enhancing ideas he developed and advocated for in his days at the University of Chicago, the one that his colleagues were most loath to be associated with was school choice. Today, school choice is widespread, normative and gaining ground each year.
One could go on. Free speech and conscience rights enjoy greater legal protection today than ever. Punitive tax rates have been brought down dramatically. Whole industries have been denationalized. Tariffs have been cut, and trade is freer.
In all of these areas and many more, focusing solely on recent setbacks and short-term challenges obscures how much progress has been made over the longer term.
On the micro level, it’s a similar story: We’ve seen a veritable explosion of market liberal efforts and institutions over the past 40 years that have drawn more than their fair share of fire from intellectual adversaries.
Sometimes this has been the kind of fire that one expects and grows from an intellectual conflict; think for instance of the policy debates in 2008-09 surrounding the bank bailouts and the subsequent stimulus package. Most market liberals were at a minimum skeptical of these endeavors, and the stakes were quite high in terms of jobs, economic growth, moral hazard and fairness. Tempers ran hot and accusations were made, but it was in general a fight over models and evidence and political economy. This is normal, healthy and good.
For a moment, classical liberal thought even enjoyed a popular surge in support; think for instance of Tea Party activists putting Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” on the bestseller lists in the summer of 2010.
But sometimes what we see is not good-faith critiques of ideas, but rather bad-faith attacks on market liberalism tout court. Think for instance of the journalists and historians at prestigious institutions who cherry-pick data and make baseless insinuations to try to delegitimize market liberal ideas, typically through some sort of original sin accusation (think of the calumnies levied against Milton Friedman, or the revisionist drivel about James Buchanan). The institutions, intellectuals, scholars, writers and doers that stuck to their principles and remained true to their intellectual commitments have not only survived, but thrived.
So, it’s important to always look at the long sweep of events and not to get too caught up in the situation at the moment. Moreover, one should never infer a secular trend from a few short-term data points.
It’s easy to get sucked into news cycles, elections, social media drama, performance politics, campus lunacy and so forth—and that makes it all the more critical to remember that all of this is just part of a longer sweep of history. Yes, the challenges of the moment are real, and the variance of potential outcomes is higher than it’s been in a generation.
But looked at on a longer time scale, classical liberals have come a long way, made dramatic gains and, despite being written off time and time again, punch far above their weight in intellectual influence. Relative to almost any time in the past, market liberalism is strong and ascendant.
It’s wise to look not just to the immediate past but to the longer trends—and to focus on the long-term future of market liberalism. It’s a future that, by any reasonable reading of trends, remains quite bright.