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Daniel Klein joins the show to discuss political order in the age of Burke, Hume, and Smith.


Daniel Klein explains how on regular issues of policy reform—presupposing a stable integrated polity— Hume, Smith, and Burke were liberal in the original political meaning of “liberal.” Thus, on policy reform, although they accorded the status quo a certain presumption (as any reasonable person must), the more distinctive feature is that they maintained (even propounded, most plainly in Smith’s case) a presumption of liberty in matters of policy reform.

How are Hume, Smith, and Burke similar? How did Burke, Hume, and Smith interact? What is the difference between polity and policy?

Further Reading:



00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:11 Aaron Powell: Our guest today is Daniel Klein. He’s Professor of Economics at George Mason University and JIN chair at the Mercatus Center. He leads the Smithian political economy program at GMU economics. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Dan.

00:25 Dan Klein: Thank you very much, Aaron and Trevor.

00:28 Aaron Powell: We’re talking today about Hume, Smith and Burke. So maybe let’s start by discussing why you discuss them together.

00:39 Dan Klein: I think they’re quite alike in their political and policy outlooks. I admire them immensely. They left us with rich, rich materials to study today. And in studying them, I see it not only as intellectual history, but I kind of regard them… People accuse me of hero worship and everything else. I stand guilty of that, I confess. So I regard them as exemplars to learn from. So when we study, and when I study these guys on liberty, on justice, on virtue and so on, I’m not just… I see it not just as, “Oh, this is what he’s thought about liberty,” I kinda see it as, “This is what I should think about those central important ideas.” So I do see them as a lot the same. The closeness of Hume and Smith is, I’d say, well‐​known.

01:43 Dan Klein: There’s some discussion about differences between them. I think that tends to be overstated in their moral theorizing. I see them as really rather close. I see Smith very much as a development on Hume, and that Hume smiled on Smith’s developments, rather than seeing them as a real departure. Burke is a different kind of player. He’s a politician, he’s an MP for 28 years, he’s a publicist, he’s writing for a more general, popular, you could say ephemeral kind of audience, so he’s a different kind of actor, but I think the sensibilities are very, very similar. He was good friends, I think you could say, with both of them, so I just think they are a good fit, and I do think they are the best of that period, in my opinion. I haven’t researched everybody so thoroughly, but in my assessment, these are just great, great figures, and I do see a lot of commonality, which we’ll talk about, I gather.

02:52 Trevor Burrus: Now, you mentioned Hume and Smith being friends, which was pretty well known, and they were of course both Scottish and both in the Edinburgh area. Burke, I assume, was in London most of the time, and you mentioned that they had familiarity with Burke. Do we know more about sort of the ways that they interacted in the… Either personally, especially with Burke, and in the intellectual sphere? Do we have commentaries by Hume or Smith or Burke on each other’s work, or do we just sort of know that they were in the same milieu?

03:22 Dan Klein: We have some commentary and clear indication of them spending time together, both in London, and I do believe that Burke visited Smith in Scotland for at least one spell, and we have letters between them. I’m much more familiar with the correspondence between Smith and Burke than between Hume and Burke. I’m not sure exactly what we have between Hume and Burke. Also, Hume dies in 1776. He’s the eldest, and so there’s less of an overlap there, but they were definitely friends, Hume and Burke, without question. Yeah. No, there’s clear indication and there’s clear mutual admiration, especially we see it explicitly of Burke expressing admiration for Smith. In fact, in 1759, he wrote a warm review of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but there’s other things. And Smith has… There’s a famous Smith remark about Burke being the only man whose opinions on political economy seemed to concord with mine without any prior conversation about things. So definitely, there’s clear evidence of a friendship and mutual recognition.

04:45 Aaron Powell: Smith and Hume are often placed in the classical liberal tradition, while Burke is considered by many to be the consummate conservative. Is there a tension there, or can he be both a liberal and a conservative?

05:00 Dan Klein: Right. That’s a part of what my paper is about. I’m trying to negotiate any such tension, and in some respects resolve it partly by addressing the meaning of these words or the ways we can use these two words, liberal and conservative. I think Burke most definitely is a policy liberal. In fact, even if you go to Russell Kirk and Gertrude Himmelfarb, and people who admire Burke immensely, and you might associate with 20th century conservatism, they call Burke a liberal. They acknowledge this quite clearly and repeatedly. On policy issues throughout his career, he is not like on every single issue, which is not the flavor of Smithian liberalism to begin with, it’s not an axiom, it’s not indefeasible adherence to some sort of liberty principle on policy issue after policy issue, but on most, Burke is standing up for liberty, he’s a free trader, he published something that came out posthumously on econ, which was very, very sort of pro‐​free market, his…

06:21 Dan Klein: Yeah, so his general vision about the sort of society… The way he wants society to be regulated, if you like, is generally liberal policy. But he is very concerned with the underpinnings, the institutional, cultural and otherwise underpinnings of a stable integrated policy… Polity, I’m sorry, and in particular, the top polity, the nation state, and so he devotes a lot of attention to that, particularly after the French Revolution gets started. That’s what he’s most famous for. And it’s that most famous stuff that so much has lent itself to being called a conservative. I don’t think… I’m trying to argue that these are two parts of a general outlook that in fact all three of them shared, it’s just that Burke said so much more about, if you will, polity issues, and on that, the three of them are, I say, conservative in a very significant sense.

07:33 Trevor Burrus: Well, let’s get into those words, because I think it’s important that we… ‘Cause you have policy and polity, which are important to your essay. So how are those defined in the way you conceive of them for your essay?

07:47 Dan Klein: Okay. For polity, I’m talking about not just the constitution or what you might talk… Speak of as constitutional issues. First of all, it’s not just about a written constitution. Secondly, the polity issue dimension is not even just about the constituents of the government, it’s about the nature of the whole polity, like the United States, in its norms, its traditions, its culture, its sensibilities, its interpretations of the world, you might even say. Everything you want to talk about in terms of constitutional issues depends on these kinds of interpretations and norms. Words in a written constitution have to be interpreted, and so… And norms about how to do them and interpret them, all have to come into play.

08:48 Dan Klein: And so, by polity, I think of something broader, sort of like the nature of the society. So that’s kind of what the polity is, and then there’s kind of an issue of what the polity does in policy. And here, I want you to think especially of domestic policy. We are presupposing a kind of stable political order. So what does this stable political order do in its policy making? And there, they are liberals. They want policy to be generally like The Wealth of Nations recommends. So policy… So I’m using the word policy, I’m kinda narrowing that word policy to kind of abstract away from matters that would impinge on the character, if you like, of the polity. So in the sense, I’m creating a somewhat artificialized and narrowed notion of policy. I’m confining it to being domestic, effectively, and I’m sort of extracting away from issues, what you would normally just call policy issues, let’s say, immigration, that may or arguably do have significant impacts on the character nature of the polity.

10:21 Dan Klein: So I’m using policy in a somewhat novel way, or you might even say idiosyncratic way. I don’t know how… I didn’t want to create a neologism, so I’m using the word policy in a somewhat narrowed way where I’m kind of taking it away from where it impinges greatly on the character of the polity, and that will be a pertinent narrowing when the policy issue doesn’t much impinge. And so, we can talk about reforming the FDA, liberalizing OSHA, land use regulations or what have you. We don’t see those as major polity issues. We’re not so concerned about how those are going to alter, change, upset the character, functioning, stability of the polity, so we just could talk of those straightforwardly and use a kind of common argumentation like an economics as policy issues.

11:29 Trevor Burrus: In other words, just for clarification to our sort of conversation point here, liberal and conservative is interesting in context. It’s always struck me that, at least on a textual reading almost, the word liberal has a root in Libra and freedom, in the Latin root for freedom, and is used around the world to describe generally, and maybe America’s a little bit different, but generally freedom‐​maximizing policies like free speech, freedom of religion. Conservative, however, is a little bit different, it seems to me. It’s almost indexical or relative, that if you’re trying to conserve something, it kind of depends on where you are to define that word. So if you’re a conservative in, say, the USSR in 1980, you might want to preserve old Soviet institutions or something like that, or should we think of conservative as something less indexical and more meaningful in that sense?

12:28 Dan Klein: No, I think that’s absolutely right. That is a big problem with the term conservative, and I am using it really very much in that… I think you’re saying indexical way, where it does refer, need to be indexed to the status quo or the tradition up to the status quo that we are in or talking about, right. So in some sense, you can think of conservative as meaning strong presumption to the status quo, and then it’s like, “Well, what is the status quo?” That’s different in different places and different time periods.

13:07 Dan Klein: And so that’s right. And so, a conservative in this time and place could be very liberal because his status quo is rather liberal, at least in its trend or the ascendancy, and I think that’s true of these three guys, they were in Britain at the latter part of the 18th century where the trend definitely was liberal, so that actually figures in and it’s hard to, I would say, separate from the polity conservatism that they express, that… That is, so yeah, Trevor, I think that’s absolutely true. The word… Let me add that the… The word conservative then can be applied in each of these two realms that I’m trying to sketch.

14:01 Dan Klein: So in the polity realm, to be a conservative is to put a lot of weight on the status quo, don’t monkey too much with the way things work and the traditions and so on. And then also in the policy realm, one can have a very conservative attitude and say, “Well, look, we’ve had the FDA with these controls and restrictions, that’s the status quo, and let’s put a big presumption on that.” And what I’m saying is that these guys were not conservatives there, they were liberals there, that is to say, I think the presumption of liberty figured more prominently to them there, than the presumption of the status quo.

14:50 Aaron Powell: What do we mean when we’re talking about polity reform as opposed to policy reform, because policy reform is pretty easy for most of our listeners to grasp. It’s the, “We’re gonna change the rules governing OSHA, or we’re gonna let in more or fewer immigrants, or we’re going to have Medicare for All or not,” that’s… The things that the state does, we can change, and that’s policy reform. But polity reform, how would we even approach that, like if I say I want to reform the polity, I want to change it, what does that mean in practice so far as if I’m liberal or conservative about it, because it’s just culture, it’s just like who we are, it doesn’t seem like something that you could set out to necessarily change.

15:37 Dan Klein: There are certainly some things that you could make as issues that you set out to change, for example, in political representation or procedure, constitutional reform, and in that way, it does seem to come back to being about constitutional issues. But I guess the place of the whole polity dimension in what I’m doing is to say, not so much about, gee, what should we be aiming to do in polity, and actually, I use the term “reformation” there as opposed to “reform,” maybe just to distinguish the two realms. So it’s not so much about, gee, what should we do to make a reformation of the polity, it’s more about taking notice and appreciation of how some policy issues, in the ordinary sense of the word policy issues, kind of slosh into these issues of polity reformation, and that has to be taken on board, that has to be acknowledged and accepted.

16:48 Dan Klein: I think these guys don’t feel that the stability of the political order is to be taken for granted and radical change even in a liberal direction could actually upset things. Again, I think immigration is the best example of this, not that I… I’m very agnostic about what those polity impacts would be of mass immigration, but I certainly don’t dismiss them, I certainly don’t just somehow diminish them and then focus on the Bryan Caplan mutual gains policy argumentation in favour of liberalization and immigration.

17:31 Dan Klein: So the concern about the polity realm is not so much, “Gee, what can we do to better our polity?” It’s more about acknowledging the polity dimension when we’re talking about the things we’ve been talking about, that Cato has been talking about since the beginning.

17:55 Trevor Burrus: It strikes me that a good, I think, example of what Aaron’s question in this polity/​policy distinction is Burke’s famous criticism of the French Revolution, because this was not the American Revolution, where we changed the government, but we did not go and throw out every social system, social order or hierarchies, existing private law institutions, we changed the government and what empire we were going to not be a part of anymore. But in France, they started beheading people and trying to change the number of days in a week and change the property system and change the social order in a sort of massively revolutionary way that I think the goal was to change the polity, maybe through something like policy, really strict policies, including various beheadings, but to change the polity at the root. Is that an accurate depiction of what you think Burke’s view on that is?

18:57 Dan Klein: Yes, absolutely. And he favored letting the Americans go. And I do think there’s an enormous difference between the two so‐​called revolutions. In a way I’m reluctant to call the American War for Independence a revolution for the exact reasons you say, it’s not as though they were sailing over to London to dethrone the king. Yeah, and in some respects, they were saying, “We’re being abused as Englishmen,” that, “We want to restore our rights as Englishmen,” so really. As a matter of fact, when Burke defends himself, he even says that the Glorious Revolution was sort of a restoration. So he kind of even defends the Glorious Revolution of 1688, 1689 as a kind of polity conservatism, that is, a sort of undoing of a change to the polity. And that gets into the difficult question, which again, just has to be confessed, that to talk about policy conservatism, it’s kind of like, okay, so what is that nature of the polity that you say we are or have been? What is the essence?

20:13 Dan Klein: Is it James Madison and the Founding Fathers? Or is it, well, gee, we’ve had the New Deal since the 1930s, and is that who we are, and what polity conservatism would then have to preserve? Yeah, so getting back to the two revolutions, yeah, the French Revolution is clearly a different cup of tea altogether, and Burke saw it as a dramatic change in polity, and of course, likened it to the Reformation. He saw it as a quasi‐​religious movement, essentially, which I think is really spot on. He did not see it as a particularly French Revolution. It was a revolution that happened to begin in France, and have its greatest successes in France, so he saw it as more of a whole moral worldview, which reflects, then, the will to alter the polity.

21:19 Aaron Powell: It seems that if one is, say, a liberal on policy reform, you’d like to move the state’s policies in a more liberal freedom‐​regarding direction, but a conservative on polity reform, that the two, depending on particularly how conservative you are, can run headlong into each other or interfere with each other. I’m thinking of, several years ago, I was invited to a student conference to do a libertarian versus conservatism debate. And what was striking was when it came down to it on the policy side of things, on the what are the proper things for the government to do, what should the government not do and so on, the person I was debating, we largely agreed. There was a remarkable amount of overlap.

22:11 Aaron Powell: The difference was that he was a hardcore Burkean in the conservative polity reform sense of, there’s deep knowledge embedded in cultural institutions and cultural values, that we shouldn’t change things, we shouldn’t rush headlong, move fast and break things, that I was basically pushing too hard and too quickly. But it seems like at some point, that kind of attitude turns into, necessarily, conservatism on policy reform as well, because any degree of policy reform is going to have some impact on the people. And if you’re not willing to budge on those or you’re constantly saying, “Slow down,” then that’s going to bleed into eventually saying, “Yeah, it would be nice if policy were more liberal, but any change is too much or too fast.” Is that a worry there, or am I misreading the conservative case?

23:14 Dan Klein: That is definitely a real tension. That concern about rapid policy reform, we mentioned immigration, maybe, I don’t know exactly what happened in your conversation, but drugs maybe, that people can start to say, “I think that this could significantly affect the polity in this broad, even cultural sense of the term,” and they could object to that either because they just have a… There are sort of two sides to them like saying that, “Slow down,” or, “Let’s not go so far.” One side could just be, “I like the way we are and I don’t like what we would become, and in general, I just kind of think that we should stick more with what we are,” that’s a kind of pure polity conservatism. Another could be, “I actually think that in indirect ways, this will come back and bite us in terms of liberty, in terms of liberal policy.”

24:24 Dan Klein: So then you have a kind of disagreement between immediate or direct liberty, and then an overall liberty down the road and in sort of all other areas of policy making. And that’s part of the argument against open borders by people who favor liberty, that actually, this will conduce to or redound to less liberty in the longer term, and kind of like break the system, you might say. So yeah, the tensions there are definitely real, and trying to interpret what exactly it’s stemming from in terms of polity attitudes could be really hard to discern, because it could be a pure polity conservatism, it could be actually a polity view that wants to have a liberal polity, but disagrees maybe about how that happens, and what the effects are.

25:32 Trevor Burrus: It strikes me that another policy, you mentioned drugs, which I was considering, which is one of my areas that I work on, that a more liberal policy could be feared to create a undercutting of the polity. Another one is possibly public schools, of which you mentioned briefly in your essay, where there used to be a bigger debate, at least amongst liberals, about whether or not we should have public schools or what public schools should do, ’cause on one level, public schools are trying to reform the people in some way, and maybe that’s sort of… I don’t know, I know Adam Smith had some ideas about who should pay professors, but I’m not sure what the others had about public schools. But do you think they would have been more conservative in that sense on the question of public schools, but serving the polity, that is?

26:23 Dan Klein: Definitely schools get you into polity issues, and polity issues was definitely an impetus for public schooling. I would say here that if I were talking back then, I would raise polity issues to oppose this expansion of the government into the school sector. By the way, Smith on schooling is often misunderstood, and his support for partial government financing of schooling, I think, is generally overstated. I think it’s much more equivocal than people have made out, so I just kind of want to alert you to be cautious about that. Scott Drylie has done two super great papers on this. Schooling is definitely a really interesting issue historically, because certain liberals, particularly I think in France, tended to favor the government getting into schooling so as to teach people properly, even a proper understanding of liberalism. And I don’t think that is true, generally speaking, of Hume, Smith, Burke, despite the text in Smith on the topic, I don’t think they would be favorable to that overall.

27:55 Trevor Burrus: I agree. It’s an under‐​appreciated aspect of liberalism, the resistance to public education. When it comes to Hume and Smith and Burke, in terms of their liberal policy views, would you put them kind of in the same general philosophy? What kind of liberals were they? You have an interesting figure in your paper, which is sort of liberty in a heart with this sort of temple structure around it of the sort of general rules and principles of a society. Does that figure, do you think, kind of… Are you kind of describing what they all sort of thought about the nature of liberty in a liberal policy way?

28:35 Dan Klein: Yes. It’s not a temple, I want to… It’s more like the idea of a town hall or a courthouse, a kind of governmental institution with a heart… In the middle is a heart with the idea of mere liberty, others not messing with one’s stuff. And I think they all like the idea of others, and especially the government, not messing with people’s stuff. This goes into their whole jurisprudence ideas about justice and ownership and so forth. And so I think that that’s the kind of… That’s a central theme in the kind of society they want. More in that direction. Again, it’s not about some ideal society out there, the free society that we have to get to in a destinational way, it’s a directional thing, but that defines the direction, this not messing with other people’s stuff, or as Smith put it, allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, but that heart in the middle, mere liberty, is within this whole institutional structure and cultural normative structure that is required to sustain that. Authority is the word that Hume uses. He says, “Liberty and authority come into conflict, but you can’t have liberty without authority.”

30:15 Aaron Powell: Did they all get to that liberty in a heart place from the same, I guess, moral priors and theories of justice? We think of Hume, definitely we think of as a moral philosopher, and Smith wrote his work of moral philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Were they all coming from the same place and then arriving at the same place, or were they starting in different spots, and then arriving at that primacy of liberty?

30:45 Dan Klein: Yeah. Naturally, there’s no specific starting point for anybody in anything, so… But let me say that I very much see Hume coming up through, as it were, the Grotian tradition, Grotius or Grotius, of jurisprudence, of natural jurisprudence it may have been called then, and talking about justice, what Smith would then call commutative justice, and developing that. That plays an important role in Hume’s treatise, and Stephen Buckle, for example, says that, although Hume is thought of as sort of a critique of theology and natural law, he’s actually in that natural law tradition in a very important sense, and I totally agree with that.

31:40 Dan Klein: And so, yes, they’re coming out of, if you like, a jurisprudential or just jural theory tradition that is key to even defining liberty. If I say others not messing with your stuff, you have to say, “Well, what counts as stuff, and what makes it yours, and what counts as messing?” And that’s jurisprudence stuff. And then you flip that around, the duty of not messing with other people’s stuff has to be flipped… Is then flipped around to the right, others not messing with my stuff. And that’s liberty when you speak in relation to the government not messing. And then, of course, it’s not pure. The government is going to be messing, it institutionalizes messing, it announces and puts up a website, “Here’s the messing we’re going to do.” So it’s very different than any kind of criminal, ordinary criminal, and I wouldn’t call it criminal. [chuckle]

32:36 Dan Klein: So anyway, they are coming up through that, Hume and Smith definitely. Burke studied law, I’m not sure if he was actually finally credentialed in law, but he did go to one of those inns in London and studied law, so they’re definitely coming up through that. Now, does that mean that they all have some initial moral first principle, self‐​evident first principle, that then… That gives them this liberal thrust? I don’t see the moral sensibility that way. I don’t… I’m kind of non‐​foundationalist in ethics, and so I just think they see that these are the options on the table, in terms of different kinds of arrangements and rules that society can possibly have. And of these options, this one’s the best overall for just, as it were, aesthetic reasons. And so, they get committed to that and champion that, I would say. So, yes and no, Aaron, in terms of do they all flow from some same source. In some sense yes, but in another sense I’m inclined to say no.

33:52 Trevor Burrus: I think, sort of in a different way, I think of saying what you said is something you say in the paper, which is they were not axiomatic liberals in the sense of, say, Rothbard, they were more… I don’t know what the opposite of axiomatic is, maybe evolutionary or presumption, a presumption of liberty, which is interesting. Do they get that from a theory of the state? You mentioned that they’re not contractarians in a way, but there is a difference between the, “Don’t interfere with my stuff.” When it comes to telling the government, do not interfere with your stuff, versus a social order maybe lacking in a government. Are they liberals due to some theory of the state or do they have a presumption of liberty against the state? A theory of the state that they share?

34:42 Dan Klein: I don’t think one thing here flows logically or deductively from another, so it’s more like it’s a bundle, and you’re right, it’s just a presumption, it’s defeasible. That is to say there are exceptions, and Smith clearly makes exceptions in The Wealth of Nations. He notes that he’s making an exception, for example, when he endorses the restriction on small denomination notes issued by banks, but this was quite common. This idea that we interpretively develop rules that have exceptions, it’s the best we can do. The rules are not first principles from which things are deduced, they are generalizations from our broad knowledge. These guys were moral philosophers, they didn’t have all this divided up social sciences and humanities. They surveyed everything, and they had their, “Oh, in this policy it seems like this and on this and this.”

35:43 Dan Klein: And then, they tried to summarize this with generalizations, but these generalizations were qualified in those ways. They admitted of exceptions. They admitted that parts of what they were saying were loose, vague and indeterminate, as opposed to precise and accurate. I think that was very much the character of the thinking in Scotland, for example. I see it in Hutchison. I think I can also point to it in Carmichael, who comes before Hutchison. Hutchison is then Smith’s teacher. It’s explicit in Burke. I think it’s more like Rothbard, in our 20th century mode of thinking was a change, and a foolish change in my view, of thinking, “Oh, let’s try to have some stricter logic with axioms and deduction and things like that.” I should say one thing, though, about the Scottish Enlightenment, the Thomas Reid tradition then starts talking, the so‐​called common sense school, is actually a move into this self‐​evident first principles type of reasoning. And that’s actually different than the Smith‐​Hume tradition.

37:02 Trevor Burrus: The kicking the rock type of refutation, you mean? “I refute him thus.” If you’re familiar with that story.

37:09 Dan Klein: I forget. Yeah, I’ve heard it but tell me again.

37:13 Trevor Burrus: I think it’s Thomas Reid. Somebody will probably write to us, but I think it’s Thomas Reid who is walking with someone and someone says, “Have you heard about Bishop Berkeley, who has said that the world is only ideas. How do you address that?” And he kicked a rock and he said, “I refute him thus.” It was much more straightforward, I guess, in that sense of here are the axioms and the common sense thinking by which we can construct an accurate world view. So, more dogmatic, maybe, or axiomatic in that way.

37:42 Dan Klein: Yes, yes. That makes sense. Berkeley was not disputed. What was under contention was not whether there’s a rock there and it can be kicked. So no one’s denying that certain immediate, as it were, experiential things are what they are and that we work from them, but when we get to the issues that actually divide us and are the important ethical issues, meaning of life and proper public policy, the good of the whole, it doesn’t come down to kicking a rock. And you need to have this more pragmatic… Instead of syllogism, you need enthymemes, to use a word that Deirdre McCloskey teaches us. These are qualified statements with all sorts of conditionals in them, and parts of them that are fuzzy, like again, aesthetic judgements like better and good.

38:49 Aaron Powell: In this argument in your essay you’ve set up this distinction, this graph of, on the one hand, we’ve got the difference between polity and policy reform reformation. On the other hand, you have conservative and liberal, and you can be one in each, one pair in each and a different pair in the other. And Hume, Smith and Burke are the exemplars of a certain version of that, but a lot of your scholarship has been about the use of terms over time and the origination of various terms and the ideas that they represent, and liberal and conservative have changed, it feels like a lot, since the 18th century. Would these labels as you’re applying them to Hume, Smith and Burke, would they recognize their use today? Are we talking about something, the same thing when we say conservatism now, as when, as Burke would have been a conservative or have the ideas fundamentally changed underneath the terms?

39:58 Dan Klein: Both terms, liberalism and conservatism, didn’t exist with the -ism at the end, for either term, until later in the 19th century. So none of them would have really recognized liberalism or conservatism. Let me take what I know about conservative first. The word conservative does not… The adjective, conservative, does not… Or the verb, does not… Conserve, does not figure prominently in Burke. I mean, it’s there, you can find it, I’ve totally looked for it when I read these materials, but it’s not especially… He also uses the word preserve, sometimes. I don’t know, I guess it’s maybe for some specific linguistic reasons. We didn’t develop the idea of preservatives, like preservativism.

41:00 Dan Klein: So conservative, I think throughout history and time and place changes so much, so that’s much more up for grabs, I feel. Liberal, we talked about on our previous podcast, and Helena Rosenblatt was with us, and so liberal, I am using the term in the original political sense of the term. It definitely and obviously has changed meaning significantly, especially in North America, and so, yeah, someone who insists on using the term in that sense won’t accept… I’m talking… I’m using… They won’t enter into my semantics, they might enter into it just for the sake of seeing what I have to say, but then… So yeah, liberal is more of a contentious term, I would say, and conservative is generally more of a mushy… I mean, to some extent, the major meaning of the term in the United States just means you think Republicans are the lesser evil.


42:11 Trevor Burrus: Where does libertarianism fit into this? Because you’ve kind of alluded to it, I think, but you describe something called polity loutishness, and you say, “In former days as a libertarian, I did not think enough about the independence… Sorry, about the dependence of liberty and liberalism on stable and functional polity. I did not much consider the polity reformation dimension.” Can you unpack that a bit, please.

42:37 Dan Klein: Yeah, sure. First of all, I don’t want to disavow or discall myself a libertarian, I’ve talked about different kinds of libertarian or libertarianisms, and affirmed what I’ve called mere libertarian, which I’m still perfectly happy to affirm, but I guess I’m kind of equating it with classical liberalism, which I’m now kind of interpreting as conservative liberalism. So I don’t know about putting all these different expressions for the same thing together, but whatever. So in the polity dimension, I’ve talked a bit about polity conservatism, which I attribute to Hume, Smith and Burke, and I don’t… One of you guys said a moment ago that you could also take the word liberal and talk about polity liberalism. I don’t actually so much see that.

43:36 Dan Klein: I don’t think that empirically it’s going to pan out as something discernible so well, so anyway, I think the big things in contrast to polity conservatism, well, two of the notable contrasts are, first, polity radicalism, which has almost a will to undo, so that’s, for example, in the Jacobins, or in the Bolsheviks, or in others. And then I talk a little bit about what I call polity loutishness, and that’s a sort of neglect of the dimension, I would say, and I would say somewhat of a… Yeah, it’s kind of a dodging of responsibility to mind the dimension, to take it, again, on board and be responsible there.

44:35 Dan Klein: And I do think that, and I come up through libertarianism, I do think that it’s natural for libertarians to get excited and active and effective in advancing the arguments for liberalization that are very, very powerful and virtuous, generally speaking, and wise and virtuous, but that can be done in a way or… And they maybe get so attached to a consistency there and a kind of formula there that they want to kind of push away these polity concerns, and that can lead them into what I’m calling a kind of loutishness, ’cause I do think, I really do think, and this is something of an evolution of me, I guess, that there is in human beings and human societies a sort of gravitational pull towards collectivism and towards, well, let’s just say, leftism. That’s kind of contextualized speech, but… And that our discourse has to serve the good of the whole, and we have to take, to some extent, take practical politics into consideration or think about how what we’re doing as discoursers fits into what matters, what the consequences of our discourse are.

46:24 Dan Klein: And I kind of feel like the present moment, frankly, I know that views on this about who’s a lesser evil vary at Cato, but I personally think like, “Yeah, no, this is a real thing.” So I generally tend to be one of those libertarians who argue with my fellow libertarians if they’re too soft on the left, like I might challenge them about being too soft on the left.

46:55 Aaron Powell: Why should people still read Hume, Smith and Burke today? Especially in America because it feels like our politics and our political culture have moved very far away from the kind of political theorizing that the three of them represent.

47:15 Dan Klein: Yeah, maybe we’re doing it wrong. I do think they’re better than anyone today. I think if you just kind of chart a graph of the wisdom of the most wise, of the wisest people alive over time, let’s say the three wisest people alive, I think that chart falls off a cliff after they die, and I think we’ve been weighed down in a kind of valley. And I’m talking about the wisest people alive. My favorite of the 19th century, by the way, is Tocqueville, hands down. And I don’t know if I’d put him in this category with these guys, but I might, but I generally think the 19th, 20th and 21st century are like below. And I look up back into the 18th century… Another thing is just that when you see what they’re saying, it’s unbelievable how much it’s sort of the same issues and the same problems, which tells us something, and not just on public policy, the wealth of nations, the arguments against basically occupational licensing and tariffs and everything else, but like the Burke stuff of the 1790s is so timely, I feel, it’s frightening. And I think that has a profound impact.

48:47 Dan Klein: People say, “Oh, this movement, this dangerous radical movement, it came out of Gramsci, it came out of Saul Alinsky, it came out… ” And then they’re, “No, no, no, it came out of Marx.” So it’s like, no, no, no, folks, it’s like something much deeper, and I personally gravitate to Hayek’s atavism thesis about our instincts from the hunter gatherer band and about modern politics, modern collectivist politics being a kind of reassertion of band instincts with the nation state now as the band tapping into these instincts. So you actually learn something about the timelessness of a lot of our issues by reading it as they discussed it over, well over 200 years ago.


49:51 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.