Helena Rosenblatt and Daniel Klein debate the origins of liberalism. Rosenblatt believes that Klein misuses Adam Smith. However, there is no way to know how Adam Smith would have acted in today’s political climate.
What is liberalism? What is the political meaning of liberalism? How old is the idea of liberty? Was Edmund Burke thought of himself as a conservative? Is it a mistake to think that libertarians are part of the liberal tradition? At what point for example, does John Locke become called a liberal?
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Jason Kuznicki: I’m Jason Kuznicki.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining me today is Helena Rosenblatt, Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Daniel Klein, Professor of Economics and JIN Chair of the Mercatus Center, George Mason University. He leads the Smithian Political Economy program at GMU Economics. The two have been in debate with each other for some time about the history and meaning of liberalism. Welcome to the show.
00:31 Helena Rosenblatt: Thank you.
00:32 Daniel Klein: Thank you.
00:33 Aaron Ross Powell: What is liberalism?
00:36 Helena Rosenblatt: That’s the big question, isn’t it? There’s so much confusion and actual debate about the issue. Actually, a lot of people, I think, are confused about what they really mean. So one of the things I do in my book, my recent book, ‘The Lost History of Liberalism’, is that I explain that it’s not just one thing. It has indeed been debated over its history and it’s a cluster of concepts that gets redefined, reinvented over time. As circumstances change, as problems change, liberals change with therefore, yeah.
01:17 Daniel Klein: In my view, the first political meaning of the adjective liberal, came in the 1770s. And the best way to sum up what it meant was Adam Smith’s expression “allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way”. And that idea that he expounded and people totally picked up on, that was the start of the political meaning of the word liberal, which then naturally, later got turned into liberalism.
01:49 Aaron Ross Powell: This qualifier of political meaning of liberalism, what work is that doing as far as this definition goes?
01:56 Helena Rosenblatt: Well, yeah. Here, I do have some disagreements with Dan, which is that I think he economizes the word political at a time when morals and politics and economics were conjoined. I would say that when liberals spoke about a political meaning, early liberals, they also spoke about constitutions. They spoke as much about state building as they did about limiting states, and that it wasn’t just about rights and interests.
02:31 Daniel Klein: I think that there’s not much of that to start, at least not in the wealth of nations. There’s not that much about constitutions and state building at all. It pre‐supposes a stable integrated polity and explores policy‐making within that framework. And I think that that kind of framework is the dominant way of thinking about the liberal plan, the liberal system, the liberal government, liberal ideas, liberal principles as those important expressions emerged from the 1770s. So I do think that the stuff about constitutions, state formation, naturally come into play, but I don’t think that’s very prominent at the beginning. Dugald Stewart says this very explicitly.
03:19 Jason Kuznicki: You seem to be starting very late in the history of liberalism as many people would have it. One very common definition of a liberal political thinker is that, a liberal political thinker is one who places liberty as the most important or the highest political value. And if you go by that definition, then a lot of political thinkers are included well before Adam Smith. Even someone like Thomas Hobbes would qualify as a liberal in this sense, and that he believed that the purpose of government was indeed to secure liberty. Now his definition of liberty was rather different from, probably, that of anyone now living, but we might still be able to plausibly put him in the liberal camp. What’s wrong with that definition?
04:14 Helena Rosenblatt: If I may jump in here, I would disagree with both of you. Go figure. [chuckle] Liberal had a very different meaning in Hobbes’ time. What I do in my book is I actually follow and trace the word liberal and its meaning beginning in Rome and going up until today. And I disagree with Dan that… First of all, that he would choose Adam Smith as a liberal thinker is an arbitrary choice that he takes. I think, for political reasons. And, I would say that the real political meaning that liberalism is born in the wake of the French Revolution. That’s when the word is first coined, the word is first used in 1810, or around that, and it refers to the principles of the first revolutionaries. So I think it’s problematic to just call… Certainly, very problematic to call Hobbes a liberal since he was for absolute monarchy. And I think that Adam Smith would never have thought of himself as a founder or precursor of liberalism in the way that we use the term today, or that it was used in the early 19th century. To be liberal meant something special in Rome. I can go into this, but I don’t wanna monopolize right now on this particular question. I’m sure Dan wants to jump in.
05:39 Aaron Ross Powell: Well, I can if I can just ask a quick follow‐up. What were those principles of the first revolutionaries that you said the word well attaches to?
05:46 Helena Rosenblatt: Alright, well, somebody like Benjamin Constant, who I say is an early… He is one of the first people to use the word in liberal in the sense of a political movement standing for a cluster of concepts, constitutional rule, the rule of law, civil equality, representative constitutional government, and a number of individual rights. First among which, I would say, was freedom of religion, freedom of thought. Private property was important, [06:16] ____ property was important, but it was never at the top of the list.
06:22 Helena Rosenblatt: So that was the early… Those were the early principles of liberalism. But over time, and as I said before, as changes occurred in the economy, there were developments, they are actually, where liberals started to see the problems of industrial revolution, of popularism in the cities, new problems that arose that were quite different from what the early liberals dealt with. They became open to more state intervention. They started actually to talk about the economy more and see the necessity for government to step in and they started to talk in this way about liberalism.
07:03 Jason Kuznicki: I would not at all disagree that Constant was a liberal, he certainly was, and used the term. What is wrong with applying the term to people who did not use it, if we find similarities between the thought of later liberals and the thought of earlier people who perhaps didn’t use the term? Can’t we push the envelope a little bit? Can we include some people retroactively, even if they didn’t use that word?
07:35 Daniel Klein: I’m all for looking at people, retrospectively, as liberal, maybe thinking on this, protoliberal. We can do that, we go back, I don’t know how far we go back. As far as old as the idea of liberty is, I suppose. But we’re interested… We’re focusing on and Helena and I have a disagreement about where the term starts. And Smith does use the term. Smith, I think, very deliberately, christens his plan, his outlook, his science of a legislator, liberal. I think he does this in a signal way, and I think people saw it, and I think that’s why they immediately picked up on it. And that’s why that idea got grounded and that’s why Constant called what he did, liberal. So it starts in the 1770s in Britain, and it’s exported to France and elsewhere. It’s not the other way around.
08:34 Aaron Ross Powell: Can you map out just for our listeners who don’t know Smith that well, the core of these ideas, and the project that he was doing?
08:43 Daniel Klein: Yeah, it’s in the wealth of nations, it’s not in the theory of moral sentiments. And the wealth of nations is both a presentation of economic reasoning, how the economy works and so on, as well as it’s quite comprehensive treatment of public policy in his day. And he repeatedly used the term, “liberal”, particularly again in signal moments, which I could highlight. And he propounded a presumption of liberty, an idea of reforming policy towards greater liberty, by getting rid of corporations that, or guilds, getting rid of the mercantile system, of subsidies and protections etcetera, etcetera, against price controls and those kinds of things. He laid out this grand scheme of a liberal nation‐state, liberal policy for an integrated nation state, you could say. And that’s to me, is liberalism 1.0, which I say, remains basically the core, the spine of liberalism for a good 100 years, particularly in Britain.
09:52 Helena Rosenblatt: The problem with this approach that Dan is taking, that is being taken by a lot of people, is that it’s full of anachronism and it leads to all these different conflicting definitions of liberalism. You can… There are people… When I started my history, I noticed that there were all these people… People have a hard time defining liberalism and they admit it. And then they will just say, “Oh well, I’ll take it to be this.” And I lined up a bunch of thinkers in chronological order so the cherry‐picking ideas from the back and say, “This is what liberalism is”. But then, depending on these thinkers, whether you choose Hobbes, which some people do, whether you choose Smith as others do, you can choose Lafayette, you can choose lots of people and line them up and say, “That’s why I think liberalism is this”. You have a lot of contradictions out there right now as you know.
10:47 Helena Rosenblatt: I mean, there are, in this country, a discussion of what is a classical liberal, what is a liberal. They have a different definition of liberalism. In Europe, it means, in colloquial [10:56] ____ parliaments, liberalism means small government and here it means big government. So why did this happen? Well, it has to do with who these thinkers are that you line up in chronological order. It’ll look very different if you choose Hobbes or if you choose John Locke or if you choose Smith. So that’s why I took this other very new approach to the history of liberalism, where I said, “Let’s get rid of this anachronistic cherry‐picking to support our own definitions. And let’s do this kind of thought experiment, which is what I’m doing. Let’s reset the debate by looking at what people at the time meant when they use the word, what… And frankly, there was no liberalism when Adam Smith wrote. He could not have known what liberalism was. He didn’t call himself a protoliberal. Liberal was an adjective…
11:40 Daniel Klein: But you agree that he knew what the liberal plan was since it was his expression?
11:44 Helena Rosenblatt: Liberal plan meant the generous, open, tolerant plan. It meant being generous and open‐minded. That’s what it meant. It did not mean…
11:53 Daniel Klein: He drew a direct contrast with the organizational view of the economy he attributed to Colbert. That’s where he uses the expression.
12:00 Helena Rosenblatt: I don’t disagree.
12:00 Jason Kuznicki: Let me ask you a question. Let me ask you a question.
12:01 Daniel Klein: No, let me just finish this. Hold on. That’s where he uses the expression, “The liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice”. And where he explains it as allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way. It’s right, it’s there. This isn’t cherry‐picking.
12:12 Helena Rosenblatt: No, no, I know, but why are we stopping at Smith?
12:15 Jason Kuznicki: May I ask you a question, this might clarify the dispute a little bit. It is often the case in intellectual history that historians identify a tendency retrospectively. So, in the Middle Ages, there’s what was called the “conciliar movement” in Europe. In European Catholicism, this is a tendency to privilege the powers and the prerogatives of church councils as being, in some way, superior to or guiding that of the Pope.
12:44 Jason Kuznicki: People who were in the conciliar movement didn’t say “I’m a conciliarist”, they didn’t say, “I believe in conciliarism”, they didn’t write books that said, “This is why “conciliarism is right”. They talked about it without using the term. Isn’t that possible for liberalism as well?
13:00 Helena Rosenblatt: They can talk about aspects of it but they won’t have a self‐conscious understanding of being liberal.
13:06 Daniel Klein: Which is…
13:07 Helena Rosenblatt: And you can…
13:07 Daniel Klein: Sorry, go ahead.
13:09 Helena Rosenblatt: But again, you can do all sorts of things and I understand we use concepts to kind of explain, to categorize and explain history. But I’ll say again, that sort of approach becomes very personal, becomes very subjective and leads to a lot of arguments among historians. In the case of Dan, I think it results in a very truncated and distorted view of liberalism because it’s all about the economy for Dan. It’s all about small government and that simply isn’t true.
13:40 Jason Kuznicki: Is it really all about small government? Is it really all about the economy? I would say, I’ll throw the case of Hobbes aside for now because he’s a weirdo.
13:50 Helena Rosenblatt: Thank you.
13:50 Jason Kuznicki: But there were a lot of contemporaries of Hobbes that I’m not so interested in throwing away. What about the levelers? Weren’t they liberals?
13:57 Daniel Klein: Again, I don’t mind projecting the term backward. And so I don’t mind saying them… Calling them that if that’s how we’re understanding the use of the term. But I’m…
14:07 Jason Kuznicki: And they weren’t terribly interested in economic issues. They were concerned about religious issues, they were concerned about having regular and fair elections for parliament, they were concerned about things like censorship and the freedom of conscience.
14:21 Daniel Klein: I’m not trying to narrow the term liberal to just the one definition. I’m just saying that the first political meaning and the paramount one was allowing every man to pursue his own…
14:34 Helena Rosenblatt: But it could also mean pray the way you want or practice the religion you want at the very same time. So that’s not let every man’s interest…
14:42 Daniel Klein: Yes, interest. It’s broad. Can I go back? You said Adam Smith wouldn’t have thought of himself as a liberal. Would you say that Edmund Burke would have thought of himself as a conservative?
14:53 Helena Rosenblatt: I haven’t checked. No, probably not. He wouldn’t have thought of himself…
14:57 Daniel Klein: Because the term conservatism isn’t invented until the 1830s.
15:01 Helena Rosenblatt: Yeah, I don’t think he would have described himself as conservative.
15:03 Daniel Klein: But you describe him that way in your book. [chuckle] Twice.
15:06 Helena Rosenblatt: You have to show me. Show me the…
15:09 Daniel Klein: I can tell you the pages.
15:10 Helena Rosenblatt: Oh well, I embody contradictions. [chuckle] No. Anyway…
15:16 Aaron Ross Powell: So we have… We can tell when the first use of the explicit term liberalism was and we can potentially attach liberalism as a political concept as Dan is doing to a particular thinker in a particular time. But how is the term… So the earliest uses of it is different than the way that Smith was using it and as you pointed out, we use it like in the US, we use it differently than we do in Europe. What is that, that evolution looked like and does that evolution and the facts that the meaning of the term hasn’t just shifted but has fractured in some ways. Does that then… Should we look at the prior history of it in similar ways, like does that splintering affect the way that we should look backwards on it, recognizing and malleability of it?
16:12 Daniel Klein: You mean after it starts as a political term, having some political meaning?
16:17 Aaron Ross Powell: Right. So I’m saying, so let’s just say post Smith, it’s the word has split into multiple meanings and individual meetings have shifted over time.
16:26 Daniel Klein: And geography.
16:27 Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. So tracing out that evolution and then does that evolution color the way that we ought to look backwards.
16:35 Helena Rosenblatt: Well, I think that we can… Again, there’s been a lot of debate and argument among self‐defined, self‐described liberals about the meaning of a true liberalism. This is a term that comes up lots in over the course of the history 19th, 20th century, what is true liberalism? So even among liberals they discuss this. But really the break, the division happens in a major way towards the end of the 19th century, as a way, thing before with the rise with industrialization and urbanization and this feeling that large swaths of the population are being left behind. These were issues. Economics, the poor, freedom of trade were discussed before among the early liberals, but the issue of the economy becomes so glaringly apparent plus there’s a lot of… They’ve obtained parliamentary government and representation in France and in Germany and in England. So now they’re really looking at the economy becomes a very, very pressing issue. These issues were there at the beginning, but they just become more important later on and these two… These divisions happen also because of the revolutions of 1848, 1830, 1848, the rises of socialism.
18:05 Helena Rosenblatt: Some liberals say, “We’re going… “. Some liberals start to say, “We really need a government to step in and to intervene and to help with income redistribution and regulation and such things. And other liberals say “No, no, no. That’s not the way to go. We should just have free trade, laissez faire and so on. And so they actually split into two kind of that we might wanna call traditions.
18:31 Daniel Klein: Yeah, I generally agree with that. You and I, mostly disagree about the earlier stuff but I… And so I agree with that and I think an important moment in transition is understanding that the liberal party, there’s the political party which has the name liberal changes its character in the late 1800s. So that’s very significant. And then after that happens, the term liberal start to… Particularly in North America starts being picked up basically in a lefty way.
19:04 Aaron Ross Powell: What accounts for this? As you mentioned it that there was the sudden concern for… On the economic side, but framed as looking at inequality, looking at the kinda the play to the common man and that rising up as a political concern and it’s a shift too in seeing economic issues as being about the people and the good and interest of the people which was something Smith in particular one of the things that he’s trying to do in wealthy nations and to pushing back against is seeing the… He doesn’t want us to see the economic unit as the nation and we get money in our coffers and one of the reasons trade is bad, people said and Smith just agreed with was because it’s money flowing out of our national coffers and that seeing unit as the nation and instead of the unit as the people, what accounts for that shift that sudden interest because it’s not like inequality and the poor doing badly started then that’s been a human constant. Right, in the ancient Rome the poor weren’t doing terribly well, so what causes that concern?
20:16 Helena Rosenblatt: I think that… I’ll try to answer that question but I think that there was a common sense of… Up until maybe the 19th century or so beyond that there was little you could do about the poor, that the economy… That the poor will always be with us kind of thing so generosity to the poor, charity to the poor was a good thing but almost or mostly considered for the actual giver, that it was a way of showing your longest, your sympathy for the poor and so on, it wasn’t really expected to raise the poor up in any kind of a major way. I think with the probably with the field of economics and with the changes that people could see in the economy people started to see huge amounts of wealth generated very quickly and then it became very obvious that some people were not rising up, some people were stuck in poverty. Meanwhile there were theories espousing free markets and all of this, that this was the answer to everything and clearly it wasn’t because all these people were basically stuck and couldn’t lift themselves up so ideas began to change.
21:27 Daniel Klein: I just want to add that, I look at Smith as coming out of a whole tradition of natural jurisprudence that’s quite theological.
21:36 Aaron Ross Powell: Can you go unpack that a bit but natural jurisprudence what that is and then how it’s theological?
21:41 Daniel Klein: If you think of Grotius, Pufendorf and then in Scotland Carmichael and Hutcheson and then Hume and Smith and so these guys were all about God’s universal love for all of humankind so I don’t really buy this idea that… Smith did do something remarkable and propounding that the poor are equal ethically overall and pushing that point but it’s not as though… His teacher Francis Hutcheson I’m sure felt the same way, so I don’t see it as… If you think of the whole… That whole tradition of ethics, religious ethics you might say, it puts a different cast on the matter.
22:33 Helena Rosenblatt: We spoke about generosity or somebody didn’t maybe listen to me. But I think also it was something I talk about in my book is this word liberal and liberality. In my first chapter I traced how these words changed over time but at the core, the root of the word liberal is Libra. Now most people when they say that, will say, that oh, it meant freedom and of course it did mean freedom in Latin but it also meant generosity, it also meant magnanimity, that’s where you get the word liberality there was the word liberality before there was liberalism. The idea, this was being liberal was a quality of being a good citizen, it meant being devoted to the common good. Over time this concept gets Christianized and eventually politicized and I think this idea that you need to be generosity is necessary to bind a country together, is very crucial to the evolution of liberalism and early on I think the idea was that maybe private charity, private generosity was enough to make the system cohere but once you have this industrialization and the problems I just described earlier there is the feeling that the government it’s not enough, private charity is not enough, the government needs now to be generous and to step in and do this work of a lot of making society cohere by allowing for or encouraging or creating a certain amount… A minimum amount of equality at least.
24:09 Aaron Ross Powell: How then does… We have lots of people today claim the mantle of liberal and what you’ve just described sounds like the way that liberals in United States would describe themselves when you use the term but you also have classical liberals and then Libertarians tend to think of ourselves as… At least some of us do in the liberal tradition and would reject that core that you just laid out of not reject generosity but reject generosity as best operationalized via the state, so are you saying you think it’s then a mistake for classical liberals and libertarians to consider themselves part of the Liberal tradition?
24:57 Helena Rosenblatt: No, no, no I don’t think that at all, I’m saying that there are different ways of being liberal and that we can see that in history. Liberal is not one thing, Liberalism has not been one thing. I do however, I would however say that throughout history majority of liberals have not just been about self‐interest and individual rights and certainly not just about property rights, they have also been about duties, about obligations to their country and this goes way back to Rome but it’s consistently and constantly repeated also by these early liberals that I refer to.
25:42 Helena Rosenblatt: What I call the early liberals, not Smith, not Hume, but Benjamin Constant, for example, Madame de Staël and throughout. They keep talking about how generosity is needed, how selflessness, self‐sacrifice is absolutely essential, that it’s not just about self‐interest. So there are these two, and they were in the majority is what I wanted to say. There were people saying, “No, no, leave the economy to run itself. Don’t get involved with it and so on, and things will take care of themselves,” but there are always other liberals saying, “No, no, no. You can’t even call yourself liberal because you’re narrow‐minded.” And look, literally, I’m using the words. It’s quoted in my book. They’re saying you are narrow‐minded. We are not about selfishness, which you are here proposing is selfishness, and that makes you illiberal, not liberal.
26:32 Daniel Klein: In this matter, I have to say that I think this is a case where something gets stereotyped and misrepresented, and then when someone sees that something else doesn’t fit the stereotype, they think, “Oh, therefore the other thing,” ’cause I don’t… I just don’t think Adam Smith or anybody in the older liberal tradition ever said anything… You know he wrote a book about virtues and the duties, including generosity. So this idea that classical liberalism somehow represents something that is not for liberality and all that, I think it’s kind of a red herring.
27:16 Helena Rosenblatt: No, no, I totally agree with what you’re saying now. I’m certainly not, would never say that Smith was not a generous person or that libertarians aren’t generous and civic‐minded and so on. I am saying that you’re misreading Smith.
27:32 Daniel Klein: In what way?
27:34 Helena Rosenblatt: Because I think that he was… You’re misusing Smith. You’re picking out parts of Smith, first of all, and that you’re accentuating. You’re not talking about the portions of Book Five where he talks about government intervention, where, I mean, the fact that he was for banking regulation, that he was for progressive taxation, that he was for infrastructural, and you don’t talk about where he says in the Moral Sentiments that every good citizen has to be able to self‐sacrifice and think about, put the common good… I’m not exactly quoting, but something like that. Put the common good above the private good. You’re not talking about those aspects of Smith. Who knows what Smith would say today. He had no idea what the world would look like today, but he was interested in empirical evidence. He was a large‐minded, educated person. He was interested in facts and data and how he would have reacted to the bunch of facts and data we have for him today and what he would have advocated, I don’t know. Is he directly relevant today, to liberalism today?
28:33 Daniel Klein: I think he is, but trace…
28:34 Aaron Ross Powell: Isn’t this… Isn’t this discussion sort of like arguing about whether Jesus was a Catholic or Protestant? I mean the correct answer is neither. He was a Jew. And if we were to have that argument, we would be arguing about terms that more precisely describe factions that did not arise until much later, and it seems that if it is a mistake to say that the classical liberals, so‐called, are the true liberals, then it is also a mistake by the exact same token to say that the modern liberals are the true liberals. There was not so much of a perceived salient difference at that time. The difference was not between classical and modern liberals, it was between liberals and feudalists or people who were traditionalist in some way, wanted the old order where the church was ascendant, where it was politically powerful, where you had a nobility that was hereditary that enjoyed special privileges, where those were not in the nobility had many more obligations than we would think proper for the citizens of a liberal government today. And arguing about whether the state should provide welfare or not, that was small stuff compared to what was going on at the time.
30:04 Helena Rosenblatt: It was. And, most of when they were successful, liberals knew who their enemies were and they weren’t liberal. So they weren’t their fellow liberals. They were the conservatives or the counter‐revolutionaries and so on. And when they would not agree over these issues, as they didn’t in Germany, for example, what did you get? I mean you got Bismarck. You got…
30:24 Jason Kuznicki: Right.
30:24 Helena Rosenblatt: Terrible things happened when they couldn’t agree on these issues. So they knew they were friends. They could argue over policy, economic policy, how much intervention, how much free trade and so on, but they certainly knew what side they were on.
30:39 Daniel Klein: Let me just comment that I think it’s natural and great how to deal with these big disagreements about our own outlooks and politics. We go back to people that we both claim in a sense, like Adam Smith, and we then have a discussion about, “Well, what did he really think?” Or, “How does he weigh in on these matters?” I think that’s right, and I think the Bible’s a great analogy because people go back to the Bible, and we just… They all, if they all claim it and they kinda meet there to explore their differences, the I… And I think it’s really great and cool how we tend to go back to Adam Smith in this conversation…
31:20 Helena Rosenblatt: And you keep tracking us back.
31:22 Daniel Klein: Well maybe. But it seems to be happening much beyond just the two of us in my view. There’s a great conversation going on about Adam Smith and I think it reflects this broader soul‐searching about liberalism because he is, I think, it turns out the paramount figure of this, and then… I mean, if we can agree that he’s a liberal, that he’s kind of a main figure if not the paramount figure, and that then we have a conversation about, “Well, gee, what is he? What is his scheme of judgment? What is his way of seeing things? What is his view of governmentalizing social affairs?”, then that’s a great conversation to have. We’re like meeting like someone we both wanna embrace.
32:03 Aaron Ross Powell: What is it about bracketing the ongoing debate about his place within definitional liberalism? What is it about Smith today that’s having him play this role? What is it about his set of ideas that is making him a figure that we are going back to and looking to as someone who we wanna know what kind of… We wanna imagine what their judgment of our current situation would be?
32:37 Helena Rosenblatt: I mean Dan as you know I love Adam Smith. So I mean he’s a great, great figure. So I never mind talking about him. I just think we’re talking a little bit too much about him in this span of the history of liberalism. Okay, but… And I wish that our politicians would be talking about Adam Smith. I’m afraid they they probably are not and if they are, they’re reading snippets of The Wealth of Nations and certainly not The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
33:00 Jason Kuznicki: I don’t know if anybody wants to bite on this, but I’ve heard a very similar version of this discussion conducted around John Stuart Mill. Who is the true heir of the political thought of John Stuart Mill today? Is it the modern liberal, which if you’re gonna make that case you look to his later writings and his later more open support for or sympathy towards socialism. And if you are a classical liberal, you look toward his earlier writings and say, “Well, he kind of fell off the wagon later on and that’s unfortunate. But look, On Liberty is a fantastic libertarian book and why don’t we talk about him in those terms?”
33:40 Aaron Ross Powell: But I guess there’s plenty in this could apply to both the conversation about Mill and the conversation about Smith and other fingers as well. This kind of looking back and claiming someone… There’s a handful of ways that that can play out in terms of the way people approach it and maybe we analogize the way that the Constitution gets used in the US today. That on the one hand you can look back to it and say, there’s a great deal of wisdom embedded in this text, this set of ideas and We should seek to… We recognize that wisdom and we should seek to learn from it and apply it forward to our existing thing, our existing problems and issues. So we’re trying to get to the core of what it really meant which can be a very hard problem, but that’s the goal. On the other hand you can use it almost as a talisman of sorts. That you’re trying to claim it in order to lend authority or gravitas to what you’re already doing. Like I’ve got my set of ideas, I wanna do them and if I can get… If I can claim that this great thinker or this constitutional document or whatever backs me up, it makes my argument more powerful and more persuasive.
34:53 Aaron Ross Powell: But those are two separate ways of approaching it. And so are we seeing, when we’re looking back to these great thinkers of the past, which way are they being used? And so when you talk about the politicians not actually reading Smith to the extent then that they would cite him, Although American politicians don’t tend to cite past thinkers all that much, it looks more like the latter of the Talismanic way. But is… Are we seeing one more than the other?
35:17 Daniel Klein: I think we do both when we invoke authority. It’s not only that we assert that this guy is with us, this great respected past figure, but it’s also a way of communicating like how to understand what you’re saying. Think of what I’m saying as he thinks about these things. So it’s also a way of clarifying like, “No, I mean more Hayek than Mises.” I mean…
35:43 Helena Rosenblatt: That’s very clear.
35:44 Daniel Klein: Well, there is a difference.
35:45 Jason Kuznicki: It’s just a fine distinction.
35:46 Daniel Klein: It’s not as fine as some people make out, but that’s another matter.
35:51 Helena Rosenblatt: I think this question is fascinating and so important. I love the question of when do people adopt and use certain authorities and which authorities do they then adopt? For what purpose? Some people talk a lot about the sources of liberalism, we were talking about Hobbes and then we’re talking about Smith and there is no doubt that these people had influence on the people I call liberals. So I’m not trying to say that they weren’t influenced by them, but what are they doing with these thinkers? And what… At what point for example, does John Locke become called a liberal? He’s not there in the beginning. They’re not talking about John Locke. And I show him… I thought it was so exciting, so interesting and I built on another person’s work, I keep forgetting if it’s David Bell or Daniel Bell, who wrote a really excellent article in political theory which I then developed showing that John Locke becomes a founding father of liberalism in the interwar period.
36:56 Helena Rosenblatt: It starts in ’93, that’s when they start talking about John Locke as a founder of Anglo‐American liberalism, is a term that’s kind of invented at this point. And we can understand why with the World Wars and why the stress on property rights. When you have fascism and then socialism and then the Cold War. So this idea that liberalism is an Anglo‐American tradition and that certain thinkers among them John Locke and his idea of property are so very central, is a very recent development in the history of liberalism.
37:31 Jason Kuznicki: I’d be happy to agree with some of what you’ve said. I’ve seen you argue elsewhere, I believe it was at [37:39] ____, that French liberals are in fact the true liberals in a sense. They are the ones who are first using the term liberalism as we now use it, and to some extent Hayek threw them under the bus, and I agree with that. Hayek’s biggest mistake was to dismiss French liberals and to characterize French political thought as systematic and top down. It often was, but not always, certainly, and there certainly were French liberals that I think he gave too little credit to. But, by the same token, those French liberals had some influence in the United States. People like Thomas Jefferson and Payne, and even Mark Twain, was very openly admiring of the early French Revolution and of the French liberalism that resulted from that.
38:34 Jason Kuznicki: Now, I wanna complicate this, because no one is ever just influenced by one person, and so while Thomas Jefferson greatly admired what was happening in France and hoped for its success, and said good things about the French Revolution, he also wrote the Declaration of Independence. And it is very difficult to deny the influence of John Locke on that document. I would wanna say, let’s maybe discount the influence of nationality or there’s Anglo‐American on one side and French on the other, and recognize that there’s constant cross‐fertilization here.
39:17 Helena Rosenblatt: Oh, absolutely, I totally agree with you. And, again, I don’t deny these… I couldn’t possibly deny all these influences on liberalism. It’s just, which ones do you choose? There’s so many. Somebody like Benjamin Constant, who also Hayek appreciated very much, who… He was influenced by so many people, many of whom we don’t even read today. Counter revolutionaries, obscure of religious thinkers, German thinkers, it’s endless. So which ones are we going to pick up? That’s why I adopted the method I adopted. The other thing is what you rightly say is, people are… There’s so many influences, how… Also do they read these thinkers? We have to remember that the way we read maybe Adam Smith today, or John Locke today, can be very different from the way he was read in the 18th century in America or in France, they use these thinkers and sometimes they bunch them together in ways that we just found, find extraordinary today. Americans read, were capable of putting a list of thinkers like John Locke and Russo together in the same sentence, as if they were compatible, and today we think that’s crazy.
40:31 Daniel Klein: I just wanna add that the issue of cherry‐picking is something that could be leveled against any of us. So I don’t… Until some kind of method is defended, it’s not clear how you get around that. I do feel, though, however, the big data is one approach to get around that. And I think the big data shows results particularly in n‐grams and similar techniques.
40:56 Jason Kuznicki: What is that? What does that mean?
41:00 Daniel Klein: An n‐gram?
41:00 Jason Kuznicki: Yeah.
41:00 Daniel Klein: An n‐gram analysis? Like a 2 gram would be like water bottle, two words in a string, water bottle. So if you type this into the Google n‐gram viewer, you can see the percentage that the 2 gram water bottle was, of all 2 grams over time.
41:19 Aaron Ross Powell: And what is this? You’re looking through… This is looking through scanned text.
41:22 Daniel Klein: Yes, millions of scanned books at Google Books. So when you put in the expressions that, as I say, rose up very dramatically, suddenly got latched on to, and then promoted in the 1770s, beginning in the 1770s. Liberal plan, liberal government, liberal system, liberal principles, liberal ideas. It’s just totally dramatic and striking and compelling, and until Helena can tell me why that’s isn’t compelling to her, I’ll be mystified.
41:51 Helena Rosenblatt: No, I think it’s totally compelling. I’m just disagreeing with your interpretation of the word liberal. I cannot refute data, I believe in facts.
42:01 Daniel Klein: Well, what about the interpretation is unclear?
42:05 Helena Rosenblatt: Because you’re saying that Smith, when he talks about liberal plan that that makes him a spokesperson or an advocate of liberalism. I’m saying yes.
42:16 Daniel Klein: Well he’s an advocate of something, we agree with that.
42:18 Helena Rosenblatt: For sure.
42:19 Daniel Klein: And he’s… It seems like he’s christening it, liberal plan, liberal system…
42:23 Helena Rosenblatt: I know, but what does he mean by that?
42:25 Daniel Klein: Yeah, well, what does Adam Smith mean?
42:27 Helena Rosenblatt: In that particular context…
42:29 Aaron Ross Powell: Can I ask a question about this particular research method? If we’re looking… Books are a subset of communication and discourse, they’re not all of it, and the role that they have played.
42:43 Daniel Klein: It does have volumes of the annual register and such like that.
42:47 Aaron Ross Powell: Okay, but so are we… Is it possible that conversations, ideas, can be in the discussion or a genuine thing before people start writing about them in the ways that then end up in these kinds of databases? And does that color the data that comes out of it, or as I think you might be saying, we get enough of the conversation is captured, because we’ve got newspapers and other things that aren’t just scholarly text.
43:19 Jason Kuznicki: Could I amplify this with an example?
43:21 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure.
43:21 Jason Kuznicki: So nowadays we talk about the freedom of conscience, and we all kind of know what that means. And there’s a good chance that if you wanna talk about the freedom of conscience, you’re gonna say freedom of conscience. Well, Roger Williams, an early advocate of the freedom of conscience didn’t talk about it in those terms, he used the term soul liberty, and he meant something essentially identical to what we mean now. But if we were to do an N‐gram analysis, we would come up dry, we wouldn’t find that in his writings.
43:50 Daniel Klein: But the focus of our exploration both in Helena’s book, is she makes clear. And in my take on these matters, which is not a book or less [43:57] ____, is a semantic history, it’s about this term. First it starts the adjective liberal, and that gets established, and then that naturally gives rise to nouns. Both the noun liberal like, “I am a liberal.” And the liberalism. And that’s a natural progression of all of these important ideas. It’s about a semantic history Jason, we all know that… Liberty ideas have a much older history, and are talked of in different ways.
44:32 Jason Kuznicki: I understand that. I guess, I may be questioning the value of confining ourselves to semantic history. That may be what I’m aiming at…
44:42 Daniel Klein: That’s a fair point, that’s a fair point. Maybe, this isn’t important.
44:46 Daniel Klein: But words… You know, these are words we use. I mean, why… What are…
44:52 Helena Rosenblatt: I’d just like to say, we’ve done a similar research, which is one of the things we agree with, is this, how interesting it is to do these engrams, and word clouds, and all this stuff that the internet and computers make possible today. But what I found, when I was doing these extensive word searches on books, on newspapers to to understand the evolution of the meaning of the term liberal and liberalism… What I found, enormous… So many references when you come up to liberal arts. They’re talking about education, or liberal science. And again, you have to then pay attention to the way the word is being used in the sentence. It’s not just a question of… “Oh, it was used a million times.” Like, what were they using it to say?
45:39 Jason Kuznicki: Yes. Do the semantic shifts so, perhaps reflect contemporary political signaling. So, for example, nowadays, you hear the term “social justice” a lot, and even people who support, or say that they support social justice may have a somewhat vague or you can call it idea of what that really means, but they will say it very frequently. And they do so in part to signal allegiance with a certain tendency, or a certain coalition of tendencies loosely associated with the political left, as we all know. And it’s not so much that it’s about an ideology, it’s more about being a part of a club.
46:23 Daniel Klein: I think that’s a fair point, but there is some analysis you can do about what… Like you might just imagine, “Hey, people started using this adjective, liberal.” And I started throwing it. Like, “My liberal shoes,” and, “That liberal door.” But you can do this. And I’ve done that. And it’s the liberal plan, liberal government, liberal principles, liberal system and so on, which are exactly the collocates that raise in the percentage points. You can see the picture right here Jason. [chuckle]
46:48 Aaron Ross Powell: And we’ll put a link… These slides that Daniel are referencing are in the video version of your debates. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes.
46:56 Daniel Klein: No, it’s a real thing. I don’t know why there’s so much resistance to this. If I could just add, this agreement that Helena and I are not… Helena and I have been exploring and with such pleasure and gratitude on my part is… I want people to understand that this… We are replaying a very long‐standing disagreement. And I wanna read a quote from 1960. Maybe some of you can guess who wrote this. “It is often suggested that the term “liberal” derives from the early 19th century Spanish party of the liberales, following on the heels of the French Revolution a bit. I am more inclined to believe that it derives from the use of the term by Adam Smith and such passages of the wealth nations in his liberal system, and allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice.” So there’s actually a long tradition of people presenting what Helena is saying, about the origination being from the French Revolution period and after, and Hayek saying, “No, it starts earlier.” What I’m saying.
48:06 Aaron Ross Powell: This debate that we’ve been having today is clearly an interesting one, and one that particularly is interesting to intellectual historians. It has academic interest. But for people who aren’t in that world; for ordinary people engaged in the political sphere that we find ourselves in now, What should they learn from this story, this evolution of this term, this particular debate? What lessons should they take from this going forward?
48:43 Helena Rosenblatt: I would like people to be aware of what they’re saying when they use this word liberalism. I’d like them… If you can draw one basic lesson, is simply to understand that you are using what’s something that at this point is a very politically loaded term. It always has been, by the way. But to understand that it’s fraught, that there are debates about it, and therefore at least to know as a starting point, what you mean by the term, so that we can have… And then, what others might mean by the term, so that we can have some common ground for fruitful debate. If people are confused and using the word in a haphazard, or messy, or vague way, we can never make any political progress. We’re living in a very conflictual time, people are using words as weapons, and unless we can have reason conversations using the same vocabulary, we’re not going to move forward.
49:45 Daniel Klein: I actually think it pertains to helping people cope with modernity, and what traditions we represent, and are part of, and want to affirm. Modernity coming, particularly, after, I would say, the 15th century, and the printing… The creation of the printing press, and then print culture, then the idea of the public, then democracy, and everything that follows in the more recent centuries. A tremendous change: Rise of markets, market liberalism, commercial society, and fragmentation just like Mark said, just like Karl Polanyi said. And how are we gonna cope with all this? And I think that’s exactly what these guys were dealing with, from Grotius, to… Into the guys we’re talking about. And basically, my feeling is that the attitude that I suggest to people needs a name, and the best name for it is liberalism.
50:51 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, you can find our Free Thoughts discussion group on Facebook, or on Reddit at r/FreeThoughts Podcast. You can follow us on Twitter at FreeThoughtsPod. As always, please rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible, and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.