Dynamist Blog

Liberalism and Dynamism

Maybe because I did something similar in TFAIE, it seems much clearer to me than to many other commenters that Brink Lindsey's TNR article is proposing an intellectual and policy alliance/debate, along the lines of the fusionism on the postwar right, not a short-term partisan political coalition to win the 2008 election. The stuff about 13 percent of the vote is mostly news-peg boilerplate. That's how you get TNR and the WaPost to pay attention. It's as irrelevant today as it was in the 1950s just how many libertarian-identified voters there are. The point is to talk seriously about policy ends and means and the role of market processes in serving liberal (in all senses of the word) values. Nor did Brink cook this up post-election. It reflects thought going into a book he's been working on for several years. [Since several sites have linked to my post below, I've added some of this as an update to that post as well. Sorry for the repetition.]

I wouldn't throw all conservatives overboard, but I've long agreed that alliances are fundamentally shifting. From my 1999 address to the Mont Pelerin Society:

The good news is that just as the breakdown of socialism has created new alliances against markets, it has also created new alliances in support of them. The idea that markets produce not chaos and disruption but positive, emergent order has become common in the same circles where a generation ago socialism, or at least technocratic planning, was all the rage. Some of you may have seen, for instance, this endorsement of market dynamism from a noted economist: "What's the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans. That's the consensus among economists. That's the Hayek legacy." The source of that upbeat assessment of markets was Larry Summers, now U.S. secretary of the treasury and the epitome of a Cambridge economist.

If Schlesinger's hysteria exemplifies the attitudes of centrist stasists, Summers' optimism represents a new centrist coalition on the side of dynamism. That does not mean that Summers is a classical liberal, of course. It simply makes him, and other centrist dynamists, the sort of ally on behalf of markets that anti-socialist conservatives were in an earlier time. The American center (and, I suspect, Britain's New Labour) is full of chastened technocrats who have come to accept the practical limitations of state action and the practical advantages of economic freedom.

There are also many political "moderates"--journalists, scholars, technologists, scientists, artists, and business people, all far less famous than Summers--whose intellectual appreciation for self-organizing systems has come from outside economics: from complexity theory, from the decentralized evolution of the Internet, from the process of scientific discovery, from ecological science, from cross-cultural exchange, from organization theory. These centrist dynamists share an appreciation for dispersed knowledge and trial-and-error evolution that spills over into their attitudes toward markets. They do not always prefer markets to government, but they usually do. They lack the reflex that says a single, government-imposed approach is the best solution to public problems. They are more concerned with finding mechanisms to encourage innovation, competition, choice, and feedback. One thing that makes our political discourse confusing is that the term moderate does not distinguish between those whose moderation implies an appreciation for market processes and those whose moderation suggests just the opposite--a long list of schemes for small-scale government tinkering.

Even more striking is a profound split on what used to be the left. While leftists like Sennett are attacking economic dynamism, their erstwhile allies are finding in markets the values of innovation, openness, and choice. The counterculture has morphed into the business culture--to the consternation of both commerce-hating leftists and cultural conservatives. The left that gave us socialism is not the left that gave us personal computers and Fast Company magazine. Yet both the PC and America's hot new business magazine were unquestionably created by people who, by both personal history and political agenda, saw themselves as left-wing critics of establishment institutions. Individuals who would have no great love of "markets" if that concept implied static, hierarchical, bureaucratic corporate structures have embraced the idea of markets as open systems that foster diversity and self-expression. The very characteristics that make stasists wary of markets lead an emerging coalition of dynamists to defend them.

On the old political spectrum, socialism defined the left. That meant that the more you opposed socialism, for whatever reason, the further right you were. On the old spectrum, therefore, classical liberals were on the right, which makes us the right wing of the dynamist coalition.

It matters a lot whether we define our central challenge today as opposing socialism or as protecting dynamism. If we declare "the left" our enemies and "the right" our allies, based on anti-socialist assumptions, we will ignore the emerging left-right alliance against markets. We will miss the symbolic and practical importance of such cutting-edge issues as biotechnology, popular culture, international trade, and Internet governance. We will sacrifice whole areas of research and innovation to stay friendly with people who'll agree to cut taxes just a little bit, and only for families with children. We will miss the chance to deepen the appreciation for market processes among people who lack the proper political pedigree. We will sacrifice the future of freedom in order to preserve the habits of the past.

At some point, of course, we have to talk about foreign policy. But there is no single "libertarian" or "liberal" foreign policy position to begin with, so alliances will be based mostly on judgment calls in specific situations.

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