Beltway Confidential
A lament of rising illiberalism on the Right and Left
Beltway Confidential
A lament of rising illiberalism on the Right and Left
American Flag, Capitol building and the United States Constitution

Classical liberals are on the precipice of political homelessness. America’s animating philosophy, which emphasizes individual liberty, the rule of law, free enterprise, and equal dignity for all, is getting swept away by torrents of illiberalism. On both the Left and Right, winning political coalitions have little use for those who pledge allegiance to our nation’s historical creed.

As classical liberals, we cannot hide our dismay with contemporary politics. On the Right, the fusionist coalition that once offered old-fashioned liberals a voice within the GOP is falling apart. On the Left, Democrats treat as enemies of the state anybody who dares dissent from extreme progressivism. Now, even elements of the Libertarian Party are turning against classical liberalism, preferring outrage-stoking and noxious racialism to a principled defense of human freedom.

Federalism, free markets, and even the Constitution have few defenders in the public square. While we don’t expect sweetness and light from partisan contests, surely it’s reasonable to demand the political process respect quintessentially American beliefs. Turning away from liberalism means leaving behind part of what makes us who we are. Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians have forgotten the difference between policy disagreements and civic loyalty.

There’s little room for our economic ideas in the Democratic Party. They’ve opposed free enterprise since the New Deal, if not earlier. But another, more recent illiberal turn is far more alarming: Democrats have turned their back on basic values such as free speech, toleration of dissent, and open scientific inquiry. Instead, they prefer totalizing wokeness , seasoned heavily with authoritarianism. Left-illiberalism infuses every aspect of life with "social justice" activism, from the ESG investment schemes of Wall Street to the monetary policy priorities of the Federal Reserve to the kinds of cars and appliances permissible to purchase. If Democrats get their way, everything social and cultural will necessarily become political. There’s no room for liberalism here.

Conservatives once paid lip service to freedom of contract, voluntary exchange, free trade, and fiscal discipline. Alas, those days are gone. Under the misleading cover of pursuing America’s "national interest," their policies single out politically connected industries as recipients of public largesse. Some are even heralding the revival of Henry Clay’s "American System" — a discredited platform of trade protectionism and subsidized infrastructure from the 19th century. These policies invariably devolve into political cronyism, as happened in the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which triggered an international collapse in commerce and helped put the "Great" in the "Great Depression." As history shows, right-wing illiberalism is dangerous, too.

Although it was never electorally viable, the Libertarian Party occasionally offered a home for conscientious protest voters against left- and right-illiberalism. This is quickly fading. The tendentiously named "Mises Caucus," which recently seized control of the party’s leadership, is dragging its reputation through the mud. Rather than promoting Ludwig von Mises’s brand of cosmopolitan liberalism, they’re cozying up to overtly racist and sexist elements from the political fringe. Official Twitter accounts now flaunt the philosophy of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a German economist who advocates exclusionary communities based on race, religion, and ethnicity. Recent party-affiliated spokespersons have even flirted with segregationism on the flimsy assertion that "freedom of association" somehow gives municipalities the right to ban African Americans from "trespassing" on town property. Others have called for repealing women’s suffrage. This foul behavior undermines the foundational tenets of voluntarism, tolerance, and respect for human dignity.

Illiberalism makes our national problems, especially polarization, even worse. Repudiating natural rights and basic legal fairness makes us more fearful of each other and hence more willing to do one another harm. Classical liberalism’s retreat from the public square sets us up for a war of all against all. Those who believe in the self-evident truths upon which America is built must resist illiberalism with all their strength and hope that any sensible voices still remaining in our political system, whatever the party, are listening.

Phil Magness is the director of research and education at the American Institute for Economic Research. Alexander William Salter is the Georgie G. Snyder associate professor of economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a senior fellow with AIER’s Sound Money Project.

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