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Christianity, Classical Liberalism are Liberty's Foundations

R&L: Explain the difference between classical liberalism and modern liberalism.

Liggio: Modern liberals have tried to steal the cloak of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism was the dominant philosophy in the United States and England, really, until about the First World War. The war, unfortunately, was a disaster for liberalism, because it disrupted constitutional order. All the countries at war used extreme measures of repression. Even England and America created police states on the model of Germany or their Czarist allies and trampled liberty underfoot. At the same time, they trampled economic liberty by allocating resources through central planning, again modeled on the German desperation as they were cut off by the wartime blockade. In fact, Lenin viewed the German wartime operations of centralization as the model for his Bolshevik regime. It gave him what he felt were practical models for creating centralized direction of the economy once the Bolshevik revolution occurred.

So the First World War was this great watershed, a great tragedy for all who were killed or wounded on the battlefield, for the many who died or were disabled by the epidemics that followed, and for the economic waste that prevented investment in the postwar period and led to the great depression and to movements toward greater government control. So, everywhere, liberalism was put on the defensive by this catastrophe.

R&L: So you are saying classical liberalism and modern liberalism do not share the same historical and philosophical foundations and sources?

Liggio: They do not. Some of the people who claim to be liberal, I never refer to as liberal. I call them “collectivists” or “social democrats.” Classical liberalism is liberalism, but the current collectivists have captured that designation in the United States. Happily they did not capture it in Europe, and were glad enough to call themselves socialists. But no one in America wants to be called socialist and admit what they are.

R&L: And that is why advocates of a free society in Europe today are still called liberals?

Liggio: Yes.

R&L: What impact is classical liberalism having on European politics today?

Liggio: Well, it has revived tremendously, because most importantly, the concrete failure of the East European and Soviet collectivized economy has led to the recognition that only the market can provide wealth. The societies in Eastern Europe until 1989 had been able to survive for decades due to the West’s support.

By the late 1980s, the West itself was beginning to suffer from its own internal collectivist politics and economics. In other words, the collectivism of the American and European governments sapped their own strength, but so did trying to prop up the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe with enormous loans to buy, for instance, the agricultural surplus of the West, which then fed these unfortunate people. They would have been so much better off if the system had collapsed in 1979, or 1969 when the Czech spring showed that it had collapsed.

Yet, when the Soviets marched in, the West was still willing to lend hundreds of millions and billions of dollars to the whole Eastern Bloc to keep it on an oxygen tube. There was so much poverty created by this long-term system that it is now going to take decades for these countries to recover and get back into some sort of reasonable economic system.

It is going to be a hard process, and they are making it harder on themselves by not reforming quickly enough and by retaining so much of the communist apparatus. But you cannot blame them, since most of the West has its own apparatus of state control and has not made much of a move towards reform. So do not blame these people for thinking, “Well, we must be on the right track by following America or Western Europe in keeping state control of many industries.”

R&L: You were one of the early leaders in the American classical liberal revival. What role has your faith played in this cause?

Liggio: Well, I would not be a classical liberal if I had not been a very active Christian. Classical liberalism was the natural consequence of a number of things: that I was interested in Christian thought, and especially Aristotelian thought, that I had a strong interest in moral philosophy, that I had the advantage of an education entirely focused around moral philosophy during all of my academic studies, and that I spent as much time as I could studying theology and Christian history.

R&L: What role did Christianity play in the emergence of the components of a free society: free markets, limited government, and the like?

Liggio: I think we have to look at comparative history. Of all the civilizations around the world, why did only the Christian West become both free and prosperous? We are talking about distinctions between civilizations. Asian civilization, for example, did not become free and prosperous, even though it had a lot of cultural creativity. But we must also look at other Christian civilizations, such as the Byzantine, Abyssinian, Georgian, and Armenian Christian empires, all of which lasted for many centuries but did not create the kind of free and prosperous society the Christian West did.

Many scholars have studied this and have come to the conclusion that this is due to the fact that the religious institutions were totally separate from, and often in conflict with, political institutions only in the Christian West. This created the space in which free institutions could emerge. The idea of independent religious institutions is absent even in Eastern Christianity; their religious institutions are part of the bureaucracy of the state. In Western Europe, though, the religious institutions were autonomous among themselves, and totally independent from and often in opposition to state power. The result was the creation of a polycentric system. And whenever this system was threatened by claims of total empire by the political rulers, Christian philosophy was utilized as part of its defense.

So within that space, the economic institutions–often modeled on the religious institutions as autonomous entities–could flourish and survive.

R&L: Many modern thinkers feel that a robust public expression of Christianity or religion threatens freedom. What’s your response to that?

Liggio: It is unbelievable to me that anyone could say that sort of thing. But since I am a historian, I know that many people are not knowledgeable in history and can make all kinds of statements that have no relevance to the situation. First of all, anyone’s religious views are totally unthreatening to me. I am glad when anyone has religious views; it makes me very confident in them. I have a lot of trust in people that have religious views, compared to people that do not. It makes for a much healthier society.

I once was at a meeting in which someone made what I took to be an uncomplimentary reference to Mennonites on the ground that they often barter among themselves, and therefore did not participate in buying at Wal-Mart or whatever the case might be. I said that where I lived, I would pay a premium to live among Mennonite neighbors. It would give me so much confidence, I would be willing to pay extra taxes if Mennonites moved into my neighborhood. And the same with any other religious group. I would pay a premium if I could maximize the number of religious people among whom I live.

I do not feel threatened at all; I am very happy to have people expressing their religious views and expressing them strongly.

R&L: Well, the argument would be that some Christians tend toward theocracy, and want to politically impose religious values and moral standards on all of us.

Liggio: I think that is typically a case of misunderstanding. Most Christians are anxious not to have immoral and anti-Christian views imposed on them. They want to protect themselves from being inundated with anti-Christian or immoral ideas and are trying to find ways and means to do that. As a classical liberal, I certainly want to join them in trying to find solutions to these evils that we find in society. It is not easy, but it is very important for society to try and find ways to minimize the immorality we see around us.

R&L: Why is it that those who are thought to be the chief vanguards of the free society, people like bankers, businessmen, wealthy people, often support causes and movements that strive to limit economic and political liberty?

Liggio: Well, most people, including business people, want to reduce risk and limit the amount of uncertainty in their business activities. That is a wholesome thing as long as they find means like insurance. Insurance is one of the most important ways, and there are so many kinds of insurance now, so many ways of using insurance to minimize risk, that using illegitimate and illicit means, like using force, using the violence of the state to prevent competition, is not only immoral in itself, but counterproductive. It is immoral, because it interferes with the rights of every ordinary consumer to buy the best product at the appropriate or the cheapest cost that he wants, and to be able to buy what numbers of it that he wishes.

This is the core, we might say, of the industrial revolution; it was a consumer revolution. It was the desire of consumers to have more than one piece of clothing. That led to a demand for a huge amount of cotton, which was hard to satisfy with spinning wheels. So cotton spinning was mechanized by water power, which provided enough cotton so people could have multiple changes of clothes. This contributed mightily to hygienic improvement in the West, and therefore to population increase.

Population increase is one of the important values of a capitalist society. A socialist society wants to have very few mouths to feed. They do not want to have to clothe or support many people, because they cannot afford to. That is why we find that it was in the socialist countries where abortion is the most intensive and prevalent, and encouraged totally by the state.

R&L: Sometimes mandated by the state.

Liggio: And mandated to reduce the number of consumers. Capitalism, as Gary Becker has pointed out, is the great anti-Malthusian philosophy. Capitalism wants more people, and wants to help more people by increased production. More people actually makes it more efficient to produce more products.