Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Liberal Capitalist Democracy

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When words have no defined meanings, it is hard to hold an intelligent conversation. It should really be no surprise that our national conversation is so shrill and so inconclusive, when we can’t even agree on what the words mean.


The words liberal and liberty have a common root, the Latin liber, meaning free. In late medieval England, a liberty was a piece of land in possession of a lord or abbot, into which royal officials such as sheriffs may not enter without permission of the possessor [Roberts and Roberts, A History of England, vol. 1, p. 339]. By 1630, the meaning of the word liberty had been broadened to mean freedom for anyone from domination by the king and court. A person who supported the rights of persons against the divine right of the monarch became a liberal.

The word was also used by opponents to include persons who did whatever they wanted without moral restraint, seeking to imply that those who would defy the will of the king today would act without any limits tomorrow. However, by 1700 there was general understanding that such a person was not a liberal, but a libertine.

In nineteenth century terms, the opposite of a liberal was a reactionary, someone who reacted to threats to established order and privilege. Liberals sought freedom of speech, assembly and worship, and to end slavery and involuntary servitude. Liberals wanted all people (well, initially all men, but the program did broaden to include women over time) to have the freedom to choose their residence, occupation and avocations.

In the United States in the 1930s, political activists who were not at all liberal adopted the term for themselves in order to give themselves the appearance of continuity with existing political traditions. They sought to paint themselves as the heirs of liberalism and their opponents as the party of reaction. The success model for this was Lenin: in 1903, after a split within the Russian Communist Party, he and his followers began calling themselves bolshevik (majority) and their opponents menshevik (minority), even though it was quite the other way around. Lenin and his followers had lost the vote, were marginalized within the party and ultimately sought exile abroad. However, through endless repetition, they have succeeded in being known to history as Bolsheviks.

Irving Babbitt had seen this coming: in his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership, he devoted an entire chapter to “True and False Liberals.”

It is a matter of no small importance in any case to be defective in one’s definition of liberty; for any defect here will be reflected in one’s definition of peace and justice; and the outlook for a society which has defective notions of peace and justice cannot be regarded as very promising. [p. 262]

The history of the twentieth century has demonstrated the wisdom of this observation.

Most people who we identify as liberals are not really liberals at all. They are prepared to sacrifice liberal goals such as individual self-determination and rule of law to ends that they consider to be higher priorities. This in itself does not invalidate their programs, but we should not mistake them for liberals. It confuses everyone’s thinking.


Capitalism was named by Marx and primarily defined by its detractors. It seems that those who understand capitalism go out and make money, while those who do not write content complaining how unfair the system is.

Partly as a result of the ideological conflicts during the Cold War, capitalism has typically been identified with private property, but not all economic systems featuring private ownership of property are inevitably capitalist. Manorialism, which was the economy of feudalism, included private property but also enforced servitude and restricted economic growth. Fascist states have typically allowed private ownership of property, but restricted how the individual could make use of it. You can have all the headaches of owning and caring for property; we’ll just tell you what you can and cannot do with it.

Capitalism could not take root until ordered conditions such as rule of law and enforcement of agreements over time — contracts — had been firmly established. Even today, in countries where one cannot count on enforcement of a contract, economic development is next to impossible.

The deployment of capital necessitates risk. Lenders have relatively low risk; they are senior to investors in their legal rights to recover their money. Investors have greater risk than lenders, and expect greater rewards when successful.

Owners have the greatest risk of all. Being an owner just means that you get paid after everyone else is paid, if there is anything left to pay you with. If not, you get the losses.

A person who can form capital and manage risks in its use can obtain rewards far greater than a hard-working person who takes no risks. This is the part that Marx, who was wedded to the labor theory of value, did not comprehend. Marx, along with many others, could not understand why a hard-working laborer should be rewarded less than a man who sent his money out to work for him. The answer is that you can find a thousand persons who are willing to work hard for every one person who is willing to take risks. However, without the person who is willing to take risks, you don’t get the benefit of capital. At best, you have people piling their surplus up and storing it under the mattress. At worst, you have a peasant society, where people eat their surplus when times are good and starve en masse when times are bad.

It is human nature to try to fob the risk off to someone else but keep the reward. However, this breaks capitalism. An economy that allows this is not capitalist, but something rather different. Theodore Lowi noticed this decades ago:

Privileges in the form of money or license or underwriting are granted to established interests, largely in order to keep them established, and largely done in the name of maintaining public order and avoiding disequilibrium. The state grows, but the opportunities for sponsorship and privilege grow proportionately. Power goes up, but in the form of personal plunder rather than public choice. It would not be accurate to evaluate this model as “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor,” because many thousands of low-income persons and groups have profited within the system. The more accurate characterization might be “socialism for the organized, capitalism for the unorganized.”
— Lowi, The End of Liberalism, 2nd ed. (1979), pp. 278-279.

Lowi developed his characterization of the new political economy this way:

Permanent receivership would simply involve public or joint public-private maintenance of the assets in their prebankrupt form and never disposing of them at all, regardless of inequities, inefficiencies, or costs of maintenance.
— Lowi, p. 279.

The enterprise in question need not be on the verge of bankruptcy or a candidate for liquidation. It could simply be large enough to represent a risk of dislocation to the economy if it were to collapse: too big to fail.

This could be called anticipatory receivership suggesting that the policy measures appropriate for the concept give the government a very special capacity to plan. Permanent receivership can be extended outward to include organizations that are not businesses. If there are public policies which are inspired by or can be understood in terms of this expanded definition, then we have all the elements of a state of permanent receivership.
— Lowi, pp. 279-280.

This is not capitalism at all. There is no creative destruction; it is a goal of policy to avoid destruction in any form. There is no risk, provided you are included in an approved group. There is no profit-and-loss discipline. And all organization, including but not limited to business enterprises, become “public-private partnerships” directed to obtain public policy goals. Properly understood, this is a species of corporatism:

A U.S.-style corporate state has arrived unsung, unheralded and almost never mentioned. The emergence of corporatism has to do with the parallel emergence of Big Labor, Big Agriculture, Big Business, Big Universities, Big Defense, Big Welfare and Big Government, all operating in a symbiotic relationship. It also has to do with the growth of modern social policy, with the government assuming a great role in the management of the economy, with the greater emphasis on group rights and group entitlements over individual rights, and with the growth of a large administrative-state regulatory apparatus.
— Howard J. Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics, p. 147.

Main Street may be mostly capitalist, but Wall Street and K Street are solidly corporatist.


There is a material difference between a democracy and a republic. Although many people use the terms interchangeably, they are not in fact synonymous.

In The Federalist #10, James Madison makes clear that a republic can offer safeguards against mob rule that a democracy cannot.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

Neither Madison nor most of his contemporaries — possibly excepting Jefferson — saw direct democracy as a desirable outcome. This viewpoint was not limited to southern planters:

It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute publick opinion for law. This is the usual form in which masses of men exhibit their tyranny. When the majority of the entire community commits this fault it is a sore grievance, but when local bodies, influenced by local interests, pretend to style themselves the publick, they are assuming powers that belong to the whole body of the people, and to them only under constitutional limitations. No tyranny of one, nor any tyranny of the few, is worse than this. All attempts in the publick, therefore, to do that which the publick has no right to do, should be frowned upon as the precise form in which tyranny is the most apt to be displayed in a democracy.
— James Fenimore Cooper, The American Democrat (1838), p. 71.

The framers of the Constitution sought safeguards to prevent the tyranny of the mob. They divided the government into distinct branches that could block the initiatives of the others. They also set specific limits on what each branch could do.

The framers also divided power between the federal government and the governments of the sovereign states. An unfortunate casualty of the civil war was this balance. The Secession Crisis discredited the concept of states’ rights, and there was a subsequent erosion of state power. In 1913, the 17th Amendment was ratified; this replaced the election of senators by state legislators with election by the citizens of the states directly. This, together with the increasing cost of running a statewide election campaign, has turned the Senate from the legislative body representing the states and a counterweight to the House of Representatives into an American House of Lords. The attempt by Caroline Kennedy to obtain the seat from New York being vacated by Hillary Clinton in 2008 was symptomatic of this state of affairs.

Even Irving Babbitt must be questioned; after all, he titled his book Democracy and Leadership, not Republicanism and Leadership. What did he really want? He clearly did not support egalitarian democracy:

If we go back, indeed, to the beginnings of our institutions, we find that America stood from the start for two different views of government that have their origin in different views of liberty and ultimately of human nature. The view that is set forth in the Declaration of Independence assumes that man has certain abstract rights; it has therefore important points of contact with the French revolutionary “idealism.” The view that inspired our Constitution, on the other hand, has much in common with Burke. If the first of these political philosophies is properly associated with Jefferson, the second has its most distinguished representative in Washington. The Jeffersonian liberal has faith in the goodness of the natural man, and so tends to overlook the need of a veto power either in the individual or in the state. The liberals of whom I have taken Washington to be the type are less expansive in their attitude toward the natural man. Just as man has a higher self that acts restrictively on his ordinary self, so, they hold, the state should have a higher or permanent self, embodied in institutions, that should set bounds to its ordinary self as expressed by the popular will at any moment. The contrast that I am establishing is, of course, that between a constitutional and a direct democracy.
— Babbitt, pp. 272-3.

More properly, it is the contrast between a republic and a democracy.

A direct democracy is, in fact, a sentimentalist fantasy. Each citizen must allocate her time among the demands of citizenship and other interests and occupations she may have. Some citizens will make the economic decision to relinquish participation in governance, delegating their voice to others and accepting the results. There can never be an effective direct democracy, because even if everyone can participate, not everyone will. This is not alleviated by technology; it is a natural consequence of the different priorities and time allocation decisions of the citizens. As Madison believed, a republic in which citizens were represented by those who had chosen to commit their time to the responsibility is the only practical approach to self-government.

The sentimentalist also ignores the possibility that some citizens may not view political responsibility as a good at all. Anyone who is out in the world paying attention knows some persons who would rather relinquish power to others than have to take responsibility for their own decisions. Such persons are easily led, and their scope for malignant effects on the body politic are much greater in a democracy than a republic.

Before calling for reforms to increase democracy, we must review whether democracy is something we really want. Our predecessors who founded this country did not, and there is no evidence that they were wrong.


Written by srojak

May 26, 2013 at 11:02 pm

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