October 22, 2019 Reading Time: 14 minutes

America and some other parts of the world are facing a “revivalist” movement, but rather than being a religious revival, it is an ideological revivalism calling for a turn away from freedom and the open society, and back to an earlier societal tribalism and tyranny. 

It cuts across the usual political spectrum because what one finds is a common faith in political and economic collectivism, but a common faith that is divided up into several “denominations,” each of them asserting that it is the one true and good collectivism. But all are united in a condemnation of and opposition to free market liberalism, with its dedication to and respect for the individual to peacefully live his own life in voluntary association with his fellows for mutual benefit and betterment. 

There are always two sides to any faith-based system, including political ones: There is a dark view of the reality of a fallen and sinful world, and a vision of a redeemed and just world that offers a lifting of the burdens of injustice from the shoulders of mankind. 

Collectivism’s Six-Point Indictment of Market Liberalism

According to almost all the collectivist ideological denominations, the wickedness of the world is all due to “capitalism” and the self-interested profit motive. The list of “sins” laid at the feet of the market economy includes the following:

First, the financial crisis of 2008-2009, claimed to have been caused by unregulated financial markets that produced an artificial housing market that then collapsed, leaving many in financially desperate circumstances, from which many of those have still not fully recovered, a decade after the banking debacle was set in motion. 

Second, this is closely connected to another of capitalism’s sins, the persistence and worsening of income and social inequality, that carries with it various forms of societal injustice. Basically, it is asserted that the richest have been getting richer, while the vast majority in society languish in either stagnation or falling economic circumstances. 

Third, and closely tied to that second accusation, is the claim that free market liberal societies create and cannot operate successfully without sexist and racial bigotry and discrimination. The presumption is that a capitalist system, based on exploitation of others in general, always ends up particularly oppressing and abusing “people of color” and the one half of the human population still generally called “women.”

Fourth, profit-guided market economies pursue methods of production that have caused the global warming cataclysm said to be hanging over the world, and having caused it, self-interested greedy ways of making millions offers no solution to the global environmental problems in general. 

Fifth, it is said that free market liberalism is an inherently elitist social and political system because it is the narrow number of people who own the methods of production and therefore control the means of earning a living, who use their political power to thwart the majoritarian well of the “the people” to control their lives through government regulation and planning of humankind’s economic and social affairs through a truly democratic system free from the control of the “one percent.” 

And, sixth, liberal market society is based on a mythical and false notion of individualism and personal freedom that denies and tries to destroy the ethnic and cultural communitarianism that reflects the real social needs of people as collective wholes, and which give people a sense of identity, belonging, and security for which they are longing. 

Collectivism’s Dream World Needs Government Planning

The means of salvation by which and through which humankind can be redeemed and find social justice and true egalitarian freedom is the establishment of political planning that replaces the power and profits of the few with a far greater economic and financial equality for the many. This can only come through far more or even comprehensive government regulation and direction of all production activities in society guided by the “real” democratic representatives and voices for the whole of society. 

The ideological denominations under the general collectivist calling include old-fashioned Marxists, reborn democratic socialists, paternalist progressives, traditional and neo-nationalists, “Make America Great Again” mercantilists, race-conscious tribalists, and Earth-worshiping environmentalists who seem to value all living things except man.

Combined, these collectivist charges add up to a worrisome and potentially dangerous threat to what has been generally understood as the free society, over especially the last three hundred years or so. All these collectivists view themselves in their own different ways as “progressives,” with government plans to make the world a better place for all. 

Collectivists are Not Progressives, But Instead “Regressives”

But what they really represent, I would suggest, is a call for a return to variations on the older system of social order before the rise of (classical) liberal thought and policy that ran through the 18th and 19th centuries, and even into the 20 century. These collectivists are all, in fact, counter-revolutionaries – since certainly the idea that individuals should be free to control and direct their own lives in peaceful cooperation with others through free market transactions and the voluntary arrangements of the institutions of civil society was profoundly revolutionary.

Our “progressive” collectivists, therefore, should be considered, instead, as “regressivists,” wishing to return to atavistic conceptions of group control and command over all that the individual does, in his personal, social and economic affairs. 

The Housing and Financial Crises were Made in Washington, D.C.

Let us briefly look at those accusations, in turn, that, together, add up to an indictment that calls for the overthrow of the liberal market order, and all the institutions and values that sustain it. 

First, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was not the result of unbridled financial markets, acting in irresponsible and anti-social ways. The boom years preceding 2008, including in the housing market, was fueled by an expansionary monetary policy that made banks awash with money to lend at artificially manipulated interests that made borrowing dirt cheap. 

At the same time, Federal government agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac prodded financial institutions to extend mortgages to many who were traditionally uncredit-worthy borrowers by guaranteeing those home mortgages in case of default. That the housing collapse was “Made in Washington, D.C.,” finally showed itself once the Federal Reserve allowed interest rates to temporarily rise from their abnormal low levels. (See my article, “Ten Years On: Recession, Recovery and the Regulatory State”.) 

Equal Opportunity for All Through Market Openness 

Second, rather than being an engine for social and economic inequality, the free market economy has been the great liberator of humanity from thousands of years of poverty and politically power-based social hierarchy, under which roving marauders, absolute monarchs, and conquering tyrants of all sorts divided society into two general halves: the political plunderers and the many who were plundered.

Free market liberalism called for and partially was successful in moving societies in the direction of greater equality before the law with favors and privileges for none. Individuals were freed from the imposed caste and class systems of the few versus the many. And with this came new and unimagined opportunities for multitudes of people to slowly but surely rise out of poverty and populate the growing “middle class” that arose out of the “lower classes.” 

Economic and social distinctions and standards of living became more on the basis of merit and market opportunities; markets, in other words, served over time to work as a great lever, while making wealth earned and accumulated being based on serving others in free exchange rather than influence and standing next to the state. 

Nor are all the recent claims true that the middle class has been stagnating, leaving a growing number of people poor and less well-off as the few in society – the one percent – have gained unjustly at their neighbor’s expense. Those in the lower income categories continue to be fewer, and if the middle class seems to be getting smaller, it is because more in both general statistical categories have been rising into higher income brackets representing growing material improvement for all. (See my article, “The Inequality Trap Distracts from the Real Issue of Freedom,” and Mark Perry’s article, “The U.S. Middle Class is Shrinking . . . Because They are Moving Up”.)

Free Markets Liberate People from Racial and Sexist Discrimination

Closely related to this is accusation number three, that liberal capitalism creates and fosters racism and sexism. Never was there a charge less grounded in reality. The very foundational ideal of the liberal worldview is that not only do all individuals have inherent rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property, but that people should not be judged and treated on the basis of accidents of birth such as race or sex. 

Classical liberalism fought for and won the end to human slavery, and insisted that the mark of a human being was not the color of their skin or his or her biological sex, but their distinctive qualities and character as a thinking and acting individual human being. Free markets tore down the political barriers that closed off employment, careers, and professions to blacks and women. 

Anyone who compares the status of blacks and women in America and in many other places in the world today, wherever liberal ideas have in any way influenced government policies and people’s attitudes, from what the status of blacks and women were a hundred years ago, most certainly two hundred years ago, cannot deny the astounding radically different and better circumstances of both.  Free market liberalism has fostered equality of rights, dignity and opportunities for all, including those who for all of recorded history were treated and viewed as far below the few free men in society. (See my articles, “Classical Liberalism and the Problem of ‘Race’ in America” and “Free Markets, Not Government, Improve Race Relations” and “South Africa and Ending Apartheid: The Free Market Road Not Taken”.)

Private Property Solves Problems of the Tragedy of the Commons

No less fundamentally wrong is accusation four, that free markets caused and cannot solve environmental problems, and especially the danger of global warming. Environmental problems almost always have their origins in the “tragedy of the commons,” that is, when anything is commonly owned by everyone, it means that it is owned by no particular one. As a result, everyone has a reasonable (though damaging) incentive to over-utilize that resource from which they can attempt to extract benefits without fully or at all bearing the costs from doing so. 

This includes farm and grazing lands, water bodies such as rivers and lakes or oceans, or the general atmosphere above and around us all. The answer to this problem, many market-oriented economists have emphasized, is to allow or devise ways to privatize these communal spaces, and by doing so “internalizing” the fuller costs of using the resource in question in ways that end or significantly reduce uncontracted cost on others, and bring about a more rational economizing and husbanding of the valuable resources. 

It is the failure to more comprehensively apply the liberal principle of private property rights over scarce and valued resources that has resulted in the environmental problems we face, including any global warming challenge, to the extent it may actually exist. (See my articles, “Bill Gates, Climate Change, and the Capitalist System” and “Impeachment at Home and Climate Hysteria Abroad”.) 

Free Markets Offer a Superior Participatory Democracy than Government

Accusation five, that free market capitalism is an elitist system of social and economic benefits for the few, while “the many” are unjustly taken advantage of due to an abridgement of “real” majoritarian democracy is the opposite of the truth. Representative government and economic liberty went hand-in-hand in the agenda of 19th century classical liberalism. But following John Stuart Mill in his famous essay, “On Liberty,” those liberals understood that just as there can be a tyranny of the minority, there can equally be the danger of a tyranny of the majority, with the single individual being the smallest of minorities threatened by unrestrained democratic majoritarianism. 

Thus, the classical liberals argued that there needed to be constitutionally limiting restraints on what majorities could do to individuals by denying and abolishing their personal rights to their life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, with the latter including the right to unmolested use and exchange of private property in and outside the market arena as long as any such use did not infringe upon or violate another individual’s similar rights.

The call for unrestrained “democracy” is really a call for demagogues and those groups that they can coalesce into voting majorities to use the power of government to restrict the personal and economic liberty of others for either material gain through redistributive taxation or regulatory restrictions on freedom of market competition, or the imposition of ideological purposes that they cannot get others in society to accept and follow without the threat or the use of political intimidation and force. 

What classical liberals have opposed is not the reasonableness of those who hold political office and enforce the laws of the land being answerable to the citizenry through periodic and competitive elections. What they have strongly fought against are the dangers of what has been called “democratic despotism” or “totalitarian democracy.” A democratic majoritarianism in which arbitrary and unchecked political power is once more the governing political rule threatens the foundations of the individual liberty for all, for which friends of freedom have opposed other forms of political tyranny in the past.

Liberals have long argued that it is the free and competitive marketplace that offers the widest latitude for a “participatory democracy” in which consumer and other demands do not involve or limit outcomes to “winner take all.” In the free market, a pluralism of multitudes of majority and minority tastes and preferences are catered to and satisfied all at the same time, unlike the political process under which the minority finds itself bound by the politicians and policies implemented based upon the majoritarian electoral results, and the costs of which they are forced to financially support through compulsory taxes from which there is little legal escape. (See my articles, “When ‘Democracy’ Becomes a Threat to Liberty” and  “The Market Democracy vs. Democratic Socialism”.)

Liberalism Fosters Shared Meanings Through Civil Society

Finally, charge number six onour list is the insistence that liberal individualism is a false idea and ideal that undermines the real and natural need and desire for communal sharing, deciding, and following of common group goals and purposes without which human life and meaning is deformed if not nullified. 

One of the faultiest accusations made against the free market liberal society is that it reduces people to isolated and lonely individuals without collective connection or common caring that humans cannot live without, without losing an essential part of their humanness and humanity. Classical liberals have never denied that humans are “social animals” living in and gaining meaning and purpose from shared and associative lives with others. 

What they have insisted is that communities of common values, visions and ventures that often give meaning and happiness and betterment in various ways should be the free and demonstrated choice of the people entering into and participating in the associations of civil society. Civil society has been explained and analyzed in a number of ways. But the common denominator in almost all of them, is that these associations of shared interests or religious faiths, or joint activities for pleasure, improvement, or betterment of common problems or concerns emerge from the bottom up. 

That is, they arise out of the actions and interactions of those who discover concerns and activities that are worth pursuing and achieving for personal fulfillment or community problem solving, or pleasures of shared fellowship that give meaning to people’s lives. They are formed by some of the members of society, themselves, by creating and participating in these organizations and activities by their free choice and willingness to do so. 

What collectivists of all types mean by group identity and common goals and communal activities through government is the imposition of someone’s or some particular group’s goals, values, and purposes on all in society without their individual voluntary consent and agreement. Instead, common purposes through political methods means coercing those who otherwise would not join or participate or voluntarily donate to advance what the compellers are imposing on them. 

The collectivist’s government communalism of shared values and purposes, in fact, dehumanizes what should be a natural and healthy sense of chosen participation for preserving, bettering or changing the conditions of society. The individual no longer has to weigh in his mind questions such as: is forming, participating, and contributing to cause “A” or purpose “B” or value “C” a good, useful, enjoyable, or just or “right” and honorable thing to do? And will he feel a loss, or sense of failure to fulfill an obligation, or an embarrassment for not doing “the right thing”?

Instead, it is all taken out of the hands of individuals and transferred to political and bureaucratic decision-makers and implementers, and in the process absolves people from thinking about these properly “social” matters by shifting the responsibility to “government.” I paid my taxes; that’s what the government “experts” are hired to take care of. It’s not my concern. Never was there a more damaging mindset than this, if you really feel that individuals should be alert to and participating in the common affairs of any community in which they may live. (See my articles,‘Great National Purposes’ Mean Less Freedom” and “Society is Not a Family, Government is Not a Parent”.)

The Hubris of the High Priests of Collectivism

There always seem to be people and particular times, when the fear or impatience with liberty takes hold of a variety of men’s minds. When an arrogance and hubris fill some people’s minds so intensely and dogmatically that they cannot imagine a world different from the one they think would be so much better, if only they had the power and authority to create it and “give” it to their fellow men.

What is meant by creating it and giving it to humanity really means being a dictator determined to tell others how to live, with whom to associate  and for what purposes, and to attempt to indoctrinate those who are being given this coercively imposed “gift” to appreciate just how lucky they are to live in such a time and ruled by just such collectivist leaders so to enter the “promised land.” 

We seem to be living in just such a time of ideological collectivist revivalism. It is the “new” one true faith, with its priests and disciples appealing to join the just cause to redeem humanity from the sins of individualism, self-interest, private property, freedom of association, and free market relationships. The “We,” once again, is being said to be above the “I.”  

If necessary, the “I” will be denounced, demonized, and psychologically and culturally decapitated. He must be exorcised from the political body. He is the devil manifested as “the one percent,” or the “racist and sexist,” or “the globalist” or the “nationalist” or the . . . 

The ideological devil worse than any competing collectivist heretic who is proselytizing for the “wrong” group, tribe, or collectivist cause is the free market liberal, who denies the collectivist god, who insists that the individual must be considered above the group, because separate from individuals, there are no groups. Individuals have existence, meaning and purpose. It is the collectivists who are preaching to believe in and follow things that do not exist outside of the minds of those who wish to play a political paternalist god. 

Given the constellation of these collectivist social engineers panting for the use of force to make us over in their own image, are we to be forlorn and without hope? Let us remember that other times have seemed even more dark. Think of those who valued liberty, but who lived in the 1930s, when Soviet, fascist, Nazi, and New Deal collectivism seemed to be the waves of the future, with apparently no escape. 

Benedetto Croce and the Undefeated Spirit of Liberty

The Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), lived under fascism in Italy from 1922 to 1945. In the midst of this, when the twilight of liberty seemed to have arrived, he published in 1938 a series of essays, History as the Story of Liberty. He said not to despair:

“Jubilant announcements, resigned admissions, or desperate lamentations that liberty has now deserted the world are frequently heard nowadays; the ideal of liberty is said to have set on the horizon of history, in a sunset without promise of sunrise. Those who talk or write or print this deserve the pardon pronounced by Jesus, for they know not what they say. If they knew or reflected, they would be aware that to assert that liberty is dead is the same as saying that life is dead . . .

“They would be greatly embarrassed if invited to state the ideal which has taken, or ever could take, the place of the ideal of liberty. They would find that there is no other like it, none which makes the heart of man, in his human quality, so beat, none other which responds better to the very law of life which is history; and this calls for an ideal in which liberty is accepted and respected and is so placed as to produce ever greater achievements . . .

“The man who enslaves another awakes in him awareness of himself and enlivens him to seek for liberty . . . His rule . . . leaves those same people with a thirst for liberty and a new awareness of what it really was and a keenness to set it up [again] . . . Even in the darkest and crassest times liberty trembles in the lines of poets and affirms itself in the pages of thinkers and burns, solitary and magnificent, in some men who cannot be assimilated by the world around them.” 

Defending Liberty Against the Collectivism

Let us not despair too much that the collectivist forces seem, once again, to have gained the upper hand; that whatever liberty remains is threatened with death and burial. Liberty cannot be destroyed as long as they are any who hold it dear in their hearts, who share what they know and understand about it with others; who do not allow false ideas and fraudulent “facts” to go unanswered. And who will not give up or forsake their knowledge and belief of the uniqueness of every person and why he should not be made into the plaything of another determined to redesign the world under the presumption of being a self-appointed social justice god.  

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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