Classical liberalism is having a moment of sorts. With conservatism severely tainted in intellectual circles by its association with President Trump, right-wing ideologues like Jordan Peterson have taken up "classical liberalism" as a handy branding opportunity.
David Frum has the latest entry in The Atlantic arguing for a return of a liberal Republican Party. With classical liberal values disappearing from both political parties, "illiberalism seems to be spreading — and not only on the nationalist right, but also on the intersectional left," he argues, and liberal Republicans should step into the gap.
Frum, a former neoconservative and speechwriter for George W. Bush, has genuinely broken with Trump and the GOP on some domestic policy (though not so much on immigration or foreign policy). But this brand of liberalism is the last thing America needs.
First off, classical liberalism is a pretty slippery phrase. But as a matter of history, it can be summarized with John Locke's ideas that people have a "natural right" to "life, liberty, and property" — enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen early in the French Revolution, which spread liberal ideas around the globe — combined with the economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. The implication of life and liberty was (and is) contested, but as the 19th century progressed into the 20th the idea increasingly connoted political democracy with the usual panoply of civil rights — universal suffrage, freedom of speech, association, due process, and so on.
The right to property, meanwhile, provides the moral underpinning for classical political economy. Smith, Ricardo, and their descendants portrayed the capitalist economy as a self-regulating system best left to its own devices — that is, with property owners, workers, and buyers exchanging goods and services in markets.
It's immediately apparent that property is potentially in tension with life and liberty. Most obviously, for humans to live they need access to material resources — food, water, and shelter at least — on a daily basis. But to live a truly healthy life, citizens need more than a daily bread ration and a cup of water; they need a fair share of the nation's material production.
In its most utopian form, classical liberalism insists that such problems of distribution are impossible — that any government "interference" with the economy would destroy the whole economic system. But because classical liberal capitalism only distributes income to workers and owners, the plight of people who cannot work and own no property — mainly children, the elderly, or disabled people — was grim indeed in the liberal heyday. And things got terrible even for people who could work when capitalism fell victim to one of its periodic mass unemployment crises, as in 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, or 1929.
When faced with such a crisis, one has to choose between preserving property and the self-regulating market, or preserving life and liberty — that is, taking some deliberate state action to restore employment and rescue the population from the malfunctioning economy. The record of classical liberals on this question is pretty wretched. Some admitted the need for moderating institutions like the welfare state, but many others effectively abandoned liberty and life to protect property. It was famed liberal John Stuart Mill, after all, who argued on the grounds of the self-regulating market that there should not be a state response to the Great Famine in Ireland, which killed a million people and forced a million more to emigrate (thus decreasing the Irish population by about a quarter).
One of the most notorious examples of this in American history were the Liberal Republicans, a splinter party which attempted to team up with Democrats to oust Republican Ulysses S. Grant from the presidency in 1872. Southern Democrats at the time were quite literally in the midst of a murderous terrorist campaign to suppress the votes of Southern black voters — incidentally, also the most reliable Republican demographic bloc. But, poisoned by racism and elitism, Liberal Republicans were willing to toss American blacks to the KKK to get free trade and civil service reform.
It is rather astonishing that Frum does not discuss this etymological antecedent to his desired ideology, because these questions are not at all irrelevant to today. Not in the form of Jim Crow terrorism, of course, but in the basic tradeoff between liberty and property. Here's Frum's description of the values that are being lost:
Free trade. International partnerships. Honest courts and accountable leaders. Civil rights and civil liberties. Private space for faith but public policy informed by science. A social-insurance system that cushions failure and a market economy that incentivizes success. [The Atlantic]
In other words, the politics of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. One immediate issue, obviously, is that we just had two presidential terms of that, and the results were bad enough that it lost to a hideously unpopular reality TV star.
And why were they so bad? By far the largest factor was centrist Democrats getting cold feet over interfering too much with the economy, in the form of running too large a budget deficit after the worst financial crisis in 80 years. The resulting economic and social carnage wrecked Democratic fortunes in the 2010 midterms and set the stage for the rise of Trump, as the eurozone crisis did for the far-right parties in Europe.
The economic problem with classical liberalism is that it creates devastating crises and extreme inequality. Its political problem is that its bedrock ideology pushes strongly against the policy necessary to fix those crises.
Nowhere does Frum grapple with these issues, instead posing this brand of liberalism as a political philosophy of adults as against the angry rabble on left and right. It's no more likely to succeed than before.