Liberalism is in trouble.
No, not the authoritarian, big‐government, modern variety. That’s doing just fine, with the two leading presidential candidates more or less equally devoted to it. But the classical liberalism of free markets, equal treatment under law, and individual rights is taking a real beating.
One needn’t paper over past political disagreements to recognize that there is something qualitatively different about what seems to be happening today. We are not arguing about whether federal spending should rise or fall by some small percentage of GDP, whether taxes should go up or down, or how to regulate this or that. Sure, those issues come up, but at a more fundamental level, this election is about the relationship between the individual and the state, and neither of the major candidates is taking the side of the individual.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton see government as the preeminent force in our lives. The words “liberty” or “limited government” or “Constitution” almost never pass their lips. Their entire campaigns are based on what government should do for us or give to us.
Both candidates believe that it is the government’s job to create or preserve jobs. Consider trade. Both Trump and Clinton would restrict our right to buy and sell where we please, even though doing so would increase costs to consumers and spark retaliation that could cost jobs elsewhere. Trump’s call to lower taxes is belied by his desire to impose new taxes on consumers, a.k.a. tariffs. (Hillary, of course, doesn’t even pretend that she wants lower taxes.) But beyond the economic malpractice, what is truly troubling is the belief that the government should choose which jobs should be shielded from the “creative destruction” of the free market.
As long ago as 1845, Frédéric Bastiat pointed out the foolishness of such policies. His satiric Candle‐makers’ Petition posited the candle‐makers guild asking for protection from their unfair competitor — the sun. In fact, since at least Adam Smith, free‐market economists have understood that, while there are always winners and losers, trade enriches society overall, increasing both growth and innovation. But Trump and Clinton choose government, and its ability to pick winners and losers, over the market.
When not “protecting” jobs, both Trump and Clinton want government to create jobs directly, hence their proposals for massive infrastructure programs. Again, they ignore the longstanding consensus of classical liberal economics that government ultimately can’t create jobs. Any money that the government spends on infrastructure — or anything else — must ultimately be extracted from the economy through debt or taxes. That means there is less money available for the private sector to create jobs. Neither Trump nor Clinton would create new jobs. They would simply have the government choose which jobs get created.
Both also see government as a means for propping up wages. Whether it’s Clinton’s (and sometimes Trump’s) plan to hike the minimum wage, or Trump’s call to restrict the labor supply through immigration controls, both want government to pay workers more than what a free market would provide.
Trump and Clinton don’t stop at jobs and wages either. From health care to child care to retirement, both see it as government’s job to provide Americans with whatever we need. If there is a problem faced by someone somewhere in America, they believe that government can and should intervene. This obviously flies in the face of government failures in everything from the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs, but it is a recipe for essentially unlimited government. Government becomes not just a village, but our mommy, daddy, and brother’s keeper. Civil society withers and dies, replaced by the beneficent state.
Nor does Trump and Clinton’s love affair with government power stop with economics. In almost any given situation, from freedom of speech to freedom of religion to police power, their default is in favor of government control. The idea of individual autonomy seems completely foreign to them. Clinton clearly thinks in terms of the collective, rather than the individual. And Trump compounds his anti‐liberalism with appeals to nationalism and racial resentment.
The United States is hardly alone in witnessing the rise of a new illiberal politics. Europe is rife with it, from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Law and Justice party in Poland to Jobbik in Hungary or Vladimir Putin in Russia. We just never thought it could or would happen here.
But as we contemplate the election of an illiberal American president, we should understand that, more than ever, there is a need to make the case for free markets, individual dignity, and an open society.