Books for the Future

EconJournalWatch and Dan Klein asked its contributors “What 21st-century works will merit a close reading in 2050?”. You can find the responses, including mine, here and here. I particularly enjoyed Evan W. Osborne’s, Slaviša Tasić’s, Kurt Schuler’s and Scott Sumner’s picks.

I have interpreted this “question from the future” as coming from somebody who “already came to an outlook like my own: “a 40 year old classical liberal in 2050. But I also assumed that she had a special interest in works that helped in shaping the nuances of classical liberal arguments in the 21st century.

Besides the books I mentioned, I pondered adding others but had to leave them out because the limit was ten. Here are those that missed the list, but that I nonetheless believe will be significant and still read in 2050.

 

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage, 2003)
A splendid meditation on the blindness towards communist terror shown by many Western intellectuals. Many similar works may fade in memory from now to 2050, when hopefully the dangers and horror of communism will be understood for what they were by most people, but Amis’s literary powers will allow this to survive and enlighten new generations.

 

Luigi Marco Bassani, Liberty, State, & Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson (Mercer University Press, 2010)
The years 2000-2020 will be remembered as years of “revisionist” history, particularly in the United States, that put the “cult” of the framers in perspective. Yet at a certain point, people will accept again that we cannot read with 20th century lenses the personal behaviour of 18th century gentlemen, and people will search again for works investigating their ideas and why they matter. Bassani’s book will then come in handy, as the best account of Jeffersonian liberalism.

 

Anthony de Jasay, Justice and Its Surroundings (LibertyFund, 2002)
This is a collection of some of Anthony de Jasay’s (1925-2019) philosophical papers. Its shorter chapter (“Empirical Evidence”) is a little classic in its own right. De Jasay was a brilliant mind and should be known more widely. Perhaps by 2050 he will be.

 

Antonio Escohotado, Los enemigos del comercio: una historia moral de la propiedad (Espasa, published in three volumes between 2008 and 2018)
This is a tremendous trilogy on the intellectual origins of the “enemies of commerce,” explaining the intellectual prevalence of the anti-market thinkers. These are long, exhausting books, but filled with insights and written by a non-academic philosopher who brings together an astonishing erudition with a splendid wit.

 

Biancamaria Fontana, Germaine de Staël: A Political Portrait (Princeton University Press, 2016)
Madame de Staël (1766-1817) is a powerful liberal thinker who has not been forgotten and whose main works are sadly not available in the English language. Fontana’s book is a splendid introduction and would also work liberals in making sense of the circumstances of the French Revolution, which we typically tend either to worship or caricature.

 

Chandran Kukathas, The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Government and the “good life”: the second is not a responsibility of the first. This is a thoughtful manifesto for freedom of conscience and tolerance, which does not take shortcuts in answering the question “Should we tolerate the intolerant?” The problems it deals with are not going to disappear, its answers are and will be unpopular, but hopefully, with time, they may enlighten more people.

 

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones (HarperCollins, 2006)
An American writer writes in French the definitive novel over the mad slaughters of the 20th century. This book will impact the way in which future generations understand Nazism and totalitarianism.

 

Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850 (Yale University Press, 2012)
This is and will be considered for generations an essential work on the Industrial Revolution, and why it started in England.

 

Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography (Allen Lane, published in three volumes between 2015 and 2019)
Few politicians have been so associated with free market reforms as Margaret Thatcher. If The Anatomy of Thatcherism by Shirley Robin Letwin (1924-1993) is still unparalleled as an analysis of Thatcherism, Charles Moore’s wonderful biography acquaints us with the circumstances of Thatcher’s life and makes us understand better her motives as well as the challenges of governing and reforming. For those in the future who will try to make sense of the very few political experiences in which the state was actually rolled back, Moore’s book will be a must read.

 

Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Penguin, 2010)
The early 21st century will certainly be remembered as a happy period, in terms of Smithian studies. This work will stand out, as a splendid intellectual biography written by a great scholar.

 

Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (Harper Collins, 2009)
The health of classical liberalism in 2050 will depend largely on the interpretation of the past which dominates academia and the public debate. The Great Depression is a pillar of the narrative that justifies more statism. In this book, Amity Shlaes explains why it shouldn’t be, providing us a detailed account of what happened and with a sound interpretation of it.

 

Vernon L. Smith, Rationality in Economics: Constructivist and Ecological Forms (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Vernon Smith’s distinction between different forms of rationality is bound to be more fortunate, with the passing of time, as it is truly enlightening. This book is a methodological tour de force and an exploration of the fundamentals of our social and economic life. Smith is a giant on the shoulders of giants.

 

Tom Stoppard, Rock ‘n’ Roll (Faber, 2006)
Great insights on communism and how Western intellectuals saw it in this marvelous play by one of the greatest playwrights of his generation.

 

Mario Vargas Llosa, La llamada de la tribu (Alfaguara, 2018)
A gallery of portraits of classical liberal political thinkers written by a great novelist, who since the 1980s has been a leading voice for liberalism all over the world. Vargas Llosa not only presents lucidly and elegantly a brilliant selection of champions of this tradition of thought, he also provides the readers with some unique insights into how they became what they were.

 


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Jeff Hummel on Classical Liberals and Libertarians

Economist and libertarian Jeff Hummel, pictured above, sent me the following and I think it’s worth sharing:

In a Zoom session some libertarian friends and colleagues had a lively discussion of the correct usage of the term “libertarian.” Afterwards I had some additional thoughts. So I wrote this message to lay out my argument in more detail.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as the libertarian movement was just distinguishing and disentangling itself from conservatism, the terms “libertarian” and “classical liberal” had clear and relatively precise meanings, at least among the U.S. libertarians with whom I associated. These meanings were once very clearly articulated by libertarian philosopher Eric Mack at one of the IHS (or Cato?) summer seminars I attended.

He defined a classical liberal as someone who believes that maximizing individual liberty should be the highest (if not sole) goal of government (or the State). A libertarian is a classical liberal who further believes that government should have no morally privileged status with regards its powers. In other words, government and its agents could justly engage only in actions that were legitimate for individuals or groups of individuals. Thus, governments should be confined to using force (coercion) to the extent that individuals can rightfully do so for defense or restitution. Stating the libertarian constraint on government in this way gets around (or evades, if you prefer) some of the difficult problems defining the moral limits of legitimate defense and restitution, about which libertarians sometimes disagree, especially in the realm of so-called national defense. Yet nearly all moral philosophies, religious and non-religious, share certain broad outlines, disapproving of murder and theft, as much as they may differ on the borderline details of justifiable defense or restitution.

This way of putting the constraint also leaves open some room for the libertarian archipelagos of Chandran Kukathas, or for the proprietary communities that other libertarians favor. But in order to qualify as genuine libertarian social orders, such communities must be voluntary associations. The opposition to government taxation is also what distinguished libertarians from non-libertarian classical liberals, who in contrast believe that there is a difficult trade-off between liberty and coercion. In their view, government must impose taxes and perhaps exercise other coercive powers not derived from individual rights in order to effectively maximize total liberty. Libertarians, in contrast, held that government should be entirely voluntarily funded, a position that even Ayn Rand embraced at one point.

Libertarians then divided into limited-government libertarians (or to use Sam Konkin’s term, minarchists) and anarchist libertarians (or anarcho-capitalists, a term I never liked). Rand, among others, was a limited-government libertarian. Anarchist libertarians, such as myself and the younger Roy Childs, did argue that the limited-government libertarian position was inconsistent, pointing out that there is no sure way that a government (even if it eschews taxation) can maintain its monopoly without using some coercive powers that are illegitimate for individuals. But we never therefore denied that limited-government libertarians failed to qualify as libertarians, as long as they continued to believe that a voluntarily funded government was desirable and possible, no matter how mistaken we found that belief. Moreover, these distinctions were fairly widely recognized and accepted by libertarians of all varieties, whether primarily influenced by Rand or Rothbard.

I admittedly recognize two problems with maintaining these clear distinctions today. There is often a tension between prescriptive and descriptive definitions for words. I accept that the meanings of words spontaneously evolve over time. The word “libertarian” was used with a less precise meaning before the modern movement, even being embraced by some socialist libertarians. And in common usage today, the terms libertarian and classical liberal have become virtually synonymous. I attribute that evolution to two developments. (1) As some (many?) of the young libertarians of the 60s and 70s matured and aged, having to deal with real-world problems and issues, their views became less consistent or more nuanced and subtle, depending on your point of view. For particularly extreme cases of this intellectual evolution, I like Jeffrey Friedman’s term of “post-libertarian.” (2) The newer generation of libertarians is much more focused on current government policies, and has little interest in the fundamental but thorny philosophical and ideological foundations of their views. Even some of us in the older generation have gotten tired of those endless debates. So in casual conversation, I have to go along with current usage. Yet I still think the greater clarity of the original meanings should sometimes be maintained and specified for more serious discussions.

A second problem with a strict definition for the term “libertarian” is that in the past it led to endless internecine squabbles about who was a “genuine” libertarian, almost like the hair-splitting divisions and deviations that arose among early Marxists. I certainly have no interest in bringing back these counter-productive excommunications and denunciations. If someone wants to claim the label “libertarian,” there is not much to be gained from arguing about that, unless the self-identification is particularly outlandish. I’d rather focus on specific and concrete differences of opinion.

Some contend that one consideration should be whether people self-identify as libertarians, as Rand did not. For labels that describe people’s ideas there is a smidgen of validity to his claim. With respect to religion, we usually accept as definitive people’s self-identification as Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc. But that is simply a courteous and usually reliable rule of thumb. Lurking behind it is still some objective notion of what, for instance, a Christian believes. If, on questioning someone who claims to be a Christian, you discover that he or she does not believe in the historical existence of Jesus or in the existence of God, and also thinks the New Testament has less religious relevance than the Koran, you would be justified in doubting his or her self-identification.

By the way, by the strict standard that Jeff lays out for libertarians, I am not quite a libertarian.

 

 

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Other Civil Liberties

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is the 6th and final part. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here.

 

M*A*S*H’s respect for civil liberties goes beyond people’s right to property and exchange. Freedom of speech and the press are lionized for protecting against government abuse (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “Are You Now, Margaret,” “Tell It to the Marines” [s. 9]); censorship is condemned and lampooned (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “The Moon Is Not Blue” [s. 11]); and religious freedom is revered (“Ping Pong” [s. 5], “A Holy Mess” [s. 10]).

Throughout the show’s run, bigotry is condemned. Racism is ridiculed (“L.I.P.” [s. 2],” “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Yessir, That’s Our Baby,” “Bottle Fatigue” [s. 8], “The Tooth Shall Set You Free” [ s. 10]) and immigration is championed (“L.I.P.,” “Tell It to the Marines”). In “Dear Dad … Three” (s. 2), a wounded white soldier, Sgt. Condon (Mills Watson), warns the doctors to make sure he gets the “right color” blood. Hawkeye and Trapper decide to teach him a lesson, sneaking into the recovery room at night to dab the sleeping soldier’s skin with tincture of iodine. Worried that his darkening complexion indicates he has indeed been given the wrong blood, Condon confronts the doctors:

CONDON

What are you guys tryin’ to do to me? Did you give me the wrong color blood?

TRAPPER

All blood is the same.

HAWKEYE

You ever hear of Dr. Charles Drew?

CONDON

Who’s that?

HAWKEYE

Dr. Drew invented the process of separating blood so it can be stored.

TRAPPER

Plasma.

HAWKEYE

He died last April in a car accident.

TRAPPER

He bled to death. The hospital wouldn’t let him in.

HAWKEYE

It was for whites only.

TRAPPER

See ya, fella.

 

At the end of the episode, a wiser Condon thanks the surgeons “for giving me a lot to think about” and respectfully salutes nurse Ginger Bayliss (Odessa Cleveland), an African-American.

Sexism and sexual harassment are likewise treated with derision (“What’s Up, Doc?” “Hot Lips Is Back in Town” [s. 7], “Nurse Doctor” [s. 8]). In “Inga” (s. 7), Hawkeye —a notorious womanizer in the series’ early seasons — is agog over a visiting woman surgeon (Mariette Hartley) — until she shows him up in the operating room. Later, Margaret takes him to task for having a limited view of women:

MARGARET

You think a woman is dead until she lives for you. Well, let me tell you something, Benjamin Franklin: We actually survive without you.

We live, we breathe, we dream, we do our work, we earn our pay. Sometimes we even have our little failures, and then we pull ourselves together, all without benefit of your fabulous electric lips!

And let me tell you something else, buster! I can walk into that kitchen any time I want and replace those fabulous lips of yours with a soggy piece of liver!

M*A*S*H also respects the rights of homosexuals (“George,” s. 2) and the disabled (“Dear Uncle Abdul” [s. 8], “Run for the Money” [s. 11]). In “Morale Victory” (s. 8), Charles — a lover of chamber music — tries to help an injured soldier, David Sheridan (James Stephens), accept a permanent loss of dexterity in one hand even though Sheridan is a concert pianist. Charles introduces him to compositions written for one hand, explaining that the injury does not diminish who he is or his talent (and illustrates comparative advantage):

CHARLES

Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.

SHERIDAN

Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift.

I had a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?

CHARLES

Wrong. Because the gift does not lie in your hands.

I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing.

More than anything in my life, I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift.

I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin.

Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live.

Because the true gift is in your head, and in your heart, and in your soul.

Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom, the pen.

As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.

 

Classical liberals respect civil liberties because they appreciate the value — and even marvel at the wonder — of the individual. (In contrast, the non–classical liberal Frank Burns believes that “individuality’s fine, as long as we all do it together” [“George”].) This wonder is expressed in “Hawkeye” (s. 4), in which Hawkeye suffers a concussion while away from the unit and seeks help from a Korean family. Despite the language barrier, he keeps talking to stay awake, often falling into philosophizing:

HAWKEYE

Don’t you sometimes wonder about babies? I mean, how do they know what to do in there? They start out looking like little hairless mice, and they wind up looking like us.

How’s it all work?

I’ve held a beating heart in my hand. I’ve poked into kidneys and crocheted them together again. I’ve pushed air into collapsed lungs like beat-up old pump organs. I’ve squeezed and probed and prodded my way through hundreds of miles of gut and goo, and I don’t know what makes us live.

I mean, what keeps us in motion? What keeps the heart beating without anybody rewinding it? Why do the cells reproduce and re-re-reproduce with such gay abandon?

Did you ever see Ann Corio or Margie Hart? Strippers. … I remember Polly O’Day. She worked with a parrot. He didn’t help her strip or anything; while she got undressed, he stood on the side and talked dirty. It was an exciting act. What a body. She was built great, too.

But what I don’t understand is how she got that way, any more than how we did.

Look at your hand. It’s one of the most incredible instruments in the universe. Of all the bones in the body, one fourth are in the hand.

Forget the hand; look at your thumb, that wondrous mechanism that separates us from the other animals. The world-famous opposable thumb, that amazing device that has transported more students to college than the Boston Post Road. Ideal for sucking, especially as a baby. And lauded in song and story as the perfect instrument for pulling out a plum. Or, in the case of the Caesars, for holding it down for the gladiator to die, or holding it up, which means, “See you later at the orgy.”

My friends, for getting up and down the pike, in your pie, in your eye, I give you the thumb.

Have you any idea, Farmer Brown, of the incredible complexity of this piece of human apparatus?

You have no idea of the balletic interplay of parts that make up the human thumb. The flexor ossis metacarpi pollicis flexes the metacarpal bone. That is, draws it inward over the palm, thus producing the movement of opposition — and the Boy Scout salute.

Because of this magical engineering, we can do this. [Grasping a utensil.] And this. [Grasping a cup.] And this. [Making a fist.]

But our greatest triumph comes not from flexing the metacarpal bone and making a fist, which always seems to be thirsting to be clenched. No, no, no, no, no.

Our greatest moment is when we open our hand: cradling a glass of wine, cupping a loved one’s chin. And the best, the most expert of all, keeping all the objects of our life in the air at the same time. [Picking up three pieces of fruit.]

My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human person. [Begins juggling the fruit.] Thumb and fingers flexing madly, straining to keep aloft the leaden realities of life: ignorance, death, and madness. Thus, we create for ourselves the illusion that we have power, that we are in control, that we are loved.

 

Weary Determination

Sadly, M*A*S*H seems out of step with today’s politics. In the America of the 1970s and ’80s and on through the end of the century, both the Democratic and Republican parties were liberal in the classical sense, believing in the value of the individual, the importance of civil liberties, and the benefits of the market. The parties did differ — vigorously — on where to draw certain lines: how big should the welfare state be and what should be required of beneficiaries, how muscular should foreign policy be, what tax rates should be. But those differences fit within a classical liberal philosophy. It’s no wonder that M*A*S*H found plenty of fans on both sides of that era’s red–blue divide.

Today, the show might not find a similar audience. Both ends of the American political spectrum have embraced illiberalism, demanding that speech and the press be constrained, denigrating religious differences, reanimating old bigotries, obstructing immigration, and clamping down on markets and private exchange.

For classical liberals, today’s politics are disturbing and exhausting. We feel a bit like the members of the 4077, who were tired of war, troubled by the horrors they witnessed, and desired the peaceful lives they led before Korea. But they rallied when they needed to. When the choppers and ambulances arrived laden with casualties, the 4077 determinedly carried out their medical duties. And when morale sagged, they found ways to boost it, often with a gag at the expense of some hypocrite, fool, or sadist who sorely deserved it.

And so, maybe classical liberals in the 21st century can rally in the face of today’s grim times — and at the expense of illiberals who deserve it. And, concerning this so-far-illiberal century, maybe we can be reassured by Colonel Potter’s words to an orphan boy in “Old Soldiers”: “You’re off to a kind of a rough start, but I bet you’ve got some glorious times ahead of you.”

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*SH

Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: From Anti-Authority to Government-Skeptical

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 2. Part 1 is here.

The TV series evolved from a fictionalized war memoir, MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors, written by Korean War Army surgeon H. Richard Hornberger Jr., with help from sportswriter and one-time war correspondent W.C. Heinz, and published under the pen name “Richard Hooker” in 1968. The book inspired a 1970 movie, M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman and starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall. Hornberger was a conservative Republican with hawkish, nationalist leanings, and his book is frat-boy crude, funny, and largely untainted by the ugliness of war, though honest about the grim nature of “meatball surgery” at a field hospital. The 1970 movie is just as crude and even funnier, and it captures the grisliness of war and the madness of those who love it. Hornberger liked the movie despite its lefty politics, a testament to a time when personal judgments were not always made through a red–blue political lens. Altman wasn’t a fan of the book, though not for political reasons. Both Hornberger and Altman despised the TV series.

One theme common to all three versions of M*A*S*H was the comedic skewering of authority. Hornberger’s book makes clear his opinion that his conscripted, jokester doctors are superior to the military figures and protocols that try to control them. Altman’s movie luxuriates in contempt for authority. The TV series pokes plenty of fun at overpuffed authority figures, from hypocritical flag-waver Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville), to unhinged Maj. Gen. Bartford Hamilton Steele (Harry Morgan, who was later recast as the very-different Col. Sherman Potter), to sadistic Col. Sam Flagg (Edward Winter), to a parade of officers willing to trade troops’ lives for ground, glory, and promotion.

But where Hornberger’s skewering is limited to the career military and Altman’s to the military generally, TV’s M*A*S*H has plenty of skepticism for government broadly. The show is not outright anti-government — and neither are proper classical liberals, because government is important for accomplishing certain public goals. But classical liberals know, and M*A*S*H regularly shows, that there is plenty to criticize in what government does — or, more specifically, what the politicians and bureaucrats who animate it do.

Many government failures happen when it extends its reach beyond truly public problems, meddling in people’s private decisions and interactions. But failures also happen when government limits itself to its proper sphere, such as the conduct foreign and war policy. From the crooked U.S. senators mentioned in “For the Good of the Outfit” (season 2) and “The Winchester Tapes” (s. 6), to the Congressional investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee in “Are You Now, Margaret?” (s. 8), to Hawkeye’s irreverent letters and telegrams to President Harry Truman (and wife Bess) in such episodes as “Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde” (s. 2), “The Interview” (s. 3), and “Give ‘Em Hell, Hawkeye (s. 10), the show depicts how foolish, hubristic, dangerous, hypocritical, uncaring, and dishonest government officials can be.

For instance, in “Depressing News” (s. 9), the unit receives an erroneous, enormous shipment of tongue depressors. Hawkeye realizes the shipment reflects the U.S. government’s blithe preparation for the war to continue for years, bitterly concluding, “We wouldn’t have this supply if [the Army] didn’t think there’d be a demand.” So, he embarks on a symbolic crafting project, getting the attention of company clerk Max Klinger (Jamie Farr):

KLINGER

Excuse my impertinence, but if all these sticks were laid end to end — and they are — what would they be?

HAWKEYE

They would be, and are, the foundation for the Washington Monument.

KLINGER

Don’t they already have one of those someplace?

HAWKEYE

It’s completely different.

That one commemorates Washington the man, who crossed the Delaware and gave us wooden teeth.

This one commemorates Washington the place, which sent us across the Pacific and gives us wooden legs.

KLINGER

Excuse me. My nose for news thinks it smells a story here.

HAWKEYE

They sent us half a million of these things, which is monumental stupidity.

So I’m building a monument to stupidity, made out of tongue depressors and dedicated to all the wounded who have passed through here.

Klinger writes about Hawkeye’s project for the camp newspaper, a copy of which finds its way to Army headquarters. Not understanding the meaning of the “monument,” HQ dispatches a public relations officer to the 4077, believing Hawkeye’s creation would be “great for enlistment.” But as the officer snaps a picture of the monument, Hawkeye and Klinger explode it. When the befuddled information officer asks why, Hawkeye explains: “Senseless destruction—that’s what it’s all about. Get the picture?”

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Laughter, Liberty, and M*A*S*H

Television’s finest half-hour reminded America of the values of classical liberalism.

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 1.

CBS Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The TV series M*A*S*H premiered on September 17, 1972 — a bad time to debut an anti-war, anti-establishment dark comedy. America’s mood was on the rebound from the social upheaval of the late-1960s: Operation Linebacker was pushing back the North Vietnamese forces with few U.S. casualties, easing public frustration over the Vietnam War. The nation’s economy was booming, growing 5.25 percent in 1972 and would grow 5.6 percent in 1973. Prosperity and military success produced strong approval numbers for President Richard Nixon, who would be reelected in November with more than 60 percent of the popular vote and winning 49 states.

All that good news was bad for the early weeks of the impertinent if not subversive M*A*S*H. The pilot finished 45th in the week’s ratings, a miserable showing in the three-network era. Subsequent episodes fell into the 50s, raising the specter of cancellation.

But national moods can change quickly when the news changes. Three months before M*A*S*H debuted, the Washington Post reported that five men had been arrested in connection with a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As the show’s first season played out, Watergate mushroomed from an offbeat news item into a full-blown scandal. Halfway through the TV season, a humbled United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s involvement in Vietnam; the last U.S. troops left the country on March 29, 1973, four days after M*A*S*H’s first-season finale. That fall, with the show’s second season underway, the OPEC oil cartel cut production in retaliation for western nations’ support of Israel. The resulting energy crisis sent the U.S. stock market reeling and the economy into recession. With inflation already surging, the United States got its first dose of “stagflation.” Finally, on August 9, 1974 — a month before M*A*S*H’s season-three premiere — a disgraced Nixon resigned the presidency.

Those events may have helped Americans embrace the sitcom that treated the inhumanity of war and the inanity of government with a cathartic mix of laughter and tugged heartstrings. M*A*S*H’s ratings rose in the final weeks of its first season, as more viewers began following the goings-on at the fictional 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, located near the front lines of the Korean War. That prefaced regular top-10 finishes for the rest of the show’s 11-year run. M*A*S*H’s cast, crew, and writers would carry off a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes over the next decade. The series finale is television legend; even current Super Bowls struggle to top the nearly 106 million viewers who watched “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” on February 28, 1983. Following the program’s end, its decommissioned sets, costumes, and props became wildly popular exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Today, M*A*S*H continues to draw audiences in syndication, nearly a half-century after it debuted.

What made it so successful? Public reaction to Vietnam and Watergate may explain its first few years, but M*A*S*H was a TV juggernaut for the rest of its run, despite the departure of most of its original cast, change in show runners, and turnover of writers. Even the series’ shift in tenor from situation comedy to dramedy (sometimes heavy on drama) did not weaken its audience.

An academic thesis has argued that the show’s success came in part from its following changing public values and outlooks as the United States moved from leftish libertinism of the early 1970s, to malaise-induced cynicism of the late ‘70s, to the conservative Reagan Revolution of the early 1980s. Yet, libertarians and other classical liberals — who often find political similarities where others see left–right differences — may perceive something else: that throughout its run, M*A*S*H consistently promoted the ideals of classical liberalism.

People unfamiliar with classical liberalism may be unsurprised by the idea that M*A*S*H was a “liberal” show. Several of its cast members are vocal supporters of political causes on the left side of the U.S. political spectrum, and critics (and even some fans) of the series criticize it for being too “lefty” in its later seasons. But this is not the liberalism I mean. The philosophy of classical liberalism acknowledged that government has an important role to play in addressing truly public problems, but that individual liberty and private, consensual relationships are of paramount importance. Classical liberalism is skeptical of government power, appreciates the incentives and benefits of the marketplace, and defends civil liberties. As such, classical liberalism encompassed a broad swath of the American political spectrum as it existed in the latter part of the 20th century, from ACLU civil libertarians, to Jimmy Carter/Bill Clinton centrists, to Ronald Reagan’s small-government conservatives.

To be clear, M*A*S*H’s chief protagonist, surgeon Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (played by Alan Alda), may not have been an avowed libertarian who leafed through The Road to Serfdom along with his beloved nudie magazines. But he and his comrades embraced and advocated principles and institutions that acknowledged classical liberals hold dear, as did many Americans (including both Democrats and Republicans) of that era. And today, amidst a surge in illiberalism in both the United States and abroad, the show continues to offer classical liberals both comic relief and hope.

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Power, Privilege, and Liberalism

Read Part 1.

Getting the facts largely right is a necessary condition for writing good history, but it is not a sufficient one. Historians inevitably have to make choices about which facts to include and exclude. More fundamentally, their own intellectual and ideological frameworks will guide them to look at some things and not others. Good histories are narratives and how a historian links together the facts to tell an overarching story is just as important as the facts themselves. It is here that Wasserman’s book is at its most frustrating, especially to those who are sympathetic to the Austrians. One of the implicit themes of the book, demonstrated by everything from the historical events and connections he focuses on, to his choice of adjectives, to what he leaves out of his account of modern Austrian economics, is that the classical liberalism of the Austrians serves the interests of capital and the powerful more generally. In that way, it is inherently conservative and the more recent strong rightward drift of the Rothbardian wing of the school is something of a logical outcome.

Consistent with much left-wing thinking, Wasserman appears to believe that a capitalist market economy primarily serves the well-being and interests of the capitalists rather than the population as a whole. When Austrian economists offer arguments for liberalism and the market economy, they are, perhaps unwittingly but perhaps not, doing the bidding of those with economic power and influence. Because he also appears to view economies as something akin to zero-sum games, the fact that those at the top gain from the system is an explanation for the poverty of the rest. Therefore, when Austrians accepted funding from wealthy businessmen to support their research, they were not engaged in a scientific enterprise but an ideological one. Compared to their predecessors in Vienna, the American Austrians who struck up many such arrangements had sold their soul to the powerful. Again, this argument is never made explicitly, but it permeates Wasserman’s word choices and emphases throughout the book.

As one somewhat small example, consider his description of the headquarters of the Foundation for Economic Education as an “opulent estate” in a “wealthy suburb” (212). Why is it relevant to the work that FEE was doing and the ideas it was promoting that it was headquartered in a mansion or in a wealthy suburb? (And it’s worth noting that Wasserman could not have ever been to FEE because, for all of the positive memories I have of that place, it was far from “opulent.”) It can only be relevant if you want to suggest that it’s not the ideas that matter but the class interests of those promoting them. This strategy also becomes a way to indicate that the Austrians ideas were wrong without ever having to confront them directly. The claim by the Austrians that the market order would lead to prosperity and progress for all is reduced to ideological cover for the interests of the powerful.

There are two problems with Wasserman’s view of these issues. First, is it really true that the market predominantly serves the interests of capital? And second, the Austrians of the 20th century were very clear about their opposition to privilege and their belief that the market order predominantly served the interests of the populace as a whole.

With respect to the first question, there is a large empirical literature demonstrating the ways in which the market economy has dramatically raised the living standards of both the average and poorest households in the advanced economies. Recent data on the reduction in global poverty provides evidence about the rest of the world. One need only consider Nordhaus’s famous study showing that innovators capture only about 2 percent of the total value they create to see that the benefits of markets are spread wide and far.

Although not as clear in the work of the early Austrians, the 20th century Austrians were also quite clear in differentiating “free markets” from “what was good for business people.” Mises’s emphasis on “consumer sovereignty” demonstrates who he thought were the primary beneficiaries of the market economy and he consistently opposed what he (and early liberals) termed the “privileges” sought after by private owners wishing to use the state to limit competition. In Hayek, we see a similar argument about who the real beneficiaries of markets are. He too explicitly opposes privileges that serve the interests of capital. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty Vol. 1 (62), he wrote:  “[The term] ‘capitalism’ is…always misleading because it suggests a system which mainly benefits the capitalists, when in fact it is a system which imposes upon enterprise a discipline under which the managers chafe and which each endeavors to escape.” Similar arguments can be found in modern Austrian work as well.

One hypothesis that Wasserman does not entertain is that the business people who backed the Austrians genuinely believed that freer markets would make the world a better place independently of what it would do for them personally. After all, if they were simply interested in lining their own pockets, seeking after government privileges, such as subsidies, monopolies, or costs imposed on their competition, would seem to be a much more effective short-run strategy. This whole set of problems with Wasserman’s argument is ironic in that he ends up doing precisely what he criticizes the Austrians of doing: abandoning more objective arguments in favor of ideology.

 


Steven Horwitz is Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, and a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada. 

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Will Italy get the “upside” of COVID?

In many assessments of the changes brought by COVID-19, I notice some classical liberal scholars are putting on the upside a certain degree of deregulation, which apparently governments are accepting in order to cope with the healthcare challenge and to ease the way towards recovery.

I am afraid that won’t happen in Italy. I have an article on the matter in Politico.eu.

As I recall in the piece,

The first time I heard an Italian politician promise to slash red tape, I was 13. It was 1994 and, with great fanfare, Silvio Berlusconi had injected the Reagan-esque language of bureaucratic reform into Italian politics.

It was a theme the four-time prime minister and his successors would return to over and over again. As the economist Nicola Rossi recently noted, over the last 30 years, Italy has introduced 10 much-talked-about “simplification reforms” and “reforms of the public administration” in 1990, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2014.

And yet, none of these resulted in an actual, substantive deregulation effort.

The article is here.

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