Conor Friedersdorf beats the drum on understanding liberals.

Awhile back, when I reviewed Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin, I argued that its fatal flaw was its author’s insistence on the straw man that today’s liberals are fundamentally driven by Statism, whereas actually what motivates most of them is a substantially different project . . . If you’re trying to actually understand someone like Matt Yglesias, whether to effectively argue against his views or to engage him persuasively, the frames of "statism" and "liberty versus tyranny" are almost completely useless.

I am reminded how much of the modern right has become almost a caricature of 70s era liberal stereotypes of it. Part of the problem, as I see it, is cradle-to-grave conservatism – an entire culture that regards liberal views as by their nature the product of fools, charlatans and would-be tyrants. Indoctrination leaves one ignorant of the core arguments of his own ideology.

Virtually no one is born a libertarian in the Hayek-Freidman sense. It is an intellectual journey that almost always begins from the basic liberal position and maintains its sensibilities throughout. If you try to skip that stage you are doing yourself a disservice. If you don’t understand liberalism, I am not sure how you understand libertarianism.

In Free to Choose Milton Friedman, for example, repeatedly speaks with the mind of a free marketer and the soul of liberal.

Mr. Ramsey [British Unemployed Worker]: The jobs are out there you only come up with about 45 pounds a week. And you need a doctors stamp over there. You see, you finish up with about 29 pound. So what good is it working? You still get the same thing, you know what I mean? I can’t make any sense of it.

Friedman: Of course, he’s quite right. It may not pay to get a job now. That’s not his fault and I don’t blame him. He’s acting sensibly and intelligently for his own interest and the interest of his family. It’s the fault of the system which takes away the incentive from him to get a job.

But suppose you were cruel and simply took away the welfare overnight. Cut it off. What would happen? He would find a job. What kind of a job? I don’t know. It might not be a very nice job. It might not be a very attractive job. But at some wage, at some level of pay, there will always be a job which he could get for himself. It might be also that he would be driven to rely on some private charity. He might have to get soup kitchen help or the equivalent. Again, I’m not saying that’s desirable or nice or a good thing it isn’t, but as a matter of actual fact as to what would happen, there is little doubt that he would find some way to earn a living.

. . .

The best, or should I say the least bad, solution I have even been able to devise was something called the negative income tax. This is the idea that we should get rid of a large part of the welfare bureaucracy, and for demeaning rules, and we should help people who are poor fundamentally by giving them money.

. . .

We’ve surrendered power to government, nobody has taken it from us. It’s our doing. The results, monumental government spending. Much of it wasted, little of it going to the people whom we would like to see helped. Burdensome taxes, high inflation, a welfare system under which neither those who receive help nor those who pay for it are satisfied. Trying to do good with other people’s money simply has not worked.

In Hayek the tone is the same. We are never arguing over ends. The ends are clear – the alleviation of the suffering of the poor. We are debating means.

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