October, 2021

Fighting Privileges

A Plea for Liberal Cosmopolitinism
  • Peter J. Boettke

    Director, F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics
  • Stefan Kolev

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Liberal economists can claim with some justification that we live in the best of all worlds that have existed. Never before has the economic order of so many countries been shaped by the value of freedom, and never before has the global proportion of people living in absolute poverty been so low. Peter J. Boettke, a liberal economist who teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, elaborates in this book that there is nevertheless no cause for complacency. Neither do we live in the best of all possible worlds, nor is it enough for Boettke to celebrate the economic successes. For the liberal order has come under heavy fire – partly through its own fault.

The book consists of sixteen essays, including several addresses given by Boettke as president of liberal associations such as the Mont Pèlerin Society or of economist associations such as the Southern Economic Association. Those who share concerns about the future of the liberal order are offered Boettke’s approach to liberal political economy as a remedy. This consists of a masterful harnessing of the history of economic thought, including a warning to his own profession not to leave the history of the discipline to social scientists hostile to economic thought. With a cleverly chosen rhetoric, he describes how citizens can approach economic theory and its topicality via this historical access.

Boettke explains why he as an economist – quite in the sense of Max Weber – owes the reader a disclosure of his normative positioning. When economists pretend to be free of value relations to their object of study, they misjudge their own nature as social scientists who, as human beings, do research on other human beings and their social relations. The responsible citizen to whom Boettke is addressing can himself deal with the advice of liberal, socialist or conservative economists – if they have made their positioning explicit in advance. The fact that today’s economists often shy away from doing so is something Boettke rightly considers dangerous, since the danger of – mostly unintentional – manipulation when presenting politico-economic advice is not insignificant.

Liberalism and economic thinking belong so closely together in the book owing to their co-evolution during the past two and a half centuries, a co-evolution which Boettke traces. If economics means thinking through social processes in which people – in markets, but also in civil society – solve their problems in a decentralized and self-organized way, then the question arises as to the framework necessary for these processes. Liberals look for rules of the framework that guarantee as much individual freedom as possible. In the sense of this simultaneous thinking of process and framework, Boettke convincingly shows continuities ranging from David Hume and Adam Smith to the Nobel Prize winners Elinor Ostrom, James Buchanan and Vernon Smith. The Freiburg School also fits in seamlessly here, as Boettke has elaborated in other publications.

The liberalism on which the book is based – understood as a conversation between adults who meet as equals and always respect each other’s dignity – has indeed developed parallel to political economy. According to Boettke, however, it would be fundamentally wrong to narrow liberalism “economistically” to the economic order. Unfortunately, many liberal economists have made precisely this mistake in recent decades. Since intellectual opposition remained fixated on left-wing planning agendas, many liberals today react to the danger again threats of the liberal order from the right with disconcerting naiveté. The most recent essays in particular emphasize that, because of this danger from the right, a return to cosmopolitanism is urgently needed.

To counter the economistic narrowing, Boettke also highlights the emancipatory side of a historically informed and contemporary relevant liberalism. He draws the history of freedom in modernity as a struggle against the privileges of the powerful, against discrimination against minorities, and for the empowerment of the poor and weak. In this, empathy for the poor and weak does not remain an abstract. Rather, the reader senses that this attitude constitutes Boettke’s own motivation to be an economist and to search for framework conditions under which market processes unfold their beneficial effects precisely for the poor and weak.

Boettke advises his colleagues to constantly examine their own relevance for society in a self-critical manner and to understand political consulting not primarily as consulting the politician, but rather as consulting the citizen – precisely in the sense of the “obligation to deliver” towards the citizens, as Kiel economist Herbert Giersch formulated it decades ago. To this end, diagnosis and therapy for the current crises must be communicated in a rhetoric that citizens can understand. The advice must be radical in substance, but moderate in rhetoric, resisting in particular the temptation to proclaim prophecies of doom. Here, Boettke seeks a balance between the equally undesirable extremes of cynical pessimism and naive optimism.

Nevertheless, the essays offer reason for optimism. The reader takes from this humanistic search for a humane order of economy and society that the economic thinkers of order have much to say to our crisis-ridden present. If today’s economists succeed in offering rules for the regulatory framework which, in the perception of the citizen, eliminate some of the current uncertainty and at the same time allow for more individual freedom, we are far from having reached the end of the success story of the liberal order.