Today’s economic history: Did the classical liberals believe in constructive statecraft?

Today’s Economic History: Abbott Payson Usher (1934): A Liberal Theory of Constructive Statecraft: Presidential address delivered at the Forty-sixth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 27, 1933:

Classical and neo-classical economic theory is commonly associated with a form of liberalism that was more largely directed toward the repeal of old laws and regulations than to the constructive development of institutions to meet new social problems. In the past the chief emphasis has been laid upon these destructive accomplishments of economic liberalism. It has therefore been easy to overlook the actual constructive accomplishments of the early nineteenth century, and many are disposed to believe that these positive achievements were inconsistent with the primary postulates of classical and neo-classical theory.

It must be confessed that there is confusion of thought in the writings of the early nineteenth century economists; but a positive theory of constructive statecraft is implicit in the basic liberal concepts. The most characteristic features of classical theory lead directly toward a broad concept of the task of the state.

Classical theory was based upon the concept of an orderly and rational system of nature, and the concept of a contractual society. We need not concern ourselves here with the precise forms in which these concepts were held by the economists of the nineteenth century, because it is more important to direct our attention to the full content of these ideas than to the imperfect and incomplete formulations that have prevented liberal views from achieving their full development.

As people probably told my Great-Great-Uncle Abbott, “most characteristic” is in the eye of the beholder. However, he is certainly right as far as Hume, Smith, Ricardo, Tocqueville… even Bastiat are concerned. With Senior and subsequent epigones, however, “most characteristic” becomes debatable: the parody of classical liberalism comes close to reality–and today we have sub-epigones at Heritage and Cato denouncing Bastiat and Hayek, as Ludwig von Mises did Milton Friedman, as “Communists. You’re just Communists…”

December 30, 2015


Brad DeLong
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