New Light On Liberalism
The talk this week by bestselling author Amity Shlaes, a longtime Heights resident, packed the Heights Casino’s sumptuous Governors Room as part of the club’s Speakers Program. As fans and readers of Shlaes, the assembled group—including Shlaes and her husband Seth Lipsky, of course – may have become part of the largest aggregate IQ total to fill that room in many years. Notwithstanding the distant screech of sneakers on the squash court floors upstairs, profound discourse and thought was definitely stirring. Shlaes fosters a unique and penetrating re-evaluation of political and economic thought about how our country functions—or does not.
Particularly intriguing is her own description of herself, politically. Below, writer Lore Croghan gives clarity to some terminologies that Shlaes must believe have been over-simplified in the fast-paced world of cable show communication.
Don’t call her a conservative, please.
Instead, Brooklyn Heights best-selling author Amity Shlaes describes herself as a “classical liberal” – a believer in limiting government’s role in managing the economy, like the subject of her new bestseller biography, Calvin Coolidge.
“In a period when we define rights by groups, there are always ‘forgotten men’ – people who don’t belong to a favored group,” she told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Classical liberals stand up for the anonymous men or women and ask if group rights really benefit all.”
Why the distinction between “classical” liberals and “liberals”?
Classical liberalism is a political philosophy that dates back to the days of Thomas Jefferson and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, its adherents say.
Following the days of the New Deal, those who pushed for Big Government became known as liberals – and those who believed in a more hands-off approach to economic policy had to add the word “classical” to distinguish themselves.
Shlaes has said one of her intellectual heroes is the late Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel-Prize winning economist whose book, “The Road to Serfdom,” caused a stir when it was published in 1944 by asserting that government “direction of economic activity” causes “the suppression of freedom.” Hayek didn’t want to be labeled a conservative either.
She chairs the jury of the Hayek Prize, a Manhattan Institute award for new books that reflect Hayek’s views on economic and individual liberty, and is a trustee of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation.
Another of her intellectual heroes is William Graham Sumner, a Yale professor from 1872 to 1909 and Social Darwinist who believed citizens are sovereign and best served by a “minimal state.”
Her third hero, Lord Acton, is the 19th Century historian and devotee of personal liberty who famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Ronald Reagan is widely hailed as the icon of classical liberalism, who stirred America with his vision of a “shining city on a hill.”
But Reagan was only partly able to put classical liberal principles into practice, Shlaes believes.
The Great Communicator cut top tax rates during his presidency, which generated big increases in federal revenue, she has said. But he allowed big increases in spending that caused the federal budget to rise by more than one-third.
That last fact, like the stalemate conditions we are seeing today in government, may well help prove what we feel is one of Shlaes’ underlying points. Among the values we can cherish from ‘Silent Cal’ Coolidge: communication skills alone can too quickly breed ‘over-promise and under-deliver.’