Great Antidote Extras: David Boaz on Liberalism and the Continuing Progress of the Enlightenment

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Janet Bufton for AdamSmithWorks

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Materially, people in the United States are much better off. But they’ve also progressed in ways important to liberalism, which stands against racism, sexism, antisemitism, and laws oppressing gay people."


 “For thousands of years, most of recorded history, the world was characterized by power, privilege, and oppression. Life for most people was, in the phrase of Thomas Hobbes, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
“And then something changed.”
This is how David Boaz, a distinguished senior fellow at the Cato Institute, introduced his piece, “To Save the World, Fight For Liberalism”, about which he joined host Juliette Sellgren to discuss on The Great Antidote podcast

What changed was the beginning of the Enlightenment and the emergence of liberalism. Over his 43 years at the Cato Institute, Boaz has been a moral lodestone for a libertarianism that takes liberalism seriously, and insists that it must. 

The podcast conversation brought to mind another Boaz article that turns 14 this month, one I remember as a turning point in the libertarian discussion of how to proceed into the 21st century. In “Up From Slavery”, Boaz argued that there was no golden age of libertarianism—certainly not at the American founding. He used an anecdote to illustrate why nostalgic libertarianism is insufficient:  
The Cato Institute’s boilerplate description of itself used to include the line, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” Until Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, gave a speech at Cato and pointed out to us that it didn’t seem quite that way to black people.
Thomas’ observation illustrates why continuing progress is so important. The expansion of freedom and opportunity for Black Americans increased the diversity of perspectives available when it put Clarence Thomas in a position to comment on Cato’s blind spot. His correction allowed them to recognize and better advocate for an expanded liberalism that advocates for the freedom and prosperity of all.

Boaz continues this push in the podcast. In contrast with a libertarian framing that aims at reclaiming lost liberty, Boaz in his interview with Sellgren states firmly that we should see progress that helps us to feel lucky that we live in 2023 and not 1776. Materially, people in the United States are much better off. But they’ve also progressed in ways important to liberalism, which stands against racism, sexism, antisemitism, and laws oppressing gay people. Boaz reminds listeners that into the 1960s, Jim Crow era laws enshrined in law severe restrictions on the rights of Black Americans. (Indeed, striking down the vestiges of Jim Crow is an ongoing project.)

The costs of illiberalism and abandoning our drive to do better are unacceptable. Says Boaz: 
That's one of the things that Illiberalism would do for us. It would cut off progress. And if we could freeze progress at 2023, there are some people in the United States and certainly around the world for whom that would not be a good place to stop…[For many Americans], life's pretty good. If we stopped right here, we'd be all right. But [even then,] you don't just stop right here. You get stagnation. You get deterioration.
This is an old observation by liberals because it is the basis of a fundamental commitment by liberals to dynamic markets as a means for achieving material progress. Adam Smith observed that
The uniform, constant, and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition, the principle from which public and national, as well as private opulence is originally derived, is frequently powerful enough to maintain the natural progress of things towards improvement, in spite both of the extravagance of government and of the greatest errors of administration. (WN II.iii.31)
Boaz’s focus on the Enlightenment, tracing liberalism’s origins back to the Scientific Revolution, is also a reminder that liberalism has to be a learning philosophy to remain relevant. The challenges to liberalism and to freedom today are not the same as the ones that faced the world when Boaz joined the Cato Institute—that’s good. That’s progress. And Boaz has worked hard to remind us that “Respect for the dignity of each person is the foundation of moral and social progress.” 

A liberalism that remembers that will always serve people who want to be free. 


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David Boaz

I blush.