The tyranny of old men.
Classical liberalism is a dynamic system of thought, not a static, stagnant ideology. Some people assume that classical liberalism is bound to the freedoms won in the past and must extend no further. These individuals, who cling to the past like some sort of icon, are not liberals but conservatives. They cling only to classical liberal values because they old, not because they are true, or good. The true liberal holds such values because they are both true and good. And, because his allegiance is owed to the concepts of liberalism, he is always open to the extension of such concepts to new areas.
Liberalism, and I use the term to mean classical liberalism, was always extending the boundaries of human freedom and rights. Liberals did not tolerate slavery merely because it was old and traditional. Their campaign against slavery violated the conservative principles of their era, they opposed the Bible itself, which condoned slavery as an institution. Eventually the slave system itself was brought to an end in the Western world.
The emancipation of women shortly followed, and sometimes the same crusaders were involved in both campaigns. Liberalism didn’t stop and rest when slavery was defeated. Like all dynamic systems it moved on and fought for the equality of women. It found that the emancipation of slaves was not enough is black Americas still faced legal inequality and liberalism moved to destroy the Jim Crow legacy of the bigoted South.
Consider the way that the English aristocracy used the privilege of government to close off markets and keep grain prices high. Liberalism did not defend the interest of “business” but the interests of freedom. It pushed to abolish the “corn laws” which restricted foreign competition and to allow price to fall. Liberalism is not “pro business” but pro freedom.
Liberalism is always evolving, always moving forward, always pushing boundaries for greater human liberation. There has never been a perfect “end state” where liberalism, and its heroes, could rest and say: “We have done enough.” Liberalism, libertarianism, is inherently impatient. It seeks new campaigns for freedom.
This is why liberalism and capitalism, properly defined, go hand-in-hand so well. Capitalism is an inherently dynamic system as well. It rewards rebellions against the status quo. Samuel Brittan made the point in his essay “Capitalism and the Permissive Society,” that entrepreneurs, as profit maximizers, are rewarded if they ignore the “traditional, mystical or ceremonial justification of existing practices.” Entrepreneurs who ignore social norms, to fill niche markets frowned upon by conservative authorities, are financially rewarded.
Ludwing von Mises argued that in statist system change only happens with the consent of “old men,” who are resistant to change. Under bureaucratic management “the first step is to obtain the consent of old men accustomed to doing things in prescribed ways and no longer open to new ideas. No progress and no reforms can be expected in a state of affairs where the first step is to obtain the consent of old men. The pioneers of new methods are considered rebels and are treated as such. For a bureaucratic mind, law abidance, i.e., clinging to the customary and antiquated is the first of all virtues.”
The British socialist Evan Luard recognized that “collective power is also conservative because within the democratic system, political parties and leaders are obliged to converge to a point near the average views of the majority… Because the majority are rarely in favor of important or imaginative changes, this inhibits any radical challenge to the status quo.”
It is no accident that equality of rights for gay couples has gone much further in the private sector than it has in the governmental realm. Where major corporations and businesses have been quite willing to recognize such relationships and grant them equality, on par with straight marriages, the governmental sector is slow to follow. The insights of Mises and Luard are similar and born out by the marriage debate. As I wrote previously:
What is happening now, with political bodies recognizing marriage equality, is that the civil institution of marriage is catching up the private, real nature of marriage. Society, the web of voluntary associations, has largely accepted marriage equality. Major corporations already recognize such relationships in terms of insurance and employment benefits. Even many churches, outside the Catholics, Mormons and fundamentalists, recognize or accept same-sex couples. Virtually all major branches of Society have evolved to accept gay couples. Not so the State. In that realm where the State has not exerted control marriage has already evolved. The anti-equality lobby has actually used state coercion to forbid private institutions from evolving. In essence, they are trying to prevent natural evolution through the use of top-down coercion. It can be argued that the individuals who are meddling with the institution are those using political control to prevent evolution of marriage in the social sphere. … Society has evolved when it comes to marriage. The State has not.
Historical accidents have sometimes meant that conservatives and liberals are allied. But the relationship, at its best is unstable. The differences are actually quite profound and conflict unavoidable. In a nutshell, liberalism evolves. And conservatives don’t believe in evolution.