Blogs > Liberty and Power > Toward a Social History for Classical Liberals

Jan 29, 2005 10:40 pm

Toward a Social History for Classical Liberals

I've just made a very long new post at Positive Liberty. Here is an excerpt:
The historiography of material conditions is so colored by Marxist assumptions that classical liberals seldom want anything to do with it. More times than I can count, I have seen conservative or classical liberal historians deride the very idea of studying chairs, dresses, bread, horses--or artichokes.

Ideas, we hear again and again. Study the ideas, because the rest is just a lot of Marxist distraction.

Nonsense, I say.

And we should be worried indeed if we ever saw our anti-material prejudice confirmed: If the economic conditions of the past turn out to be explicable only in Marxist terms, then Marxism has won. But if the economic conditions of the past are amenable to other forms of analysis, then there is no telling what they might reveal.

My first argument, then, about economic conditions and their relationship to the mentalité of the early modern era is that the are absolutely worth studying--for us just as for leftists, and possibly a good deal more. A really robust classical liberal historiography of the early modern era ought to consider these issues thoroughly rather than just brushing them aside to talk about, you know, ideas.

Keep in mind that we need not subscribe to the Marxist notion that material conditions determine a society's ideas. It is frankly an outdated notion even in the academy, and its only remaining impact, so far as I can tell, is to make nonleftists afraid of studying anything besides the canonical great minds of history. But studying the great minds in isolation is like trying to do ecology by examining mounted trophies alone. Between these two extremes--between ideas as superstructure and ideas as the only things worth studying--there is an entire universe of complicated interplay among historical ideas and material conditions. It's time we started having our say about it.
I'm looking for comments, particularly from other historians.

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More Comments:

William Marina - 1/30/2005

What with snow, ice & fog, I have to leave now for Charlotte to pick up a friend flying up from Fl. I'll try to respond properly later this PM after I return, probably more than 6 hours from now

Jason Kuznicki - 1/30/2005


I am afraid I don't see what value you find in preferring concepts over ideas. How would you differentiate betweenthem in practice? If I were to give you a set of things, could you put them into one category or the other? For example, consider the following:

--the labor theory of value
--Coase's theorem
--freedom of speech

Are all of these "concepts?" Or are some of them "ideas?" If so, what do we gain by this designation?

As to my same-sex marriage, I do not expect that a piece of government paper will convince any libertarians that my relationship, as you term it, is sufficiently deep or valid. But it is both deep and valid, far more so than most relationships, and I find it conceptually improper to put myself on the level of those who are just casually dating or merely thinking about a long-term commitment. We already have that commitment, and some word must be found to designate it. If marriage is not the appropriate term, I really can't think of one that would be better.

Finally, the idea of the corporation as a cultural practice is exactly the sort of thing that I think is important. The legal side of economic history is not quite my area of expertise, though, so I'd like to do more reading before I say too much about it.

William Marina - 1/30/2005

Dear Jason,
I have read your longer essay at the linked listed.
I prefer, in general, to use "concept," rather than "idea" most of the time.
Definitions are important, and should fit the number of concepts under discussion, otherwise intellectual confusion ensues.
See my reply to Chris S's comment on my comment about Robert Wright.
To begin with, I would point out your description of yourself in a same-sex marriage, for which I would use the term "relationship," since marriage has had a rather long history as an understood term.
I have several good friends in such relationships; & even the FL Pension System recognizes these, sometimes called the Parrot Option, in which you can leave your benefits to a significant other, but marriage/spouse is in another category altogether.
Certainly, I believe Classical Liberals need to braoden their perspectives.
The most critical aspect, I believe, is with respect to understanding the changing concept/role of the Corporation since the time of Rome, especially in the evolution toward Empire.
But, more on all that later, perhaps in the weeks ahead.
Bill Marina

Jonathan Dresner - 1/30/2005