The Culture of Classical Liberalism

Does Classical Liberalism Focus Solely on Economics?


Tadd Wilson is a freelance writer in Fairfax, Virginia.

Despite what is taught in most universities, the essentially classical liberal ideas of free-market economics and limited government have won the basic test of any doctrine: does it beat the best alternative? The evidence is clear, whether in the collapse of the former Soviet Union’s planned economy or in the public-sector downsizing in countries as varied as Estonia, New Zealand, and Poland.

However, classical liberalism—once a dominant philosophical paradigm—now allegedly fails the more subtle test of completeness. Many on the left and right criticize classical liberals for focusing purely on economics and politics to the neglect of a vital issue: culture. The criticism could have implications for the future of classical liberalism. As F. A. Hayek pointed out in “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” the perception of a philosophy affects its longevity.

Right and Left Versus the Last Man

From the left, classical liberals have faced (or, some would suggest, have not faced) serious questions about the limits and very nature of politics and economics. Indirectly inheriting both Friedrich Nietzsche’s apparent deification of culture and his fear of an atomistic, utility-maximizing Last Man, most twentieth-century intellectuals have been openly hostile to purely economic or political understandings of man. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, British socialist literary and political critic Raymond Williams, and even the political philosopher Hannah Arendt come to mind. It was Arendt who, in Men in Dark Times (1968), referred to “many periods of dark times in which . . . people have ceased to ask any more of politics than it show due consideration for their vital interests and personal liberty.”

From the right, Allan Bloom argued in “Commerce and ‘Culture’” that “the very notion of ‘culture’ was formed in response to the rise of commercial society.” In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), Bloom spoke disparagingly of merely economic or political conceptions of a free society, chiding friends of the market that in accepting “value-free” economics “they are admitting that their ‘rational’ system needs a moral supplement in order to work, and that this morality is not itself rational—or at least the choice of it is not rational, as they understand reason.” Bloom’s observations continue to be recycled by more overtly political conservatives such as former federal judge Robert Bork and Weekly Standard publisher William Kristol.

Quite reasonably, many classical liberals retort that political and economic theory naturally focuses on politics and economics, and that they are more interested in defining the political sphere rather than accounting for what falls outside it. Others mention that many artists (those most involved in “culture”) were political liberals in their time, notably Friedrich von Schiller, Ludwig van Beethoven, Percy Shelley, John Milton, and Johann von Goethe. However, the critics’ point should not be lost: as a broad area of thought, classical liberalism is generally perceived as caring little for the non-political or non-economic; and the standard retort “sells short” a rich tradition of scholarship and thought that, on examination, provides grounds for serious discussion of culture, even if it offers no dogmatic account.

This essay will make two simple points: that many classical liberals do indeed acknowledge the importance of “culture,” though they present no unified front on the matter; and that this cultural awareness is an important part of their respective overall classical-liberal philosophies. We will discuss three great exponents of classical liberalism: F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Albert Jay Nock.

What Is Culture?

Before going any farther, let’s look at what exactly “culture” is, or rather, at how little clarity there is on the issue. The 1995 Oxford Companion to Philosophy notes that the word “may be used in a wide sense to describe all aspects characteristic of a particular form of human life, or in a narrow sense to denote only the system of values implicit in it.” The entry concludes that understanding culture is helpful for evaluating systems of values with an eye to the ideals they reflect about what human life ought to be. A less academic source, Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, defines culture in such terms as “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training”; “a particular stage of advancement in civilization”; “the characteristic features of such an age or state”; and “behavior typical of a group or class.”

While neither definition offers a precise understanding of culture, both focus on two essential elements of “culture”: that general trends and individuals’ actions are related to and can be explained as motivated by values, and that these values are not ultimately stable; that is, they must be taught and are subject to interpretation. Moreover, these definitions point to two areas of potential activity concerning any given culture: explaining individual behavior and changing individual behavior. While these two areas may ultimately be inseparable, we will treat them as discrete for the purposes of drawing out two criticisms of classical liberalism since, essentially, the critiques from Bloom, Arendt, and others, though varying in particulars, boil down to the assertion that classical liberalism is sufficient neither for explaining culture nor for creating culture—that is, for sustaining values.

Hayek: Beyond Political Economy

Rather than attacking their critics on abstract grounds, students of the classical-liberal tradition can refute the claim that all classical liberals neglect culture with three words: the fatal conceit. Appreciated mostly for enlarging and deepening his critique of central planning, Hayek’s book The Fatal Conceit touches on nearly every important field related to culture: anthropology, biology, philosophy, linguistics, and psychology—in addition to economics and politics. While the thrust of the book is a proof that socialism is based on demonstrably false premises, in setting up his case Hayek offers a grounding for an account of how societies evolve that is not merely economic, not purely political, and not purely rational—it is between instinct and reason.

Though the laws of economics (what Ludwig von Mises called praxeology) remain stable across time, for Hayek, an account of the “rational” reaction to these laws does not provide the best explanation of social change and individual values. In a section entitled “Biological and Cultural Evolution,” Hayek notes that, with respect to separating instinct from habitual learning, “we cannot precisely distinguish between these two determinants of conduct because they interact in complicated ways.” Hayek also suggests that tension between instinct and reason, “a conflict fired by the discipline of ‘repressive or inhibitory moral traditions’ . . . is perhaps the major theme of the history of civilization.” He then postulates that this tension between instinct and reason drives cultural evolution, a process of “continued trial and error, constant ‘experimentation’ in arenas wherein different orders contended.” Only after setting the evolutionary/cultural stage does Hayek move on to discuss the origins of liberty, property, and justice, and beyond to the development of large-scale markets and extended orders.

After offering his account of culture, Hayek explicitly recognizes the behavior-changing function of culture: “Recognising that rules generally tend to be selected, via competition, on the basis of their human survival-value, certainly does not protect those rules from critical scrutiny.” In other words, although the evolutionary mechanism Hayek has outlined works, rationally critiquing specific rules and norms is important. And though Hayek spends most of the remainder of The Fatal Conceit challenging socialist and collectivist economics (obviously with the hope of changing behavior), he does devote an entire chapter to what can clearly be labeled “cultural criticism”—“Our Poisoned Language.” In that chapter, Hayek notes the enormous importance of language in cultural evolution, particularly language’s ability to subtly transmit error from generation to generation. (He points to the proliferation of the modifier “social,” as in “social justice,” to indicate how language can perpetuate erroneous thinking.)

These examples show two things: Hayek takes a holistic view of human affairs that encompasses far more than economics or politics, and this view allows Hayek to interpret and criticize particular cultures with an eye to changing individual behavior and general trends. In short, Hayek was no “mere economist.” Nor was he alone.

Rand: No Stone Unturned

Of the three authors discussed in this article, Ayn Rand is the one who most consciously advanced a particular philosophy, Objectivism. As such, Rand’s notion of culture is carefully defined and integrated into her system of beliefs built on her irreducible primaries: existence, identity, and consciousness. In her 1982 collection, Philosophy: Who Needs It, her last published book, Rand defines a nation’s culture as “the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men, which their fellow-citizens have accepted in whole or in part, and which have influenced the nation’s way of life.” Far from being static, “a culture is a complex battleground of different ideas and influences” so that “to speak of a ‘culture’ is to speak only of the dominant ideas, always allowing for the existence of dissenters and exceptions.”

Like Hayek, Rand also tackles the issue of the necessary conditions for civilization. While Hayek highlights civilization’s dependence on rules of just conduct that allow an extended order to evolve, Rand states her case more simply: “the precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships.” Rand shares with Hayek an adherence to methodological individualism, stating unequivocally “[a] great deal may be learned about society by studying man.” However, Rand’s strong stance leads her to conclude that “nothing can be learned about man by studying society” and the only fundamental factor determining the nature of any social system is the presence or absence of individual rights, statements with which Hayek would find some uneasiness. But, whatever the similarities or differences between Hayek and Rand, both develop explanatory theories of individual behavior that encompass and transcend economics and politics and yet are integral to their political philosophies.

Rand does address culture from a critic’s point of view. Like Hayek, she abhors the linguistic and ethical dominance of the word “social”: “there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men.” She devoted an entire essay in The Objectivist (April 1966) to “Our Cultural Value-Deprivation.” And in Philosophy: Who Needs It, she argues that one of the United States’ great weaknesses comes from its failure to generate a culture of its own. America failed to discover “the words to name their [the founders'] achievements . . . i.e., the appropriate philosophy and its consequence: an American culture.” This cultural deficiency left American intellectuals dependent on European (particularly German) “hand-me-downs” and caused an unfortunate “recycling of Kantian-Hegelian premises,” that is, collectivism. Rand’s account clearly echoes Hayek’s fear about our “poisoned language” and, ironically enough, anticipates some of what Bloom would argue a few years later.

Like her predecessor Albert Jay Nock, Rand spoke appreciatively of ancient Greece for giving birth to philosophy by idealizing reason. She praised Greek art and religion for personifying “proper human values” such as beauty, wisdom, justice, and victory. In The Romantic Manifesto, Rand stresses the importance of art in general for selectively recreating reality, isolating “those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence.” Clearly, Rand’s view of art is an example of the reinterpretive, exploratory, and evaluative function attributed to culture in the definitions above. Moreover, culturally functioning art is not mere entertainment but a crucial part of individual man’s existence, insofar as man’s self-interest cannot be decided on whimsically but must be discovered.

As with Hayek, our discussion of Rand is not intended to decide the merits of her arguments but rather to make two points: she offers a fundamental view of human affairs that encompasses more than economics or politics; and this view allows her to evaluate and criticize particular cultures with an eye to challenging individuals’ assumptions, their behavior, and general trends.

Nock: Cultured Critic

Unlike Hayek (an economist turned political philosopher) or Rand (a novelist turned philosopher), Albert Jay Nock wrote quite obviously as a cultural critic. Generally favoring the essay above the journal article, treatise, or novel, Nock brought his marvelous literary talents to a wide variety of forums, including the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Nation, The Freeman of the 1920s and ’30s, several quarterly reviews, and Frank Chodorov’s broadsheet, analysis. Though not well known among young libertarians, Nock exerted a major influence on the budding anti-collectivist movement of the 1940s, including such notable figures as Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Murray Rothbard, as well as Chodorov.

Though he voiced very strong opinions on economic and political affairs (most notably in Our Enemy, the State), Nock’s analysis was certainly not limited to economic or political criticism. Rather, like Hayek and Rand, Nock drew from a wide range of disciplines for his inspiration, including literature, history, mythology, classical and modern political theory, and religion. Also like Hayek, Nock was an astute observer of culture as it affected individual behavior and general trends—and though he developed no rigorous theoretical account of cultural evolution as did Hayek, he still ultimately took the long view of culture, often referring to his centuries-old inspirations: Shakespeare, Dante, Socrates, Virgil, and his beloved Rabelais.

Primarily, however, Nock chose to observe and criticize the early twentieth-century American culture he saw around him (though he eventually despaired of changing anyone’s behavior). Nock’s cutting wit turned from music and literature in “A Cultural Forecast” to the role of criticism itself in “Criticism’s Proper Field.” In “American Education,” he took on the academy: “The root-idea, or ideal, of our system is the very fine one that educational opportunity should be open to all. The practical approach to this ideal, however, was not planned intelligently, but, on the contrary, very stupidly; it was planned on the official assumption that everybody is educable, and this assumption still remains official.” Though Nock wrote to the audiences of his day, his substantive account of culture remains a relevant and fruitful source of criticism. As Nock observed in the April 5, 1930, issue of the new Freeman, “Criticism’s first job in this country is . . . taking its eyes and mind resolutely off the contemporaneous.”

Finally, Nock had an abiding concern for the individual mind in an age of collectivism and conformity. A passage from “A Cultural Forecast” that anticipates Hayek’s connection of self-preserving instinct, reason, and cultural evolution warns against the confusion of state and culture. In addition, Nock urges his readers to better themselves before faulting American culture for not giving all the citizens of the United States an appreciation of the humane life. Commenting on the lives of Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, and Socrates, Nock says that “they approached their own age with the understanding, equanimity, humour, and tolerance that culture indicates; and instead of expecting their civilization to give them more than it possibly could give them, instead of continually fretting at their fellow citizens, blaming, brow-beating or expostulating with them for their derogations from the humane life, they bent their energies, as far as circumstances allowed, towards making some kind of progress in the humane life themselves.”

Ultimately, Nock demonstrates that classical liberalism and an appreciation for “high” culture are not just reconcilable but complementary. Nock also provides a stylistic model and substantive source of insight, wit, and humanity for classical liberal critics.

Classical Liberal Culture

Clearly, there is no dearth of classical liberal writing that ventures beyond economics and politics. But it still leaves us with the question of why classical liberalism takes such a beating from those concerned with culture. Perhaps, as Bloom suggests, the problem is not so much that classical liberal interest in culture does not exist but that it is overlooked. And perhaps those who call themselves classical liberals are the most negligent in this respect. As University of Iowa economist and historian D.N. McCloskey notes in a 1994 American Scholar article, “Bourgeois Virtue,” classical liberals (and indeed, everyone) should “stop defining a participant in an economy as an amoral brute.” McCloskey writes that even “Adam Smith knew that a capitalist society . . . could not flourish without the virtues of trustworthiness or bourgeois pride,” for “Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was about love, not greed.” Happily, McCloskey observes that the current situation may not be as bleak as the one Bloom had portrayed in 1987: “Yet even many economists have learned by now that moral sentiment must ground a market.”

In fact, McCloskey’s article (which anticipates her 1996 book on the same subject) is an excellent example of one classical liberal economist’s appreciation for culture, touching intelligently on classical and modern philosophy, the language of virtue, medieval history, and Freudian psychology. And McCloskey is not alone. Several groups (albeit small) and writers have been expanding classical liberalism’s horizons beyond politics and economics. Most recently, economist Tyler Cowen argues in In Praise of Commercial Culture that an economic look at “cultural production” shows a strong correlation between prosperity and mass consumption of both low and high cultural artifacts.

This brief look at Hayek, Rand, and Nock does not end the debate over culture—rather, it should initiate discussion among classical liberals in an area where they have, and have had, much to contribute. To the critics, we can respond that, far from crippling classical liberalism or rendering it “merely” practical, the absence of a unified party line on the question of culture enables us both to appreciate the latest insights of a diversity of disciplines and to continue exploring our own rich tradition of historians, moral and ethical philosophers, essayists, novelists, theologians—and, yes, political philosophers and economists.


December 1998

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