George Scialabba at The Baffler:
“Twentieth-century liberalism has won.” So ran the first sentence of The New Republic’s eightieth-anniversary anthology back in 1994. Liberalism “inspired democratic revolutions from the Soviet Union to South Africa,” according to the anthology’s editor, Dorothy Wickenden, and finally “disabused this country of its prolonged infatuation with conservatism.” Occupying the White House were two men with “intellectual edge and moral intuition,” the magazine’s editors enthused, who offered “the best chance in a generation to bring reform and renewal to a country that desperately needs both.”
How accurate you think this judgment is depends on what you understand by that perennially disputed word, “liberalism.” Originally it meant the opposite of mercantilism, the close government regulation of commercial policy to benefit domestic merchants by means of tariffs and restrictions on the movement of capital and technology. Mercantilism, protectionism, and industrial policy all name various aspects of the impulse to limit competition from abroad. As Britain and the United States became the world’s leading economic powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, respectively, each decided that other countries’ efforts to favor the home team were no longer cricket and that unregulated (i.e., “free”) competition—which, by the merest coincidence, they were most likely to win—was in everyone’s best interest. “Liberalism,” from the Latin word for “free,” is the name of this ideology. Even now, European political parties that call themselves “liberal” mean by it “pro-business.” The leading voice of nineteenth-century liberalism was The Economist, which famously argued that to provide famine aid to Ireland would be to interfere with the necessarily benign workings of the free market.