Although the economic interests in the United States were quite different — the philosophy of free trade was long associated with a liberal position. But starting around 1880, liberals began to split into two philosophical camps. One group maintained the classical “hands-off” position on state-directed income redistribution. The second group — the progressives — embraced an active role for government-directed income redistribution — but putatively for the interests of the lower-income classes.
David Starr Jordan (1851-1931), one-time Indiana University president and the founding president of Stanford University, argued the classical position as late as 1908. On a protective tariff justified on the grounds that certain interest deserved “a reasonable profit,” Jordan stated, “... in the theory of our republic it is no part of the state to guarantee to any one ‘a reasonable profit’ nor to protect any one from a reasonable loss. Its function is to see fair play and freedom of operation. It is a breach of the principle of equality before the law that the state should do anything more.”
He went on to claim the greatest harm of a protective tariff was “moral, not economic. It lies in the perversion of our theories of government, the introduction of the idea of class enrichment through legislation.”
Despite rumors to the contrary, the classical liberal position did not die out with Jordan’s generation. Although contemporary conservatives more-or-less embrace the free market principles of classical liberals, conservatives and classical liberals are not always or even usually in sync on issues of immigration, national defense, drug decriminalization or the hot-button social issues of abortion and gay rights. Fighting among the Republicans quite often is a conflict between classical liberals (Paul, Rubio) and conservatives (Santorum, Huckabee).
On the other hand, that second strain of 19th-century liberals have increasingly preferred to self-identify as progressives. So I say, hooray. Let us recognize now there are three major strains of American political-economic philosophy: conservatism, classical liberalism and progressivism.
Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and professor of economics at Ball State University. Contact him at email@example.com.