Might Liberalism and Progressivism Divorce?

Some recent blogosphere pieces (like this from Scott Alexander, and this exchange among Don Boudreaux, Bryan Caplan, and others) has me wondering if there might be a political movement divorce on the horizon.

Liberals – that is those who broadly favor human freedom and flourishing – have for decades been “married” to the Progressive political element forming the political family known as the Left. While the capitalists of the 18th and 19th centuries were largely liberals, late 19th- and early 20th-century ideologies, like anti-trust, state-run education, state-run welfare, and unionization, lured liberal-minded types to the left on economics. This progressive-liberal marriage was so established even by the 1930’s that left-authoritarian movements like Nazism and fascism got lumped in with the right because to be on the left was almost by definition to be liberal.

While liberals may have believed they had a common cause with Progressivism a century ago, I believe modern liberal views are turning. Far fewer liberals today believe that a scientific, technocratic government can improve most people’s lives. There has always been a strain of liberalism that has rejected that view, which since the 1970’s has been called libertarianism. I think that, on the margin, young liberals are more accepting of markets in spite of the market’s theoretical flaws (though the set of actually manifested flaws in the market is much smaller than the set of theoretical flaws).

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