Inventing “Liberalism”

Modern “liberalism” is statism — left-statism, in particular. According to Mike Rappaport of The Right Coast,

[Although] John Stuart Mill was one of the thinkers who moved liberalism toward its modern meaning, it was in the works of Hobhouse and T.H. Green that the change was most affected.

As for Mill (1806-1873), here are some excerpts of my analysis of his influential On Liberty:

… Mill’s prescription for the realization for liberty … is his “harm principle” beloved of both libertarians and modern liberals. It is as if Mill began with the harm principle in mind, then concocted a description of liberty to justify it. The “devil,” in this case, lies not in the details but in the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.[2]

Given the individualistic thrust of this passage and the surrounding text, the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others.[3] That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy….

The main appeal of On Liberty to libertarians and modern liberals is Mill’s defense of conduct that (in his view) only offends social norms:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.[5]

Thus Mill rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases,”[6] by either the state or “society.”…

Mill’s bias against the enforcement of social norms, in all but a few “obvious cases” (murder? theft? rape?), ignores the civilizing influence of those norms. That influence is of no account to Mill, as [Theodore] Dalrymple explains:

For Mill, custom is an evil that is the principle obstruction to progress and moral improvement, and its group on society is so strong that originality, unconventionality, and rebellion against it are goods in themselves, irrespective of their actual content. The man who flouts a convention ipso facto raises society from its torpor and lets everyone know that there are different, and better, ways of doing things. The more such people there are, the greater the likelihood of progress….

Of radical evil, in which the [twentieth] century was to abound, [Mill] has nothing to say, and therefore he had no idea that a mania for progress could result in its very antithesis, or that some defense against such radical evil, of which the commission was no possible without the co-operation and participation of many men, was necessary. The abandonment of customary restraint and inverted moral prejudice was not necessarily followed by improvement.[9]

There is a high price to be paid for the blind rejection of long-standing social norms, whether by individuals, organized groups, legislatures, or courts wishing to “do their own thing,” exact “social justice,” make life “fair,” or just “shake things up” for the sake of doing so. The price is liberty.

If Mill was in the van of modern liberalism, Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882) and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse (1864-1929) were leaders of its intellectual tank corps.

An article about Green at The Stanford Encyclopedia of History includes this (under “The Principles of State Action”):

Green holds that the state should foster and protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals will have the best chance of acting according to their consciences. Notice that in principle Green is not concerned to allow all actions, no matter what their origin…. Yet, the state must be careful when deciding which liberties to curtail and in which ways to curtail them. Over-enthusiastic or clumsy state intervention could easily close down opportunities for conscientious action thereby stifling the moral development of the individual. The state should intervene only where there was a clear, proven and strong tendency of a liberty to enslave the individual. Even when such a hazard had been identified, Green tended to favour action by the affected community itself rather than national state action itself — local councils and municipal authorities tended to produce measures that were more imaginative and better suited to the daily reality of a social problem. Hence he favoured the ‘local option’ where local people decided on the issuing of liquor licences in their area, through their town councils….

Green held that the ultimate power to decide on the allocation of such tasks should rest with the national state (in Britain, embodied in Parliament). The national state itself is legitimate for Green to the extent that it upholds a system of rights and obligations that is most likely to foster individual self-realisation. Yet, the most appropriate structure of this system is determined neither by purely political calculation nor by philosophical speculation. As we shall see, it is more accurate to say that it arose from the underlying conceptual and normative structure of one’s particular society.

Here are some key passages from a biography of Hobhouse on the site of the UK’s Liberal Democrat History Group:

… Hobhouse’s mature political and economic thought [culminated] in his extraordinary little book Liberalism (1911). He sought to explain the social programme and taxation policies of the Liberal government as an extension, not a reversal, of the economic principles of earlier Liberals such as Mill. His underlying theory, difficult to apply in practice but clear enough in theory, was that wealth was created by a combination of individual effort and social organisation, and that the state was entitled to redistribute for the common good that part which arose from social organisation. He also distinguished between property held for use and property held for power, recognising the need for the former but not the latter to be protected by a system of rights. Out of the combination of these ideas, Hobhouse developed Liberal justifications for a guaranteed minimum income funded by income tax.

Hobhouse also developed a distinctive view of liberty and the proper purposes of state power. He maintained, against what we now call libertarianism, that liberty depended on restraint – that every liberty depends on a corresponding act of control. He followed Mill in pointing out the many forms of coercion in social life, including features of existing social and economic conditions. His conclusion was that the proper role of the state was to maximise the availability of liberty by reorganising the existing constraints. But Hobhouse differed from Mill in explaining why paternalism should be opposed. Whereas Mill starts with the harm principle, that no-one should be coerced except to prevent harm to others, Hobhouse says that we should refrain from coercing people for their own good not because [their] good is indifferent to us but because it cannot be furthered by coercion. He believed that the value of liberty lies precisely in its role in human self-development.

Green and Hobhouse, in other words, were accountants of the soul. Green’s apparent delicacy in warning of too much intervention is overcome, in the end, by his recognition of the British state (embodied in Parliament) as the proper arbiter of human conduct. Hobhouse, more boldly, presumed that he and others of his ilk (but not those who disagree with him) could determine how much of one’s property arose from “social organisation,” how much of one’s property was “held for power,” and how to expand liberty by adopting different forms of coercion than those imposed by social norms.

Once again, we are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

And that is precisely the mistake that lies at heart of what we now call “liberalism” or “progressivism.”  It is the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”). It is a habit that has harmed the intended beneficiaries of government intervention, not just economically but in other ways, as well:

  • Americans have learned dependence, instead of self-reliance.
  • Civil society has all but vanished, and with it our ability to solve problems and resolve conflicts cooperatively. Instead, we are forced by government to accept one-size-fits-all solutions.

Not to mention that our liberty — true liberty, not Mill’s hypothetical kind — has all but vanished.

Thus are the wages of “liberalism.”

Other related posts:
The Interest-Group Paradox
Democracy and Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
The Worriers
More about the Worrying Classes
Modern Utilitarianism
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny (and its predecessors, here, here, here, and here)
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice (Cosmic Justice)
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part I
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part II
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part III

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