Liberalism’s Tragic Evolution

This book gives both friends and critics of the classical liberal tradition much to think about. Its thoughtful, closely reasoned account of liberalism from Locke to the present is written not in heroic or comic but in tragic mode; its title subject is presented as a worthy but thus far failed enterprise impeded by unresolved albeit identifiable problems.

The volume contains both a general story about the nature and fate of the liberal tradition and a series of fine-grained insights that reframe old questions in new ways. Concerning the latter, a chief use of the book will be to provide a sort of informal handbook of heuristic tools to those charged with teaching the history or philosophy of liberty. But first the story:

“Liberalism” was born, according to George Smith, as a reaction to royal absolutism. As Bodin, Hobbes, and others developed the rationale for state sovereignty, thinkers such as Grotius and Locke responded by developing its counterpart in the idea of “self-sovereignty.” At first this concept was applied primarily in the religious domain, leading to what Smith calls “conscience liberalism.” But soon, already with Locke, it expanded to encompass the political order, and eventually, starting in the eighteenth century, it came to include the whole of individual and social life.

How new was this focused emphasis on liberty? In answering that question, Smith distinguishes usefully between a sentiment of liberty, typified by Montaigne’s famous comment that “if anyone should forbid me access to some corner of the Indies, I should live distinctly less comfortably”; principles of liberty, which even absolutists such as Bodin express when, for example, they defend religious toleration; theories of liberty, which concern a coherent but discipline-specific domain such as politics; and liberal ideologies, which promote liberty as a preeminent value across a variety of domains such as economics, religion, and politics. (51-55) Only the latter is truly modern, as it developed in the eighteenth century with writers such as Hume and Adam Smith.

Although George Smith mentions a variety of liberal “ideologies,” his book is defined by the tension between two: the natural-rights tradition traceable to Locke, and the utilitarian tradition associated with the name of Bentham. In his story, each has its merits, but each has also betrayed fatal weaknesses making them unable to prosper over the long run. The natural-rights tradition, with its emphasis on consent and the right of revolution, proved too radical to survive the excesses of the French Revolution, which were often blamed on it. And utilitarianism, which arose as a corrective to this natural rights tradition, proved too unprincipled to set firm and defensible limits to governmental action.

In stark contrast to those critics of globalization who find rampantly triumphant “neo-liberalism” to be the scourge of the modern world, George Smith believes that liberalism has failed, and concludes his book by reprising the early twentieth-century debate involving Hayek, Mises, and others over why it has done so. His story is tragic because nothing, it would appear, could have prevented it: unlike socialism and nationalism, which appeal to the emotions, liberalism depends upon abstract concepts that can only be grasped by reason. Thus, it has always had “an ethereal quality to it,” he writes. “This was the nature of the beast.” (215)

Another factor is that a true modern defense of liberty requires interdisciplinary perspectives of the sort that Hume and Smith elaborated. With the hyper-specialization in academe that has emerged since the nineteenth century, that breadth of perspective is more difficult to develop in academe; one may extrapolate that it therefore falls to extra-academic organizations to foster the capacious vision necessary for the true promise of liberty to be realized. (216)

One reason for the author’s pessimistic diagnosis is hinted at in his discussion of the right of revolution. Though Hume and Smith thought it difficult to define that right with precision, the latter suggested a sort of one/third rule of thumb concerning tax levels—that is, a government that appropriates as much as one/third of its people’s wealth would clearly be abusive enough to invite resistance. Why one/third? Because that was a customary portion (according to Herbert Spencer) for the feudal lord to extract from his serf. (129-30) Most modern governments, of course, claim that much or more in tax revenue.

At least as interesting as this general story—whose merits or demerits would require an entire Liberty Fund colloquium to unravel—are the individual refinements, insights, distinctions and heuristic devices that the author develops along the way. Without pretending to do justice to the care and subtlety with which these are presented, a brief review of four relatively representative lines of argument will give a flavor of the whole: those concerning the morality of sovereignty, the so-called “anarchy game,” the theory of social atomism, and the debate over education.

In arguing that liberalism emerged as a reaction against the new doctrine of absolutism, Smith helpfully emphasizes the moral dimension of that debate. Although some historians have depicted absolutism as a pragmatic, common-sense accommodation of the religious wars and social upheavals of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Smith is surely right that the arguments on its behalf placed much weight upon the subject’s obligation to obey the ruler.

The best-known source of such an obligation, of course, was religious; hence the well-known movement for “divine-right absolutism.” But the obligation to obey implied a corollary right of enforcement. And in the law-saturated culture of seventeenth-century Europe (recently placed in cross-cultural perspective in Francis Fukuyama’s splendid book The Origins of Political Order [2011]), this moral obligation loomed as large in many ways as the religious ones. The rights theory of Locke and his followers, then, emerged out of an already existing rights theory that had been mobilized to defend royal absolutism. (66-74) “It was the state,” Smith insists, “not the rights philosophers, who first affirmed a right—namely its right to compel obedience—so those who defend the state have a responsibility to justify this right.” (75)

Second, there is what Smith calls the “anarchy game.” (ch. 5) Here, the author rightly underscores the extent to which the development of political theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and especially the key concepts of natural law, natural right, and sovereignty, all occurred under the shadow of an abiding fear of anarchy. The prospect of going without government led to primal fears among contemporaries which Smith compares to that of the specter of original sin or atheism. All sides of the ensuing debate, the author makes clear, made aggressive rhetorical use of this fear. And why not? The religious controversies of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had torn apart the fabric of governance in many parts of Europe, and had led to a descent into savage violence—not only in England, where the role of the Civil War in triggering Hobbes’ Leviathan is well known, but on the continent as well.

Smith points out that when the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez had made an exception to his general theory that the universal consent of mankind was the original basis of political order, so that individual nations were able to separate from this universal community to form their own states, the Englishman Robert Filmer was there to pounce: if nations could exercise such a right to break away, then why not regions, communities, or even families? (100) Consent, Filmer concluded, was a one-way ticket to anarchy. Locke thus had not only to attack Filmer’s famous theory of patriarchy, but to answer the threat-of-anarchy charge as well. He did so, as Smith reminds us, partly by offering his own entry in the anarchy game sweepstakes, namely the claim that patriarchalism fails to identify any specific ruler entitled to our obedience, and that rulers lacking a consensual basis for their power therefore stand in a literally anarchical relationship with their subjects. (103)

Third, shifting to the nineteenth century, anyone who has ever encountered the breezy equation of liberalism with Social Darwinism will certainly want to read chapter 9. Distinguishing between the abstract and the isolated individual, the author makes a spirited and sometimes polemical case that the founding liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rarely if ever envisioned a society of isolated individuals. Instead, they distinguished sharply between voluntary exchange and coercion as alternative methods of forming the necessary human ties. Thinkers from Adam Smith to Spencer and Sumner had, he argues, a rich variety of ways to theorize these ties. Although Spencer did indeed use the term “survival of the fittest” (and lived to regret it), his broader conception of human social life was of a positive-sum arrangement based on voluntary exchange, which thus had nothing to do with the zero-sum process of Darwinian selection. “It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply,” our author concludes. (177-87; quote at 187)

Finally, there is a discussion of education which, though somewhat off the beaten track, will nonetheless be of interest to readers. In the eighteenth century, when many Europeans in the “Party of Humanity” were seeking to wrest control of schooling from what they regarded as a benighted clergy, some Americans—Paine and Jefferson, for example—thought the state had a legitimate role in education. Others, however, especially from the Dissenter tradition of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England—culminating in authors such as Godwin and Priestley in the eighteenth century and Spencer in the nineteenth—thought education was best left a private matter.

England’s self-styled “Voluntaryists” in the 1840s and 1850s produced a particularly lively episode in the education debate. Fearing that governments would use state-supported schools as a way of controlling the minds of their subjects—a fear that was of course gruesomely realized throughout the twentieth-century world—the Voluntaryists argued that education should be treated like religion, private conscience, and the press: a freely chosen practice more likely to improve through trial and error than through the rigidities inevitable once the state assumes control. Diversity, pluralism, and self-correction were their insistent themes. As one of their number, Ed Baines, defiantly put it, “we have as much right to have wretched schools as to have wretched newspapers, wretched preachers, wretched books, wretched institutions, wretched political economists, wretched Members of Parliament, and wretched Ministers. You cannot proscribe all these things without proscribing Liberty.” (166-72, quote at 169)

These four themes, and others, make The System of Liberty a welcome contribution to the perennial discussion of that subject. Like all such books, this one has its limitations. It is not really a work of history, but a set of personally chosen episodes from that history. Although it is a learned book, it is not one that engages recent trends in scholarship on the history of political thought; readers looking for engagement with the works of Pocock or Pierre Manent are likely to be disappointed. Too, although the topic is classical liberalism, the focus is on Anglo-American authors, with special emphasis upon Locke, Bentham and Spencer as the chronological anchors and most frequent thematic reference points for the book. Indeed, there is more coverage of the relatively obscure English libertarian anarchist Thomas Hodgskin than of Montesquieu and Tocqueville combined (159-66).

There is also a notable absence of broader historical context; the treatment of the decline of liberalism as a political force in the nineteenth century omits any reference to factory industry, to take one example. There is little coverage of institutions; this is pretty much a straight study of authors and ideas. And the ideas mostly concern constitutional and political subjects rather than economic or social ones. But even those who do not share precisely George Smith’s geographical or chronological or thematic priorities will learn much of value, or at least will think more clearly about what they imagine they already know, from reading The System of Liberty.

Henry Clark

Henry C. Clark has been a visiting professor in the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College since 2014. Before then, he taught at Canisius College (where he became professor of history), Norwich University, Lawrence University, Tulane University, and Clemson University. He is the author of La Rochefoucauld and the Language of Unmasking in Seventeenth-Century France (1994) and Compass of Society: Commerce and Absolutism in Old-Regime France (2007).

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  1. Georg Thomas says


    You point out the below shortcomings; are you aware of any one book or smaller number of books that cover the areas you describe as follows:

    “There is also a notable absence of broader historical context; the treatment of the decline of liberalism as a political force in the nineteenth century omits any reference to factory industry, to take one example. There is little coverage of institutions; this is pretty much a straight study of authors and ideas. And the ideas mostly concern constitutional and political subjects rather than economic or social ones. ”

    More specifically, to your knowledge, is there a book that deals with the socio-economic “landscapes” in which classical liberalism ascended and declined?

    Thank you for help,

    Georg Thomas


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