Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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The junction of ideas

The path taken by political liberalism was, however, hardly representative of the broader genres of liberal thought, emphasizing yet again that political parties rarely constitute an ideological vanguard. More dynamic and imaginative versions of political thought were bubbling away, with the result that liberalism began to thrive at the meeting-points of powerful intellectual currents. It emerged as a humanist endeavour, an emancipation of the human spirit, and a force for remarkable social as well as political transformation. A regard for human nature as fundamentally rational, cooperative, engaging in cogent communication, and capable of respecting others as well as showing individual initiative, became integral to liberal ideology. The Swiss-French liberal politician and writer Benjamin Constant (see ) identified the ‘liberty of the moderns’ as the triumph of individuality through the growth of freedom of opinion, expression, and religion, but he also welcomed the participation of individuals in the social body. Thus arose the drive to devising and nourishing social institutions that could reflect and energize that rational cooperation. Initially, theories such as Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ did the necessary work. According to that theory, when individuals pursued their own interests, they concurrently contributed to the good of society as a whole. ‘Private gain, public benefit’ suggested a natural harmony in the workings of civil society that was sufficient for social stability and prosperity.

Subsequently, it became unclear whether such harmony was automatic or needed to be engineered by human design. That was the problem facing the Philosophic Radicals, another group whose impact on the development of liberalism was considerable. Their leading proponent, the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), was inspired by a belief in the scientific organization of humankind. The scientific principle he claimed to discover was that individuals were psychologically motivated by a desire to maximize their own pleasure or utility and minimize their pain. But if that was true then the ‘invisible hand’ doctrine would already be at work and indeed secure what Bentham called ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ It transpired, however, that this was not necessarily the case. External circumstances had to be moulded so as to accelerate that process. Consequently the Philosophic Radicals saw the task of social philosophers and reformers as one of radically reshaping constitutions, legal codes, and even prisons, to elicit the optimal well-being of members of a society. Bentham’s extreme individualism recognized only separate persons and he did not see society as a unit with its own attributes and ends. The key to his objective therefore lay in modifying individual conduct, while side-stepping appeals to the more elaborate moral visions subsequently voiced by liberals.

The contribution of utilitarianism to liberalism was threefold. First, it emphatically reinforced the view of the individual as the locus of dynamic activity in a society. Second, it advocated the necessity of the planned rational reform of existing social arrangements and insisted that human happiness and well-being were the ultimate aims of such reform. Nonetheless, third, the utilitarians did not seek active state intervention, particularly not in economic affairs. Intervention was enlisted only in order to minimize future interventions, once a society had been set to rights.

But other views were circling around. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) contended that basing the well-being of a society merely on a selfish drive, however inevitable to the functioning of markets, fell short of what a state had to strive for. A sense of purpose and solidarity could not be supplied by the extreme individualism of market competition, even if it secured material prosperity. That sense of communal unity could only be provided by the rational state, whose role it was to conciliate the tensions among individual egoistic ends by infusing society with an altruistic ethos. That would be buttressed by a state conforming to the strict rule of law. Only then, asserted Hegel, would a society really be free. The British liberal philosopher T.H. Green (see ) extended the ethics of the common good that liberals should seek in social relations and in the state.

Another aspect of the collective perspective that liberalism could contain appeared in certain nationalist doctrines in the 19th century. Nationalism is frequently associated with anti-liberal tendencies. It is often expressed in a strident emotional voice, appearing to prefer the aims of the nation over those of its individual members. In its extreme manifestations it displays aggression towards other nations and ethnic groups, is obsessed with myths about its ‘glorious past’, and develops leadership cults. But there were also milder, more humane, forms of nationalism that took their cue from liberal beliefs and that were enthused by liberal ideals. Foremost among those ideals was liberty, now transplanted into the increasingly popular doctrine of national self-determination or self-rule. Liberty was seen as a good not only for individuals but for national and ethnic groups eager to acquire the recognized capacity to decide their own fates. Given that many of those groups were under foreign or colonial rule, the plea for liberty became specifically a plea for emancipation from domination by others, with republican or anti-imperialist undertones. Self-determination was thus advanced as a universal and equal right of all nations. The cultivation of national identity was, from a liberal viewpoint, part of the respect due to individuals, for whom such identity mattered. A prominent exponent of liberal nationalism was Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72), one of the architects of the unification of Italy in the 19th century. Mazzini commended the individual right to well-being but regarded a person’s country as the ultimate protector of those rights. For him, a nation was an association of free and equal people bound together by love of country.

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