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

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Applying the brakes

There were of course currents that sought to stem the tides of change in liberal thought and practice. Many of their advocates saw themselves as the true liberals, whether as free market advocates or as libertarians. For the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881–1973) liberalism was a capitalist theory based on private property. He opposed measures that involved greater material equalization and regarded all governmental interference in conditions of welfare—such as establishing a minimum wage for workers—as authoritarian and contrary to the liberal spirit:

In England the term ‘liberal’ is mostly used to signify a program that only in details differs from the totalitarianism of the socialists. In the United States ‘liberal’ means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities, i.e., socialism.

The economist F.A. Hayek (on whom, more in ) regarded even Mill as occupying a transition point from liberalism to a moderate socialism. Hayek considered welfare-state liberalism as liberal only in name, not in substance. State intervention in markets was anathema to many such older style liberals because they believed it undermined the free-wheeling, spontaneous, and self-motivated rationale of liberalism. By contrast, the German economic school of the mid-20th century, the ordoliberals, held that a strong state should guarantee the competitive conditions of the economy by actively establishing a market order and curtailing cartels. Those ideas contributed to the emergence of Germany’s post-war social market economy but did not focus on the broader features of liberalism.

On a different dimension again, the flame of radical freedom was nourished by libertarians. Currently a minority tendency that has become detached from more prominent liberal strands, libertarians have insisted for over a century that liberty alone, in its purest form, is the message that should be extracted from the liberal tradition and employed to guide social and political, not only economic, life. There is a reason, therefore, for the adoption of the word ‘libertarianism’ to distinguish it from liberalism, although it too encompasses many variants. A stress on individualism, assuming the superior rationality of individuals, and on defending liberty of action, voluntary cooperation, and private property, propelled libertarians such as the British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) to join in bemoaning whether liberalism had not abandoned its own principles:

How is it that Liberalism, getting more and more into power, has grown more and more coercive in its legislation? How is it that … Liberalism has to an increasing extent adopted the policy of dictating the actions of citizens, and, by consequence, diminishing the range throughout which their actions remain free? How are we to explain this spreading confusion of thought which has led it, in pursuit of what appears to be public good, to invert the method by which in earlier days it achieved public good?

We have seen in this chapter a convergence of different movements of thought to produce an array of ideas that served to consolidate liberalism. Human beings, rather than nature, God, hierarchical and hereditary rulership, or the weight of history, were now firmly placed at the centre of the social universe. A critical and querying approach to knowledge and learning was aligned with human curiosity and scientific practice, and put at the service of people who wished to control their own destinies. The notion of open-ended reform and development gained purchase in an environment increasingly undergoing rapid change—technological, demographic, social, and political. A growing appreciation of the richness of the human spirit and potential emphasized the importance of valuing others and lent a greater urgency to the reduction of human inequality. It meant the nurturing not only of private, but of public, generosity. Soaring above those ideas was a passionate commitment to liberty in its diverse forms—whether that of individuals, markets, or communities. For liberals, liberty was the engine that made a wholesome society possible, and that could stretch human imagination and experience to their very limits.

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