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

Previous: Thomas Hill Green (1836‒82)
Next: John Atkinson Hobson (1858‒1940)

Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864‒1929)

L.T. Hobhouse, together with his colleague J.A. Hobson, was the leading exponent of the new liberalism that changed the focus of liberal thought at the turn of the late 19th–20th centuries. Hobhouse is of special interest to students of liberalism because he had one foot firmly in the philosophical domain and another in the world of quality journalism. Almost uniquely, Hobhouse spoke the two liberal languages of the time: as formulator of a general theory of liberalism and as a constructor of a working and living liberal ideology, moving easily between the two. His most famous book, Liberalism, published in 1911, was an inspired reformulation of the liberal ethos, in a popularly written and widely disseminated format. It is still in print more than a century later and is unrivalled as a now classic account of modern left-liberal thinking. In addition to holding the first chair of sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Hobhouse was an editorial writer for the leading liberal newspaper of the time, the Manchester Guardian. Through those editorial comments, Hobhouse demonstrated how the general precepts of liberalism could be applied to many concrete and pressing social and political issues. In tandem with Hobson, Hobhouse helped to steer progressive public opinion towards embracing the social liberalism associated with the new liberals.

The idea of harmony among human beings as the natural outcome of social evolution guided much of Hobhouse’s theories and was strengthened by his scientific bent of mind—his field studies also entailed lengthy periods of observation at a Manchester zoo. Hobhouse believed that human rationality was active and purposive. He pushed Mill’s emphasis on human development further out by asserting optimistically that it encompassed both an increased ethical awareness and a conscious and deliberate interdependence among people. Whereas for Mill development ensured the control of individuals over their lives and the maturing of their characters, Hobhouse claimed that evolutionary development also replaced competition with rational sociability; indeed, human beings were the first product of the evolutionary process that could direct its own evolution. The end-result of social evolution was not only a free individual but a harmonious community, guided by a benevolent, democratic state.

At the heart of Hobhouse’s liberal vision was a project of social reform. Society was defaulting on its responsibility towards its members because it failed to pursue the common good. That included optimizing opportunities for individual development and harmonizing potentially conflicting human ends. The community was seen as a producer of social goods, the main good being the well-being of its members. But the consequence of that argument was intriguing: the community was itself a rights-bearer alongside the rights of its individual citizens. Too many needs, although vital for individual flourishing, were beyond individual reach. Hobhouse belonged to a new generation of progressive thinkers who realized that the liberal end of encouraging human growth and expression would be frustrated unless the community possessed the right to help individuals attain their personal potential. Liberty was now irrevocably twinned with social cooperation:

Mutual aid is not less important than mutual forbearance, the theory of collective action no less fundamental than the theory of personal freedom …the life of the individual …would be something utterly different if he could be separated from society. A great deal of him would not exist at all.

The idea behind that was that each person was both a cherished individual and a member of a sustaining social group. Although the divide between public and private still obtained, the social side of individuals was central to their very being, both as givers and as receivers. Hobhouse advocated the public right to work and to a living wage, supported unemployment and health insurance (introduced by the Liberal government in 1911), and was also an early enthusiast for universal old-age pensions. Nonetheless, the state was not there to compete with individual initiative but to facilitate it by redistributing material goods and hence life-chances to those who were disadvantaged through personal misfortune or unfair social arrangements. Only then could a liberal society discharge its fundamental responsibility towards its members.

Hobhouse’s view of social harmony and of the convergence of human rationality on shared understandings of the common good was an ethical ideal that underpinned his faith in the overcoming of conflict. The First World War, with its battlefields of unleashed violence and the resurgence of an over-interventionist state, rocked his earlier optimistic convictions but did not change them substantially.

Previous: Thomas Hill Green (1836‒82)
Next: John Atkinson Hobson (1858‒1940)