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

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The wider liberal net

Even though Britain was a powerhouse of liberal thought, continental Europe and the USA hosted major varieties of liberalism bearing their own characteristics. We shall briefly look at some representative thinkers. In France Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), an early employer of the term ‘liberal’, focused on two main features. The first was a theory about the transformation of the idea of liberty from ancient to modern times, adapting in the process to the complex commercial practices of 19th century society. For Constant that meant a decline in the central authority of a small community and its replacement by what we would now call civil society, independent and socially mobile. Liberalism manifested itself in the increase of personal, autonomous opportunities and choices, and in the prosperous production of material goods for all. But that was not a claim concerning the innate universalism of liberalism to be found among some 20th century liberal philosophers; rather, it was an empirical observation about the historic mutation of liberalism in relation to changing social circumstances.

The second feature was equality before the law, the emphasis being on constitutional representation, peace, and liberty from arbitrary government. Constant combined that with a strong resistance to governmental intervention in economic affairs, as a commercial society would best function under conditions of laissez-faire. The need for representation reflected the impossibility of direct political participation due to the wealth-creating commitments of individuals. Yet, crucially, that wealth-creation released individuals to engage in cultural and spiritual pursuits, retaining the civilizing aspect that liberalism was supposed to enable. Constant explained:

The aim of the moderns is the enjoyment of security in private pleasures; and they call liberty the guarantees accorded by institutions to those pleasures …Individual liberty, I repeat, is the true modern liberty. Political liberty is its guarantee, consequently political liberty is indispensable. But to ask the peoples of today to sacrifice, like those of the past, the whole of their individual liberty to political liberty, is the surest means of detaching them from the former and, once this result has been achieved, it would be only too easy to deprive them of the latter.

In Germany, towards the end of the 18th century, the philosopher and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) published a treatise on the limits of state intervention that, when translated half a century later into English, profoundly influenced Mill. The opening sentence of its second chapter was quoted by Mill in full in his On Liberty:

The true end of Man, or that which is prescribed by the eternal and immutable dictates of reason, and not suggested by vague and transient desires, is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole.

Freedom and diversity were for Humboldt, as for Mill, the two prerequisites for the full development of the individual. As with many German philosophers of the time, the importance of culture, education, and enlightenment (subsumed under the German term Bildung) was regarded as central to a full life. This enabled the cultivation of moral and intellectual powers—all within the framework of spontaneous activity. Above all, Humboldt called for the removal of as many political and legal fetters as were consistent with promoting individual freedom and progress. In one sense it was a theory that spoke more clearly to the British than to the Germans. English political thought, from its early modern stages, had emphasized freedom of individual action until such point as harm to others ensued. German political thought had evolved a deep respect for the role of law—and the rule of law—as directing individual conduct towards accepted rational ends, whether or not within a liberal context. But in another sense, the insistence on achieving a degree of culture that established the appropriate moment for freedom and hence for minimizing state intervention became a keystone of German political thinking.

Max Weber (1864–1920), the eminent German sociologist, presented another side of liberalism. His sociological and historical analyses of the German bourgeoisie, as well as of the state, led him to conclude that in order to protect society from extreme bureaucratization, a class of responsible, committed, and ethical leaders would have to emerge. He argued that the charismatic leader would become the guarantor of individualism, supported partly by a mass democracy searching for the disruption of authoritarian patterns of government. This elitist liberalism picked up a theme rarely acknowledged by liberals themselves. Liberalism was a product of the middle classes, and its values—however desirable to progressives—were often chosen and formulated by cultural minorities: the educated, the politically alert, and the relatively well-to-do. It was of course also a liberalism that respected the rule of law but it was not strongly egalitarian.

Weber’s liberalism, as that of his contemporary Friedrich Naumann (1860–1919) was also permeated by a strong nationalism that was muted—though not entirely absent—in other forms of liberalism. True, national self-determination had been a plank of 19th century European liberalism, but both Weber and Naumann went beyond that in their enthusiasm for national power and prosperity. The nation was not a simple object of aggrandisement, however, but the repository of the country’s skills, expertise, ethos, and spirit resting, in Weber’s words, on ‘deeply rooted psychological foundations’. The nation state was the site of a balancing act between the rational state and the often irrational, or arational, ‘Volk’. Naumann added another strand to that German path of liberalism: a more social variant. His interest in planning, organization, and the attainment of welfare ends acknowledged the forces of economic modernization and the need for the industrial and technical progress of the community at large. But in prioritizing those over individual ethical development, Naumann was teetering on the edge of the liberal domain and was brought back only by his concern for the development of individual personality.

In Italy, Benedetto Croce (1886–1952) demonstrated a more visionary side to continental liberalism than the one emanating from the concrete historical and sociological preoccupations of German liberals. Croce was a philosopher and occasional politician who had studied Hegel and was influenced by him. He had moved from supporting fascism to advocating liberalism. In his Politics and Morals—a collection of essays written largely in the 1920s—Croce subscribed to a grand conception of liberalism that identified it not as a particular political doctrine but as ‘a complete idea of the world and of reality.’ Unlike most other noted liberal theorists, Croce saw in liberalism the expression of divine wisdom, of a higher morality. But it was also one that rejected the ‘mathematical and mechanistic’ tendencies of socialism for an equality based on a common humanity. Indeed the unequal ownership and distribution of property was acceptable to liberals as long as it did not suppress an enquiring and critical spirit. Although human beings strove for improvement, they were imperfect and capable of error.

That humanistic version of liberalism countered liberal experimentation and tentativeness with an unchallengeable ethics. Croce thus reflected the kind of dialectic tension displayed by his type of Idealist thought, as well as the uncertainties and fragilities of human conduct that perceptive liberals had come to recognize. Far more than Mill and Hobhouse, with their smoother visions of human evolution, Croce regarded setbacks, struggle, and antagonism as elements of the real world liberalism had to confront and take heed of, and which its spirit would ultimately overcome. Against the backdrop of the rise of Italian fascism and various types of continental authoritarianism, that had become a particularly poignant observation:

…the liberal mind regards the withdrawing of liberty and the times of reaction as illnesses and critical stages of growth, as incidents and steps in the eternal life of liberty …the liberal conception is not meant for the timid, the indolent and the pacifist, but wishes to interpret the aspirations and the works of courageous and patient, of belligerent and generous spirits, anxious for the advancement of mankind and aware of its toils and of its history.

Italian linguistic practice helpfully distinguishes between liberalismo and liberismo, a distinction central to a famous dispute between Croce and the Italian economist and politician Luigi Einaudi (1874–1961). Liberalismo relates to the fully-fledged political and ethical conception of liberalism, while liberismo refers to its economic, free-enterprise aspects. Whereas in German, and even more so in French, contexts the tendency—as was Einaudi’s—was and still is to conflate the two, Croce sought to separate them out. It is, as we have seen in , debatable whether economic liberalism alone contains sufficient components of the fuller family of liberalisms. As Croce put it succinctly, ‘the difficulty appears as soon as we give to the system of free enterprise the value of a norm’. That created conflict with ethical and political liberalism, which had a different set of guiding norms, not based on egoistic and hedonistic considerations of utility.

Carlo Rosselli (1899–1937) was an Italian socialist thinker and activist, ultimately murdered at Mussolini’s behest. Adversity and, indeed, oppression were fertile ground for the minority of continental dissidents who had the courage to express their anti-totalitarian views in the face of grave personal risk. That aside, Rosselli commands attention not only because of the substance of his ideas—it could be argued that he was not a major thinker in his own right—but because he illustrates the difficulties we find in categorizing left-liberalism in a comparative perspective. The boundaries between left-liberalism and moderate socialism, or social-democracy, are highly permeable and the space those adjoining ideological positions occupy overlaps considerably. Croce had already paid homage to Hobhouse and to the latter’s phrase ‘liberal socialism’, although ‘social liberalism’ would have described Hobhouse’s position more accurately. Rosselli made his mark with a book called Liberal Socialism, published in 1930. He saw the essence of socialism in the moral attraction of liberty and, like Croce, attempted to consolidate an intellectual and political position that was anti-fascist as well as inimical to a state-run economy. Rosselli shared with other social-democrats—such as Eduard Bernstein in Germany—the belief that a moderate socialism was the inheritor, and better utilizer, of liberal values. A political liberalism, grounded in democratic practices and self-government and divorced from a reliance on a dogmatic free market, introduced the possibility of innovation and movement into social life:

Socialism, grasped in its essential aspect, is the progressive actualization of the idea of liberty and justice among men.… Liberalism in its most straightforward sense can be defined as the political theory that takes the inner freedom of the human spirit as a given and adopts liberty as the ultimate goal, but also the ultimate means, the ultimate rule, of shared human life …in which each individual is certain of being able to develop his own personality fully. …Liberalism conceives of liberty not as a fact of nature, but as becoming, as development. One is not born free; one becomes free. And one stays free by retaining an active and vigilant sense of one’s autonomy, by constantly exercising one’s freedoms …in the name of liberty, [socialists] want social life to be guided not by the egoistic criterion of personal utility, but by the social criterion, the criterion of the collective good.

The accord with British liberals’ ideas of individual development, the social moulding of personality, the quest for a common good, and the assertion that communal life is at the disposal of the individual—as well as a resonance with the deep spirituality of Croce—is striking.

John Dewey (1859–1952), the American philosopher and educationalist, was a liberal theorist reacting to a cultural environment quite dissimilar to those of his European counterparts. To begin with, 20th century American liberalism was an unusual combination of progressivism and nationalism, notably articulated in the writings of Herbert Croly. At the same time, the connotations of liberalism in the USA can be more negative than anything to be found in European democracies, signifying as they did—in the wake of the New Deal of the 1930s—big, interventionist government that in the worst case saps individual initiative and independence, or, alternatively, undermines the ability to take a strong position in political altercations. Dewey belonged to the school of philosophical thought known as Pragmatism and his approach, as expressed in particular in his Liberalism and Social Action, was strongly experimental and based on experience. Liberalism was in his view a practical set of ideas, historically conditioned and relative, rather than containing universal immutable truths that had to be uncovered.

Dewey resisted the distinction between the individual and political society. Although he hailed the significance of British philosophers such as Green and his successors in proclaiming the ideals of liberalism to be the common good, liberty, individuality, and the claim of each individual to the full development of his or her capacities, Dewey maintained that liberal values were the outcome of concrete collective activity. It was human intelligence, not an abstract spiritual essence, that propelled liberalism:

A liberal program has to be developed, and in a good deal of particularity, outside of the immediate realm of governmental action and enforced upon public attention, before direct political action of a thorough-going liberal sort will follow …the majority who call themselves liberals today are committed to the principle that organized society must use its powers to establish the conditions under which the mass of individuals can possess actual as distinct from merely legal liberty.

In bringing liberalism down to earth, Dewey humanized it and freed it from the rigid, doctrinaire constraints that both natural rights theory and political economy had imposed on it in the past.

Liberalism required the inclusion of economic activities, but in his stringent critique of capitalism Dewey argued that they had to be subordinated to the higher capacities of individuals. Indeed, the initiative and vigour channelled through economic life was mistakenly assumed to apply to economics alone, to the exclusion of their presence in ‘companionship, science and art’. Not least, Dewey’s insistence on the inextricability of individual action from human association was reminiscent of Hobhouse’s pairing of mutual aid and mutual forbearance, and the organic interdependence of society that demanded ‘collective social planning’. Dewey’s empiricism also identified another feature of liberalism—albeit shared with other ideologies—towards which Hobhouse had been working his way in less explicit form: the emotional intensity of liberal ideas was necessary to bring them to fruition. Reason alone was ineffective in a political ideology, even in liberalism, unless it was sustained by passion.

This chapter ends with an assessment of the ideas of Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992), an economist, philosopher, and political thinker who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974. To be sure, Hayek is a controversial figure in the annals of liberalism. One thing he certainly illustrates is the continuing struggle over the intellectual heritage of liberals. Whether Hayek is considered a liberal (which he insisted he was), a conservative, a libertarian, or a hybrid among those, is itself a question of ideological as well as scholarly interpretation, and it is one to which Hayek contributed an active role. That role is expressed on two levels: in his own account of the history of liberalism, and in the substantive arguments he produced about liberalism and the place of liberty within it.

For Hayek, the heyday of liberalism was in the mid-19th century. In an instructive article he contributed to the Italian Enciclopedia del Novecento he rejected Croce’s distinction between liberalismo and liberismo, claiming instead that freedom under the law simply implied economic freedom for individuals. Liberal freedom was—contra Green—a negative conception referring to the absence of an evil, the evil of government directing the individual towards particular ends and benefits. Hence, argued Hayek, liberalism began to decline from the 1870s, since which time—and particularly under the new liberalism at the beginning of the 20th century—‘new experiments in social policy were undertaken which were only doubtfully compatible with the older liberal principles’. Those older principles were the ones towards which Hayek was deeply sympathetic. Welfare liberalism was interpreted as a departure from liberal principles, which for Hayek involved the cluster of liberty, law, and property, while he dismissed the belief in progress as ‘the sign of a shallow mind.’

We encounter here the perennial problem of change over time. Is liberalism—or for that matter any ideology—a set of fundamental beliefs, a doctrine with an original exemplar from which there are deplorable deviations, or is it a continuously evolving and changing set of ideas around a loose core of values, as Dewey saw it? Hayek plumped firmly for the former. His resistance to the mutation of ideas was different, however, from that of those philosophers—recently, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin come to mind—who identify a pure, abstract principle at the centre of liberalism. For Hayek, rather, it was a matter of tried and tested experience examining which claim to liberalism had worked best, but, once that question was settled, it was no longer open to alteration.

The centrality of liberty to Hayek’s work followed from what he believed was the natural spontaneity of human beings and a socio-economic order that was self-generating: Hayek referred to that kind of order as a catallaxy. Human knowledge was dispersed and could not be possessed by any single directing authority, including the state. The central direction of all economic activity according to a single plan or blueprint would catastrophically eliminate the purposiveness and rationality of innovating individuals, and impoverish the exchange of ideas—indeed, the market of ideas—that could be put to the service of a society. That was the energizing and optimistic component of layer two liberalism that Hayek embraced. Individual freedom was thus essential for economic and social flourishing, as progress could not be centrally engineered, and social justice was a contradiction in terms. Hayek borrowed the phrase ‘open society’ to describe his position. In terms of a broader approach to liberalism, he expanded the spatial presence of the concept of liberty within the liberal core—spelt out in —at the expense of most liberal core concepts. The only other core segments Hayek retained were limited, constitutional power and a specific notion of individuality as experimental innovation.

Liberalism …merely demands that the procedure, or the rules of the game, by which the relative positions of the different individuals are determined, be just (or at least not unjust), but not that the particular results of this process for the different individuals be just …
The central belief from which all liberal postulates may be said to spring is that the more successful solutions of the problems of society are to be expected if we do not rely on the application of anyone’s given knowledge, but encourage the interpersonal process of the exchange of opinion from which better knowledge can be expected to emerge.
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