There has never been much disagreement as to what the principal ‘official’ values of liberalism are. Pre-eminent among them is freedom or liberty. And with freedom are connected certain other values, such as tolerance and privacy, which are in essence deductions from, or extensions of, the idea of freedom; while the liberal commitments to constitutionalism and the rule of law are seen as the practical and institutional principles by which the freedom of the individual or citizen is protected and guaranteed. Reason or rationality in some sense, is as we have seen, important to liberalism, and with it we should associate the identification sometimes made between liberalism and the spirit of science. It is often assumed that liberalism and democracy are natural and harmonious partners, but, as will be seen, the relationship is more complex and ambiguous than that. These are some of the values and principles most commonly credited to liberalism. They are not the only ones to be mentioned, nor, of course, are they exclusively associated with liberalism.
But liberalism has, or has had, other less well-advertised commitments, some of which are at least as important, historically and conceptually, as the publicly proclaimed values of the creed. These half-hidden attachments essentially concern the relationship between liberalism and capitalism. They involve the awkward issues of class, and property, matters which were not, of course, always as embarrassing to most liberals as they are today.
The relative importance of these various strands within liberalism has varied greatly from period to period and culture to culture. Some older elements, such as laissez-faire economics, fell into disrepute and were generally jettisoned, while new ideas were taken on board. Among the latter probably the most important was the commitment to political gradualism and empiricism. Traditionally the empirical or pragmatic approach to politics has been regarded by both its friends and enemies as the prerogative of conservatism. But in the twentieth century it has been made common ground between conservatives, liberals and many social democrats.
A mere list of values does not, however, define a political doctrine, or distinguish it from others. What matters is the world-view through which they are linked to each other, and the order or hierarchy in which they are arranged. Terms like freedom, reason and democracy are now so universally prestigious that nearly all political movements and regimes find it necessary to use them. But this does not indicate any wide measure of agreement. Definitions of such inspiring but vague terms naturally vary, as does the priority given to these values in relation to other political commitments.
Liberalism distinguishes itself from other political doctrines by the supreme importance it attaches to freedom, or liberty. So much so, that, as we noted earlier, it is even possible for liberalism to be ‘narrowly defined’ by sympathetic commentators in terms of this one principle alone. This is familiar, but it is worth noting the distinctiveness of the preoccupation. The idea of freedom does not feature very prominently in European political thinking of either the classical or the medieval eras. Even in the modern period it has had to compete with other principles to which many have attached greater importance: happiness, or equality, or social justice, or democracy, or the maintenance of continuity, or social order and stability. But within liberalism none of these principles rivals the commitment to freedom: ‘Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.’2 This opinion of Lord Acton was echoed more recently by Stuart Hampshire: ‘I believe that the extension and safeguarding of every individual’s equal freedom to choose his own manner of life for himself is the end of political action.’ Not one end among others, be it noted, but the end.
Freedom is not a self-explanatory term, and liberalism has its particular conception of freedom which again helps to distinguish it from other political tendencies. To speak of freedom immediately invites at least three questions, Freedom from what? To do what? And for whom?
The liberal definition is normally couched in terms of ‘freedom from’ rather than ‘freedom to’. It usually defines freedom negatively, as a condition in which one is not compelled, not restricted, not interfered with, and not pressurized. Hobbes offers a definition of this kind: ‘By LIBERTY, is understood, according to the proper signification of the word, the absence of externall Impediments: which Impediments, may oft take away part of a mans power to do what hee would.’ Later he enlarges this definition a little, by distinguishing between freedom and power:
LIBERTY, or FREEDOME, signifieth (properly) the absence of Opposition; (by Opposition, I mean externall Impediments of motion) . . . But when the impediment of motion, is in the constitution of the thing itselfe; we use not to say, it wants the Liberty; but the Power to move; as when a stone lyeth still, or a man is fastned to his bed by sickness…
And according to this proper, and generally received meaning of the word, a FREE-MAN, is he, that in those things, by which his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindred to doe what he has a will to.
It is consistent with Hobbes’s incorporation of human beings in the whole order of nature that he should offer a definition of liberty which is designed to apply to other beings besides man. But most theories of liberty concentrate more specifically on man, and also stipulate that the ‘external impediments’ which restrict a man’s freedom must themselves be man-made, as in this statement by Isaiah Berlin:
I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree. . . . Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act.
This is freedom defined as an ‘area of non-interference’. According to this view, as Berlin says, ‘the wider the area of non-interference, the wider my freedom.’ And the threats, or ‘impediments’, to freedom must be both external, and manmade. Berlin goes even further by stipulating that coercion must involve deliberate human interference. It would follow from this that no one’s freedom could be restricted or denied as the accidental or unintended consequence of human action.
Within the mainstream of liberal thought freedom is carefully and insistently distinguished from power or ability. Berlin follows Hobbes in this as in other respects, and Maurice Cranston, working within the conventions of post-Wittgensteinian linguistic analysis, also stresses the importance of this distinction:
In the conventional use of our language, there is a difference between being free to and being able to, and it is not a difference we can afford to ignore . . . a man does not say he is free to do a thing simply because he possesses the power or faculty to do it. . . . He says he is free to do it only when he wants to refer to the absence of impediments in the way of doing it.
In answer to the objection that ‘freedom is “empty” without power’, he concedes that ‘there is little point in “being free to’’ unless we ‘‘have the power to’’’, but insists that ‘it certainly does not follow from this that the one is identical with the other.’ Put another way, we can say that this conception of freedom implies the absence of obstacles, and so perhaps the presence of opportunity, but not necessarily of the means to make use of the opportunity.
Thus this conception of freedom is essentially negative, in that it is usually couched in terms of freedom from, or the absence of, external hindrances or obstacles. (Given the use Berlin makes of the supposed distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ liberty, there is, for liberals, nothing pejorative about the term ‘negative’ in this context.) As for ‘freedom to’, it is either said (by Cranston) to be merely a more confused way of talking about ‘freedom from’, or else it is presented (by Berlin) as an alternative and potentially far more dangerous way of thinking about freedom.
But freedom from what? What does liberalism point to as the sources of those restraints and obstacles which menace or restrict freedom? According to Cranston: ‘The answer of the English liberal is unequivocal. By “freedom” he means freedom from the constraints of the state. ‘
We have already seen how individualism and the individualistic analysis of society generate a suspicion of the state and of the claims made in its name. The liberal way of thinking about freedom enhances this suspicion. Liberal thought is characteristically political, rather than social and economic. When it thinks of power, or authority, it thinks of political power or authority. It thinks of laws and the state apparatus, rather than of the economic power of employers, monopolies and cartels, or of the social power of the owners of land, or of the means of communication. Even Mill, ‘the man who . . . founded modern liberalism’, who in On Liberty is as concerned with the restrictive pressure of society as with the power of the state, did not really succeed in deflecting liberalism from its obsession with the state as the primary enemy of the freedom of the individual. Liberals continue to cite their hostility to the increase of state power as a critical difference between them and socialists. So freedom, for liberals, continues to mean, above all, freedom from control, compulsion, restriction, and interference by the state.
As to the question of whose freedom, the short answer is that it is the freedom of the individual with which liberals are principally concerned.
By the freedom of the individual is normally meant personal freedom. And, as with the concept of the individual itself, the emphasis is on the single human person on his own. The individual must have the right to believe what he chooses to believe, to express those beliefs publicly and to act in accordance with them, in so far as such rights are compatible with others holding and exercising the same rights, and with the existing framework of laws and lawful institutions. But if the individual should want to band together with other like-minded individuals, to organize and act collectively, then he will need more than individual freedom. There must also be rights for political organizations and trade unions; he will need to use also the freedom to publish opinions and produce newspapers. These freedoms are not synonymous with the freedom of the individual, although it might well be argued that that freedom would be extremely restricted without them. Liberals are usually committed to these institutional freedoms as well. But that has not always been the case in the past, and if liberals have often been unsympathetic or hostile to the long working-class struggle to secure recognition for trade unions and their rights, that is partly because the individualistic bias of liberalism has led them to see trade unions, in common with other institutions and collectivities, as threats rather than supports to the rights and freedom of the individual. The crown of martyrdom which the media automatically confer on the person (the individual) who refuses to join a union, or who is ‘sent to coventry’ for nonparticipation in a strike, or whatever, reflects this individualistic bias in its crudest form. Different freedoms and rights do not necessarily harmonize with each other. When they clash, the instinct of the liberal is to be on the side of the single individual rather than the collective organization or institution…
Some of the other values identified with liberalism are, in essence, extensions or elaborations of this central commitment to freedom. Tolerance is such a value, whether it is thought of as a public policy or a personal virtue. Tolerance is the duty, on the part of state, society or the individual, of allowing and not interfering with activities and beliefs which, although they may be disliked or even disapproved of, do not in themselves make any infringement on the equal right of others to act and believe as they choose. Tolerance may be seen as a makeshift, second-best expedient, if the ideal is either homogeneity of belief and practice within society, or if people are expected, not merely to put up with their neighbours, but to love them. Hence Forster raised two, but not three, cheers for democracy. But love is a counsel of perfection which many liberals, including Forster, priding themselves on their ‘realism’, reject as inapplicable to the human condition as it is. Tolerance however, demands something, but not too much, of people. The pragmatic case for tolerance accepts that differences in belief and behaviour exist, and cannot be eliminated, whether or not it is in principle desirable that they should be so eliminated. A more affirmative attitude regards such differences as positively desirable, as does Mill, for example, so that tolerance is converted from a sensible but grudging recognition of reality, into a barometer of social health.
Wolff has argued convincingly that the liberal case for tolerance has been reinforced, though also significantly altered, by the rise of the modern pluralist conception of society. There is a shift in emphasis from the diversity of individuals to the diversity of groups. Pluralism stresses the natural disunity of society, its lack of any general will or common interest: ‘[the] common good is itself the process of practical reconciliation of the interests of the various “sciences”, aggregates, or groups which compose a state; it is not some external and intangible spiritual adhesive or some allegedly objective “general will’’ or “public interest’’.’ Society is not homogenous; it is a mosaic of groups, large and small, all with particular interests to promote. When such interests conflict, the appropriate outcome is a compromise rather than a victory for one party, because it is accepted that all these groups and interests have at least a measure of legitimacy. The principle of tolerance is the recognition of that legitimacy: ‘Tolerance in a society of competing interest groups is precisely the ungrudging acknowledgement of the right of opposed interests to exist and be pursued.’ But Wolff points out that it is fairly easy to envisage such acceptance when it is only a conflict of interests that is supposedly involved. Compromise between interests seems sensible and practical. But when the issue is seen as a conflict of principles, compromise will be more difficult and is not necessarily desirable. As between those who wanted to exterminate the Jews and those who opposed anti-Semitism, what compromise was possible, or desirable? It is not persuasive to argue for compromise as a general rule in the world of morals and principles.
Is tolerance, then, connected with moral indifference or neutrality? Some of its protagonists argue strenuously that it is not. Crick has argued that there is no sense in saying that we are tolerant when we are in fact indifferent to what is going on. Tolerance, on this reading, implies an effort. It is only meaningful to talk about tolerating what we don’t like or don’t approve of. ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ But even a formulation such as the one sometimes attributed to Voltaire makes a tolerance sound morally easier than it actually is. It is not difficult to tolerate the expression of even the nastiest opinions so long as they are demonstrably uninfluential. When they are effective the situation is more complex. A racist speech is not merely the expression of an opinion: it is a potent political act. And, as Mill himself said in On Liberty: ‘No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act.
Many such speeches have been followed by attacks on black people and their homes. Should state or society tolerate acts (speeches) which lead to acts of intolerance or worse?
Racist speeches and even actions are tolerated by the British state because they are popular, and attempts to use the law against them would probably make matters worse for the black minority. Irish Republicanism, on the other hand, is understandably not popular in mainland Britain and, since November 1974, not only have Republican organizations been illegal, but so has the expression of verbal support for Republicanism.
I mention these two cases not only because they show how muddled and inconsistent the behaviour of a supposedly liberal state can be. They also illustrate some of the practical problems of tolerance as a policy—the difficulty of distinguishing between opinions and actions; and the difficulty, too, of deciding what actions ought to be tolerated, since, despite what Mill says, it is clearly a mockery of tolerance or freedom to suggest that once an opinion becomes influential we are no longer bound by any general principle of tolerance.
The case of Irish Republicanism also points to the link that in practice does often tie tolerance to indifference. Until the crisis which began in 1968 it would have been thought pointless to outlaw Republicanism because no one much cared about it one way or another. Generally a belief or movement or group can only be sure of being tolerated when its existence is, for most people, a matter of indifference. There is a clear connection between the growth of religious toleration in Europe in the early modern period and the spread of an attitude of indifference towards the content of the various religious disputes over which so much blood had been shed. As Butterfield said: ‘toleration emerges with the return of religious indifference.’ In practice the most tolerant society is likely to be also the one which is the most aimless, and the most tolerant individual is probably the one who believes nothing very strongly and leans towards universal scepticism.
Individuals and societies may find it difficult to practise the virtue of tolerance. It may indeed require positive effort to do so. Many liberals would attribute this to the persistence of fundamentally illiberal attitudes. Intolerance of black people, or Irishmen or Jews, is the product of bigotry, which can only be eliminated by the spread of knowledge and rationality. Religious or political intolerance is the product of dogmatism, an intellectual over-confidence which
can only be corrected by a more relativistic and sceptical awareness of the variety of human beliefs and the impossibility of certain knowledge in such areas. Within liberalism, tolerance is linked to rationality, and, like freedom, is powerfully supported by scepticism. The enemy of liberal tolerance is fanaticism. Two lines of Yeats have been repeatedly quoted by liberal apologists in recent years:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. (‘The Second Coming’)
It must be agreeable to have no convictions, yet be able to acount oneself among ‘the best’. What the endorsement of these lines indicates is that liberalism inclines to tentativeness (to use Russell’s word) and even uncertainty, and is suspicious of too strong convictions. There is further support for this attitude in another poem of Yeats’, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’:
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
If we want a tolerant society, then uncertainty, indifference and even apathy are preferable to having too many people with too strong opinions. 24
It is with tolerance as it is with freedom: the most fundamental and radical case is one which rests on some conception of human rights, of what basic human dignity and respect for persons require in terms of both laws and collective and individual attitudes. What this implies is that if arguments about tolerance, or toleration, are couched in terms of whether society or the state should or should not tolerate this group or that belief, this already concedes to government or society an authority to which they have no moral right. Radical liberals saw this very clearly. In 1791 Paine wrote:
The French constitution hath abolished or renounced Toleration, and Intolerance also, and hath established UNIVERSAL RIGHT OF CONSCIENCE.
Toleration is not the opposite of Intolerance, but it is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding Liberty of Conscience, and the other of granting it.
Similarly, Shelley in his Address to the Irish People wrote: ‘I propose unlimited toleration, or rather the destruction both of toleration and intoleration..’
Tolerance on the part of state, society and individuals, is undoubtedly necessary if liberal freedom is to be made a reality, and it can be seen as the practice of that respect for persons upon which the principle of freedom itself rests. Tolerance in practice may require an effort of self-discipline; yet it is in some ways a minimal and negative virtue. It means not interfering with people, leaving them alone. But leaving them alone can mean neglect as well as tolerance, and if indifference is often the soil in which tolerance grows, indifference can also shade off into callousness.
The importance which liberalism attaches to privacy illuminates the specific nature of the liberal idea of freedom. In classical and neo-classical conceptions the freedom that mattered was freedom within the public sphere. What was important was that men (but not women, and not all men, for that matter) should be free to express their opinions and act politically within the processes of collective decision-taking. The idea of being ‘left alone’, or an area of noninterference, did not form part of these older ways of thinking.
Liberalism shifts the balance of thought on to the opposite scale. Not only is the individual no longer seen as essentially a part, or member, of some larger social body. Such ideas are now regarded as illiberal and even potentially totalitarian. Even the thought of large-scale popular involvement was suspect to Anthony Crosland, as we have seen.
But Crosland’s view, which is a representative one, raises many problems. He doesn’t explain why people should be more secure in their privacy when politics are left in the hands of the professional minority. He also appears to assume that the private sphere, the sphere of home and local life, as it actually exists, offers people the scope they need for self-fulfilment. No doubt, if challenged, he would have agreed that the private sphere is at present more cramped and restricted than ideally it should be. But then the question arises of how that sphere is to be enlarged, if not by political action? And how is such action to be taken if people do not, by participating in politics, make plain their dissatisfactions with the present limited scope of private life?
A belief in the value of privacy need not imply that people have no public obligations, not that it is positively ominous if they participate in large numbers in public life. Yet in practice the liberal elevation of private life has been accompanied by a disparagement of public life—as in the lines by Auden quoted earlier. It has developed into a mood, and even an ethic, of withdrawal prompted by disillusion, which received classic expression in Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The impulse to withdraw recurs in twentieth-century writers like Forster, Orwell and Angus Wilson. Forster said of his own work that ‘my books emphasize the importance of personal relationships and the private life, for I believe in them.’ The obverse was a strong disbelief in public and political action: ‘In the world of politics we see no salvation.’2’ Thus privacy becomes even more important because it is only within the private sphere that the values of liberalism and humanism can be preserved. Liberalism in this latter-day form has withdrawn almost entirely from the public world in despair. All the remains of the earlier campaigning and crusading liberalism are a few faint stirrings of the political conscience, a vague uneasiness:
…All right, it’s late.
But, Angus: though it lies in wait
With terrible reproaches, fate
May yet forgive
Our scared retreats, both small and great,
And let us live.
John Fuller’s verse ‘Letter to Angus Macintyre’ perfectly catches this mood of uneasiness in seclusion. Liberalism has lost hope of gaining acceptance for its values in the public sphere, and so reconciles itself to preserving them in the few refuges and enclaves of privacy where Forster’s ‘aristocracy’ of civilized people hold out against the surrounding barbarism. The defence of privacy need not be a sign of retreat and defeat, but in much contemporary liberalism it has become so.
For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Freedom, privacy and tolerance are ideals, at first no more than dreams, which in order to be realized (made real) must be embodied in rules, customs and institutions. We have already seen that traditionally liberals have regarded the state as the principal threat to the individual and her freedom. How is this danger to be met?
The first step is to assert, as a matter of fundamental principle, that the power and authority of the state or government is not absolute, but limited. There are two main ways by which this principle is to be established. The first is by making consent the basis of legitimate government. It can be argued, of course, that any government needs a measure of consent from the governed in order to function effectively at all. But the liberal position is not this pragmatic one: it is argued as a matter of principle that since government is for the benefit of society, so it ought to be based on the consent or support of society. Government must be thought of, not as autonomous, but as answerable and accountable for its actions. Consent is normally sought, and accountability enforced, through the device of elections. But whose consent does it need? To whom is it answerable? The commonest rhetorical answer was ‘the nation’, or ‘the people’. But this was rhetorical since it was often not clear who exactly was included in these rather vague entities. ‘The people’ seldom meant all of the people. It seldom meant even all of the male people. The political nation to which the government was answerable was not until quite recently identified with the whole population. Consent was required only from a minority of the propertied classes. Nevertheless, in spite of its limited application, the principle of accountability was in itself a check on government, especially when it was contrasted with the absolute and unlimited authority which some theorists, such as Bodin and Hobbes, had thought the state ought to have, and which some rulers were bold enough to claim and occasionally powerful enough to use.
But there were other methods which, from this point of view, were not less important. The essence of them was the placing of the state or government within a restricting framework of constitutional provisions and fundamental law. The state and its institutions must operate within limits which are either laid down in an explicit, written constitution, or take the form of a rather more vaguely conceived body of ‘fundamental’ laws and customs. The revolutionary states of the late eighteenth century celebrated their newness with written constitutions; but it was also held that England had been a constitutional and therefore free, state since 1688, although it had no comparable single document to cite.
Among the constitutional provisions of the new United States of America one of the most important in limiting the power of government was held to be the device of the separation of powers. This represented a challenge not only to absolutism, but also to the theory of sovereignty, which had been used to give intellectual support to absolutism and to the more general principle of the supremacy of the state. Hobbes had argued that the only adequate bulwark against division, civil conflict and chaos within a society was the establishment of a single and indivisible ultimate authority—a sovereign. Sovereignty was indivisible by definition; for if authority was divided, a further authority would be needed to arbitrate between the parties in cases of dispute, and that further authority would therefore be the effective sovereign. Hobbes’s argument is irrefutable—so long as one thinks in terms of sovereignty. But first in practice, and later in theory, liberals have moved away from the idea of sovereignty. They have preferred to run the risks of conflict inherent in arrangements whereby state authority is divided. For, unlike Hobbes, their fear of a final and undivided power-cum-authority is greater than their fear of the possible consequences of splitting it up. Hence institutional safeguards against despotism are provided by the separation of powers—the allocation of different portions of the authority of the state to separate institutions, each of which will act as a rival to, and a check on, the others.
The power of the state was to be further circumscribed by the placing of the state within the limits of established law. Government is to be carried on according to ‘the rule of law’. This notion, however, is by no means a clear one. Human laws do not, after all emanate directly from God or nature, even if they are thought to be based on divine or natural law. They have to be formulated by someone, even if it is not the king or sovereign. The transference of the law-making function from a king to a parliament or other assembly does not in itself provide any guarantee against unjust or tyrannical laws. However it was argued that an elected and accountable assembly would find it more difficult to enact laws which were clearly partial or oppressive. And there were other restrictions on their law-making powers. Laws could only be made within the framework of the constitution. Or, if no explicit constitution existed, appeal was made to something like ‘the spirit of the laws’, to the traditional sense of what was legitimate and what rights it was accepted that people possessed, even if these were not inscribed in any particular document. Finally, the implementation and interpretation of the laws were to be placed in the hands of institutions which would be independent of the government of the day. In these various ways it was hoped that the ‘rule of law’ could be separated from, and raised above the mere will of the body that did actually make the laws.
But the rule of law meant still more than this. It meant an end to the arbitrariness which was so marked a feature of absolutist rule. It represented an attempt to replace the rule of whim by the rule of rules: ‘Freedom of Men under Government is, to have a standing Rule to live by, common to every one of that society and made by the Legislative Power erected on it.’ Part of the meaning of the rule of law was simply a minimum of consistency and impartiality. If something was permitted, then it was permitted to all. If something was an offence, then it was an offence no matter who committed it. The law was supposed to be impartial as between classes, between rich and poor, between the titled aristocrat and the starving beggar who hardly had a name. Of course, in a society of economic inequality this impartiality is not without its ironies, as Anatole France observed: ‘The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.’ Still, it was held to be an essential part of a rational society, and one which offered some security to the individual, that he or she should know where they were in relation to the laws. They should know what they could do with impunity, and what not. They should be able to know what measure of punishment awaited them if they committed an offence of a certain kind. The notion that law was nothing but the will of the sovereign, whoever or whatever that night be, was, in the liberal view, a recipe for uncertainty, insecurity, favouritism and arbitrariness. No man could be safe in possession of either his rights or his property so long as such a principle held sway. Even if he himself took no part in the making of laws, directly or indirectly, it was essential that those laws should have a certain reliability and permanence, and that they should be impartial as between individuals and classes.
Through such principles and devices as these it was hoped that the power of the state could be limited and the rights of the individual made reasonably secure. But there is an ambiguity in the liberal attitude towards both state power and the law. On the one hand there is the liberal view that the state is the chief threat to the individual and his freedom. This is supported by the picture of society as essentially a self-regulating mechanism, so that state or government ‘interference’ is often regarded as not merely unnecessary but positively disruptive: ‘The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself . . . how often is the natural propensity to society disturbed or destroyed by the operations of government.’ Paine looked forward to a steady reduction in the power and activity of the state as society steadily improved.
This tendency in liberalism is reinforced by the stress which many liberals have placed on the supposed antithesis between laws and freedom. Thus Berlin, in reference to both Hobbes and Bentham, says that ‘Law is always a “fetter”, even if it protects you from being bound in chains that are heavier than those of the law.’ All this points in the direction of an anarchist opposition to state, government and laws. Yet the purpose of the liberal apparatus of constitutionalism and the separation of powers is not to dissolve the power of the state but only to curb it. And although law may always be a fetter, liberals readily accept that such fetters are necessary, and have made ‘the rule of law’ one of their own most conscious slogans.
Imprisonment is the most blatant and basic way in which someone’s liberty can be taken away. And from the moment of the fall of the Bastille the prison became a specially potent symbol or epitome of the kind of tyranny against which liberals were fighting. Yet liberals have for the most part accepted prisons and imprisonment as necessary social institutions for the indefinite future. It seems that it is not imprisonment as such to which they object, but its arbitrary use. This is, however, no safeguard against a tyranny which operates through laws, as many contemporary authoritarian regimes in fact do. Such cases ought to make liberals more cautious than they usually are about using ‘the rule of law’ as a norm and a slogan. Structures of law such as those which enforce racial separation and inequality demonstrate the need for a concept of justice by which laws themselves can be judged.
So there are ambiguities in the liberal commitment to law. They claim to be suspicious of the state and its power, yet accept it as an indefinitely necessary evil. In so doing they accept, too, that there are necessarily limits to the freedom which the individual can expect to enjoy within the context of an ‘orderly’ society. The commitment to freedom is not quite as absolute as it is sometimes made to appear.
Liberty is more essential than democracy
Title of an article by Salvador de Madariaga, Indian and Foreign Review, 1 January 1968
‘Liberal democracy’ is such a common phrase that it is natural to imagine that the coinage denotes a perfectly harmonious marriage between the two constituent principles. In fact the alliance, like many real-life marriages, has been an affair of compromises and concessions from the start, and of the partners it was liberalism which was always the more reluctant. Liberals wished to replace absolutism by limited government; and limited government was taken to mean government by consent. But whose consent? Once the notion of consent becomes current it is difficult to establish convincing arguments for limiting its application, especially since the arguments in its favour were characteristically couched in a universalist style which tended to contradict any principle of selection or exclusion. The idea of consent tends towards democracy.
Bourgeois liberals were thus increasingly hoist by their own petard. They valued the principle of consent in so far as it applied to themselves, but became fearful when it was taken over by radical spokesmen for the lower classes. Understandably so, since, as C. B. Macpherson has reminded us, democracy was not until very recently something of which everyone was expected to approve. On the contrary:
Democracy used to be a bad word. Everybody who was anybody knew that democracy in its original sense of rule by the people or government in accordance with the will of the bulk of the people, would be a bad thing — fatal to individual freedom and to all the graces of civilized living.
Democracy meant essentially the rule of ‘the mob’. Liberals were afraid that the overthrow of the old monarchical or aristocratic autocracies would lead to their replacement, not by the minimal state which most of them wanted, but by a new tyranny still more powerful than the old ones. Its power would derive precisely from its superior claims to legitimacy. Against a government which could claim to be enacting the will of the people, what safeguards could stand firm? Dissident minorities would appear merely as disgruntled and self-interested factions unwilling to accept the elementary democratic principle of majority rule. Dissident individuals would be in an even weaker position. In this way liberals saw the principle of consent, intended by them as a curb on government and as a basis for protecting individual rights, leading to a popular or democratic dictatorship which could offer a more serious threat to liberty than any known before.
Fears of this kind were expressed by some of the American Founding Fathers. ‘Give all power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all power to the few, they will oppress the many’, said Hamilton. And Jefferson protested: ‘One hundred and seventy three despots would surely be as oppressive as one . . . an elective despotism was not the government we fought for.’ Many of them despised ‘the people’, and were openly hostile to the idea of democracy. From these attitudes sprang the carefully devised constitutional arrangements intended to curb the power of the state by dividing it. These anxieties and hostilities remain as a recurring theme in liberal writings of the nineteenth century, even among those who, like Mill, were in principle in favour of the widest popular participation in politics. Lord Acton explicitly distinguished between the liberal and the democrat:
As to Democracy, it is true that masses of new electors are utterly ignorant, that they are easily deceived by appeals to prejudice and passion, and are consequently unstable, and that the difficulty of explaining economic questions to them, and of linking their interests with those of the State, may become a danger to the public credit, if not to the security of private property. A true Liberal, as distinguished from a Democrat, keeps this peril always before him.
It was not only property which the ignorant masses were held to threaten. Others believed that culture and civilization were also in danger. Matthew Arnold’s book of 1869 might have been called ‘Culture versus Anarchy’, since it saw culture, which depends on order and authority, as menaced by working-class demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform—‘demonstrations perfectly unnecessary in the present course of our affairs’.
But above all, democracy was seen as a potential threat to individual freedom. Whether one thought in terms of majority rule, or the sovereignty of the people, the danger was there. The point is essentially a logical one. Freedom is a matter of the absence of constraints and restrictions which prevent the individual from doing what he wants. Democracy is a matter of how governments are chosen and to whom they are answerable. There is no necessary connection between the two issues: ‘the opposite of liberalism is totalitarianism, while the opposite of democracy is authoritarianism. In consequence, it is at least possible in principle that a democratic government may be totalitarian, and that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles.’ The fact that a government is elected will not in itself prevent it from restricting people’s freedom. Quite the contrary, in fact. An ‘elective despotism’ would be less easily challenged than one the basis of which was patently arbitrary.
The anxiety is exacerbated if democracy is identified not simply with majority rule, but with the more exalted doctrine of popular sovereignty. Liberals are unhappy with the idea of sovereignty in any circumstances. But the concept of popular sovereignty is doubly objectionable because it implies the existence of a recognizable entity which can be called ‘the people’. This offends against the liberal doctrine that society is made up of discrete individuals, or at the most, groups, all with their particular and distinct wills and interests. Notions such as ‘the general interest’ and ‘the general will’ not only obscure this: they also provide governments with plausible excuses for overriding the concrete interests of particular individuals and groups. According to Bernard Crick it is the essence of what he terms ‘politics’ to recognize and accept the essential diversity of the various groups and interests which make up society. Therefore ‘politics’ has to be defended against democracy, for ‘The democratic doctrine of the sovereignty of the people threatens . . . the essential perception that all known advanced societies are inherently pluralistic and diverse, which is the seed and the root of politics.’
It might be thought that one way of counteracting such a danger would be to encourage greater popular participation. The involvement of the widest range of groups and individuals might well ensure that particular interests were taken into account, and that decisions were not taken without due contest and debate. But, as we have seen, participation is regarded by many liberals as a threat to privacy and freedom. Others go further and see it as a step towards totalitarianism. Thus Rousseau, one of the leading theorists of democracy, has become a favourite target of contemporary liberal polemics. According to J.L. Talmon, who represents himself as a defender of liberal democracy, Rousseau ‘demonstrates clearly the close relation between popular sovereignty taken to the extreme, and totalitarianism’ precisely because of his insistence on ‘the active and ceaseless participation of the people and of every citizen in the affairs of the State’. Talmon concludes ‘Liberty is safer in countries where there are numerous levels of non-political private and collective activity, although not so much direct popular democracy, than in countries where politics take everything in their stride, and the people sit in permanent assembly.’ Talmon is a conservative rather than a strictly liberal writer, but this is one of many points where liberal and conservative thinking now overlap. Crick makes much the same point when he asserts that the doctrine of popular sovereignty ‘if taken too seriously, is an actual step towards totalitarianism. For, quite simply, it allows no refuge and no contradiction, no private apathy even.’ Mill made a similar, though perhaps more sophisticated case, when he argued that democracy implies not only a certain style of government but also a certain type of society, in which ‘public opinion’ will enjoy an unprecedented ascendency. This powerful force, with its intolerance of deviance and non-conformity, will constitute a most serious threat to liberty and diversity. There is one major puzzle about liberalism’s portrayal of all these various democratic monsters—the tyranny of the majority, popular participation, and public opinion. All of them assume that the pressure of the mass, the majority, or the public, will be a monolithic force in pushing in a single direction. But if as liberals ceaselessly reiterate, society is composed of individuals and/or diverse groups and interests, if ‘a people doesn’t exist except as an abstract conception’ (to repeat Dwight Macdonald’s words), how is it that diverse individuals nevertheless act in this ominous unified manner when they come together? There is a sharp contradiction here between the liberals’ pluralistic and individualistic analysis of society, and the liberal fear of democracy with its accompanying mythology of mobs and monolithic masses.
At worst liberals see democracy, ‘taken to the extreme’, as a threat to liberty, property and culture. At best it can be a means to liberty, provided the principles of democracy are revised and qualified in a way which provides safeguards against the danger of popular tyranny. It becomes so by being converted into ‘liberal democracy’, a formulation in which, as Guido de Ruggiero very candidly put it, ‘the adjective Liberal has the force of a qualification.’ Democracy has increasingly been seen not as an end in itself, but as a means to preserving liberty, individuality and diversity: ‘The distinctive features of democratic government, at least as we understand it in the western world, are intended to secure a maximum of liberty for citizens.’ The appearance of this bland statement in a representative ‘introduction’ to political philosophy indicates that this is now the consensus view. Democracy, in its existing limited representative forms, is believed to serve that purpose well. But proposals for extending democracy, or enlarging popular participation are another matter. Liberal democracy is limited democracy. Unlimited democracy is potentially, if not actually, totalitarian, and threatens the liberal values and institutions of personal freedom, private property and the market economy.
These are the fears which have inspired the description of the British political system as one of ‘elective dictatorship’, and led to revived demands for either a written constitution or a bill of rights in Britain. Attractive as a bill of rights may sound, the clear intention of its contemporary protagonists is to create a constitutional barrier to some of the more radical policies which might be enacted by a left-wing government with strong popular support, and in particular to prevent the enactment of policies which might involve attacks on private property, and private economic power, such as the ownership of newspapers and television companies. These fears are not very different from those aroused by popular political movements and extensions of the franchise in the nineteenth century.
Reason, which has always been, and still is, a highly prestigious term, is also one of the most complex and elusive in the vocabulary of ideas. We have already noted that it has at least two general meanings, both of which figure prominently in liberal thinking. The narrower and more precise of these identifies reason with the ability to think logically, to make calculations and deductions. The broader conception is not necessarily antithetical to this, but is larger and more positive in its claims. The first conception, strictly interpreted, has no application to ends, only to means. It has nothing to say about ends, except as to whether they are ‘realistic’—that is, attainable given the world as it is.
The other conception is not so confined. It has something to say about ends as well as means. Only certain purposes of the individual and of society deserve to be called rational. Tolerance, for example, is a rational policy, because it respects the limits of human knowledge, and makes no claim to certainty or rightness in areas, such as morals and religion, where such assurance cannot rationally be justified. Cruelty and the infliction of suffering, are likewise irrational, since it is evident that in all normal circumstances people try to avoid suffering and unhappiness. Reason is thus not morally neutral. Reason is not compatible with intolerance or dogmatism, or with cruelty and callousness. It was therefore in the name of reason as well as humanity—for the two go together—that the liberals of the Enlightenment campaigned against the power of the Catholic Church and against the judicial use of torture. In this sense of the word reason is ‘a normative and not a neutral scientific term’, to quote Stuart Hampshire.
Both these conceptions of reason have played a part in liberalism. Hence some of the conflicts and ambiguities within liberalism itself. The larger concept of reason has made many liberals active enemies of religion, or at least of religion in its more dogmatic and superstitious forms. This is the way in which the historian J. B. Bury used the term reason in his A History of Freedom of Thought (1913), when he entitled his chapter on Greece and Rome ‘Reason free’ and that on the Middle Ages ‘Reason in prison’. Such hostility to Catholicism now seems rather old-fashioned in Anglo-Saxon countries, though not necessarily in countries such as Italy, Ireland and Portugal where the Roman Catholic Church still retains considerable political and ideological power. Many liberals would still want to insist on a connection between reason and tolerance, .and tolerance is still at odds with religious bigotry.
Similarly, reason is often contrasted with tradition, custom and prejudice. The fully rational man will take nothing on trust, nothing on authority. He will think things through for himself, and make up his own mind. A characteristic example is provided by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote retrospectively (and not uncritically) of himself and his Cambridge contemporaries of the early 1900s: ‘We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. . . We recognised no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey. Before heaven we claimed to be our own judge in our own case.’ Such attitudes are incompatible with the hold which habit and prejudice often exert over people’s minds and lives. In this respect liberals are at odds with conservatives of the traditional Burkean variety. Nothing in Burke is more significant of his challenge to the enlightenment than his open defence of prejudice:
instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices. . . . Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.’
From Burke to W. B. Yeats and Michael Oakeshott, conservatives have consistently expressed their mistrust of reason (or rationalism), and their faith an the virtues of tradition and custom. But the whole tendency of the liberal Enlightenment was in direct conflict with these celebrations of prejudice, custom and habits of thought unthinkingly inherited from the past.
This contraposition of reason to authority and tradition set liberals at odds with conservatives and with the power of established religion. But the definiton of reason as calculation created a different kind of problem for liberalism. It raised the question of what value liberalism attaches to feeling; whether liberalism has a theory of imagination and art to rival the place occupied in its philosophy by reason and science. The younger Mill’s account of his upbringing is well known: how the process of intellectual ‘cramming’ led to a complete personal breakdown at the age of twenty, which in turn sent him in quest of ‘that culture of the feelings’ which had been so totally neglected by Bentham and his father. This experience led Mill to adopt a more critical attitude towards Benthamism, and take an interest in the Anglicized version of German idealism represented by Coleridge and to some extent the young Thomas Carlyle. But it is doubtful whether Mill succeeded in assigning to art and imagination a much larger role that than of providing refreshment to the rational man when he is tired by his intellectual and reforming exertions.
Creative writers of liberal conviction were, naturally enough, particularly disturbed by the priority which calculation so evidently enjoyed over feeling in laissez-faire liberalism. This led Shelley, in A Defence of Poetry, to attack the narrow notion of utility, according to which ‘the exercise of the imagination is most delightful, but . . . that of reason is more useful.’ He argued—and must have been one of the first to argue—that the accumulation of knowledge and the ‘unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty’ had outstripped men’s capacity to know how to use this great power to control and exploit nature:
There is now no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest, and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But . . . We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine . . . our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.
Shelley, despite his ‘Romantic’ label, was in no sense an anti-rationalist. On the contrary, he was, through Paine and Godwin, a direct heir of Enlightenment radicalism. But as an artist he was perplexed to know what role there was for him, and for the poet, in the developing industrial capitalist society. And as a radical democrat he saw that the political economy of liberalism was not producing the universal benefits which its proponents had predicted.
But it would be unfair to liberalism not to recognize that anxieties about the relations between rationality and feeling have been a recurring theme within the liberal tradition. In the twentieth century it has been a preoccupation of E.M. Forster and Lionel Trilling, among others, and even Keynes felt the force of D.H.Lawrence’s vehement criticisms of the rationalism of the Cambridge—Bloomsbury circles to which he (Keynes) belonged: ‘The attribution of rationality to human nature, instead of enriching it, now seems to me to have impoverished it. It ignored certain powerful and valuable springs of feeling. Some of the spontaneous, irrational outbursts of human nature can have a sort of value from which our schematism was cut off.’ A sort of value, ‘but what sort? The claim that is made for imagination by writers from Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, through Keats and Shelley to Yeats, is that imagination as well as, if not more than, reason gives men access to truth. Hence Keats’s ‘Beauty is Truth’, and Blake’s many exclamations against century rationalism and empiricism: ‘All that is Valuable in Knowledge is Superior to Demonstrative Science, such as is Weighed or Measured.’: ‘God forbid that Truth should be Confined to Mathematical Demonstration!’ Historically and theoretically liberalism has had difficulty in responding sympathetically to such claims and criticisms because of its close association with empiricist and, to a lesser extent, rationalist theories of truth and knowledge. This is one source of that alienation of modern literature from the liberal ideology about which Trilling in particular has written at some length.
But while liberalism has never developed a satisfying theory of art and imagination, it has laid claim to a special relationship with science, as we saw earlier. Liberalism is claimed to be the application of the scientific approach to politics and social life. And conversely, or reciprocally, science is held to represent the outstanding expression of the liberals’ commitment to reason and empiricism. The interest shown by radical liberals like Paine, Jefferson and Joseph Priestley in inventions and technological developments, at the time of the British industrial revolution, is neither surprising nor coincidental. Material and technological progress was as integral a part of the world-wide advance of reason and enlightenment as was the sweeping away of feudal privileges, superstition and bigotry.
To begin with at least, the liberal conception of progress was of this uncomplicated kind, and apart from isolated figures like Shelley, most doubts about the economic and social effects of industrialization were expressed by radicals and conservatives who stood well outside the liberal mainstream. But misgivings about the supposed benefits of uncontrolled technological change, and about the unlimited exploitation of the planet and its limited resources, are now widespread. And apart from that, the political experience of the twentieth century has made any simple belief in continuous linear progress very hard to sustain. Liberalism has not been immune from the general loss of self-confidence which the capitalist world has experienced in this century. Keynes faithfully recorded the change of mood in the essay already quoted. He described his own generation as having been ‘among the last of the Utopians, or meliorists as they are sometimes called, who believe in a continuing moral progress’. By the 1930s he had come to see this belief as mistaken. It ignored the ‘insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men’, and it underestimated the extent to which ‘civilisation was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved.’ In the 1940s Cyril Connolly described himself as being one of thousands of ‘Liberals without a belief in progress, Democrats who despise their fellow men’. Yet it is significant that those who in recent years have attacked what they call the ‘technocratic’ character of our society, such as Theodore Roszak, have been denounced by orthodox liberals as ‘Luddites’ and champions of unreason or irrationalism. Clearly the traditional syndrome which links reason with science, technology and progress is still powerful.
Reason is still regularly invoked as a talisman by liberals, though clearly not always with the same meaning. Reason, for example, is often associated with persuasion and contrasted with force. It is claimed that the quintessential liberal method of going about things is to seek to persuade others, not by what are derogatorily termed ‘emotional’ appeals, but by rational arguments. Thus Paul Johnson, in a popular history of England, referred to ‘the great tripod of the liberal ethic’ as being ‘the rejection of violence, the reaching of public decisions through free argument and voluntary compromise, and the slow evolution of moral principles tested by experience and stamped with the consensus.’ It is one thing to identify these as ideals, or aims, towards which liberals always strive. It is quite another to claim, as Johnson does, that these ideals have actually prevailed in English history, or more generally in the practice of liberalism. Leaving that aside for the moment, it is important to see what the liberals’ professed faith in rational persuasion assumes. It assumes that rationality is, in principle, the universal possession of human beings. It also assumes that it is better to persuade than to compel, better that people should do something voluntarily than compulsorily. But what liberalism also assumes is that appeals to rationality can and do work. Or in other words, that rationality not merely can, but does, play a larger part in determining people’s decisions and attitudes than their prejudices, feelings and material interests—using ‘material’ in a broad sense to include people’s class-based concern with status, reputation and security as well as more narrowly economic considerations. Liberals constantly hope, or even believe, that people can be persuaded to sacrifice ‘selfish’ personal, group or class interests for the sake of some seemingly nobler goal, or even in the name of enlightened self-interest. They are constantly surprised and disappointed when this does not happen. This sets them apart from conservatives, who take a less optimistic or rationalistic view of human nature, and Marxists, who do not expect ideals or rational arguments to outweigh the commitment of a class and its members to their own interests as they perceive them.
But what happens when appeals to reason and attempts at persuasion fail? What then? Very often we are not told. Thus Talmon declares that as far as ‘the final aims of liberal democracy’ are concerned, ‘the use of force is considered as an evil’—by contrast, of course, with ‘totalitarian democracy’, which resorts readily to the use of coercion. What Talmon does not say is whether the use of force is also considered to be a necessary evil. For to suggest that liberalism as a political practice involves, or has involved, the renunciation of force as non-rational, is quite false. It can and has been argued that the liberal belief in reason and liberal respect for the rights and freedom of the individual point logically in the direction of anarchism and pacificism. And liberalism does come close to anarchism at times—in the case of Paine, for example. But liberalism is not anarchism. As we have seen, it may not like prisons, but it has not pulled them down. And although some liberals have been pacifists, they have been a minority. The dominant tradition of liberalism
has never renounced either coercion or killing. Whether we think of liberals like Paine and Jefferson, Byron and Garibaldi, fighting in wars of national independence or liberation, or of rebels like the Russian Decembrists, or of the liberal imperialists, or of liberal opponents of fascism and South African racism, or of liberal supporters of the Vietnam War, the conclusion must be the same: most liberals have always been prepared to use force and fight wars when it seems to them that persuasion and argument were no longer effective. Even if the dubious liberal hypothesis of an antithesis between reason and force or violence is accepted, there is still a glaring contrast between the self-image and the reality of liberalism in this respect. Whatever qualms of conscience they may have, liberals generally do not renounce force in politics, and to that extent their own claims to be committed exclusively to the use of reason and persuasion are bogus. I cannot see what other conclusion is possible.
There are thus significant discrepancies between the reality of liberalism and its public self-image. Liberals have always been happy to advertise their commitments to freedom, tolerance, reason and the rule of law. Contemporary liberals are willing to endorse ‘liberal democracy’, though previously not all liberals were prepared to be counted as democrats. I have tried to suggest that these commitments are seldom as unambiguous and as straightforward as they are sometimes made out to be. But the overall picture is further complicated by those commitments which used on occasions to be openly avowed, but have more recently become, for most liberals, sources of embarrassment and unease. So, without ever being generally or openly abandoned, they are relegated to a limbo where they lurk half-concealed like rocks which the liberal steersman wishes to avoid, but which for that very reason cannot be wholly ignored. These half-hidden commitments are mostly to do with the relationship of liberalism to capitalism. In particular they involve the issues of private property, inequality and class.
Liberalism grew up together with Western capitalism, and even today liberal-democratic political systems only flourish in advanced capitalist countries. Attempts to establish such systems in ex-colonial countries of the Third World have collapsed, and even those countries which once looked like exceptions to this general rule, such as Uruguay, Chile and India, have had their electoral systems and civil liberties destroyed or threatened. This can hardly be coincidental. And there are at least two schools of thought which, from opposite angles, would argue strongly that it is not.
On the one hand Marxists argue that capitalism contains, rather than supports, liberal democracy. The state and the political system are not autonomous and sovereign agencies through which the popular will can, if it no wishes, change or abolish capitalism. They are subordinate to the nature and purposes of the capitalist economy. Where there are signs that democracy may lead to a political assault on capitalism, democracy is either distorted—as in Italy, in order to exclude the Communist Party from office—or destroyed—as in Chile in 1973— to prevent this. Tolerance is only extended to those who do not seriously threaten capitalism. Socialism can only be accommodated in the form of social democracy, which accepts and administers capitalism rather
than seeking to abolish it. There are, in other words, quite narrow limits to the freedom and democracy which capitalism can and will allow.
From the opposite political position, there are those economists and politicians, like F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher, who argue that there can be no liberal democracy, no individual freedom, without capitalism. Socialism and fascism are the alternatives—state-dominated economies which are authoritarian, if not totalitarian, in their power over society as a whole. Not only should our concept of freedom include economic freedom—the freedom to compete in the making of profits—but other kinds of freedom are dependent upon the existence of economic freedom. The existence of economic power in private hands is a safeguard of individual liberties because it limits the power of the state. The position of Hayek, Friedman and their followers is fundamentally that of liberals from Adam Smith to Herbert Spencer. But mainstream liberalism has changed since then, and their position on the British political spectrum now appears as an ultraconservative one; though it doubtless seems less eccentric in countries such as the USA, Australia and Japan, where the entire spectrum of politics lies further to the right.
It is nearly 60 years since Keynes, the leading liberal economist of the twentieth century, and a supporter of the British Liberal Party, published his historic essay ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’. In it Keynes explicitly rejected many eithc central tenets of the old creed:
The world is not so governed from above that private and social interest always coincide. It is not so managed here below that in practice they coincide. It is not a correct deduction from the principles of economics that enlightened self-interest always operates in the public interest. Nor is it true that self-interest generally is enlightened . . . .
Rejecting the doctrine of a natural harmony of interests, as well as the slightly more sophisticated argument that the intervention of the state will in the end only make things worse, Keynes went on to suggest what the form and direction of state action should be. He did not attack what he called ‘doctrinaire State Socialism’ primarily on moral grounds, but for pragmatic reasons: it offered policies which were no longer relevant, remedies for ills which were being abolished in any case by the steady movement of capitalist enterprises away from a competitive obsession with profits towards rationalized monopoly or near monopolies: ‘They are, as time goes on, socialising themselves. . . . The battle of Socialism against unlimited private profit is being won in detail hour by hour.’ Nevertheless Keynes argues in favour of giving the state a more positive role in managing the economy: ‘The important thing for government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all.’ Keynes was not a socialist economist, and unlike some of his social democratic followers, he was not so confused as to suppose that what he was recommending was a gradualist shift from capitalism to socialism. On the contrary, his explicit intention was to secure adjustments in capitalism which would enable it to survive in a more rational and humane, and therefore more stable, form:
These reflections have been directed towards possible improvements in the technique of modern capitalism by the agency of collective action. There is nothing in them which is seriously incompatible with what seems to me to be the essential characteristic of capitalism, namely the dependence upon an intense appeal to the money-making and money-loving instincts of individuals as the main motive force of the economic machine.
Keynes did not despise the pursuit of wealth, He played the stock-market himself with considerable success. He regarded the pursuit of wealth as a comparatively harmless employment of energies which might otherwise be deflected into more dangerous channels. But his more serious defence of capitalism was the traditional one. What he called ‘individualism’, by which he meant scope ‘for the exercise of private initiative and responsibility’ in the economic field, was in his view ‘the best safeguard of personal liberty’ and ‘of the variety of life’.
Capitalism, in Keynes’s view, protects and promotes both freedom and variety. So Keynes, although he shocked many liberals—and social democrats—by the novelty of his proposals, was perfectly candid about his own commitment to capitalism, based as it was upon quintessentially liberal arguments. ‘The difficulty is that the capitalist leaders in the City and in Parliament are incapable of distinguishing novel measures for safeguarding capitalism from what they call Bolshevism.’ Later liberals have usually been less blunt in their defence of capitalism, and their unease is reflected in the various less provocative euphemisms that are commonly used—‘free enterprise’, ‘the mixed economy’, and so forth. Nevertheless, allowing for some differences of opinion over the extent of desirable state intervention or management, support for capitalism remains the basic liberal position. Hostility to what, like Keynes, they typically refer to as state socialism, remains constant.
If pressed, most contemporary liberals, including many social democrats, would probably offer a defence of capitalism along the same lines as Keynes. They might well reject the neo-conservative campaign to rehabilitate laissez faire but they would agree with Keynes that capitalism does allow and encourage individual enterprise and initiative as socialism supposedly does not. It is not possible (they would argue), and it is not realistic to seek to separate individual economic enterprise from all the other expressions of personal energy and ability. If there is to be scope for individuals to express themselves, this must include the opportunity to ‘get on’ economically. It is not realistic to think that people will exert themselves if they are to get no material reward from it. There are, of course, other incentives besides purely economic ones, but economic incentives cannot be disregarded. Even the Communists have discovered this, they point out gleefully. Opportunities for the individual must include economic opportunities.
It must follow from this that liberals regard a measure of inequality as not only unavoidable but positively desirable. Keynes was, as usual, quite explicit about this. But it has become ever more difficult for liberals to admit this, since economic inequality is now so widely associated with social injustice. Yet if economic incentives are to operate effectively, and if economic opportunities are to mean anything, individuals must be able to make money and to keep it once they have made it. Of course liberals can hardly afford to renounce altogether the slogan of ‘equality’. Like freedom and democracy it is now too prestigious a term to be completely abandoned to one’s political opponents. The equality which liberals claim to believe in is equality of opportunity. People should be given an equal ‘start’ in life, but if energy, ability and merit are to achieve their ‘due’ reward, they will end up unequally. The principle that such virtues should be rewarded precludes the possibility of a high degree of overall economic and social equality. Liberals subscribe to the classic bourgeois idea of the career open to talent. Merit, not birth or title or privilege, should be rewarded. Hereditary inequality is unacceptable. Inequality which reflects merit or desert is not.
But at this point we encounter yet another contradiction within liberalism. The principle of equality of opportunity, of providing to every one an equal ‘start’ in life, implies that it should not be possible to transmit wealth, privilege and advantage from one generation to the next. But endowing one’s children or heirs with money, a privileged education and other advantages beyond the common lot is precisely what many parents want most of all to do with the money they have acquired. To prevent them from doing this for the sake of equality of opportunity would require 100 per cent death duties and other drastic measures to prevent the passing on of wealth and advantage. This would not only act as a powerful disincentive to individual economic enterprise. It would also be an attack on the rights of property. So if liberals took the principle of equality of opportunity really seriously, they would be obliged to qualify their commitment to two central institutions of capitalism: individual economic incentives, and private property. By and large liberals have not been prepared to do this, any more than they have been prepared to prevent the rich from buying a superior education for their children, with all the social and career advantages that normally accompany it. Clearly in practice liberals assign a higher priority to the freedom to acquire money and use it as you please than they do to equality of opportunity, or to the principle that rewards should accrue to merit alone.
Perhaps this is not surprising. We have already noted that the liberal principle of respect for the individual and his/her rights does not extend to the renunciation of all coercion or killing. The theoretical individualism of the liberals is constantly modified by their acceptance of the legitimacy of more mundane or ‘realistic’ demands of politics and economics. So it is not out of character that liberalism should be reluctant to interfere with the rights of property and inheritance, even though a consistent regard for the equal rights of all individuals requires such interference. We have already noticed how deeply and how early ideas of possession entered into liberal thought. We are said to possess rights, and to possess our bodies and their labour, in the same way as we (may) possess material property. But these more metaphysical forms of ownership should not divert our attention from the great importance which liberalism attaches to property in the most elementary material sense of the word.
The self-interest which liberalism generally attributes to the individual is assumed to take, in part, the form of the desire for material possessions. This is neither sordid nor irrational since, as Keynes pointed out, it is through material possessions and money that men and women can enlarge their own lives and a variety of life-styles become possible. But liberals also connect freedom with private property in terms of the independence which property confers on its owners. This is an abiding theme of liberal argument, and it has a variety of implications, not all of them equally attractive. For example, it was contended by Whigs and liberals that the poor and propertyless were, by virtue of their poverty, at the mercy of both the rich and governments. They were susceptible to bribery. They were dependent rather than independent. There was truth in this; and one conclusion might have been that it was desirable to make the poor less poor, and spread property rather more evenly through the nation as a whole. But eighteenth-century Whigs drew a different conclusion. They held that it proved the rightness of restricting the franchise and political participation generally to men who already possessed enough property to make them immune to bribery at its usual level.
To argue that the secure possession of enough to provide a modestly comfortable standard of life forms a basis for personal independence is reasonable. But the logic of this argument points in the direction of what might be called a Rousseauist type of society: a society composed of self-employed artisans owing their own homes and means of production; by implication a society necessarily without extremes of wealth and poverty. That is the level and type of property ownership which confers independence. But property ownership on a larger scale—the ownership of houses in which other people live, and of offices and factories in which other people work—self-evidently places those who are tenants or employees in a position of dependence. Yet liberalism, in its defence of private property as a bulwark of individual freedom, has not discriminated between the small-scale ownership which promotes independence, and the large-scale ownership which generates dependence and exploitation. They have not much concerned themselves with the power of property, nor sought actively to redistribute it on a more equal basis. Nor has there been an effective liberal attack on the inheritance of property. In other words, neither the professed liberal commitment to equality of opportunity and rewards for talent and merit, nor the association of private property with personal independence, has been allowed to interfere with the rights of property as such. When it comes to the choice of priorities, respect for private property, however acquired and on however large a scale, has taken precedence over concern with equality of opportunity and personal independence.
This indicates one of the many limitations which the actual commitments of liberalism place upon its theoretical individualism. The concept of ‘the individual’ is in essence universal and egalitarian. As individuals we are all equal, of equal worth and with equal rights. The egalitarian character of individualism could quite reasonably be held to require in practice a high degree of economic and social equality. The very least that it requires is equality of opportunity. Yet in practice even this lies beyond liberalism because it requires extensive interference with the rights of property and the accumulation and transmission of wealth. Again, if private property provides a firm foundation for individual freedom, then every individual should share in it; yet liberals have never been happy about expropriation or the compulsory redistribution of property, or indeed about any form of what is tendentiously called ‘levelling down’. Property and capitalism do not often figure prominently in the definition of liberalism, or lists of liberal values, which liberals themselves put on display. But I think we are justified in concluding that both play a far more :important part in determining the concrete historical character of liberalism than has often been recognized.
This in turn raises the still more awkward question of class, How a class is defined, and on what basis a particular social group maintains its position and privileges, are difficult and much debated questions which cannot be entered into here. It will, however, be generally accepted that the ability to transmit wealth and advantage from one generation to the next is at least one of the means by which a perhaps temporary elite converts itself into an entrenched class. Thus, in so far as liberals are unwilling seriously to obstruct the process of passing on wealth and property from one generation to the next, they are in effect acquiescing in the maintenance of class and class privileges.
But it would not for this reason be true to say that the liberals are consciously and openly committed to the maintenance of a class society. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth. Historically liberalism has involved a frontal assault on feudal privileges. And conceptually liberal individualism is by nature universalist: it does not think of people as members of classes or other social or national groups, but as individuals, fundamentally alike and equal members of the human species. Phrases like ‘regardless of colour, class or creed’ are part of the stock-in-trade of liberal political rhetoric. No liberal has ever offered the kind of overt defence of a stable class structure which can be found in conservative writers like Burke, T. S. Eliot, and Yeats. Yet liberals are not levelers in the ordinary sense of the word. They do not share the substantive notions of equality to be found in Rousseau or socialist writers. But they do believe in equality before the law, in equal civil and political rights, and in equality of opportunity.
Once again we encounter a contradiction between the proclaimed principles of liberalism and its actual commitments. And since this contradiction exists within liberalism, what it has produced among liberals is a constant evasiveness and uneasiness about the whole question of class. They cannot defend class, but they are unwilling to attack it. So they prefer to pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that it is withering away, or that it doesn’t really matter anyway. The liberal attitude to class is a classic case of bad faith. There are many good reasons, both historical and conceptual, for regarding liberalism itself, and its priorities, as an essentially middle-class or bourgeois political creed. And many liberals would themselves concede this, without necessarily allowing that this in itself limits the relevance or importance of the liberal values. Yet beyond this they shy away from looking any more closely at the realities of class or at its impact on their own complex of beliefs and attitudes.
Thus although in principle the commitment to the individual and his or her rights stands at the centre of liberal theory, in reality this commitment is constantly diluted by the liberal commitment to other apparently less central principles, or simply by liberal ‘realism’. Contemporary liberals attack ‘utopians’ for their apparent willingness to sacrifice the real, living individuals of today to some distant future goal or harmony or happiness. In practice, however, liberals accept the right of at least liberal-democratic states to conscript young men and send them off to die in wars fought for goals which are often equally uncertain and ‘Utopian’. Liberal writers present imprisonment as the absolute antithesis of personal freedom; yet they accept the use of imprisonment by the liberal state for a vast range of offences, not all of which tiny stretch of argument could be regarded as infringements of, or threats the liberties of others. They are fond of quoting Kant’s dictum about treating each individual as an end rather than a means to some further end. Yet they normally accept the legitimacy of using punishments and penalties as deterrents. The concept of ‘the individual’ is asexual: it makes no distinction between men and women. Yet it is extraordinary how few of the liberal champions of rights of man have also been champions of the equal rights of woman. John Stuart Mill stands out as an honourably consistent exception to the general rule. Of course this unthinking exclusion of half the human race is not peculiar to liberalism. Socialism, which is supposed to extend radical thought and practice beyond the confines of liberalism, has also been blighted by it. And it is not a question of ‘blaming’ liberals for this failure, as if they could realistically have been expected to think otherwise. Nevertheless, we must note this as one further way in which liberals have failed to be consistent in their individualism. To be sure, such consistency would have required a degree of penetrating radicalism which is rare at any time and in any creed. But this is only another way of saying that the practice of liberalism has turned out to be a great deal less radical and subversive of established forms of inequality and oppression than one might expect if one looked only at liberal theory, and accepted it at its own valuation.
In the first part of this book I have tried to outline what I take to be the essentials of the liberal world-view, the liberal theory of politics, society and individual and social values. All this assumes that there is some constant hard-core of liberalism, and that the word is not simply over-stretched to cover a variety of disparate and unconnected phenomena. Nevertheless, such an approach runs the danger of presenting too unified and too fixed a picture of something which has taken different shapes at different times, and which also has a history and a development which need to be charted. For liberalism is not reducible to a set of general and abstract propositions. It is a historical movement of ideas and a political and social practice. We misread its character and underestimate its chameleon talents if we abstract too much from its actual history, To complete the picture, and rectify the balance, we must turn now to view liberalism in its historical perspective.