Liberalism, Properly So Called

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This
essay was previously unpublished, written in 1933 or 1934.

I understand
that what you want is not a publishable article but merely a conspectus
or brief, which will aid the comprehension of two remarkable historical
phenomena.

First, why
is it that Liberalism is now motivated by principles exactly opposite
to those which originally motivated it, and how did this change
come about? Second, why has the spirit and temper of Liberals undergone
a corresponding change, and how did this change come about?

The facts
are clearly apparent. We now see on all sides the extraordinary
spectacle of Liberals doing their best to destroy the cardinal freedoms
and immunities which Liberals formerly defended, while all the forces
which are historically and traditionally known as Tory or Conservative
are arrayed in defense of those freedoms. Furthermore we see Liberals
vehemently vilifying those who hold to the original basic principles
of Liberalism, denouncing them as enemies of society, and doing
all they can to discredit and disable them. These two are probably
the strangest anomalies that recent history presents.

To understand
them it is necessary to consider Liberalism’s origin and rise in
Britain, since it is only in this perspective that American Liberalism
can be clearly seen and correctly assessed. British political Liberalism
was a continuation of Whiggism, which as far back as the time of
Charles II proposed to subordinate the royal power to the power
of Parliament. Toryism, on the contrary held to the “divine right”
theory of monarchy, with all its implications. Put in terms of general
principle, the Tory held that obedience to established authority
is unconditional; the Whig held that it is conditional. It is of
the utmost importance to keep these two primary principles constantly
in mind.

Toryism therefore
contemplated a type of society organised around a system of compulsory
cooperation. This system is best illustrated by the example of a
conscript army. The individual soldier has no option about joining
or leaving the service; nor has he any say about his duties, his
maintenance or his pay. In all ranks throughout the service obedience
is unconditional, and is enforced under coercion. The final intention
is thus to bring and keep the many under rule of the few; and the
service’s rules and regulations are devised with a view to strengthening
a highly centralised coercive military power over the many, and
making them more easily manageable. This is the point to be kept
in mind when considering the structure of civil society as Toryism
would have it, and for some time did have it. As the Army, not the
individual soldier, is the unit of ultimate value, so the civil
structure with its system of fixed ascending subordinations, and
not the individual member, was Toryism’s ultimate criterion; and
hence the regulatory laws, edicts, mandates, which Toryism set up
were devised with a view to strengthening a highly centralised coercive
civil power over the many, and making them more easily manageable.

Liberalism,
on the contrary, contemplated a type of society organised around
a system of voluntary cooperation; a system of original contract,
free contract. This system is best illustrated by the example of
an industrial concern like the Standard Oil Company. The individual
need not work for Standard Oil unless he wishes to do so; he is
not conscripted. His acceptance of the Company’s rules is a matter
of free contract; he is not coerced; he may leave if he does not
like them. His wages, hours and conditions of labor are fixed by
consent; if they do not suit him as proposed, he is free to refuse
them. Under this system the individual is regarded as the unit of
ultimate value. The logic of this position was that society as a
whole would gain more from the aggregate initiative and enterprise
of groups pursuing various ends in free association and by such
means as of free choice should seem best to them, than it would
from the efforts of groups pursuing prescribed ends under coercion.

Consequently
the political design of Tory measures was uniformly to increase
the coercive power of the government over the individual and enlarge
its range of action. The design of Whig measures, and subsequently
Liberal measures, was uniformly to decrease the government’s coercive
power and to reduce its range of action. This must be kept clearly
in mind, for it is the fundamental distinction between Toryism in
practice and Liberalism in practice. It furnishes the one and only
test by which to determine whether a specific political measure
should be classified as Tory or Liberal. No matter what political
label the measure bears; no matter whether its direct object may
be desirable or undesirable; its mark of identification is found
only by addressing these questions to it: Does this measure tend
to diminish or to increase the government’s coercive power over
the individual? Does it tend to narrow the range of the government’s
coercive power, or to widen it? Does it tend to diminish compulsory
cooperation or to increase it? Does it tend to enlarge the area
of conduct in which the individual is free to do as he pleases,
or does it enlarge the area in which he must do as governmental
agents please? If these questions can be answered by the one affirmative,
then the measure is a Liberal measure, properly so called; and if
by the other, it is a Tory measure; and it must be repeated that
neither the desirability per se of the immediate end which the measure
is designed to serve, nor its lack of desirability, has any bearing
whatever on this decision.

Liberalism
held that society’s work should be carried on, its responsibilities
met, and its difficulties dealt with, by the application of social
power, not governmental power; social power meaning the power generated
and exercised by individuals and groups of individuals working in
an economy which is free of governmental interference – an economy
of free contract. This follows logically from the conception of
government inherited from Whiggism in opposition to Toryism’s conception
of it. Toryism held that the ruler derived his authority from God
and distributed that authority to his agents in various degrees
according to their function; therefore the agents exercised power
by divine right ad hoc, responsible only to the ruler, who
in turn was responsible only to God. Whiggism, on the contrary,
regarded rulership as purely a civil institution established by
the nation for the benefit of all its members, with no inherent
power of its own, and responsible only to the nation.

The early
Liberals inherited from the Whigs this conception of government
as an agency set up by the nation and responsible to it, with no
power of its own, but with certain coercive powers granted to it
for exercise in sharply defined directions and in none other. They
contemplated a government whose interventions on the individual
should be purely negative in character. It should attend to national
defense, safeguard the individual in his civil rights, maintain
outward order and decency, enforce the obligations of contract,
punish crimes belonging in the order of malum in se, and
make justice cheap and easily accessible. Beyond these negative
interventions it should not go; it should have no coercive power
to enforce any positive interventions whatever upon the individual.

When the Whigs
came into power they kept all the foregoing tenets in mind, and
so did the early Liberals who succeeded them. They worked steadily
towards curbing the government’s coercive power over the individual;
and with such effect, as historians testify, that by the middle
of the eighteenth century Englishmen had simply forgotten that there
was ever a time when the full “liberty of the subject” was not theirs
to enjoy. In this connexion the thing to be remarked is that the
Whigs proceeded by the negative method of repealing existing laws,
not by the positive method of making new ones. They combed the Statute-book,
and when they found a statute which bore against “the liberty of
the subject” they simply repealed it and left the page blank. This
purgation ran up into the thousands. In 1873 the secretary of the
Law Society estimated that out of the 18,110 Acts which had been
passed since the reign of Henry III, four-fifths had been wholly
or partially repealed. The thing to be observed here is that this
negative method of simple repeal left free scope for the sanative
processes of natural law in dealing with all manner of social dislocations
and disabilities. These processes are slow and usually painful,
and impatience with them leads to popular demand that the government
should step in and anticipate them by positive statutory intervention
when anything goes wrong. The Liberals were aware that no one, least
of all the “practical” politician, can foresee the ultimate effects,
or even all the collateral effects, of such interventions, or can
calculate the force of their political momentum. Thus it regularly
happens that they bring about ultimate evils which are not only
far more serious than the specific evils which they were meant to
remedy, but are also wholly unexpected. American legislative history
in the last two decades shows any number of conspicuous instances
where the political shortcut of positive intervention has been taken
towards remedying a present evil at the most reckless expense of
future good. The Prohibition Amendment is perhaps the most conspicuous
of these instances.

Towards the
middle of the nineteenth century British Liberals turned their backs
upon their historical principles and gave support to a series of
coercive measures, continuously increasing both in number and particularity,
from the poor-laws, the Factory Acts, and the subvention of school
house building in the ‘thirties, down to the proposals set forth
in the Beveridge Report of last year. It is hardly possible to conceive
of a more complete volte-face on fundamental doctrine. Three
circumstances bearing on this change may be noticed.

First, the
period from the third quarter of the eighteenth century to the second
of the nineteenth was one of wars; and as always in a war period,
it was one of savage governmental coercions of all kinds. As always,
again, the general structure of society reverted from the more advanced
type contemplated by Liberalism, the type marked by voluntary cooperation,
to the more primitive type contemplated by Toryism, the type marked
by enforced cooperation. The normal development of a society is
always from the primitive closely-organised militant type towards
the loosely-organised industrial type; that is to say, from organisation
in mass to organisation in group. Hence this mutation of type was
a retrogression; and in consequence, as invariably happens, the
mind and spirit of the people underwent a considerable readjustment.
From their adjustment to the terms of pre-war “liberty of the subject,”
they became largely readjusted to the terms of a slave-status.

Second, as
is usually the case, the period almost immediately succeeding the
period of war was one of great general distress and serious civil
disturbances. “The Hungry ‘Forties” was on its way to become a by-word.
This state of things brought heavy pressure on the government; and
the pressure for positive interventions of one kind and another
was much increased by the readjustment just now mentioned. To understand
the attitude of Liberals in these premises, one must keep clearly
in mind the fact that nothing is more natural than to regard a remedied
evil as an accomplished good, and to forget entirely the all-important
differentiation of the means by which the good was accomplished;
and therefore to conclude that the thing to be aimed at is the direct
accomplishment of a present good, or what it presumed to be a good,
rather than the consistent employment of a means contemplating far
larger measures of ultimate good.

Thus it was
natural for Liberals to say, “The government intervened to accomplish
that great good, and that and that; why should
it not intervene to accomplish this and this?” The
cardinal fact that in the one case the intervention was negative
while in the other it must be positive, was lost sight of
or disregarded. The questions of principle which early Liberalism
would address to any proposal of intervention were no longer put;
the only questions now put were those of expediency and practicability.
In this way the later Liberalism progressively abetted the lapse
of British society into a mode of State-servitude quite as rigid
and unconditional as the mode contemplated by Toryism, and marked
by far greater particularity.

Third, the
later Liberalism was confirmed in its digression by the spread of
a new doctrine of society fathered by Bentham in England and on
the Continent by Comte. This doctrine made a slight side-approach
to Toryism in holding that society is the unit of ultimate value;
rather than the individual, as early Liberalism had held; hence
“the greatest good to the greatest number” is the thing to be aimed
at, for the individual will find his greatest advantage and happiness
in a society controlled by this principle. The consequent justification
of expediency is obvious; and the extent to which the later Liberalism
has been affected by Benthamite doctrine is well known.

Passing now
to consideration of Liberalism and Liberals in the United States,
there is hardly anything to be said which is not clearly implicit
in the foregoing. We once had a short-lived political party led
by Henry Clay and known as Whigs, but it had nothing in common with
British Whiggism. It was formed in opposition to Jackson’s stand
on the National Bank and on nullification, and took the name of
Whig only as an anti-Roosevelt party today might do. It came into
power in 1840 for four years, and went to pieces some ten years
later.

Liberalism
in this country never had a political organisation, nor has it ever
had anything in common with earlier British Liberalism. It was never
formulated in definite terms, even according to the broad original
British formula which defined a Liberal as “one who advocates greater
freedom from restraint, especially in political institutions.” Thus
it has had no tradition, unless one might say that it has perhaps
come more or less into the degenerate British Liberal tradition
of Benthamite and Comtist expediency; but this is no doubt a matter
of coincidence rather than design.

Hence we see
that those who call themselves Liberals proceed on no fixed principles
whatever, and their action in any given premises is notoriously
unpredictable. Their title is usually self-chosen, in virtue of
an interest in some one special enfranchising or humanitarian cause
like freeing slaves, universal suffrage, “social security,” improving
the conditions of labour, raising the status of Negroes. This interest
is often exclusive; the absence of fixed principle is apparent in
the Liberal’s active opposition to other causes which stand on a
logical footing with the cause he favours; as when, for example,
many Liberals were rabidly against withholding the suffrage from
Negroes and equally against giving it to women.

But the determining
factor in the honest Liberal’s attitude is his indifference towards
the essential nature of the means employed to further the cause
in which he is interested. There is here no implication against
the honest Liberal’s moral character. Nor is there an implied charge
that he is acting in black ignorance of history; the charge is only
one of stark incompetence with history. Having all history to guide
him, he nevertheless fails to look beyond the immediate effect producible
by a measure bearing on his cause, and thus fails to see that the
ultimate sum-total of effect may be to produce a much worse state
of things than the one which it was meant to remedy, and perhaps
did remedy.

I have purposely
refrained from illustration, since any one with ordinary knowledge
of history can readily supply a dozen for every point I have raised.
I shall make one here, however, partly to clear the point of the
last paragraph, and partly as in a general way typical.

Twelve years
ago, when a government made up of professing Liberals proposed a
largescale positive bureaucratic intervention to relieve distress,
and by use of the taxing-power brought all citizens into enforced
cooperation with it, Liberals were in favour of it. They regarded
only the immediate end – the relief of distress – and not at
all the nature of the means; and the means did actually serve that
end, though in a most disorderly and wasteful fashion.

The true Liberal,
the Liberal of the eighteenth century, would at once have looked
beyond that end and asked the great primary question which finally
judges, or should judge, all political action: “What type of social
structure does this measure tend to produce? Does it tend to improve
and reinforce the existing type, or to bring about a reversion to
the primary militant type? Does it tend towards advance or retrogression,
towards progress in civilisation or towards re-barbarisation?” Let
us take the measure apart, and see.

The subordinate
questions would then follow: “Will this measure increase the government’s
coercive power over the individual and widen its scope?” Clearly
so. “Will it, through taxation, confiscate social power and convert
it into State power?” Yes, to an incalculable extent. “Will it diminish
voluntary cooperation and increase compulsory cooperation?” Yes,
greatly. “Are the directions and the driving force of this measure’s
political momentum at all determinable?” No, not even a conjecture
is worth making.

If the true
Liberal had subjected the proposed relief-measure to these tests
twelve years ago, he would have said at once, “This is in no sense
a Liberal measure. There is not a suggestion of Liberalism anywhere
in it. On the contrary, it exactly meets every specification laid
down by the most hide-bound Toryism, and for that reason I oppose
it.”

This illustration
brings us in sight of reasons why the self-styled Liberal of the
present day vehemently defames the representatives of historic Liberalism.
But we should make a distinction here by leaving out of account
those who are Liberals for revenue only; those of the rice-Christian
kind, who take this title with a view to personal gain, as a convenience
for getting political jobs, prestige as journalists, essayists,
commentators, prestige in one-or-another order of society, or for
acquiring some other modicum of advancement or distinction. Such
as these meet opposition by the political method technically known
as smearing; that is, by applying terms which are irrelevant to
the matter in hand, and which are therefore neither descriptive
nor meant to be so, but are merely terms of opprobrium. Terms such
as Fascist, Naziist, economic royalist, antiSemite, are now
conspicuously the property of persons who call themselves Liberals
for the sake of personal profit, as rigger-trader and rigger-lover
were a century ago, and as bolshevik was in the days following
the Russian revolution. Such persons obviously stand outside any
serious discussion of Liberalism.

Another order
of persons, quite in the majority, style themselves Liberals in
all good faith, but being ignorant of Liberalism’s principles and
history, they understand neither what they say nor whereof they
affirm. They conceive of themselves as on the side of progress,
enlightenment, a larger measure of welfare and happiness all round,
and they regard the content of Liberalism as made up of whatever
matters seem compatible with this view. Whether or not they are
actually compatible with Liberalism can be determined only by analysis,
which they do not attempt to make. To them, whatever social or political
end attracts their allegiance is a Liberal desideratum; and whatever
means will attain it is, by consequence, a Liberal means.

These usually,
and in quite good faith, meet opposition by attributing to the opponent
opinions which he does not hold; opinions perhaps which he has often
openly disavowed. In my own case, for example, an old friend, a
member of the Administration and a self-styled Liberal (but of this
second order) describes me as an anarchist because I hold to the
theory of government maintained by the eighteenth-century British
Liberals, by Mr. Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Nothing could be in
more violent contrast with the spirit and temper of the early Liberals.
They and the Tories each at least knew what the other’s opinions
and principles were, and could state them in specific terms. My
friend, I regret to say, is wholly ignorant of both.

Again, this
ignorance sometimes leads to conclusions prejudicial to an opponent’s
character; and in a time of popular excitement it quite regularly
does so; and I repeat, in all good faith. Here also I may take my
own case by way of example. When I questioned the policy of governmental
poor relief twelve years ago, on sound Liberal principles, I was
met with the question, “But would you let Americans starve?”; and
as it happened, the question was pressed hardest on me by persons
who called themselves Liberals. As professing Liberals, it meant
nothing to them that the exigency clearly called for the application
of social power, not governmental power; that there was plenty of
social power available, and plenty of social agencies available
for its distribution; and that a Liberal government’s duty was to
stimulate and encourage this application, but not in any way to
supplant or supplement it.

I think that
now, in the main, the anomalies which are the subject of this inquiry
have been accounted for. Enough has been said to show how and why
it is that persons calling themselves Liberals are now, many in
good faith, some in despicably bad faith, advocating a coercive
totalitarian type of government, a recession from the advanced type
to the primitive, from the more nearly civilised to the more nearly
barbarous; and are also denouncing as reactionary and anti-social
those who adhere to the historical principles of Liberalism.

Albert
Jay Nock Archives

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