The Libertarian Heritage: The American Revolution and Classical Liberalism

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This
article is excerpted from the first chapter of For a New Liberty:
The Libertarian Manifesto. An audiobook version of this chapter,
read by Jeff Riggenbach, including a new introduction, written and
read by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is available for podcast
or download.
The book will be out from the Mises Institute this summer.

On election
day, 1976, the Libertarian party presidential ticket of Roger L.
MacBride for President and David P. Bergland for Vice President
amassed 174,000 votes in thirty-two states throughout the country.
The sober Congressional Quarterly was moved to classify the
fledgling Libertarian party as the third major political party in
America. The remarkable growth rate of this new party may be seen
in the fact that it only began in 1971 with a handful of members
gathered in a Colorado living room. The following year it fielded
a presidential ticket which managed to get on the ballot in two
states. And now it is America’s third major party.

Even more remarkably,
the Libertarian party achieved this growth while consistently adhering
to a new ideological creed – "libertarianism" –
thus bringing to the American political scene for the first time
in a century a party interested in principle rather than in merely
gaining jobs and money at the public trough. We have been told countless
times by pundits and political scientists that the genius of America
and of our party system is its lack of ideology and its "pragmatism"
(a kind word for focusing solely on grabbing money and jobs from
the hapless taxpayers). How, then, explain the amazing growth of
a new party which is frankly and eagerly devoted to ideology?

One explanation
is that Americans were not always pragmatic and nonideological.
On the contrary, historians now realize that the American Revolution
itself was not only ideological but also the result of devotion
to the creed and the institutions of libertarianism. The American
revolutionaries were steeped in the creed of libertarianism, an
ideology which led them to resist with their lives, their fortunes,
and their sacred honor the invasions of their rights and liberties
committed by the imperial British government. Historians have long
debated the precise causes of the American Revolution: Were they
constitutional, economic, political, or ideological? We now realize
that, being libertarians, the revolutionaries saw no conflict between
moral and political rights on the one hand and economic freedom
on the other. On the contrary, they perceived civil and moral liberty,
political independence, and the freedom to trade and produce as
all part of one unblemished system, what Adam Smith was to call,
in the same year that the Declaration of Independence was written,
the "obvious and simple system of natural liberty."

The libertarian
creed emerged from the "classical liberal" movements of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Western world, specifically,
from the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. This radical
libertarian movement, even though only partially successful in its
birthplace, Great Britain, was still able to usher in the Industrial
Revolution there by freeing industry and production from the strangling
restrictions of State control and urban government-supported guilds.
For the classical liberal movement was, throughout the Western world,
a mighty libertarian "revolution" against what we might
call the Old Order – the ancien régime which
had dominated its subjects for centuries. This regime had, in the
early modern period beginning in the sixteenth century, imposed
an absolute central State and a king ruling by divine right on top
of an older, restrictive web of feudal land monopolies and urban
guild controls and restrictions. The result was a Europe stagnating
under a crippling web of controls, taxes, and monopoly privileges
to produce and sell conferred by central (and local) governments
upon their favorite producers. This alliance of the new bureaucratic,
war-making central State with privileged merchants – an alliance
to be called "mercantilism" by later historians –
and with a class of ruling feudal landlords constituted the Old
Order against which the new movement of classical liberals and radicals
arose and rebelled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The object
of the classical liberals was to bring about individual liberty
in all of its interrelated aspects. In the economy, taxes were to
be drastically reduced, controls and regulations eliminated, and
human energy, enterprise, and markets set free to create and produce
in exchanges that would benefit everyone and the mass of consumers.
Entrepreneurs were to be free at last to compete, to develop, to
create. The shackles of control were to be lifted from land, labor,
and capital alike. Personal freedom and civil liberty were to be
guaranteed against the depredations and tyranny of the king or his
minions. Religion, the source of bloody wars for centuries when
sects were battling for control of the State, was to be set free
from State imposition or interference, so that all religions –
or nonreligions – could coexist in peace. Peace, too, was the
foreign policy credo of the new classical liberals; the age-old
regime of imperial and State aggrandizement for power and pelf was
to be replaced by a foreign policy of peace and free trade with
all nations. And since war was seen as engendered by standing armies
and navies, by military power always seeking expansion, these military
establishments were to be replaced by voluntary local militia, by
citizen-civilians who would only wish to fight in defense of their
own particular homes and neighborhoods.

Thus, the well-known
theme of "separation of Church and State" was but one
of many interrelated motifs that could be summed up as "separation
of the economy from the State," "separation of speech
and press from the State," "separation of land from the
State," "separation of war and military affairs from the
State," indeed, the separation of the State from virtually
everything.

The State,
in short, was to be kept extremely small, with a very low, nearly
negligible budget. The classical liberals never developed a theory
of taxation, but every increase in a tax and every new kind of tax
was fought bitterly – in America twice becoming the spark that
led or almost led to the Revolution (the stamp tax, the tea tax).

The earliest
theoreticians of libertarian classical liberalism were the Levelers
during the English Revolution and the philosopher John Locke in
the late seventeenth century, followed by the "True Whig"
or radical libertarian opposition to the "Whig Settlement"
– the regime of eighteenth-century Britain. John Locke set
forth the natural rights of each individual to his person and property;
the purpose of government was strictly limited to defending such
rights. In the words of the Lockean-inspired Declaration of Independence,
"to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That
whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,
it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…."

While Locke
was widely read in the American colonies, his abstract philosophy
was scarcely calculated to rouse men to revolution. This task was
accomplished by radical Lockeans in the eighteenth century, who
wrote in a more popular, hard-hitting, and impassioned manner and
applied the basic philosophy to the concrete problems of the government
– and especially the British government – of the day.
The most important writing in this vein was "Cato’s Letters,"
a series of newspaper articles published in the early 1720s in London
by True Whigs John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. While Locke had
written of the revolutionary pressure which could properly be exerted
when government became destructive of liberty, Trenchard and Gordon
pointed out that government always tended toward such destruction
of individual rights. According to "Cato’s Letters," human
history is a record of irrepressible conflict between Power and
Liberty, with Power (government) always standing ready to increase
its scope by invading people’s rights and encroaching upon their
liberties. Therefore, Cato declared, Power must be kept small and
faced with eternal vigilance and hostility on the part of the public
to make sure that it always stays within its narrow bounds:

We know,
by infinite Examples and Experience, that Men possessed of Power,
rather than part with it, will do any thing, even the worst and
the blackest, to keep it; and scarce ever any Man upon Earth went
out of it as long as he could carry every thing his own Way in
it…. This seems certain, That the Good of the World, or of
their People, was not one of their Motives either for continuing
in Power, or for quitting it.

It is the
Nature of Power to be ever encroaching, and converting every extraordinary
Power, granted at particular Times, and upon particular Occasions,
into an ordinary Power, to be used at all Times, and when there
is no Occasion, nor does it ever part willingly with any Advantage….

Alas! Power
encroaches daily upon Liberty, with a Success too evident; and
the Balance between them is almost lost. Tyranny has engrossed
almost the whole Earth, and striking at Mankind Root and Branch,
makes the World a Slaughterhouse; and will certainly go on to
destroy, till it is either destroyed itself, or, which is most
likely, has left nothing else to destroy.

Such warnings
were eagerly imbibed by the American colonists, who reprinted "Cato’s
Letters" many times throughout the colonies and down to the
time of the Revolution. Such a deep-seated attitude led to what
the historian Bernard Bailyn has aptly called the "transforming
radical libertarianism" of the American Revolution.

For the revolution
was not only the first successful modern attempt to throw off the
yoke of Western imperialism – at that time, of the world’s
mightiest power. More important, for the first time in history,
Americans hedged in their new governments with numerous limits and
restrictions embodied in constitutions and particularly in bills
of rights. Church and State were rigorously separated throughout
the new states, and religious freedom enshrined. Remnants of feudalism
were eliminated throughout the states by the abolition of the feudal
privileges of entail and primogeniture. (In the former, a dead ancestor
is able to entail landed estates in his family forever, preventing
his heirs from selling any part of the land; in the latter, the
government requires sole inheritance of property by the oldest son.)

The new federal
government formed by the Articles of Confederation was not permitted
to levy any taxes upon the public; and any fundamental extension
of its powers required unanimous consent by every state government.
Above all, the military and war-making power of the national government
was hedged in by restraint and suspicion; for the eighteenth-century
libertarians understood that war, standing armies, and militarism
had long been the main method for aggrandizing State power.

Bernard Bailyn
has summed up the achievement of the American revolutionaries:

The modernization
of American Politics and government during and after the Revolution
took the form of a sudden, radical realization of the program
that had first been fully set forth by the opposition intelligentsia
… in the reign of George the First. Where the English opposition,
forcing its way against a complacent social and political order,
had only striven and dreamed, Americans driven by the same aspirations
but living in a society in many ways modern, and now released
politically, could suddenly act. Where the English opposition
had vainly agitated for partial reforms … American leaders
moved swiftly and with little social disruption to implement systematically
the outermost possibilities of the whole range of radically liberation
ideas.

In the process
they … infused into American political culture … the
major themes of eighteenth-century radical libertarianism brought
to realization here. The first is the belief that power is evil,
a necessity perhaps but an evil necessity; that it is infinitely
corrupting; and that it must be controlled, limited, restricted
in every way compatible with a minimum of civil order. Written
constitutions; the separation of powers; bills of rights; limitations
on executives, on legislatures, and courts; restrictions on the
right to coerce and wage war – all express the profound distrust
of power that lies at the ideological heart of the American Revolution
and that has remained with us as a permanent legacy ever after.

Thus, while
classical liberal thought began in England, it was to reach its
most consistent and radical development – and its greatest
living embodiment – in America. For the American colonies were
free of the feudal land monopoly and aristocratic ruling caste that
was entrenched in Europe; in America, the rulers were British colonial
officials and a handful of privileged merchants, who were relatively
easy to sweep aside when the Revolution came and the British government
was overthrown. Classical liberalism, therefore, had more popular
support, and met far less entrenched institutional resistance, in
the American colonies than it found at home. Furthermore, being
geographically isolated, the American rebels did not have to worry
about the invading armies of neighboring, counterrevolutionary governments,
as, for example, was the case in France.

After the
Revolution

Thus, America,
above all countries, was born in an explicitly libertarian revolution,
a revolution against empire; against taxation, trade monopoly, and
regulation; and against militarism and executive power. The revolution
resulted in governments unprecedented in restrictions placed on
their power. But while there was very little institutional resistance
in America to the onrush of liberalism, there did appear, from the
very beginning, powerful elite forces, especially among the large
merchants and planters, who wished to retain the restrictive British
"mercantilist" system of high taxes, controls, and monopoly
privileges conferred by the government. These groups wished for
a strong central and even imperial government; in short, they wanted
the British system without Great Britain. These conservative and
reactionary forces first appeared during the Revolution, and later
formed the Federalist party and the Federalist administration in
the 1790s.

During the
nineteenth century, however, the libertarian impetus continued.
The Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movements, the Democratic-Republican
and then the Democratic parties, explicitly strived for the virtual
elimination of government from American life. It was to be a government
without a standing army or navy; a government without debt and with
no direct federal or excise taxes and virtually no import tariffs
– that is, with negligible levels of taxation and expenditure;
a government that does not engage in public works or internal improvements;
a government that does not control or regulate; a government that
leaves money and banking free, hard, and uninflated; in short, in
the words of H. L. Mencken’s ideal, "a government that barely
escapes being no government at all."

The Jeffersonian
drive toward virtually no government foundered after Jefferson took
office, first, with concessions to the Federalists (possibly the
result of a deal for Federalist votes to break a tie in the electoral
college), and then with the unconstitutional purchase of the Louisiana
Territory. But most particularly it foundered with the imperialist
drive toward war with Britain in Jefferson’s second term, a drive
which led to war and to a one-party system which established virtually
the entire statist Federalist program: high military expenditures,
a central bank, a protective tariff, direct federal taxes, public
works. Horrified at the results, a retired Jefferson brooded at
Monticello, and inspired young visiting politicians Martin Van Buren
and Thomas Hart Benton to found a new party – the Democratic
party – to take back America from the new Federalism, and to
recapture the spirit of the old Jeffersonian program. When the two
young leaders latched onto Andrew Jackson as their savior, the new
Democratic party was born.

The Jacksonian
libertarians had a plan: it was to be eight years of Andrew Jackson
as president, to be followed by eight years of Van Buren, then eight
years of Benton. After twenty-four years of a triumphant Jacksonian
Democracy, the Menckenian virtually no-government ideal was to have
been achieved. It was by no means an impossible dream, since it
was clear that the Democratic party had quickly become the normal
majority party in the country. The mass of the people were enlisted
in the libertarian cause. Jackson had his eight years, which destroyed
the central bank and retired the public debt, and Van Buren had
four, which separated the federal government from the banking system.
But the 1840 election was an anomaly, as Van Buren was defeated
by an unprecedentedly demagogic campaign engineered by the first
great modern campaign chairman, Thurlow Weed, who pioneered in all
the campaign frills – catchy slogans, buttons, songs, parades,
etc. – with which we are now familiar. Weed’s tactics put in
office the egregious and unknown Whig, General William Henry Harrison,
but this was clearly a fluke; in 1844, the Democrats would be prepared
to counter with the same campaign tactics, and they were clearly
slated to recapture the presidency that year. Van Buren, of course,
was supposed to resume the triumphal Jacksonian march. But then
a fateful event occurred: the Democratic party was sundered on the
critical issue of slavery, or rather the expansion of slavery into
a new territory. Van Buren’s easy renomination foundered on a split
within the ranks of the Democracy over the admission to the Union
of the republic of Texas as a slave state; Van Buren was opposed,
Jackson in favor, and this split symbolized the wider sectional
rift within the Democratic party. Slavery, the grave antilibertarian
flaw in the libertarianism of the Democratic program, had arisen
to wreck the party and its libertarianism completely.

The Civil War,
in addition to its unprecedented bloodshed and devastation, was
used by the triumphal and virtually one-party Republican regime
to drive through its statist, formerly Whig, program: national governmental
power, protective tariff, subsidies to big business, inflationary
paper money, resumed control of the federal government over banking,
large-scale internal improvements, high excise taxes, and, during
the war, conscription and an income tax. Furthermore, the states
came to lose their previous right of secession and other states’
powers as opposed to federal governmental powers. The Democratic
party resumed its libertarian ways after the war, but it now had
to face a far longer and more difficult road to arrive at liberty
than it had before.

We have seen
how America came to have the deepest libertarian tradition, a tradition
that still remains in much of our political rhetoric, and is still
reflected in a feisty and individualistic attitude toward government
by much of the American people. There is far more fertile soil in
this country than in any other for a resurgence of libertarianism.

Resistance
to Liberty

We can now
see that the rapid growth of the libertarian movement and the Libertarian
party in the 1970s is firmly rooted in what Bernard Bailyn called
this powerful "permanent legacy" of the American Revolution.
But if this legacy is so vital to the American tradition, what went
wrong? Why the need now for a new libertarian movement to arise
to reclaim the American dream?

To begin to
answer this question, we must first remember that classical liberalism
constituted a profound threat to the political and economic interests
– the ruling classes – who benefited from the Old Order:
the kings, the nobles and landed aristocrats, the privileged merchants,
the military machines, the State bureaucracies. Despite three major
violent revolutions precipitated by the liberals – the English
of the seventeenth century and the American and French of the eighteenth
– victories in Europe were only partial. Resistance was stiff
and managed to successfully maintain landed monopolies, religious
establishments, and warlike foreign and military policies, and for
a time to keep the suffrage restricted to the wealthy elite. The
liberals had to concentrate on widening the suffrage, because it
was clear to both sides that the objective economic and political
interests of the mass of the public lay in individual liberty. It
is interesting to note that, by the early nineteenth century, the
laissez-faire forces were known as "liberals" and "radicals"
(for the purer and more consistent among them), and the opposition
that wished to preserve or go back to the Old Order were broadly
known as "conservatives."

Indeed, conservatism
began, in the early nineteenth century, as a conscious attempt to
undo and destroy the hated work of the new classical liberal spirit
– of the American, French, and Industrial revolutions. Led
by two reactionary French thinkers, de Bonald and de Maistre, conservatism
yearned to replace equal rights and equality before the law by the
structured and hierarchical rule of privileged elites; individual
liberty and minimal government by absolute rule and Big Government;
religious freedom by the theocratic rule of a State church; peace
and free trade by militarism, mercantilist restrictions, and war
for the advantage of the nation-state; and industry and manufacturing
by the old feudal and agrarian order. And they wanted to replace
the new world of mass consumption and rising standards of living
for all by the Old Order of bare subsistence for the masses and
luxury consumption for the ruling elite.

By the middle
of and certainly by the end of the nineteenth century, conservatives
began to realize that their cause was inevitably doomed if they
persisted in clinging to the call for outright repeal of the Industrial
Revolution and of its enormous rise in the living standards of the
mass of the public, and also if they persisted in opposing the widening
of the suffrage, thereby frankly setting themselves in opposition
to the interests of that public. Hence, the "right wing"
(a label based on an accident of geography by which the spokesmen
for the Old Order sat on the right of the assembly hall during the
French Revolution) decided to shift their gears and to update their
statist creed by jettisoning outright opposition to industrialism
and democratic suffrage. For the old conservatism’s frank hatred
and contempt for the mass of the public, the new conservatives substituted
duplicity and demagogy. The new conservatives wooed the masses with
the following line: "We, too, favor industrialism and a higher
standard of living. But, to accomplish such ends, we must regulate
industry for the public good; we must substitute organized cooperation
for the dog-eat-dog of the free and competitive marketplace; and,
above all, we must substitute for the nation-destroying liberal
tenets of peace and free trade the nation-glorifying measures of
war, protectionism, empire, and military prowess." For all
of these changes, of course, Big Government rather than minimal
government was required.

And so, in
the late nineteenth century, statism and Big Government returned,
but this time displaying a proindustrial and pro-general-welfare
face. The Old Order returned, but this time the beneficiaries were
shuffled a bit; they were not so much the nobility, the feudal landlords,
the army, the bureaucracy, and privileged merchants as they were
the army, the bureaucracy, the weakened feudal landlords, and especially
the privileged manufacturers. Led by Bismarck in Prussia, the New
Right fashioned a right-wing collectivism based on war, militarism,
protectionism, and the compulsory cartelization of business and
industry – a giant network of controls, regulations, subsidies,
and privileges which forged a great partnership of Big Government
with certain favored elements in big business and industry.

Something had
to be done, too, about the new phenomenon of a massive number of
industrial wage workers – the "proletariat." During
the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, indeed until the
late nineteenth century, the mass of workers favored laissez-faire
and the free competitive market as best for their wages and working
conditions as workers, and for a cheap and widening range of consumer
goods as consumers. Even the early trade unions, e.g., in Great
Britain, were staunch believers in laissez-faire. New conservatives,
spearheaded by Bismarck in Germany and Disraeli in Britain, weakened
the libertarian will of the workers by shedding crocodile tears
about the condition of the industrial labor force, and cartelizing
and regulating industry, not accidentally hobbling efficient competition.
Finally, in the early twentieth century, the new conservative "corporate
state" – then and now the dominant political system in
the Western world – incorporated "responsible" and
corporatist trade unions as junior partners to Big Government and
favored big businesses in the new statist and corporatist decision-making
system.

To establish
this new system, to create a New Order which was a modernized, dressed-up
version of the ancien régime before the American and
French revolutions, the new ruling elites had to perform a gigantic
con job on the deluded public, a con job that continues to this
day. Whereas the existence of every government from absolute monarchy
to military dictatorship rests on the consent of the majority of
the public, a democratic government must engineer such consent on
a more immediate, day-by-day basis. And to do so, the new conservative
ruling elites had to gull the public in many crucial and fundamental
ways. For the masses now had to be convinced that tyranny was better
than liberty, that a cartelized and privileged industrial feudalism
was better for the consumers than a freely competitive market, that
a cartelized monopoly was to be imposed in the name of antimonopoly,
and that war and military aggrandizement for the benefit of the
ruling elites was really in the interests of the conscripted, taxed,
and often slaughtered public. How was this to be done?

In all societies,
public opinion is determined by the intellectual classes, the opinion
moulders of society. For most people neither originate nor disseminate
ideas and concepts; on the contrary, they tend to adopt those ideas
promulgated by the professional intellectual classes, the professional
dealers in ideas. Now, throughout history, as we shall see further
below, despots and ruling elites of States have had far more need
of the services of intellectuals than have peaceful citizens in
a free society. For States have always needed opinion-moulding intellectuals
to con the public into believing that its rule is wise, good, and
inevitable; into believing that the "emperor has clothes."
Until the modern world, such intellectuals were inevitably churchmen
(or witch doctors), the guardians of religion. It was a cozy alliance,
this age-old partnership between Church and State; the Church informed
its deluded charges that the king ruled by divine command and therefore
must be obeyed; in return, the king funneled numerous tax revenues
into the coffers of the Church. Hence, the great importance for
the libertarian classical liberals of their success at separating
Church and State. The new liberal world was a world in which intellectuals
could be secular – could make a living on their own, in the
market, apart from State subvention.

To establish
their new statist order, their neomercantilist corporate State,
the new conservatives therefore had to forge a new alliance between
intellectual and State. In an increasingly secular age, this meant
with secular intellectuals rather than with divines: specifically,
with the new breed of professors, Ph.D.’s, historians, teachers,
and technocratic economists, social workers, sociologists, physicians,
and engineers. This reforged alliance came in two parts. In the
early nineteenth century, the conservatives, conceding reason to
their liberal enemies, relied heavily on the alleged virtues of
irrationality, romanticism, tradition, theocracy. By stressing the
virtue of tradition and of irrational symbols, the conservatives
could gull the public into continuing privileged hierarchical rule,
and to continue to worship the nation-state and its war-making machine.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the new conservatism
adopted the trappings of reason and of "science." Now
it was science that allegedly required rule of the economy and of
society by technocratic "experts." In exchange for spreading
this message to the public, the new breed of intellectuals was rewarded
with jobs and prestige as apologists for the New Order and as planners
and regulators of the newly cartelized economy and society.

To insure the
dominance of the new statism over public opinion, to insure that
the public’s consent would be engineered, the governments of the
Western world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
moved to seize control over education, over the minds of men: over
the universities, and over general education through compulsory
school attendance laws and a network of public schools. The public
schools were consciously used to inculcate obedience to the State
as well as other civic virtues among their young charges. Furthermore,
this statizing of education insured that one of the biggest vested
interests in expanding statism would be the nation’s teachers and
professional educationists.

One of the
ways that the new statist intellectuals did their work was to change
the meaning of old labels, and therefore to manipulate in the minds
of the public the emotional connotations attached to such labels.
For example, the laissez-faire libertarians had long been known
as "liberals," and the purest and most militant of them
as "radicals"; they had also been known as "progressives"
because they were the ones in tune with industrial progress, the
spread of liberty, and the rise in living standards of consumers.
The new breed of statist academics and intellectuals appropriated
to themselves the words "liberal" and "progressive,"
and successfully managed to tar their laissez-faire opponents with
the charge of being old-fashioned, "Neanderthal," and
"reactionary." Even the name "conservative"
was pinned on the classical liberals. And, as we have seen, the
new statists were able to appropriate the concept of "reason"
as well.

If the laissez-faire
liberals were confused by the new recrudescence of statism and mercantilism
as "progressive" corporate statism, another reason for
the decay of classical liberalism by the end of the nineteenth century
was the growth of a peculiar new movement: socialism. Socialism
began in the 1830s and expanded greatly after the 1880s. The peculiar
thing about socialism was that it was a confused, hybrid movement,
influenced by both the two great preexisting polar ideologies,
liberalism and conservatism. From the classical liberals the socialists
took a frank acceptance of industrialism and the Industrial Revolution,
an early glorification of "science" and "reason,"
and at least a rhetorical devotion to such classical liberal ideals
as peace, individual freedom, and a rising standard of living. Indeed,
the socialists, long before the much later corporatists, pioneered
in a co-opting of science, reason, and industrialism. And the socialists
not only adopted the classical liberal adherence to democracy, but
topped it by calling for an "expanded democracy," in which
"the people" would run the economy – and each other.

On the other
hand, from the conservatives the socialists took a devotion to coercion
and the statist means for trying to achieve these liberal goals.
Industrial harmony and growth were to be achieved by aggrandizing
the State into an all-powerful institution, ruling the economy and
the society in the name of "science." A vanguard of technocrats
was to assume all-powerful rule over everyone’s person and property
in the name of the "people" and of "democracy."
Not content with the liberal achievement of reason and freedom for
scientific research, the socialist State would install rule by
the scientists of everyone else; not content with liberals setting
the workers free to achieve undreamt-of prosperity, the socialist
State would install rule by the workers of everyone else
– or rather, rule by politicians, bureaucrats, and technocrats
in their name. Not content with the liberal creed of equality of
rights, of equality before the law, the socialist State would trample
on such equality on behalf of the monstrous and impossible goal
of equality or uniformity of results – or rather, would
erect a new privileged elite, a new class, in the name of
bringing about such an impossible equality.

Socialism was
a confused and hybrid movement because it tried to achieve the liberal
goals of freedom, peace, and industrial harmony and growth –
goals which can only be achieved through liberty and the separation
of government from virtually everything – by imposing the old
conservative means of statism, collectivism, and hierarchical privilege.
It was a movement which could only fail, which indeed did
fail miserably in those numerous countries where it attained power
in the twentieth century, by bringing to the masses only unprecedented
despotism, starvation, and grinding impoverishment.

But the worst
thing about the rise of the socialist movement was that it was able
to outflank the classical liberals "on the Left": that
is, as the party of hope, of radicalism, of revolution in the Western
World. For, just as the defenders of the ancien régime
took their place on the right side of the hall during the French
Revolution, so the liberals and radicals sat on the left; from then
on until the rise of socialism, the libertarian classical liberals
were "the Left," even the "extreme Left," on
the ideological spectrum. As late as 1848, such militant laissez-faire
French liberals as Frdric Bastiat sat on the left in the national
assembly. The classical liberals had begun as the radical, revolutionary
party in the West, as the party of hope and of change on behalf
of liberty, peace, and progress. To allow themselves to be outflanked,
to allow the socialists to pose as the "party of the Left,"
was a bad strategic error, allowing the liberals to be put falsely
into a confused middle-of-the-road position with socialism and conservatism
as the polar opposites. Since libertarianism is nothing if not a
party of change and of progress toward liberty, abandonment of that
role meant the abandonment of much of their reason for existence
– either in reality or in the minds of the public.

But none of
this could have happened if the classical liberals had not allowed
themselves to decay from within. They could have pointed out –
as some of them indeed did – that socialism was a confused,
self-contradictory, quasi-conservative movement, absolute monarchy
and feudalism with a modern face, and that they themselves were
still the only true radicals, undaunted people who insisted on nothing
less than complete victory for the libertarian ideal.

Decay From
Within

But after achieving
impressive partial victories against statism, the classical liberals
began to lose their radicalism, their dogged insistence on carrying
the battle against conservative statism to the point of final victory.
Instead of using partial victories as a stepping-stone for evermore
pressure, the classical liberals began to lose their fervor for
change and for purity of principle. They began to rest content with
trying to safeguard their existing victories, and thus turned themselves
from a radical into a conservative movement – "conservative"
in the sense of being content to preserve the status quo. In short,
the liberals left the field wide open for socialism to become the
party of hope and of radicalism, and even for the later corporatists
to pose as "liberals" and "progressives" as
against the "extreme right wing" and "conservative"
libertarian classical liberals, since the latter allowed themselves
to be boxed into a position of hoping for nothing more than stasis,
than absence of change. Such a strategy is foolish and untenable
in a changing world.

But the degeneration
of liberalism was not merely one of stance and strategy, but one
of principle as well. For the liberals became content to leave the
war-making power in the hands of the State, to leave the education
power in its hands, to leave the power over money and banking, and
over roads, in the hands of the State – in short, to concede
to State dominion over all the crucial levers of power in society.
In contrast to the eighteenth-century liberals’ total hostility
to the executive and to bureaucracy, the nineteenth-century liberals
tolerated and even welcomed the buildup of executive power and of
an entrenched oligarchic civil service bureaucracy.

Moreover, principle
and strategy merged in the decay of eighteenth-century and early
nineteenth-century liberal devotion to "abolitionism"
– to the view that, whether the institution be slavery or any
other aspect of statism, it should be abolished as quickly as possible,
since the immediate abolition of statism, while unlikely in practice,
was to be sought after as the only possible moral position.
For to prefer a gradual whittling away to immediate abolition
of an evil and coercive institution is to ratify and sanction
such evil, and therefore to violate libertarian principles. As the
great abolitionist of slavery and libertarian William Lloyd Garrison
explained: "Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may,
it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said
that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought
to be, we shall always contend."

There were
two critically important changes in the philosophy and ideology
of classical liberalism which both exemplified and contributed to
its decay as a vital, progressive, and radical force in the Western
world. The first, and most important, occurring in the early to
mid-nineteenth century, was the abandonment of the philosophy of
natural rights, and its replacement by technocratic utilitarianism.
Instead of liberty grounded on the imperative morality of each individual’s
right to person and property, that is, instead of liberty being
sought primarily on the basis of right and justice, utilitarianism
preferred liberty as generally the best way to achieve a vaguely
defined general welfare or common good. There were two grave consequences
of this shift from natural rights to utilitarianism. First, the
purity of the goal, the consistency of the principle, was inevitably
shattered. For whereas the natural-rights libertarian seeking morality
and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian
only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency
can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian
in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in
ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away. Indeed,
this is precisely what happened to the Benthamite utilitarians in
England: beginning with ad hoc libertarianism and laissez-faire,
they found it ever easier to slide further and further into statism.
An example was the drive for an "efficient" and therefore
strong civil service and executive power, an efficiency that took
precedence, indeed replaced, any concept of justice or right.

Second, and
equally important, it is rare indeed ever to find a utilitarian
who is also radical, who burns for immediate abolition of evil and
coercion. Utilitarians, with their devotion to expediency, almost
inevitably oppose any sort of upsetting or radical change. There
have been no utilitarian revolutionaries. Hence, utilitarians are
never immediate abolitionists. The abolitionist is such because
he wishes to eliminate wrong and injustice as rapidly as possible.
In choosing this goal, there is no room for cool, ad hoc weighing
of cost and benefit. Hence, the classical liberal utilitarians abandoned
radicalism and became mere gradualist reformers. But in becoming
reformers, they also put themselves inevitably into the position
of advisers and efficiency experts to the State. In other words,
they inevitably came to abandon libertarian principle as well as
a principled libertarian strategy. The utilitarians wound up as
apologists for the existing order, for the status quo, and hence
were all too open to the charge by socialists and progressive corporatists
that they were mere narrow-minded and conservative opponents of
any and all change. Thus, starting as radicals and revolutionaries,
as the polar opposites of conservatives, the classical liberals
wound up as the image of the thing they had fought.

This utilitarian
crippling of libertarianism is still with us. Thus, in the early
days of economic thought, utilitarianism captured free-market economics
with the influence of Bentham and Ricardo, and this influence is
today fully as strong as ever. Current free-market economics is
all too rife with appeals to gradualism; with scorn for ethics,
justice, and consistent principle; and with a willingness to abandon
free-market principles at the drop of a cost-benefit hat. Hence,
current free-market economics is generally envisioned by intellectuals
as merely apologetics for a slightly modified status quo, and all
too often such charges are correct.

A second, reinforcing
change in the ideology of classical liberals came during the late
nineteenth century, when, at least for a few decades, they adopted
the doctrines of social evolutionism, often called "social
Darwinism." Generally, statist historians have smeared such
social Darwinist laissez-faire liberals as Herbert Spencer and William
Graham Sumner as cruel champions of the extermination, or at least
of the disappearance, of the socially "unfit." Much of
this was simply the dressing up of sound economic and sociological
free-market doctrine in the then-fashionable trappings of evolutionism.
But the really important and crippling aspect of their social Darwinism
was the illegitimate carrying-over to the social sphere of the view
that species (or later, genes) change very, very slowly, after millennia
of time. The social Darwinist liberal came, then, to abandon the
very idea of revolution or radical change in favor of sitting back
and waiting for the inevitable tiny evolutionary changes over eons
of time. In short, ignoring the fact that liberalism had had to
break through the power of ruling elites by a series of radical
changes and revolutions, the social Darwinists became conservatives
preaching against any radical measures and in favor of only the
most minutely gradual of changes.

In fact, the
great libertarian Spencer himself is a fascinating illustration
of just such a change in classical liberalism (and his case is paralleled
in America by William Graham Sumner). In a sense, Herbert Spencer
embodies within himself much of the decline of liberalism in the
nineteenth century. For Spencer began as a magnificently radical
liberal, as virtually a pure libertarian. But, as the virus of sociology
and social Darwinism took over in his soul, Spencer abandoned libertarianism
as a dynamic, radical historical movement, although without abandoning
it in pure theory. While looking forward to an eventual victory
of pure liberty, of "contract" as against "status,"
of industry as against militarism, Spencer began to see that victory
as inevitable, but only after millennia of gradual evolution. Hence,
Spencer abandoned liberalism as a fighting, radical creed and confined
his liberalism in practice to a weary, conservative, rearguard action
against the growing collectivism and statism of his day.

But if utilitarianism,
bolstered by social Darwinism, was the main agent of philosophical
and ideological decay in the liberal movement, the single most important,
and even cataclysmic, reason for its demise was its abandonment
of formerly stringent principles against war, empire, and militarism.
In country after country, it was the siren song of nation-state
and empire that destroyed classical liberalism. In England, the
liberals, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
abandoned the antiwar, anti-imperialist "Little Englandism"
of Cobden, Bright, and the Manchester School. Instead, they adopted
the obscenely entitled "Liberal Imperialism" – joining
the conservatives in the expansion of empire, and the conservatives
and the right-wing socialists in the destructive imperialism and
collectivism of World War I. In Germany, Bismarck was able to split
the previously almost triumphant liberals by setting up the lure
of unification of Germany by blood and iron. In both countries,
the result was the destruction of the liberal cause.

In the United
States, the classical liberal party had long been the Democratic
party, known in the latter nineteenth century as "the party
of personal liberty." Basically, it had been the party not
only of personal but also of economic liberty; the stalwart opponent
of Prohibition, of Sunday blue laws, and of compulsory education;
the devoted champion of free trade, hard money (absence of governmental
inflation), separation of banking from the State, and the absolute
minimum of government. It construed state power to be negligible
and federal power to be virtually nonexistent. On foreign policy,
the Democratic party, though less rigorously, tended to be the party
of peace, antimilitarism, and anti-imperialism. But personal and
economic libertarianism were both abandoned with the capture of
the Democratic party by the Bryan forces in 1896, and the foreign
policy of nonintervention was then rudely abandoned by Woodrow Wilson
two decades later. It was an intervention and a war that were to
usher in a century of death and devastation, of wars and new despotisms,
and also a century in all warring countries of the new corporatist
statism – of a welfare-warfare State run by an alliance of
Big Government, big business, unions, and intellectuals – that
we have mentioned above.

 

 
You
can listen to this article as a Mises.org
podcast
.

 
 

The last gasp,
indeed, of the old laissez-faire liberalism in America was the doughty
and aging libertarians who banded together to form the Anti-Imperialist
League at the turn of the century, to combat the American war against
Spain and the subsequent imperialist American war to crush the Filipinos
who were striving for national independence from both Spain and
the United States. To current eyes, the idea of an anti-imperialist
who is not a Marxist may seem strange, but opposition to imperialism
began with laissez-faire liberals such as Cobden and Bright in England,
and Eugen Richter in Prussia. In fact, the Anti-Imperialist League,
headed by Boston industrialist and economist Edward Atkinson (and
including Sumner) consisted largely of laissez-faire radicals who
had fought the good fight for the abolition of slavery, and had
then championed free trade, hard money, and minimal government.
To them, their final battle against the new American imperialism
was simply part and parcel of their lifelong battle against coercion,
statism and injustice – against Big Government in every area
of life, both domestic and foreign.

We have traced
the rather grisly story of the decline and fall of classical liberalism
after its rise and partial triumph in previous centuries. What,
then, is the reason for the resurgence, the flowering, of libertarian
thought and activity in the last few years, particularly in the
United States? How could these formidable forces and coalitions
for statism have yielded even that much to a resurrected libertarian
movement? Shouldn’t the resumed march of statism in the late nineteenth
and twentieth centuries be a cause for gloom rather than usher in
a reawakening of a seemingly moribund libertarianism? Why didn’t
libertarianism remain dead and buried?

We
have seen why libertarianism would naturally arise first and most
fully in the United States, a land steeped in libertarian tradition.
But we have not yet examined the question: Why the renaissance of
libertarianism at all within the last few years? What contemporary
conditions have led to this surprising development? We must postpone
answering this question until the end of the book, until we first
examine what the libertarian creed is, and how that creed can be
applied to solve the leading problem areas in our society.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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