by Ralph Raico
Professor Bouckaert has presented an illuminating and richly suggestive paper, and, of course, I will be able to comment only briefly on a few of the themes he has raised.
His selection of three past historians of liberty is a fascinating one: Augustin Thierry, Lord Acton, and Murray Rothbard.
In regard to Thierry, I would like to add that he was, together with Charles Dunoyer and Charles Comte, one of the major figures connected with the review, the Censeur européen, published in the early years of the Bourbon restoration.
Owing to the researches of my friend Professor Leonard Liggio, the great importance of this journal and these thinkers has become increasingly apparent. They drew upon and greatly elaborated a French tradition that viewed history as a struggle of classes, but of classes defined in a much more coherent and plausible way than the better known Marxist theory.
The classes in conflict were the beneficiaries and the victims of state action. This yielded an analysis both of historical developments and of the society of their time that permits us to go beyond the superficial rhetoric of a pseudo-liberalism that is strategically employed even today by various leaders and groups in their own "sinister interest."
As it happens, this liberal class-analysis was a tool of explanation often wielded by Murray Rothbard in his many historical works, not least in his accounts of monetary and financial history, for instance, the origins of the Federal Reserve System, in the United States.
Murray Rothbard and Lord Acton are also linked in a number of important respects. One of these I wish to stress. Although it is not as well known as it should be, Lord Acton was a fervent sympathizer with the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. Acton confessed that his heart broke at Appomattox (where General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia). He wrote to General Lee:
I saw in States Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will [of the majority]…Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles for our liberty, our progress and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
Murray Rothbard, too, was a partisan of the Southern cause, and for basically the same reason. The victory of the North signified the triumph, in time, of the all-powerful centralized state, the scourge of our age.
This is something I believe we should keep in the forefront of our minds, as we resist a highly premature libertarian triumphalism.
Yes, yes, international socialism of the traditional sort has collapsed, the slaughterhouse that Lenin built has been demolished, and no serious person defends central economic planning anymore. Yet in western democracies the welfare state continues to grow, the state yearly expropriates a portion of its subjects' incomes that no absolutist monarch would have dared lay his hands on, and there is no end in sight. The time has come to reopen the issue of secession — of provinces, of cities, of communities — which the partisans of the centralized state told us was closed forever.
Professor Bouckaert is also to be commended for bringing to our attention the historical insights of Ludwig von Mises.
Mises concerned himself with methodological questions, above all in his work Theory and History. But Hayek was quite correct, I think, in expressing his admiration for the depth and extent of Mises's historical knowledge. I can deal with only one example of this.
In the mid-twentieth century, Ludwig von Mises presented the heart of a supremely important notion when he wrote: "The idea of liberty is and has always been peculiar to the West."
The East lacked the primordial thing, the idea of freedom from the state…. It never called into question the arbitrariness of the despots. And, first of all, it never established the legal framework that would protect the private citizens' wealth against confiscation on the part of tyrants.
Of course, others had adumbrated this conception before Mises, but none, I think, who possessed Mises's unsurpassed understanding of the centrality of private property for civilization.
In the past few decades, eminent historians, economic historians, economists, and sociologists have contributed to framing and buttressing this powerful paradigm, our paradigm. It has been presented in works with titles such as How the West Grew Rich and The European Miracle. (In this literature, "Europe" is often a shorthand term for Europe and its outposts, above all the United States.) Scholars of the rank of David Landes, Douglass North, and Jean Baechler have participated in this project.
Although there are, naturally, differences among these scholars, the gist of the view is that Europe developed economically and eventually outstripped the rest of the world largely because it was at once a common civilization — Latin Christendom — but also a radically decentralized mosaic of polities. This created multiple opportunities for economic and also political progress. There was competition among political entities, which came to see that a favorable treatment of property rights retained and attracted productive citizens. On the other hand, when a state behaved as states customarily did and do throughout history — as an "unconstrained predator" — it tended to lose ground to competing states, as Professor Bouckaert has indicated.
Other factors also played crucial roles, but Europe's radical decentralization — the possibility of exit — was the key factor.
Professor Bouckaert rightly traces the origins of European freedom and prosperity to the Middle Ages, a view shared by the late Professor Peter Bauer, who wrote of "the seven centuries" that it took for economic development to occur in Europe. Here the cities with their chartered rights played an essential part; in Professor Bouckaert's words: "the rule of law was steadily improved…taxes were kept low, and democratic forms of government were developed." I would only point out that when we speak of "democracy" in the medieval and early modern periods, we really mean government by the bourgeois, usually mercantile, elite. This is a world away from today's mass electoral "democracy," which furnishes no principled guarantees against the predatory behavior of the state.
I applaud Professor Bouckaert's recommendation for further research into what he calls "liberal heroism." Since history has largely been written by socialists and anti-liberal conservatives, many of our spiritual forerunners have been condemned to virtual oblivion. I found this when, strongly encouraged by Professor Christian Watrin, I undertook to examine the history of authentic liberalism in Germany, what was derided as "Manchester-Liberalism." While many would expect a work on German liberalism to comprise a very short volume indeed — we have a series of jokes in my country regarding "the shortest book," which I will not regale you with, since they mainly involve ethnic slurs — I found that not to be the case at all. On the contrary. The lives of the authentic, often brilliant and in their day famous German liberals of the nineteenth century are all the more moving in view of the disasters that the enemies of liberalism prepared for that nation. It is not the least of the merits of the German liberals that, like the men and groups that Professor Bouckaert has singled out, they were advocates of peace and opposed militarism, imperialism, and war.
Finally, Professor Bouckaert has spoken of the integrity of the historical project and the need for pluralism and freedom in historical thinking. This is a very important point that it may be easy to overlook.
Today there are forces at work, powerful forces, intent on restricting historical research. Many years ago, the great English historian Herbert Butterfield warned of the dangers of "official history." I wonder what he would have said of the present condition in many self-proclaimed free countries today.
Thirty-five years ago, Herbert Marcuse, in his Repressive Tolerance, sketched the limits of "toleration" in humane and progressive societies. Freedom of speech and assembly would be abolished for all groups and movements which promote "chauvinism [and] discrimination on the grounds of race and religion."
This has come to pass, with a vengeance. In many self-styled Rechtsstaaten, there exist laws criminalizing not only "racist" ideas, but, more pertinent to our subject, many heterodox opinions regarding the events of the Second World War and in particular the Holocaust, a fact that Professor Bouckaert has alluded to and deplored.
In Germany, France, Switzerland, Canada, and a number of other countries, writers have been fined, jailed, and sent into exile because of their peculiar views in this area.
Herbert Marcuse added that the force of the criminal law should also come down upon those who "oppose the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc."
The time may well come in Euroland when such anti-social views, constricting the "life-chances" of the masses and putatively condemning them to sickness and an early death, will also be criminalized.
But leave that aside. It is a scandal and a disgrace that certain historical interpretations, however offensive, are punishable by the criminal law in countries that claim to honor freedom. That many good liberals passively accept this state of affairs I find to be passing strange.
November 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Ralph Raico