It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it
- Far Cry, Rush
What happened to the promise of classical liberalism, passing from its birth through its golden age and to its dramatic and violent death in little more than one century? Exploring the topics of culture, tradition, and liberty inherently involves an exploration of this question.
One day I feel I’m on top of the world
And the next it’s falling in on me
The question is tackled by Robert Nisbet in his book The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom.
It is impossible to understand the massive concentrations of political power in the twentieth century, appearing so paradoxically, as it has seemed, right after a century and a half of individualism in economics and morals, unless we see clearly the close relationship that prevailed all through the nineteenth century between individualism and State power and between both of these together and the general weakening of the area of association that lies intermediate to man and the State.
It was the flowering of individualism – an outcome of Enlightenment thought – that made possible the power of the State.
It is worth noting that some see a difference in classical liberalism as it developed in Britain as opposed to its development in France. Friedrich Hayek was one of these; another was Francis Lieber:
In 1848, Francis Lieber distinguished between what he called "Anglican and Gallican Liberty". Lieber asserted that "independence in the highest degree, compatible with safety and broad national guarantees of liberty, is the great aim of Anglican liberty, and self-reliance is the chief source from which it draws its strength". On the other hand, Gallican liberty "is sought in government...the French look for the highest degree of political civilization in organizational, that is, in the highest degree of interference by public power".
While the differences must be appreciated, it seems to me that Nisbet is working through the commonalities. From the Anglican: “independence in the highest degree,” “broad national guarantees of liberty.” From the Gallican: “highest degree of interference by public power.”
This was a two-fold emancipation:
[First, emancipation] of the individual from his traditional associative chains; and, second, of the State itself from the mass of feudal customs, which, everywhere, limited its real efficacy.
Atomized independence both necessitating a powerful State and guaranteed by the State; it is common to both threads and it is the argument presented by Nisbet. It should be no wonder, it seems, why classical liberalism ushered in the most comprehensive State apparatus, quickly moving from the relative peace of the nineteenth century to the bloodiest wars and political philosophies of the twentieth century.
This affinity between social individualism and political power is, I believe, the most fateful fact of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Political power was camouflaged with the rhetoric of liberty and invested with the essence of religious community. Salvation by State, with all the necessary power and authority to deliver:
Rousseau had written that it is the force of the State that achieves the liberty of its members….the liberty of the individual became the prime justification for the powerful legislative attacks upon old values, old idea systems, and old associations.
We can rail all we like about the fact that this isn’t what we wanted; this wasn’t the philosophy behind true classical liberalism, we can do better next time, whatever. Revolutionaries rarely get to direct the ends of the revolution. We can learn what must be rebuilt by paying attention to what was torn down:
Hence the early destruction of the guilds. Hence the prohibition of all new forms of economic association….Charitable societies were declared illegal…. Literary, cultural, and educational societies were also banned…. We observe also the profound changes made in the structure and functions of the family. In this way, too, was the Church dealt with. Profession, class, the historic commune, the universities, and provinces, all alike came under the atomizing consideration of the legislators of the Revolution.
In France this was done via the guillotine. Elsewhere in the West, it came more gradually. But the root cause, the underlying philosophy, was the same.