, by Ralph Raico.
This essay, published at the Mises Institute site, offers interesting thoughts on the question in its title. I would like to expand on some, challenge others.
NB: To be clear: I know Raico has written volumes on this and related topics; hence, my challenges are not necessarily of Raico’s larger positions as they are merely to use this essay to continue a dialogue being held at this blog for some time.
Raico opens with his definition of Classical Liberalism:
"Classical liberalism" is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.
Although its fundamental claims are universalist…
I am not sure I agree with this last statement – and I would welcome some assistance from the audience on this topic. What Raico is including strikes me as too broad. In the meantime…what is meant by “universalist”?
(also called moral objectivism) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals", regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other distinguishing feature.
According to philosophy professor R. W. Hepburn: "To move towards the objectivist pole is to argue that moral judgements can be rationally defensible, true or false, that there are rational procedural tests for identifying morally impermissible actions, or that moral values exist independently of the feeling-states of individuals at particular times."
An example is offered, regarding The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which “can be read as assuming a kind of moral universalism”:
Although the Declaration has undeniably come to be accepted throughout the world as a cornerstone of the international system for the protection of human rights, a belief among some that the Universal Declaration does not adequately reflect certain important worldviews has given rise to more than one supplementary declaration, such as the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the Bangkok Declaration.
This gets to my point. Returning to Raico: many of the characteristics he identified (private property, unhampered market economies, freedom of religion) are looked at quite differently in other countries, with other cultures, traditions, religions. Is it universalist to give them private property rights, good and hard?
More significantly, it seems to me, consider the following from Raico:
…liberalism must be understood first of all as a doctrine and movement that grew out of a distinctive culture and particular historical circumstances.
Yes, it did. Why? And why not elsewhere? Ever in recorded history, as far as I can tell.
That culture — as Lord Acton recognized most clearly — was the West, the Europe that was or had been in communion with the Bishop of Rome.
Yes it was that culture. And there might be some significance in this regarding the inapplicability of the universalist idea. There has to be some reason these characteristics sprang up in this culture and no other.
Raico points to the Dutch, who freed themselves from the Spanish Habsburgs, creating a polity grounded in the earliest manifestations of something approaching this liberal society.
The historical circumstances were the confrontation of the free institutions and values inherited from the Middle Ages with the pretensions of the absolutist state of the 16th and 17th centuries.
I think this is a key statement: Raico offers a glimpse into how and why this liberal tradition gained a footing: it was built upon the decentralized institutions and values that were developed and sustained during Medieval Europe, butting these up against the absolutist kings (both Catholic and Protestant) that had a free hand once the competing authority of the “Bishop of Rome” was neutered.
But it wasn’t the Dutch that created this form; they were merely attempting to mimic that which was formed in the Middle Ages; Althusius states this clearly – all the while giving credit to these Dutch “freedom fighters.” But absent the competing authority of the Church against the king, this would prove to be an uphill, and ultimately a losing, battle.
It was in the space made available between the Church and the king where these institutions were given life and grew; it was in this space in between where these institutions could exercise authority; it was due to the Church acting as a check against the king, and vice versa, that the space in between could even exist.
Without the authority of the Church there was no institution with the authority to stand up to the king. But it took some time for these intermediating institutions to die – and for the kings to become Monarchs and eventually, States.
…John Locke framed the doctrine of the natural rights to life, liberty, and estate — which he collectively termed "property" — in the form that would be passed down, through the Real Whigs of the 18th century, to the generation of the American Revolution.
America became the model liberal nation, and, after England, the exemplar of liberalism to the world.
Finally, a chance to prove out the theory.
I think this is quite right. It cannot go unsaid that the first steps to empire for this model liberal nation were attempted in 1812. Further, it cannot go unsaid what happened just short of four-score-and-seven-years after the glorious Declaration.
While a strand of Whiggish liberalism was not averse to wars (beyond self-defense) for liberal ends, and while wars of national unification provided a major exception to the rule, by and large liberalism was associated with the cause of peace. (Emphasis added.)
An understatement, I would say. In other words, the “model liberal nation” lasted, at most, two generations. This suggests something wrong in the theory – as America was the best example of application on earth. If the “model liberal nation” had no more staying power than this, what might one say about the theory of liberalism put into practice? Is it fair to ask what went wrong, what is missing?
Reason Absent God?
Regarding the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, “particularly David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Dugald Stewart”:
They developed an analysis that explained "the origin of complex social structures without the need to posit the existence of a directing intelligence" (in Ronald Hamowy's summary).
The Physiocratic formula, Laissez-faire, laissez-passer, le monde va de lui-même ("the world goes by itself"), suggests both the liberal program and the social philosophy upon which it rests.
Might these point to what is missing, the ingredient without which even the model liberal nation was unable to stand four-score-and-seven?
There was an irreplaceable loss to liberty with the loss of Christendom – or whatever label you want to put on the period when the medieval Church acted as separate and competing governance authority. The spaces between king and church allowed liberty to grow; these spaces were no more.
A path forward?
The basis for a possible reconciliation of liberalism and antistatist conservatism emerged after the experience of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Its best exponent was Benjamin Constant, who…looked for social buffers and ideological allies wherever they might be found. Religious faith, localism, and the voluntary traditions of a people were valued as sources of strength against the state.
For this, two things must occur – necessary but certainly not sufficient: first, there is no point to focus on the individual in the face of an absence of these intermediating institutions. We are seeing the focus on the individual being played out today in many ways, not least of which soon having upward of seven billion individual gender distinctions.
Intermediate institutions, providing demonstrable functional benefit in the lives of individuals, must once again play their role instead of allowing – in some cases, gladly – the state to usurp these responsibilities. These intermediate institutions must once again play a meaningful functional role in the lives of a free people.
Second, Christian churches must act like Christian churches and not like mouthpieces for the military state, cheerleading Armageddon with all the pre-millennial baggage that comes with it. Perhaps they could stand against victimless crimes. Try a little of the Gospels, for a change, instead of your world-ending view of Daniel and Revelation: if God is going to work in the way that you hope, with an army of 200 million converging on Israel, He certainly doesn’t need your help. Anyway, I certainly doubt that He wants us praying for such a result.
My issue is not your eternal soul – find a different blog for that. My desire is not a theocracy – nothing like this existed during the Middle Ages nor would I wish it on society today. Instead, I see no other institution with the capacity and moral standing to offer a challenge to the violence of the State – both domestically and on the international stage. When it comes to liberty, that would be a good start.
Where it goes after that…well, I will leave it in God’s hands!
Liberalism's adherents were not always consistent. This was the case when they turned to the state to promote their own values.
The model liberal nation lasted all of one generation and not longer than two. “But that wasn’t true liberalism!” Is it fair to challenge Marxists when they make this retort when it comes to Lenin and Stalin, yet utilize it as a defense of liberal political theory? Instead, perhaps it is worth finding what is missing from liberalism that caused it so quickly to fail.
Maybe mix some of that into our theory.