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.
Something or someone will provide governance. I have yet to find or read a worthwhile refutation of this. If not reasonably voluntary, decentralized governance institutions (family, church, guild, etc.), then only one possibility remains – and it cannot be denied that facts have made clear that it will be, and is the State.
The State becomes powerful not by virtue of what it takes from the individual but by virtue of what it takes from the spiritual and social associations which compete with it for men’s devotions. (Emphasis added.)
The individual alone stands naked before the state. The “spiritual and social associations” separate the individual from an all-powerful State; these associations, in fact, are what stand in the way of a monopoly State from forming. I see no way around this.
As the Jacobins held:
…every increase in governmental authority, every increase of political – at the expense of religious, economic, and kinship – authority, is ex hypothesi an increase in real freedom for the people.
Some call this freedom. Or, as Robespierre declared:
…the “government of the Revolution is but the despotism of freedom against tyranny.”
Look, I understand this is kind of the opposite of the NAP. My point is simple: absent intermediating governance institutions, we get the State. It isn’t more complicated than this.
This is the point that is crucial. The modern State and the whole ideology of the political community have become significant and influential not through the worship of naked power but because of the promise which seemed to lie in political power for the salvation of man – for the attainment of moral goals that had eluded mankind for thousands of years.
I return to the question that began this post: What happened to the promise of classical liberalism, passing from its birth through its golden age and to its dramatic and violent death in barely more than one century?
The nineteenth century has been called the Century of Great Hope. Innumerable historians have characterized its dominant qualities in the words of progress, democracy, freedom and the liberation of reason from the shackles of superstition and ignorance.
The nineteenth century was all of these. It was also something more…or something less:
It was the century of the emergence of the political masses, masses created in widening areas by the processes of social destruction bound up with the increasing penetration of political power into all areas of society….
It has always struck me as confusing to find that the greatest tyranny fell upon a people shortly after the king (or whoever) truly began some form of liberalizing efforts – in other words, steps taken to break the old bonds and the old forms. The examples that come most immediately to mind are pre-revolutionary France and pre-revolutionary Russia. Perhaps Nisbet is helping me to understand why.
The necessity of such intermediating institutions and the character of the people necessary to rebuild these perhaps might be incorporated into libertarian thought if liberty is desired. Or we can just keep debating the irrelevant and obscure corners of libertarian law, fighting to the death to defend the virgin and innocent purity of the non-aggression principle.
Perhaps instead of defending the vices that should not be illegal, we might spend time describing and developing the virtues necessary to advance freedom.