Alberto Mingardi  

The eclipse of classical liberalism

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The Molinari Institute led by Roderick Long deserves great credit for having discovered and republished a splendid little essay by Edwin Godkin, the founder of the magazine The Nation.

The article, "The Eclipse of Liberalism", was published in 1900 and deals with the turning of the tide, at the close of the 19th century, in the world of ideas. To many, (classical) liberalism then entered a crisis that perhaps it never recovered from. The ideas of limited government lost their grip on society: with nationalism on the one hand, and socialism on the other, raising to dominate the political scene. Godkin, a critic of imperialism, touches upon the demise of a peaceful and non-interventionist foreign policy. This essay echoes themes from Herbert Spencer's 1884 great little book, "The Man Versus the State". In that work, Spencer reacted against a change of sensibility among liberals themselves. He saw the "new" liberalism being on par with "old" Tories. In its previous manifestation liberalism, Spencer maintained, was busy in removing interventions, prohibitions, and regulations, with the aim of broadening society's areas of self-government. But it is one thing to abolish a regulation, another to write one. At a certain point, liberals themselves developed a taste for legislation. Instead of repealing regulations, they developed them. Perhaps old and new liberals shared similar humanitarian goals, but they strongly disagreed on the way government power should be used to fulfill them.

Spencer understood this development to be linked with democracy. Kings and parliaments look at different sources of legitimacy. Democratic politics give people the impression that they are are the drivers of legislation. This impression paradoxically contributes to widen government powers, too. For Spencer, whether a certain policy is consistent with liberalism or not doesn't depend on the way the legislature was elected: but on the substantive contents of the policy itself. Here comes his famous quote that as once the function of Liberalism in the past was that of placing a limit on the powers of kings, the function of true Liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the power of Parliaments.

Godkin's piece shows similarly a good deal of disillusionment with contemporary politics. He addresses an important point: if more-or-less classical liberal policies allowed for tremendous wealth creation as never before, how come people seem not to value that properly?

Writes Godkin:

To the principles and precepts of Liberalism the prodigious material progress of the age was largely due. Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us. But it now seems that its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible. In the politics of the world, Liberalism is a declining, almost a defunct force.

Of course, things are a bit more complex. It is not simply that this "material problem" was an item on any individual's check list. Tumultuous development has strengthened the demand for redistribution. Italian economist Maffeo Pantaleoni stressed that "the favour that socialism encounters is largely due to the hope that it can create more stable circumstances, bureaucratize life, guarantee pensions, make away with the permanent revolution always engendered by competition [Una gran parte del favore che il socialismo trova è dovuto alla speranza che riesca a creare condizioni più stabili, a burocratizzare la vita, ad assicurare pensioni, a eliminare la rivoluzione perpetua che la concorrenza produce in ogni situazione]".

Walter Scheidel recently reminded that wars played a role in the establishment of the welfare state, also for the reason that they created a huge number of wounded.

But Godkin's essay is nonetheless a useful reminder of how profound was the change of tides in the world of ideas. In particular, it usefully reminds us that what supplanted liberalism, which is necessarily built upon some kind of cosmopolitanism, considering individuals as individuals regardless of where they are born, was nationalism.
"Making the aggrandizement of a particular nation a higher end than the welfare of mankind" was very appealing at the turn of the century - and so is it now.

Godkin's article seems a condemnation of the so-called "alt right". But a careful reading of it won't be more pleasant for the left. How many allegedly left-wing policies, from welfare subsidies to industrial policy, in some sense need and aim to strengthen a nationalist framework?

Classical liberals have long been making this point, but perhaps they need to do some extra effort to make it clear again now.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Thaomas writes:

It seems to be the problem with "classical" liberalism is 1) the unwillingness to trade off efficiency-increasing regulation/de-regulation for some increase in redistribution (a higher EITC in stead of a minimum wage, subsidized individual purchase of health insurance instead of employer purchase) and 2) the unwillingness to consider regulations/taxes/subsidies to deal with market failures and negative/positive externalities.

Weir writes:

Making the aggrandizement of your particular family a higher end than the welfare of mankind is so ridiculously normal and natural and universal to our species that it's amazing, actually, that there was once briefly this liberal interregnum between that and nationalism.

That's the right way to orient your telescope. In the long view you're confronted with the fact that, for the first couple hundred thousand years of human history, natural selection and "amoral familism" and tribalism and eventually the various priestly castes were pretty much the entire show, and then for a couple hundred years there's been the nation, too, to which we ascribe the traditional characteristics of families or tribes or religions.

There have been Platonic or Pauline ideas of a universal brotherhood, a logical brotherhood, bubbling away in the background, mutating, evolving for a couple thousand years in there, but a much narrower idea of brotherhood is what our species actually cares about in real life.

And this is the case even with people who imagine themselves to be enlightened, liberal, perfect citizens of the world. The same apparently inescapable evolutionary forces are working on them, too, co-opting them into fighting these time-consuming, counter-productive, never-ending tribal wars against the non-believers and foreigners in the land of the low sloping foreheads, in Jesusland, in flyover country.

Evolution is the universal acid. People don't stop being tribal when they start denouncing other people for being tribal.

Matt writes:

Good post.

Alberto, if you're not familiar, Paul Gottfried's superb book After Liberalism also offers an insightful account of the supplantation of old liberalism.

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