The Epic Triumph of Liberalism and Its Tragic Betrayal
Three years ago, the New York Times asked whether “the libertarian moment” had finally arrived. Since then, we have seen no libertarian revolution in politics or policy, leading many to ask whether the libertarian moment had indeed come… and gone.
Perhaps, the thinking goes, the libertarians had their political American Idol audition, delivered a pitchy performance, and were sent home: end of story.
In a sense, to even frame things in this way is silly. It would only make sense if libertarians were a curious sect with quirky ideas that somehow gained outsize national attention, giving us a one-time chance to seize the reins of power: like how the South Korean presidency was won by a member of the Church of Eternal Life cult. Since that president was recently forced from office, surely the Church of Eternal Life’s “moment” has come and gone.
A Branding Problem
Poor branding is partly to blame: specifically, the use of the label “libertarian” instead of the philosophy’s original name, “liberalism.” In defense of those who made that name change, they didn’t have much of a choice. By the time “libertarianism” was adopted, “liberalism” had already been long lost: hopelessly hitched to a decidedly illiberal ideology.
But the new label has created the false impression that the liberty tradition is much younger and more idiosyncratic than it really is: as if it’s a new-fangled left/right hybrid cooked up in the 1970s. Yet the truth is quite the opposite. As I will discuss below, what we now call “liberalism” and what we now call “conservatism” are both themselves hybrid descendants of what we now call “libertarianism.”
Abandoning “liberalism” has detached the philosophy from its long and glorious history and heritage. Liberalism/libertarianism is actually a centuries-old tradition with millennia-old roots. It is the founding philosophy of America, the catalyst of the rise of the West, and the source of almost all things sweet and splendid about the modern world around us.
The Struggle against Absolutism
Where did it begin? The liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer, writing in the 1880s, traced its origins to England’s Restoration period (1660–1688), when the monarchy had been restored after having been abolished in the English Civil War.
The great political divide of the time was between Tories and Whigs. As Spencer wrote, “Whiggism began with resistance to Charles II and his cabal, in their efforts to re-establish unchecked monarchical power.”
The Tories were the king’s cabal and the defenders of his prerogatives over the lives, liberties, and property of his subjects.
At first, the anti-absolutist movement led by the Whigs had no coherent ideology. But Spencer identified a trend in their causes, which could be seen from the effects of their policy victories against the Crown: like, for example, the Habaeus Corpus Act of 1679. As Spencer wrote, “The principle of compulsory co-operation throughout social life was weakened by them, and the principle of voluntary co-operation strengthened.”
Whig anti-absolutism culminated in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” which overthrew Charles’s successor James II. Charles’s niece Mary and her husband William, a Dutch prince, were placed on the throne. Shortly after this transfer of power, the English Bill of Rights (precursor to our own) was enacted. England had become a constitutional monarchy.
The Idea of Liberty Takes Shape
When Mary sailed from the Netherlands to England to claim her crown, her entourage included a Whig-affiliated philosopher named John Locke, who had been cooling his heels in Holland since he fell under suspicion of plotting to assassinate Charles.
But Locke’s real threat to absolute monarchy lay in his prowess with the literary, not the lethal, arts. His great work on political philosophy was so subversive that he published it anonymously.
In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke proclaimed and philosophically defended the universal rights of every individual to life, liberty, and property. He also relegated government to a limited, servile role: to doing little (if anything) more than securing those rights. This contrasted starkly with the Tory glorification of the monarch as the “Delegate of Heaven” wielding the divine right to rule.
In this hugely influential work, Locke, now regarded as “the Father of Liberalism,” provided the theoretical coherence and grounding that the proto-liberalism of the Whigs had hitherto lacked.
After the death of Queen Anne (1714), successor to William and Mary, the Whig Party came to dominate Parliament, where they rapidly liberalized England. As historian John Richard Green (quoted by Spencer) wrote of this period:
“Before the fifty years of their rule had passed, Englishmen had forgotten that it was possible to persecute for differences of religion, or to put down the liberty of the press, or to tamper with the administration of justice, or to rule without a Parliament.”
These reforms stimulated great advances in trade and industry, science and technology, literature and the arts. It was truly an Age of Enlightenment. As early as the 1720s, England’s liberal, tolerant culture moved Voltaire to eloquent admiration. “English laws,” he wrote, “are on the side of humanity…”
The trials and triumphs of the Whigs in their fight for English liberty against the Tories were deeply inspiring to America’s founding generation. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to classify all of humanity as either dispositional Whigs or Tories. In one letter, he wrote:
“The parties of Whig and Tory are those of nature. They exist in all countries, whether called by these names or by those of Aristocrats and Democrats, Cote Droite and Cote Gauche, Ultras and Radicals, Serviles and Liberals. The sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people, and is a Tory by nature. The healthy, strong and bold cherishes them, and is formed a Whig by nature.”
And in another letter, Jefferson elaborated:
“The division into Whig and Tory is founded in the nature of man; the weakly and nerveless, the rich and the corrupt, seeing more safety and accessibility in a strong executive; the healthy, firm, and virtuous, feeling confidence in their physical and moral resources, and willing to part with only so much power as is necessary for their good government; and, therefore, to retain the rest in the hands of the many, the division will substantially be into Whig and Tory.”
Whig liberalism was the founding ideology of America. The political philosophy of Locke deeply informed the Declaration of Independence. Whig resistance against the crown inspired the American Revolution. Whig constitutionalism influenced the American Constitution. And the Whig-won English Bill of Rights was a model for the America’s.
(Ironically, the later American Whig Party would distinguish itself as one of the most stridently illiberal parties in US history.)
In the same year that the Declaration of Independence was issued, a very different kind of document was also published which would do much to define the liberalism of the 19th century.
In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith asked why unprecedented opulence had blessed Britain in recent decades. Using the new science of economics, Smith explained how the credit was due to Britain’s “liberal principles,” including free trade (“the liberal system of free exportation and free importation”) and liberty in general (“allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice”).
Economist Daniel Klein recently used Google’s digitized book trove and its big data technology to trace the widespread adoption of the word “liberalism” in its political sense to the enormous popularity of Smith’s book and its use of the word “liberal.”
Smith and the classical economists who followed in his footsteps convinced much of literate Britain that the doctrine of liberty and limited government, previously developed by Locke, was not only just and right, but unleashed humanity’s productive powers to the enrichment of all.
Whig proto-liberalism had fostered the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the science of economics, which in turn filled in the intellectual groundwork for liberalism proper: a more deliberate, self-conscious, and principled movement for universal individual freedom.
The Age of Liberalism
After an anti-liberty interlude during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the Whigs and their allies (which, around mid-century, came to include a new Liberal Party) inaugurated in Britain what Ludwig von Mises called “the Age of Liberalism.”
The freedoms of speech, the press, and religion were further advanced, women were emancipated, labor was further deregulated, and capital was further secured. Slavery was abolished, as was the East India Company’s trade monopoly.
The “Manchester Liberals,” led by Richard Cobden and John Bright, used popular writing and speeches to turn the British public against protectionism and war.
Influential liberal movements sprang up in France and other European countries as well. The continent was soon blessed with an era of free trade and relative peace.
These liberal policies intensified and spread the Industrial Revolution, creating seemingly miraculous levels of widespread prosperity never before seen on the earth. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in the 1962 preface to his classic book Liberalism:
“The greatness of the period between the Napoleonic Wars and the first World War consisted precisely in the fact that the social ideal after the realization of which the most eminent men were striving was free trade in a peaceful world of free nations. It was an age of unprecedented improvement in the standard of living for a rapidly increasing population. It was the age of liberalism.”
Moreover, as Mises wrote in his greatest treatise, Human Action:
“It is a purposeful distortion of facts to blame the age of liberalism for an alleged materialism. The nineteenth century was not only a century of unprecedented improvement in technical methods of production and in the material well-being of the masses. It did much more than extend the average length of human life. Its scientific and artistic accomplishments are imperishable. It was an age of immortal musicians, writers, poets, painters, and sculptors; it revolutionized philosophy, economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. And, for the first time in history, it made the great works and the great thoughts accessible to the common man.”
The modern world of ever improving living standards, marvelous technology, and astounding opportunity that we enjoy today is a product of the Age of Liberalism.
But even in the middle of this triumph, the corruption of liberalism had already begun. By the 1880s, Spencer was already lamenting that the self-styled Liberals of his day were all about hyperactively legislating against liberty, quite as fervently as the absolutist Tories [at that time renamed Conservatives] ever did. In his essay “The New Toryism,” Spencer argued that, “Most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type.”
From 1860 onward, as Spencer meticulously detailed, Parliament under the Liberal Party became a non-stop geyser of “social” legislation: fixing prices, regulating working hours, mandating all kinds of inspections, financing public works, restricting “vices,” corralling children into public schools, putting trades under license requirements (including a “Pedlars Act, inflicting penalties for hawking without a certificate”), establishing a state monopoly in telegraphy, and even enacting a “Sea-birds Preservation Act” that ended up harming the fishing industry by causing a “greater mortality of fish.”
And, as Spencer noted, the Liberals funded all of this with endless increases in taxation.
And yet, some of the more “advanced” Liberals of Spencer’s day pooh-poohed even these policies as so much “tinkering.” One Liberal cabinet minister insisted that full coercion should be, “exercised over owners of small houses, over land-owners, and over ratepayers.” Another Liberal politician,
“…addressing his constituents, speaks slightingly of the doings of philanthropic societies and religious bodies to help the poor, and says that ‘the whole of the people of this country ought to look upon this work as being their own work’”
Already in the 1880s, British Liberals were promoting what Americans today call Social Security. We learn from Spencer that:
“…plausible proposals are made that there should be organized a system of compulsory insurance, by which men during their early lives shall be forced to provide for the time when they will be incapacitated.”
After recounting this legislative litany, an exasperated Spencer concludes:
“Such, then, are the doings of the party which claims the name of Liberal; and which calls itself Liberal as being the advocate of extended freedom!”
The betrayal of liberalism would only get worse following Spencer’s death in 1903. After a brief period out of power, the Liberals won a landslide election in 1906 and immediately passed a series of welfare laws that established the modern British welfare state. A few years later, the Liberal government led Britain into the calamitous World War I, which put a bloody end to the Age of Liberalism and inaugurated a new age of total war, totalitarianism, and managerial statism.
The rot spread to America as well. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in 1962:
“Today the tenets of this nineteenth-century philosophy of liberalism are almost forgotten. In continental Europe it is remembered only by a few. In England the term “liberal” is mostly used to signify a program that only in details differs from the totalitarianism of the socialists. In the United States “liberal” means today a set of ideas and political postulates that in every regard are the opposite of all that liberalism meant to the preceding generations. The American self-styled liberal aims at government omnipotence, is a resolute foe of free enterprise, and advocates all-round planning by the authorities, i.e., socialism.”
How did this happen? How did the meaning of “liberalism” become so confused to the point of being completely reversed? According to Spencer, “Liberalism has lost itself” because Liberals gave unduly narrow emphasis on the fruits of liberalism (widespread public welfare) at the expense of the very principles of liberalism (the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property) that bore those fruits.
As Spencer put it, “the welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Liberalism.” (Emphasis added.)
And this welfare came to be seen, “not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained. And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.”
(Those methods, of course, were government controls and impositions.)
In other words, the cause of Liberalism slipped from “liberty from the state for the welfare of the people” to simply “the welfare of the people” and ultimately to “a total welfare state for the people.”
What is fascinating about this is that widespread prosperity (“the welfare of the many”) was not even a political issue before true liberalism showed that it was even possible. For most of history, it was considered an immutable fact of the stinginess of nature that only a tiny ruling elite could live large, while the masses were condemned to a grueling life of hard labor and grim poverty. It was only after liberalism unleashed humanity’s productive potential that the notion of regular people enjoying ever increasing welfare became a real-world possibility.
The dreams of welfare state “liberalism” were only even conceivable (if not realizable) thanks to the actual accomplishments of original liberalism.
The Deeper Cause
The fatal slipping of focus that Spencer identified in the Liberal platform may have been inevitable, however. The first liberal movement may have been doomed from the start, afflicted as it was by a terminal disease contracted at birth. The congenital defect of which I speak is politics.
As chronicled above, liberalism was born out of Whiggism. And Whiggism was an inherently political movement. Like all political factions, Whigs had their constituents and their enemies. And it just so happened that their constituents were disempowered and oppressed political underdogs (first the middle, and later the lower, classes), while their enemies were empowered and oppressing top dogs (the king and his dependents).
Given this, it is only natural that their policies would have the liberal tendency that Spencer identified: the lifting of oppressions and the mitigation of the power to oppress. Again, it was only later that intellectuals provided universalist philosophical ammunition that could be used for what was, from the beginning, a particularist political project.
But the Whigs were not only out to liberate their constituents, but to politically empower them: first through strengthening Parliament, and later by extending voting rights.
As Parliament gained the upper hand, it was at first mostly used to further liberate commoners from royal oppression. But it didn’t stop there. It went beyond liberation to aggrandizement: and naturally so, since political factions are essentially all about member interests, and not moral principles. Given this fundamental orientation, it is only natural that, as voting rights expanded to encompass ever more commoners, Whig/Liberal Britain devolved into a welfare state.
The Divine Right of Parliaments
As Spencer related, the Parliamentary Liberals of his time tried to excuse their resort to the Tory means of state power by pointing out that, while the Tories used state power under a divine mandate for the interests of a few, the new Liberals did so under a popular mandate for the good of the many.
Spencer thoroughly demolished this as an irrelevant distinction, but to no avail, since his contemporaries had become fanatical devotees of a new civic religion. As Spencer wrote in another essay, “The Great Political Superstition”:
“The great political superstition of the past was the divine right of kings. The great political superstition of the present is the divine right of parliaments. The oil of anointing seems unawares to have dripped from the head of the one on to the heads of the many, and given sacredness to them also and to their decrees.”
This superstition too may have been inevitable, given that “popular sovereignty” was a key plank in the anti-monarchical platform of the Whigs/Liberals from the beginning. This plank would inevitably evolve into “tyranny of the majority” democracy.
Locke’s concept of the State as an “Agent of the People” may have seemed like an improvement upon the Tory portrait of the king as “Delegate of Heaven.” But “the People” is an incoherent, collectivist abstraction, and as such is just as mute as “Heaven.” So when officials feign to speak on “the People’s” behalf, the situation can be just as dangerously irresponsible as when kings and courtiers issued proclamations in the name of God: perhaps even more dangerous, since the resistance of the subjects is weakened by the myth that they are participating in “self-government.”
In a quite prophetic addendum to his great essay, Spencer highlighted one more fascinating political phenomenon. The statist Liberals had become so overbearing that they were driving the original statists, the Tories/Conservatives, toward liberty, simply out of self-defense.
“…the laws made by Liberals are so greatly increasing the compulsions and restraints exercised over citizens, that among Conservatives who suffer from this aggressiveness there is growing up a tendency to resist it. Proof is furnished by the fact that the “Liberty and Property Defense League,” largely consisting of Conservatives, has taken for its motto “Individualism versus Socialism.” So that if the present drift of things continues, it may by and by really happen that the Tories will be defenders of liberties which the Liberals, in pursuit of what they think popular welfare, trample under foot.”
And indeed, that is exactly what happened. It was the Tories, as led by Margaret Thatcher from 1975 to 1990, who reintroduced the rhetoric of liberty and property into British politics after a long dark night of semi-socialism and hyperactive statism.
And Thatcherism helped pave the way for Reaganism in America. Reagan conservatism also had native roots extending back to the resistance movement against the hyperactive, “liberal” New Deal: a hodgepodge coalition that Murray Rothbard dubbed “the Old Right.”
Like Whiggism long before it, the new “conservative movement” seized upon the universal principles of true liberalism as intellectual ammo (as found in the works of Locke, Smith, Mises, F.A. Hayek, etc) to cynically deploy in its political battles. This is shown to be cynical by the tendency of conservatives to jettison liberal principles, like the Whigs and Liberals did before them, whenever they think it serves the narrow interests of their constituents.
Conservatives are particularly wont to violate the rights of non-constituents in the name of preemptively securing the rights of their constituents. “Drug users must be preemptively incarcerated to keep the streets safe.” “Muslim countries must be preemptively bombed lest their rulers possibly acquire, and maybe someday use, weapons of mass destruction against my people.”
Now we see why it is so egregious to trivialize liberalism/libertarianism as a curious right/left hybrid: “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” and such tripe. In fact, modern liberalism and modern conservatism are both corrupt offspring of the classical liberal tradition that transformed the world. Modern liberalism emerged as a confused perversion of the original liberalism. And modern conservatism emerged as a quasi-liberal reaction to modern liberalism.
Moreover, it is modern conservatism and modern liberalism that are the hybrids. As explained above, modern liberals pursue liberal ends (the welfare of the many) with conservative means (state power). And modern conservatives pursue conservative ends (the welfare of the few) with liberal means (free markets, gun rights, religious liberty, etc). And the above is only true when the modern liberals and conservatives in question are not total hypocrites or sell-outs.
As Spencer explained, modern liberalism tries to use the state to directly provide benefits to its constituents: benefits that authentic liberalism indirectly provides to all by simply setting people free to provide for themselves.
And with the “preemptive violence” analysis above, we can complement Spencer’s analysis with the following insight. Modern conservatism tries to use the state to indirectly secure rights (life, liberty, and property) to its constituents: rights that liberalism directly provides to all as a matter of principle.
It is worth noting that the efforts of both factions fail miserably. The welfare/nanny state measures of modern liberals only leave their constituents poorer. And the warfare/police state measures of modern conservatives only leave their constituents less safe.
With the left, you’re left with nothing in the name of providing for you.
With the right, your rights are nullified in the name of protecting them.
For generations, modern liberalism and conservatism have been vying with each other to wreck the wondrous modern civilization that the original liberalism built: weighing it down with their hyperactive wars and interventions, and hampering the heroic accomplishments that individuals in their private capacities still manage to achieve in spite of it all.
This two-pronged barbarian attack has continued unabated, because, since the corruption and downfall of original liberalism, the left and the right have held a statist duopoly on the ideological imagination of the world. That duopoly needs to be broken. Our civilization desperately needs to remember the long-forgotten liberal tradition that lifted it up and first gave humanity a glimpse of what we’re truly capable of. That is the task of the liberalism of today.
But that project will only be sustainable if we avoid the fatal errors of the liberalism of yesterday. As Ambrose Bierce said, politics is, “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.” Any moral movement that entangles itself in the machinery of politics will inevitably be captured by unprincipled, factional interests, just as the original liberalism was. We can already see the early stages of this as right-leaning libertarians dabble in culture wars and flirt with nationalism while left-leaning libertarians dabble in identity politics and flirt with paternalistic globalism, all for the sake of winning points with political allies and scoring points against political enemies.
The cause of liberty must be championed in the realm of ideas and individual ethics if its future triumphs are to be lasting ones.