Commentary

Portrait of the Great Liberals, on a Slant

Edmund Fawcett had a brilliant idea: telling the story of liberalism through a series of vignettes of thinkers, activists, and statesmen. Writing a popular book in the history of political thought is a rare achievement. For one thing, not everyone considers it a scintillating subject; for another, liberalism is more than thought — it was also a political movement. Fawcett, formerly a journalist at The Economist, writes a neat prose and has an eye for the curious biographical detail. Biography, as a literary genre, fits him well, and his book is like a gallery of portraits painted with ease by an able artisan, upon commission. While none is staggeringly beautiful, all are, taken together, a most worthy collection.

One of Fawcett’s great merits is that he casts a net wider than the Anglo-Saxon world. His history embraces France and Germany too, sometimes rediscovering long-forgotten liberals such as Paul Leroy-Beaulieu and Eugen Richter. He deserves credit for his lengthy treatment of Richter (and his equally thorough consideration of the influential but often overlooked British statesman and thinker, Richard Cobden). It must be said, though, that his roll call of liberal champions is problematic.

He’s right that “there is no due understanding of liberalism, not one that everyone readily agrees upon.” But this book does little to dissipate the confusion. On its cover, partially obscured photos of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich von Hayek abut those of John Maynard Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. How can somebody make sense of a stream of ideas that includes opposites? The author goes so far as to include Jean-Paul Sartre in the liberal family — something that would have puzzled Sartre himself.

True enough, the concept of “liberty” is too vague and malleable to make it the central tenet of liberalism. Virtually no one, at any spot on the political spectrum, would dare oppose “liberty” per se. Fawcett thus sets to build the liberal edifice on four pillars: a recognition of the inescapable conflict within society; distrust of power; faith in human progress, and “civic respect” for all people. It would be difficult to argue against these being among the ingredients of the liberal recipe, but such a vision of liberalism doesn’t resolve ambiguities.

For instance, the author maintains that “to resist power, liberals need to use power,” which only seems like an uncontroversial statement. One could argue that virtually all the institutional devices liberals conceived to curb power were unsuccessful. This is most notably true of Liberal Constitutionalism, a gallant undertaking ultimately unable to slow down the growth of government. But was “Constitutionalism” about harnessing power? Was the framework of general rules versus discretionary rules a way of making use of power?

What Fawcett actually has in mind is resorting to political power to curb the excesses of the free market. He writes that “at times the liberal state tamed the market. At others the liberal market tamed the liberal state.” But can the two things really be compared? Surely a market economy can be understood as part of system of checks and balances. But can the market be considered “liberal”? Are there times when it can be considered as subscribing to other schools of political thinking?

The market is a process whereby people exchange one with the other, and by so doing they provide information to opportunity-seeking entrepreneurs, who in their turn compete to satisfy ever newer needs and thus allow for ever newer exchanges to happen. You can have a more or less liberal policy toward the market — that is, one that respects the autonomy of the economic realm or one that interferes with it. But in itself, the market isn’t more “liberal” than pollination or traffic jams are.

Also, is it really admissible to place on a par the recognition of human liberty in choosing and being chosen in a marketplace, with trying to force the market process to take one path or another? Politically, the one presupposes the minimization of coercion whereas the other implies the use of coercive means to attain some particular end. Can this distinction be considered irrelevant, from a liberal point of view?

Basically, Fawcett takes for “liberalism” whatever is advertised as such. His story of liberalism begins in the 1830s, but as background figures he considers as “liberal precursors” Spinoza, Locke, Hobbes, Montaigne, Machiavelli, Luther, “the Church doctors of pre-Reformation, even Cicero and Socrates.” Can we seriously equate John Locke’s influence on liberal thought with Cicero’s?

This attempt to “choose not to choose” among different kinds of liberalism, throwing in FDR choc a bloc with Hayek, is itself a choice, and a very clear one. As “classical” liberals can’t be expelled all together from the liberal Olympus, they are basically presented as cranky old uncles and dubbed “ultra-liberals” or market “purists.” I am perhaps exaggerating a bit — Fawcett clearly admires thinkers like Benjamin Constant and Eugen Richter — but just a bit.

An interesting test for anybody’s understanding of classical liberalism is his or her view of Herbert Spencer. The British philosopher receives from Fawcett a most unfair treatment, though he correctly acknowledges that Spencer was not an apologist for business (as many superficial critics still maintain).

Spencer’s debut pamphlet, The Proper Sphere of Government (1843), is described as the “laissez-faire maxims” of a “youthful reactionary,” and these are said to be partially emended by the radical ideas he expressed in Social Statics (1851). For one thing, Spencer himself believed that The Proper Sphere of Government was the first exposition of ideas he held to his entire life. The young Spencer was writing for a readership of Nonconformists, and aimed to explain to them that their cherished principle of separation of Church and State ought to be applied to a wider variety of subjects. The series of letters that resulted in The Proper Sphere of Government was conceived to be revolutionary rather than reactionary. Its author wanted to build on the same ethos that gained ground in England with the abolition of the Corn Laws and the emancipation of Catholics, providing its most radical and consistent exposition.

Fawcett is keener on Social Statics, where he thinks Spencer “imagined society in a Benthamite fashion,” though the book is actually a harsh critique of the blend of Utilitarianism that could be traced back to Bentham. Then he moves on to quote Spencer’s critics, beginning with Henry Sidgwick. Not that Spencer’s evolutionary thought hasn’t been submitted to rather strong and indeed effective criticism, but one wonders why Fawcett spends so much time summarizing criticisms of books his reader is very likely to ignore, instead of dealing with Spencer’s liberalism.

For somebody who treasures liberalism as much as Fawcett admirably does, it would have been natural, for example, to have discussed Spencer’s The Man Versus the State, and in particular two of the essays therein included, “The New Toryism” and “The Coming Slavery.”

In “The New Toryism,” Spencer explains why he considers the “new liberals” (whom Fawcett favors) to be basically Tories. Spencer does not question the merits of interventionist legislation. What he does do is distinguish clearly between ends and means, taking the position that “liberalism” is about using certain means rather than others, to advance social progress. The liberal should oppose any legislation that, however good its goals, uses means that tend to increase rather than decrease governmental coercion. The ends do not justify the means.

This is a profound point, and a study of liberalism — even, and perhaps especially, one that aims at a popular audience — should try to help the reader grasp it.

Instead, Fawcett finds it more interesting to point out that the Liberty and Property Defense League, which Spencer supported, was “an early example of a moneyed lobby in democratic politics.” Indeed, we can trace back some features of contemporary politics to those very years, that saw — and this was far more relevant than the activism of the Liberty and Property Defense League — the emergence of trade unions as we know them. But Fawcett likes to play the money card against authors he doesn’t respect. I find this particularly curious in a book that aims to present not just liberal thinkers, but a sense of classical liberalism as a movement. A political movement, by definition, grows at the intersection of ideas and interests, and can’t be developed without one or the other.

Spencer was, by the way, almost allergic to any form of direct involvement in politics. Yet he made an exception, for the short-lived Anti-Aggression League promoted by John Bright. Spencer’s life-long, vigorous pacifism is completely forgotten by Fawcett.

Similarly, it is surprising that, among the founders of marginalism, Fawcett reviews, in his liberal story, Léon Walras and Alfred Marshall — but mentions Carl Menger only in passing, whereas the name of Vilfredo Pareto, the successor of Walras in Lausanne, is completely absent. Influenced by Spencer and Frédéric Bastiat as a young man, Pareto was a preeminent liberal intellectual of his age. Menger’s work has harbingered a school of thought that provided liberty with some of its most notable champions. Edmund Fawcett thinks differently.

Perhaps the greatest injustice here is the one committed against Ludwig von Mises. Mises is basically presented as Hayek’s “pimp” into the moneyed world of “right-wing liberalism.” One of the most original thinkers of the 20th century is described this way:

Mises was a free-market purist and nineteen years Hayek’s senior. He set the young man straight and showed him an alternative [to social-democracy]. Mises had settled politically in the borderland between liberalism and libertarianism… . Mises was among the first of a new kind of intellectual: think tankers paid by special interests. In his time at New York University, rich bankers, notably the Volker Foundation, paid Mises’s salary.

Later on, we learn that when Hayek “looked to the United States” (because in Britain “his ideas were taken to be out of touch or cranky”), his “business friends whistled up money to make a post for Hayek at Chicago.”

Well, I am sure think tankers will gladly welcome Mises, the author of a 900-page treatise in economics, to their ranks — but as an attempt to address the not-new subject of the intellectual’s relationship to patrons, this perspective is pretty lacking in depth.

It should by now be clear that the author doesn’t like those whom he calls “ultra-liberal purists.” He is bound to recognize Hayek as a relevant thinker (though he doesn’t spare nasty comments on his divorce, nor an acid review of the great Austrian’s prose, which is indeed often convoluted). Mises is more easily dismissed — but can you really appreciate Hayek’s business-cycle theory without understanding that it is placed within the context of a theoretical tradition to which Mises contributed so much? Furthermore, can Hayek’s polemics against modeling and the fatal conceit in economics be rightfully appreciated without a single reference to the economic calculation debate?

Perhaps Fawcett has little interest in presenting either Mises or Hayek fairly. Though he considers fascism and communism “the two defining Others” to liberalism in the 20th century, he seems not to appreciate that communism presented a path to alleged social progress that was absolutely different from and irreconcilable with liberalism’s. The struggle of liberalism against socialism was not an accident. It was perhaps the former’s true defining moment. Communism embodied everything hostile to old and venerable liberal ideas: a command-and-control economy, censorship, authoritarian rule in society. Because of this, liberalism’s virtues were more evident than they otherwise might have been. We could even say that, in providing it with an enemy that incarnated anything it opposed, communism kept liberalism alive in the age of democracy.

Just look at the effect this contrast had on people in the middle, namely the socialists. Intellectually honest socialists took Mises very seriously when he pointed out that economic calculation ceased to be possible in an economy in which the means of production were collectivized. The debate that developed, besides being central to the development of Hayek’s thought, was an important episode in the struggle of economic ideas and a glorious one for liberals. I find it baffling that such a book as this would exclude it altogether.

Though kinder to authors like Milton Friedman and James Buchanan, and sometimes subtle in his treatment of political icons such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (who was, he comments, simultaneously “the least Cobdenite of liberals,” for her nationalism, but also “Cobdenite through and through: unimpressed by class and status and keen to let men and women with initiative get on in their various enterprises without envy or vested interests standing in their way”), Fawcett is unmistakably hostile to the libertarian stream of liberalism.

One example worth mentioning is his qualification of Hayek’s solution to the Great Depression as just “do-nothing,” which is the easiest way to ridicule it. An exchange of letters published in the Times of London in 1932 is apropos in this context. It pitted, so to say, Keynes, Pigou and Cambridge on one side and Hayek, Robbins, and the LSE on the other. The Hayekian party, one of the letters makes clear, had a negative but also a positive agenda:

If the Government wish to help revival, the right way for them to proceed is, not to revert to their old habits of lavish expenditure, but to abolish those restrictions on trade and the free movement of capital (including restrictions on new issues) which are at present impeding even the beginning of recovery.

Moving to get rid of restrictions on economic activity is as active a political agenda as pumping money into the economy.

Another example concerns Walter Lippmann’s 1937 book, The Good Society. According to Fawcett, its most salient idea was that “doctrinaire liberalism was done for and a new liberalism was needed.” Fair enough, but it wasn’t Lippmann’s indictment of Herbert Spencer that made the fortune of that work in the 1930s. Rather, it was the devastating critique of command-and-control economies. Lippmann points out that top-down direction of an economy always goes together with the development of warlike sentiments. This pars destruens of the Lippmann book was what made it famous and relevant for its contemporaries. And yet Fawcett does not mention it or explore its arguments to any length.

And lastly, where the author devotes nine pages of his book to the thought of John Rawls, and rightfully so, Robert Nozick’s powerful critique of Rawlsianism is covered in only three paragraphs.

Edmund Fawcett writes well — with the kind of charm and levity that are seen in some of the authors he appreciates the most (such as Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott, whose thought he presents with unimpeachable clarity). However, if his aim was to present “liberals” of different and yet strikingly opposed kinds in a fair-minded way, he failed. Perhaps openly declaring his prejudices — even the most liberal of us have some — instead of pretending to embrace all varieties would have been a better strategy. Or at least would have been a more honest one.

But this, of course, is the opinion of an unrepentant “ultra-liberal purist.”

Alberto Mingardi is the Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Istituto Bruno Leoni. He is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Cato Institute and a guest blogger at EconLog.