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A Reviewers Notebook: Grays Liberalism

NOVEMBER 01, 1986 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN

In his Liberalism (Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota Press, 106 pp., $9.95), John Gray of Jesus College, Oxford, takes an exceedingly broad view of his subject. With him, F. A. Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, even the Fabian socialists, are all liberals together. It is their common claim to individualism that binds them. The individualist asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of the social collectivity. Fabians who are waiting for the inevitability of gradualism to bring them to socialism are confident that the State will not interfere with their private affairs under a collectivist order, which means that they remain liberals in heart, though in a deluded sense.

Gray’s definition spares him a lot of trouble when it comes to dealing with the difference between continental European liberals, who hold to the nineteenth-century classic outlook, and American and British liberals who want cradle-to-grave support in all phases of their existence. Liberalism, to Gray, constitutes a single tradition in spite of the variations that have come with what he calls the “revisionist liberalism of our own times.” Personally, I find Gray’s effort to stretch a rubber band around Hayek and Keynes, Tocqueville and Harold Laski, Hobbes and Mises, a bit confusing. But until he comes into really modern times, Gray is clear enough.

He begins by denying any claims to the ancients, whether Greek or Roman, to being liberals. The ancients, even Aristotle, did not grant that individuals had any immunity from control by the community. To them, a man was free when he had an entitlement to participation in the community’s deliberations, but that is as far as it went. Anti-liberal sentiment is not as virulent in Aristotle as it is in Plato, but Gray says that “nowhere in Aristotle is there any glimmering of an assertion of the negative right to individual liberty postulated by such modernists as Hobbes and Locke.” The Sophists did indeed develop a doctrine of political equality that went against elitist conceptions of government, but the Western world had to wait for the seventeenth century for the first systematic expositions of the modern individualistic outlook which fathered the liberal tradition.

Hobbes began the tradition when he postulated that each man always acts with a view to his own benefit. But this, with Hobbes, did not mean that men would fight to the death for freedom. Since men, in his opinion, were compelled to avoid violent death as the greatest of evils, they were content to accept a Leviathan state with an arbitrary power to keep the peace. Hobbes may have been an individualist, but he offered no defense against the coming of the totalitarian State. Nor did Spinoza, despite his feeling that human beings aim to persist in being not only to avoid death, “but in order to assert themselves in the world as the individuals they are.”

Gray says that Hobbes and Spinoza belong to “the prehistory of liberalism.” The Spanish Jesuits of the School of Salamanca anticipated some of the themes of the classical liberals of the Scottish Enlightenment when they argued that the just price of any commodity was the market price. But, as Gray puts it, “the central elements of the liberal outlook crystallized for the first time into a coherent intellectual tradition” in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke was the first to link the rights to personal property and individual liberty. To him, the property fight came from mixing one’s personal labor with natural resources appropriated without theft. It was the duty of government to protect the property fight under the role of law. The acceptance of Locke’s theories was essential to the full flowering of the capitalist order. The American Revolution of 1776 might be called the colonial version of the English Glorious Revolution of 1688, which Locke’s theories touched off.

Classical liberalism, developed in detail by the Scottish philosophers and Adam Smith, gave a distinct character to the first half of the nineteenth century in England. The classical economists of this period subscribed to the theory that the State had only night watchman functions. But theory and practice did not al ways jibe. The first Factory Acts, passed in the early decades of the century, were an infringement of the laissez- faire doctrine. There came a real split with John Stuart Mill, who held that the State had rights to distribution of the capitalist product once it had come into existence. Mill was the first important revisionist liberal.

Gray is good when it comes to tracing the ramifications of revisionist liberalism in Britain and the attempts to backtrack from it to a classical stance. He is less satisfactory when it comes to a description of the American scene. The revolt against Fabian revisionism in the U.S. was considerably more than can be found in the work of Robert Nozick. Gray makes no mention of such important anti-revisionist rebels as Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, Claude Robinson, Henry Hazlitt, and Leonard Read. Despite the failure to give credit where it is due on this side of the Atlantic, Gray’s final defense of the free market is first-rate. []

Editors’ Note: For another perspective on Professor Gray’s Liberalism, we are pleased to publish the following review by Professor Richard Ebeling of the University of Dallas.

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November 1986

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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