All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 1985

A Reviewers Notebook: Liberalism Proper and Proper Liberalism


Gottfried Dietze, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University, enjoys playing semantic games. A good bit of juggling is required to explain the exact connotations of the title of his latest book, Liberalism Proper and Proper Liberalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 282 pp., $27.50). In the first place, it must be understood that Dietze is not talking about what passes for liberalism in contemporary America, where the word has become a synonym for socialism and State interventionism. But beyond that there is the quibble involved in the placement of the qualifying word “proper.” When Dietze uses the adjective “proper” after the noun “liberalism,” he does it without any ethical or moral implication. He is talking about liberty without restriction. Libertarianism would be a better word for it. But when he shifts the placement of his adjective, putting it ahead of the noun, he brings standards of good moral behavior into the picture.

This is his roundabout way of introducing a book about the political thought of four eighteenth-century classical liberals, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Kant and Jefferson. These four seminal thinkers, whose lives spanned the period from the Glorious Revolution in England in 1689 (the year of Montesquieu’s birth) to 1826 (the date of Jefferson’s death), talked about freedom and liberty as grand abstractions. But not one of them would have been able to pass a test of consistency administered by a modern libertarian. They all believed in the existence of a moral law, and saw no quarrel with liberalism if such law were to be made the basis of legislation putting restrictions on the private individual. In other words, they were for limited government.

They were, all of them, republicans, not democrats. Dietze confuses the issue in a later chapter when he speaks of “democracy proper” and “proper democracy . . . . . Democracy proper” means a majority rule, whether for good or for evil. “Proper democracy” means a democracy that acts in accordance with the kind of proper liberalism espoused by Montesquieu, Smith, Kant and Jeffer son. It would have been simpler if Dietze had used older definitions of limited versus unlimited government, or of democracy versus republicanism.

Montesquieu

Montesquieu, though an aristocrat, had had his fill of a tyrannical monarchy (“L’état, c’est moi”). As “a man of measure” he sought a way of turning government over to the people without running the risk of a tyranny of the majority. The English Constitution, which was a conglomeration, appealed to him. English rights had been won over the centuries and were embodied in the separate documents of Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the Bill of Rights. There were also the court decisions based on Anglo-Saxon common law. The late Willmoore Kendall always insisted that the Lockean Glorious Revolution of 1689 had merely substituted the absolutism of Parliament for the absolutism of the Stuart kings. But Montesquieu would not have understood Kendall. He saw England as the land of governmental checks and balances. Parliament could pass laws, but only after the give-and-take of argument in two legislative houses. The lords could always veto the commoners, and the monarch had his influence and his executive discretion. Montesquieu doesn’t speak much of the third power of the judges, but they were there as a check on the abuse of power whenever elected or appointed officials ignored the limits imposed by parliamentary mandate or the common law.

Restrictions on government did not mean that Montesquieu favored a weak state. He went along with the English animus against military forts and land forces. But as a nation possessing a great commerce, England was justified in maintaining a navy (an armée de mer) to guarantee protection against invasions. Dietze says that Montesquieu assigned an important role to taxation for the money needed for security measures. Though he wanted the range of public affairs to be supervised by liberal republicans, Montesquieu “still saw a need for a vigorous government that is able to defend a large nation against foreign enemies and domestic dangers and thought that management of population growth and of the economic administration of relief for the poor, and other such projects, are included in the task of providing security.”

Adam Smith

Montesquieu’s interest in the protection of commercial freedoms exercised in a context of morality pointed the way for Adam Smith. Dietze pays special attention to Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in presenting the Smith theories of society and government. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments the “great end” is “the order of the world, and the perfection and happiness of human nature.” The “order of the world” is composed of smaller orders, such as the state, and smaller “orders and societies into which the state is divided.” The individual’s liberty is restricted not only by ethical and moral considerations, by divine and natural law, but also by norms set by men. Liberty had to be under enforcible law if justice were to prevail among men.

This is far from the stereotype that makes Smith the patron saint of “anything goes.” He talked a lot about the moral value of benevolence in the Moral Sentiments. But justice came first. And the mercantilist laws of England in 1776 seemed manifestly unjust.

Dietze takes Smith in his natural setting of the Scotland of his time. Smith owed as much to his teacher, Francis Hutcheson, as he did to David Hume. He “tempered Hume’s doctrine of self- interest by a Hutch-esonian humanity.” He was “a man of measure.”

Immanuel Kant, like Montesquieu and Smith, made freedom a touchstone. But he stressed, more than Montesquieu and Smith, the “moral imperative restricting our freedom.” The moral law, said Kant, obligates men to put duty before the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson, the product of a different ethos, put more faith than Kant in the capacity of the common man to combine morality with the pursuit of happiness. They were both”men of measure” nevertheless.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.