All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1965

The New Liberalism

Editor’s note: To David Lawrence and his editorial in U. S. News and World Report of August 23, we are indebted for the reminder of Herbert Spencer’s classic presentation of the case for individual liberty.

The following excerpts are from the collection of Spencer’s essays, written during the latter nineteenth century and repub­lished by Caxton Printers in 1940 as The Man Versus The State (213 pp. $3.50 cloth; also available from the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.)

It seems needful to remind everybody what Liberalism was in the past, that they may perceive its unlikeness to the so-called Lib­eralism of the present…. They do not remember that, in one or other way, all these truly Liberal changes diminished compulsory co-operation throughout social life and increased voluntary co-opera­tion. They have forgotten that in one direction or other, they di­minished the range of governmen­tal authority, and increased the area within which each citizen may act unchecked. They have lost sight of the truth that in past times Liberalism habitually stood for individual freedom versus State-coercion.

And now comes the inquiry—How is it that Liberals have lost sight of this? How is it that Lib­eralism, getting more and more into power, has grown more and more coercive in its legislation? How is it that, either directly through its own majorities or in­directly through aid given in such cases to the majorities of its op­ponents, Liberalism has to an in­creasing extent adopted the policy of dictating the actions of citizens, and, by consequence, diminishing the range throughout which their actions remain free? How are we to explain this spreading confu­sion of thought which has led it, in pursuit of what appears to be public good, to invert the method by which in earlier days it achieved public good?

Unaccountable as at first sight this unconscious change of policy seems, we shall find that it has arisen quite naturally. Given the unanalytical thought ordinarily brought to bear on political mat­ters, and, under existing condi­tions, nothing else was to be ex­pected….

For what, in the popular appre­hension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past? They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people, or by portions of them: this was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men’s minds. They were mitigations of evils which had directly or indi­rectly been felt by large classes of citizens, as causes to misery or as hindrances to happiness. And since, in the minds of most, a rec­tified evil is equivalent to an achieved good, these measures came to be thought of as so many positive benefits; and the welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Lib­eralism. Hence the confusion. The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait com­mon to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, 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….

Things to Come

But we are far from forming an adequate conception if we look only at the compulsory legislation which has actually been estab­lished of late years. We must look also at that which is advocated, and which threatens to be far more sweeping in range and strin­gent in character. We have lately had a Cabinet Minister, one of the most advanced Liberals, so-called, who pooh-poohs the plans of the late Government for improving industrial dwellings as so much “tin­kering”; and contends for effec­tual coercion to be exercised over owners of small houses, over land­owners, and over ratepayers. Here is another Cabinet Minister who, 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”: that is to say, some exten­sive Government measure is called for.

Again, we have a Radical mem­ber of Parliament who leads a large and powerful body, aiming with annually-increasing promise of success, to enforce sobriety by giving to local majorities powers to prevent freedom of exchange in respect of certain commodities. Regulation of the hours of labour for certain classes, which has been made more and more general by successive extensions of the Fac­tories Acts, is likely now to be made still more general: a meas­ure is to be proposed bringing the employees in all shops under such regulation.

There is a rising demand, too, that education shall be made gra­tis (i.e., tax-supported), for all. The payment of school-fees is be­ginning to be denounced as a wrong: the State must take the whole burden. Moreover, it is pro­posed by many that the State, re­garded as an undoubtedly compe­tent judge of what constitutes good education for the poor, shall undertake also to prescribe good education for the middle class—shall stamp the children of these, too, after a State pattern, concerning the goodness of which they have no more doubt than the Chi­nese had when they fixed theirs. Then there is the “endowment of research,” of late energetically urged. Already the Government gives every year the sum of £4,000 for this purpose, to be distributed through the Royal Society; and, in the absence of those who have strong motives for resisting the pressure of the interested, backed by those they easily persuade, it may by-and-by establish that paid “priesthood of science” long ago advocated by Sir David Brewster. Once more, 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.

Nor does enumeration of these further measures of coercive rule, looming on us near at hand or in the distance, complete the account. Nothing more than cursory allu­sion has yet been made to that ac­companying compulsion which takes the form of increased taxa­tion, general and local. Partly for defraying the costs of carrying out these ever-multiplying sets of reg­ulations, each of which requires an additional staff of officers, and partly to meet the outlay for new public institutions, such as board-schools, free libraries, public mu­seums, baths and washhouses, rec­reation grounds, &c., &c., local rates are year after year in­creased; as the general taxation is increased by grants for educa­tion and to the departments of science and art, &c. Every one of these involves further coercion—restricts still more the freedom of the citizen. For the implied ad­dress accompanying every addi­tional exaction is—”Hitherto you have been free to spend this por­tion of your earnings in any way which pleased you; hereafter you shall not be free so to spend it, but we will spend it for the general benefit.” Thus, either directly or indirectly, and in most cases both at once, the citizen is at each fur­ther stage in the growth of this compulsory legislation, deprived of some liberty which he previous­ly had..

Impact on the Individual

In the first place, the real issue is whether the lives of citizens are more interfered with than they were; not the nature of the agency which interferes with them. Take a simpler case. A member of a trades’ union has joined others in establishing an organization of a purely representative character. By it he is compelled to strike if a majority so decide; he is forbid­den to accept work save under the conditions they dictate; he is prevented from profiting by his su­perior ability or energy to the ex­tent he might do were it not for their interdict. He cannot disobey without abandoning those pecuni­ary benefits of the organization for which he has subscribed, and bringing on himself the persecu­tion, and perhaps violence, of his fellows. Is he any the less coerced because the body coercing him is one which he had an equal voice with the rest in forming?

In the second place, if it be ob­jected that the analogy is faulty, since the governing body of a na­tion, to which, as protector of the national life and interests, all must submit under penalty of so­cial disorganization, has a far higher authority over citizens than the government of any private or­ganization can have over its mem­bers; then the reply is that, grant­ing the difference, the answer made continues valid. If men use their liberty in such a way as to surrender their liberty, are they thereafter any the less slaves? If people by a plebiscite elect a man despot over them, do they remain free because the despotism was of their own making? Are the coercive edicts issued by him to be regarded as legitimate because they are the ultimate outcome of their own votes?…

This reply is, that these multi­tudinous restraining acts are not defensible on the ground that they proceed from a popularly-chosen body; for that the authority of a popularly-chosen body is no more to be regarded as an unlimited au­thority than the authority of a monarch; and that as true Liber­alism in the past disputed the as­sumption of a monarch’s unlim­ited authority, so true Liberalism in the present will dispute the as­sumption of unlimited parliamen­tary authority….

Not the Form of Government, But the Restraints Imposed

The liberty which a citizen en­joys is to be measured, not by the nature of the governmental ma­chinery he lives under, whether representative or other, but by the relative paucity of the restraints it imposes on him; and that, whether this machinery is or is not one he shared in making, its actions are not of the kind proper to Liberalism if they increase such restraints beyond those which are needful for preventing him from directly or indirectly aggressing on his fellows—needful, that is, for maintaining the liberties of his fellows against his invasions of them: restraints which are, therefore, to be distinguished as negatively coercive, not positively coercive….

Paper constitutions raise smiles on the faces of those who have observed their results; and paper social systems similarly affect those who have contemplated the available evidence. How little the men who wrought the French Revolution and were chiefly con­cerned in setting up the new gov­ernmental apparatus, dreamt that one of the early actions of this ap­paratus would be to behead them all! How little the men who drew up the American Declaration of Independence and framed the re­public, anticipated that after some generations the legislature would lapse into the hands of wire-pull­ers; that its doings would turn upon the contests of office-seekers; that political action would be everywhere vitiated by the intru­sion of a foreign element holding the balance between parties; that electors, instead of judging for themselves, would habitually be led to the polls in thousands by their “bosses”; and that respect­able men would be driven out of public life by the insults and slanders of professional politi­cians….

The working of institutions is determined by men’s characters; and the existing defects in their characters will inevitably bring about the results above indicated. There is no adequate endowment of those sentiments required to prevent the growth of a despotic bureaucracy….

How Unselfish Are They?

But without occupying space with indirect proofs that the mass of men have not the natures re­quired to check the development of tyrannical officialism, it will suffice to contemplate the direct proofs furnished by those classes among whom the socialistic idea most predominates, and who think themselves most interested in propagating it; the operative classes. These would constitute the great body of the socialistic or­ganization, and their characters would determine its nature. What, then, are their characters as dis­played in such organizations as they have already formed?

Instead of the selfishness of the employing classes and the selfish­ness of competition, we are to have the unselfishness of a mu­tually-aiding system. How far is this unselfishness now shown in the behavior of working men to one another? What shall we say to the rules limiting the numbers of new hands admitted into each trade, or to the rules which hinder ascent from inferior classes of workers to superior classes? One does not see in such regulations any of that altruism by which so­cialism is to be pervaded. Con­trariwise, one sees a pursuit of private interests no less keen than among traders. Hence, unless we suppose that men’s natures will be suddenly exalted, we must con­clude that the pursuit of private interests will sway the doings of all the component classes in a so­cialistic society.

With passive disregard of others’ claims goes active en­croachment on them. “Be one of us or we will cut off your means of living,” is the usual threat of each trades-union to outsiders of the same trade. While their members insist on their own freedom to combine and fix the rates at which they will work (as they are per­fectly justified in doing), the free­dom of those who disagree with them is not only denied but the assertion of it is treated as a crime. Individuals who maintain their rights to make their own contracts are vilified as “black­legs” and “traitors,” and meet with violence which would be mer­ciless were there no legal penalties and no police.

The Closed Shop

Along with this trampling on the liberties of men of their own class, there goes peremptory dicta­tion to the employing class: not prescribed terms and working ar­rangements only shall be con­formed to, but none save those be­longing to their body shall be em­ployed; nay, in some cases, there shall be a strike if the employer carries on transactions with trad­ing bodies that give work to non­union men. Here, then, we are variously shown by trades-unions, or at any rate by the newer trades-unions, a determination to impose their regulations without regard to the rights of those who are to be coerced. So complete is the in­version of ideas and sentiments that maintenance of these rights is regarded as vicious and tres­pass upon them as virtuous.*

Along with this aggressiveness in one direction there goes submis­siveness in another direction. The coercion of outsiders by unionists is paralleled only by their subjec­tion to their leaders. That they may conquer in the struggle they sur­render their individual liberties and individual judgments, and show no resentment, however dic­tatorial may be the rule exercised over them. Everywhere we see such subordination that bodies of work­men unanimously leave their work or return to it as their authorities order them. Nor do they resist when taxed all round to support strikers whose acts they may or may not approve, but instead, ill-treat recalcitrant members of their body who do not subscribe.

How Far Will They Go?

The traits thus shown must be operative in any new social organi­zation, and the question to be asked is, What will result from their operation when they are relieved from all restraints? At present the separate bodies of men displaying them are in the midst of a society partially passive, partially antago­nistic; are subject to the criticisms and reprobations of an independ­ent press; and are under the con­trol of law, enforced by police. If in these circumstances these bodies habitually take courses which over­ride individual freedom, what will happen when, instead of being only scattered parts of the community, governed by their separate sets of regulators, they constitute the whole community, governed by a consolidated system of such regu­lators; when functionaries of all orders, including those who officer the press, form parts of the regula­tive organization; and when the law is both enacted and adminis­tered by this regulative organiza­tion?

The fanatical adherents of a so­cial theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how ex­treme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coer­cion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own in­terests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual work­ers; until, eventually, there is de­veloped an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

*Marvellous are the conclusions men reach when once they desert the simple principle that each man should be al­lowed to pursue the objects of life, re­strained only by the limits which the similar pursuits of their objects by other men impose. A generation ago we heard loud assertions of “the right to labor,” that is, the right to have labor pro­vided; and there are still not a few who think the community bound to find work for each person. Compare this with the doctrine current in France at the time when the monarchical power culminated; namely, that “the right of working is a royal right which the prince can sell and the subjects must buy.” This con­trast is startling enough; but a con­trast still more startling is being pro­vided for us. We now see a resuscitation of the despotic doctrine, differing only by the substitution of trades-unions for kings. For now that trades-unions are becoming universal, and each artisan has to pay prescribed monies to one or another of them, with the alternative of being a non-unionist to whom work is denied by force, it has come to this: that the right to labor is a trade-union right, which the trade-union can sell and the individual worker must buy!

  • Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was one of the leading 19th century English radical individualists. He began working as a journalist for the laissez-faire magazine The Economist in the 1850s. Much of the rest of his life was spent working on an all-encompassing theory of human development based upon the ideas of individualism, utilitarian moral theory, social and biological evolution, limited government, and laissez-faire economics.