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Friday, October 19, 2007

What Nearly Killed Liberalism


The shifting meaning of the word liberal in the direction of statism has been analyzed often. I've done it myself here. But a few years ago Anthony de Jasay wrote a short comment on the matter that deserves attention. For Mr. de Jasay, the problem is not merely terminological. As he wrote in Liberalism, Loose or Strict (The Independent Review, Winter 2005), while political ideas such as nationalism and socialism have had foundational principles, Liberalism, I maintain, has never had such an irreducible and unalterable core element. As a doctrine, it has always been rather loose, tolerant of heterogeneous components, easy to influence, open to infiltration by alien ideas that are in fact inconsistent with any coherent version of it. One is tempted to say that liberalism cannot protect itself because its 'immune system' is too weak.

His statement does seem to explain why liberalism has taken many forms over the centuries. People with quite diverse political philosophies have managed to be regarded as proponents. That rock-solid rights theorists and shaky utilitarians have shared the label is enough to make one stop and rethink. As Mr. de Jasay says, there is indeed a protean character at the foundation of liberalism. He explores that foundation in search of an explanation and first encounters the love of liberty, adding, In more philosophical language, liberty is a value, final or instrumental, that we hold dear. But he finds more.

However, liberty is not the sole value, not even the sole political value. It has many rivals: security of person and property, security of subsistence, equality of many kinds, protection for the weak against the strong, the progress of knowledge and the arts, glory and greatness; the list might be virtually endless. Many if not most of these values can be realized only by curtailing freedom. It is contrary to the liberal spirit of tolerance and love of liberty to reject these values and to dispute anyone’s freedom to cherish some of them even at the expense of freedom. The love of liberty allows trade-offs between itself and other things. The amount of freedom that should be given up for a certain amount of security or equality or any other worthy objective that at least some people want to achieve is obviously a subjective matter, my values against yours, my argument against yours. Disagreement is legitimate. From this foundation, therefore, the evolution of the doctrine tends toward allowing rival values more and more lebensraum, to incorporate and cooperate with them. What results is a variable mishmash, all things to all men.

This doesn't augur well for those who place liberty at the top of hierarchy of political values. Things got worse when utilitarianism came into its own. It is hard to believe that this doctrine of the greatest good (pleasure, happiness) for the greatest number ever took root among advocates of liberty. It was a product of the positivist mindset, which held that reason can't judge ultimate values. But what could hold more peril than this principle, which is nothing less than a blank check for the state? Even if liberty is thought more likely than not to work for the greatest good, the utilitarian must concede that there may be exceptions. (Why not execute an innocent person for a crime if doing so will deter future crimes and save many more lives?) To claim there won't be exceptions would be, in Hayek's phrase, a pretense of knowledge. What then? If the utilitarian sticks with his doctrine, then bye-bye liberty principle. If he chooses liberty, he renounces his doctrine.

Rule-utilitarianism doesn't extricate him from this sticky wicket. A bit of background: critics of utilitarianism have long pointed out that this principle isn't much help in judging individual actions because limited knowledge prevents one from knowing which course will indeed produce the greatest good. In a valiant attempt to salvage their doctrine, some utilitarians took up rule-utilitarianism, attributable to David Hume, as a viable alternative to act-utilitarianism. The modified doctrine holds that it is not individual acts that are to be judged by the utilitarian standard, but the rules we act by. As Henry Hazlitt, an advocate of the doctrine, put it in The Foundations of Morality, It is not impossible for [any person] to know, however, what the probable consequences will be of following a generally accepted rule. For these probable consequences are known as a result of the whole of human experience.

So this brand of utilitarianism counsels that we should choose rules that tend to promote the general good (liberal rules), then stick to those rules come hell or high water. The need of adhering to general rules is plain, Hazlitt writes. …An 'exception' to a rule must not be capricious, but itself capable of being stated as a rule, capable of being made part of a rule, of being embodied in a rule.

A Slight Problem

There's just one problem with rule-utilitarianism. If it is taken seriously, it ceases to be utilitarianism at all. As Roderick Long has pointed out, the moment we resolve to follow a rule that tends to promote the greatest good regardless of the consequences in particular cases, we are no longer utilitarians. We're deontologists, treating rules the way a non-consequentialist would. (Utilitarians pride themselves on judging rules and actions strictly by their consequences.)

On the other hand, if we ignore the rule when we think doing so will achieve the greatest good, we have fallen back to act-utilitarianism. So why the detour through rule-utilitarianism? (Long finds the same fascinating dilemma in the rule-egoism of Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy. See his Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand. Is there a way out? Yes, Aristotelian ethics, in which virtue is not merely a means to, but also an integral component of, happiness or the good life. Besides Long's paper, see Neera Badhwar's Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness?)

The fine points of utilitarianism aside, Mr. de Jasay indicts the utilitarian giants, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, for weakening liberalism.

Liberal politics became the politics of betterment in all directions. There is always an inexhaustible fund of good ideas for improving things by reforming and changing institutions, by making new laws and regulations, and perhaps above all by constantly adjusting the distribution of wealth and income so as to make it yield more total utility. John Stuart Mill explicitly laid down that whereas the production of wealth is governed by economic laws, its distribution is for society to decide. Utilitarianism made such redistribution not only legitimate but mandatory because by failing to increase total utility by redistributing incomes, we fail to do the good that we can do. A mandate for overall betterment is, of course, a sure recipe for unlimited government.

To those who would respond that Mill's harm principle — [T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others — is a bulwark against tyranny, Mr. de Jasay demurs: [W]hat constitutes harm and how much harm justifies the use of state power are inherently subjective matters of judgment. There is a vast area of putative or real externalities that some people regard as grounds for government interference, whereas others regard them as simply facts of life, best left to sort themselves out. The harm principle, being wide open to interpretation, is progressively expanding its domain…. [C]ertain modern political philosophers invoke the harm principle to make it mandatory for the state to force the well-off to assist those who would be harmed by the lack of assistance…. John Stuart Mill thought that he was defending liberty, but he ended up shackling it in strands of confusion.

We seem to have a philosophical mess on our hands. But there's hope. Next week: Anthony de Jasay's Strict Liberalism.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.