[This is, in full, the monograph The Principles of Classical Liberalism that Murphey published under the label “A New Liberal Library Monograph” in 1972.  There is no Table of Contents, but each section of the monograph is short.]

 

THE PRINCIPLES OF CLASSICAL LIBERALISM 

 

"Classical Liberalism"

 

Definition. A great deal that is in fact heterogeneous passes under the "conservative" label in the United States today. In popular parlance an individual would certainly be called a "conservative" who favors a society based on

  • Private property and the market economy;

  • A state with relatively few powers, which are decentralized, constitutionally limited and in general subject to the Rule of Law;

  • The middle class, with the family as the basic social unit and an ethical order stressing self-reliance, effort and responsibility;

  • A philosophical perspective that views man as capable and yet as inclined to abuse power; that is rationalistic but still humble; and that, although modern, is outside the left-oriented mainstream of modern intellectuality.

From a philosophical standpoint, however, such a person would more accurately be described as a "classical liberal." The word "conservative" may have to be applied to him for want of a better term and is partly appropriate because he is opposed to the Welfare State and because his views have been on the defensive, but he is not philosophically or temperamentally a stand-patter. Nor is he a conservative in the historic European sense; the classical liberal was in earlier centuries the most articulate opponent of the medievalist world-view.

To differentiate him from today's "liberalism," however, it is necessary to call him a "classical liberal." His liberalism finds its genuine roots in what was called liberalism in early America and in what is still called liberalism in European usage.

 

Scope. A listing of the main ingredients of classical liberalism ought not to obscure the fact that there have been countless individual points of view within it. The term is able as a generic noun to accommodate such diverse individuals as, say, Frederic Bastiat and Herbert Hoover. Bastiat, a nineteenth century French economist, held to the "social compact" theory so popular during the Enlightenment -- and advocated a government with strictly limited protective functions. On the other hand, Hoover stated a clearly classical liberal rationale in his book The Challenge to Liberty, but emphasized that "we have long since abandoned the laissez faire of the eighteenth century." The difference between them does not establish that one of them was not truly a classical liberal; rather, it illustrates the diversity within the movement.

Today there are those who are exploring anarcho-capitalism, not wanting any government. It can be said that they are by definition not classical liberals, but this ought not to obscure their deep classical liberal roots. So, too, are there those who seek a fusion with Burkean traditionalism -- and come up with something of both.

 

Historical Development. Classical liberal thinking and practices have developed over many centuries and cannot be ascribed to a single source. The ancients contributed much; even the feudal ideals of the Middle Ages contained important ingredients. In his The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek has traced a 2500 year development of the Rule of Law as a restraint upon arbitrary government.

The development of classical liberalism as a comprehensive social philosophy awaited, however, the rise of the commercial middle class at the end of the Middle Ages. Although a Marxian class critique is clearly wrong, it is not incorrect to note that classical liberalism has a strong and necessary identification with the middle class; indeed, the middle class is both its vehicle and a sine qua non to its success.

Classical and neo-classical economics has most thoroughly formulated classical liberal thinking. Although there are many "non-economic" elements in its total position, classical liberalism has primarily been formulated as a "theory of capitalism."

For more than a century it has been on the defensive. The world's intellectuals have overwhelmingly gone to the left. The result has been that the free society has been deprived of continuing sympathetic intellectual work on a large scale. On the defensive, classical liberal intellectuals have had two divergent tendencies: to become shallow apologists, or to probe more deeply. There are today countless intellectual tasks left undone; there is a tendency to isolation and fragmentation; and yet in other ways ours is an extremely fruitful period for classical liberal thought, with such thinkers as Rand, Friedman, Mises and Hayek.

 

Differentiation from a Contemporary "Liberal." Classical liberals would generally think ludicrous the argument that Welfare State "liberalism" arises out of classical liberal origins. They view classical liberalism as, after all, the enemy of the Welfare State.

But the issue is not so easily resolved. In The Cause Is Mankind, Hubert Humphrey argued that his views were merely an extension of classical liberalism, with simply an added willingness to use government beneficently. Eric Goldman made the same point in Rendezvous With Destiny.

Were this argument accepted, it would mean that no real philosophical difference existed between Hubert Humphrey and Robert A. Taft. Taft was willing to have government "place a floor" under living standards, but was in countless ways distinguishable from contemporary "liberalism."

There is some historical evidence for the Humphrey-Goldman claim. Some men have begun as clear-cut classical liberals and have then moved to an advocacy of an active state. Woodrow Wilson's change of position in the middle of his 1912 campaign provides a good example.

Welfare State "liberalism" as a whole is, however, not a product of such shifts, but of an intellectual movement thath began as early as the generation of Emerson and Thoreau in the early nineteenth century. It involved a deep alienation by a growing number of intellectuals from middle class culture, an alienation clearly evidenced in the writings of Veblen, Dreiser, London, Bellamy, Sinclair Lewis and innumerable others.

To the extent that modern liberalism is the result of this alienation and of the leftist ideology based on that disaffection, it is a species of socialist thought, not a progeny of classical liberalism. To the extent, however, that a person has absorbed its Zeitgeist without drinking deeply at the well of alienation and of socialist thinking, he may not have drifted too far from classical liberalism. Such a man would still have a cultural identification with American life and its past ideals, despite his acceptance of current "liberal" cliches.

 

Contemporary "Relevance." As the very minimum, we can expect that there will always be some thinkers who will understand and favor the ideals of individual liberty.  But classical liberalism has even more relevance today than this minimum would suggest. America, despite a constant pull to the left, still retains much of it. American life has rolled on, expanded and prospered for many decades in spite of all the attacks on our culture and system; it has given way some, but not altogether. It is still basically capitalist, middle class and unwilling to move quickly from its heritage, despite significant spiritual, intellectual and constitutional shifts.

In the short run, as Kevin Phillips has argued, there may be a new suburban, western and southern demographic base forming for it. In the long run, we can see that as we move into the space age the human options will not be tied to contemporary social neuroses. In the transition, classical liberalism, provided it can regain intellectual impetus, will have a renewed opportunity.  

 

The Philosophy: Some Fundamentals

Identification with the "Bourgeoisie." The democratic aspiration has long been that the average man, the so-called "common man," be able to rise to a level of intelligence, freedom and culture. This aspiration has largely been achieved in modern Europe and America. And yet it is one of the surprising facts of history that hardly anyone has articulated a viewpoint favorable to the overwhelmingly predominant social "class" of the modern era, which is constituted of such men -- the commercial middle class or (to use a French word) the "bourgeoisie." Only the classical liberal has championed its cause and perceived its relationship to mankind's democratic aspiration.

The Roman or Greek aristocrat of ancient times looked with some contempt upon the man of trade. The same attitude was exemplified by the landed aristocrat during the Middle Ages. In modern western civilization it has been the intellectual who has been the acting man's primary rival for power and prestige; it has been the members of the "intelligentsia" who have had most to say about the bourgeoisie -- and what they have said has been almost invariably critical.

Marx pictured the bourgeoisie as oppressors and predicted their "inevitable" overthrow. Veblen analyzed their culture in Rousseauistic terms as based pervasively on "invidious comparison." Sinclair Lewis wrote of the fictional businessman Babbitt as though he were an unregenerate mediocrity. Hitler decried having been born in an "age of shopkeepers."

And yet a classical liberal views trade and the trading .life as the very soul of voluntarism and as certainly far more noble and moral than any of the coercivist organizations of society. Ayn Rand may shock some when she makes the dollar sign her symbol, but that sign symbolizes the moral value of the act of free exchange. If we seek a society of self-reliant men, and seek this for the population in general, it is to a system of free trade -- and to the resulting bourgeois lifestyle -- that the classical liberal will look.

 

Central Concern for Liberty. The classical liberal considers the central difficulty in human life to have been the denial of individual liberty.  A Marxist views history as a struggle of social classes; a follower of Freud such as Norman 0. Brown may look upon it psychoanalytically; Robert Ardrey in African Genesis interprets it in terms of man's animal origins; countless other thinkers ascribe still different meanings to history. For his part, the classical liberal thinks of history as having been primarily a struggle for liberty.

Of the many definitions of "liberty," the classical liberal holds those to be spurious that do not concern themselves with the problem of coercion. By coercion is meant one man's manipulation of another's circumstances in a way to cause him to act as the first desires, where the effect is detrimental from the point of view of the man manipulated.

Socialist definitions of "liberty" are not centrally concerned with coercion in this sense. The upshot is that socialists are willing to use the state or a collectivist social order in an effort to achieve some other goal that they think desirable and that they call "liberty." This other goal varies, depending upon the type of socialist.

 

Aspirations for Human Dignity. Every philosophy claims, perhaps sincerely, to seek human dignity. To a classical liberal, however, this aspiration has at least two specific ingredients. The first is that he looks back upon history and sees all of the immense human degradation and laceration that has occurred in the building of the pyramids by the Pharoahs, the burning of heretics by the Inquisition, the gassing of Jews in Nazi Germany and the brutal incarceration of millions in Stalin labor camps. In striving for a society founded upon a voluntary nexus, the classical liberal seeks to obviate this degradation -- to permit human beings to live as their own agents rather than as effluvia in the maelstrom of power-lusts.

The second is that he views the free society as a peaceable, productive plateau from which men may rise to illimitable heights of intellectual, aesthetic, artistic and moral attainment. In this sense, it is a tragedy that the voluntaristic society has come to be identified so closely with the mundane lifestyle of the "bourgeoisie." Though the free society is based upon that broad social class and its way of life, that lifestyle needs frequently to be transcended. Classical liberalism, as best conceived, contemplates substantial human greatness.

 

Intellectual Humility. Classical liberals are diverse as to the religious and metaphysical foundations given for their social philosophy. My own formulation is existentialist: I view the primary metaphysical reason for liberty to be precisely in the fact that the cosmos does not give human life an assigned meaning, that values do not exist as attributes of inert matter but come from within human beings, that metaphysically there is no stamp of validation on any given set of values. In this state of things, I am struck by a cosmic humility; I have no perceivable basis for insisting that all men march to the same drum. Yet, there are immediate difficulties. What if one man chooses to kill, the other not to be killed? I answer, without any cosmic pretensions whatsoever, that as an act of will I prefer life -- and proceed to formulate a social construct that will permit life, but still with as little interference with men's value choices as that goal will permit. Thus we arrive at a view of society as properly being based on voluntary human action within a social order that imposes such constraints as are necessary to preserve a general voluntarism.

Whatever their metaphysical suppositions, all classical liberals share in something akin to this "cosmic humility." When they are willing to admit another man's right to his own pursuits or beliefs, they are in effect saying that they do not have the conviction that they have all of the answers for him. They do not, like the religious antagonists of the sixteenth century, feel a compulsion to save the other man's soul.

 

Rationalism, Secularism. Despite this basic humility, classical liberals are fundamentally rationalistic in the sense that they wish to think through their social institutions and not take them on faith or simply because they are old. This is the reason Burkean traditionalists often think classical liberalism not-far-separated from socialist thought; the man who places deep reliance on faith and prescription necessarily thinks, by virtue of his own perspective, that all forms of social planning are closely related. But there is a basic difference between classical liberal and socialist planning: one plans only in order to establish the prerequisites for a voluntaristic, "unplanned" society; the other often wishes to have a continuing voice in what men do.

Secularism is a concern for the things of this world as distinguished from a preoccupation with the "City of God." It is as characteristic of classical liberalism as of the other major varieties of modern thought. It is implicit in classical liberalism's rationalism and in its championing of the commercial way of life. This is not to say, of course, that many classical liberals do not believe deeply in Christianity; the "Protestant Ethic" has even been an important part of the classical liberal heritage.

 

The "Vitalist Perspective." Perhaps one of the most important mental characteristics of the classical liberal is that he has come to hold what I call the "vitalist perspective." He is persuaded that the world can in fact operate successfully if people are left to their own devices (assuming a social order that establishes the preconditions for this). He does not think that liberty is chaos. He is willing to rely on human vitality; men are not inert matter.

The assumption that liberty is chaos pervades non-classical liberal thinking. The modern liberal assumes that if the coal mines in West Virginia close, the "poor miners" will be destitute permanently unless they receive government help; the classical liberal would look to the miners' own energies as the readiest way out of their difficulties.

Actually, this perspective involves several separate elements. First, classical liberals view men as basically capable of handling their own affairs; they indulge no supposition that many men are non compos mentis (though this is an empirical assumption; if men in a given period prove incapable, their very incapacity will be one of the most potent reasons for their rejection of classical liberalism).

Second, the classical liberal feels deeply a moral imperative that men make themselves capable. His assertion of human capability is partly an empirical observation and partly a moral injunction. When he recalls the horrible degradation of the galley slave, he is ready to call out: "So conduct yourself that human life can be placed on a better footing." (Needless to say, if men lose sight of this moral imperative and are willing to discount it as merely a "WASP prejudice" or as "nothing more than" the "Protestant or middle class ethic," one of the spiritual preconditions of individual liberty is destroyed.)

The entire classical liberal "model" for society was built upon this assumption of human capability. Economists talked in terms of abundance arising out of the division of labor, itself the result of free trade. In the Fable of the Bees, Bernard Mandeville, though still influenced by many mercantilist assumptions, laid the foundation for classical and neo-classical economics when he spoke of the rich benefits to society that accrue from the "vice" of acquisitiveness. Adam Smith's conception of a workable market economy was predicated on a new realization of the harmony of voluntary human energies.

At the same time, the classical liberal has been a realist. He has not dreamt of far-off utopias; he has always recognized life as hard, resources as scarce. Unlike the socialist, he does not presume a "pie" to divide; the problem is for him primarily one of production, motivation, work. He is ready, in keeping with his principles generally, to let the distribution be determined by the contractual arrangements men choose to make. Many socialists have assumed that if only the greedy were restrained from taking too much there would be plenty; it was on this hypothesis that the utopias of Fourier and Bellamy were based a hundred years ago. Such New Left authors as Herbert Marcuse and Robert Theobald today seek to place this hypothesis on a less naive foundation and therefore say that "there may not have been enough abundance to accomplish that a century ago, but space age technology now makes it possible." We are reminded, however, of Sir Henry Maine's observation, which still holds good today, that mankind consumes its existing wealth very quickly; it only maintains its standard of living by a perpetual regeneration. If this is so, the acquisitive motivation to effort is not obsolete.

 

Its View of Man. Each philosophy ultimately falls back upon a certain view of human psychology. To the Augustinian Christian, as reflected in much Burkean writing, man is "depraved" as a result of "original sin"; he is weak of the flesh and spiritually dependent upon God and the Church. To the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and his tens of thousands of followers among the intelligentsia over the past two hundred years, man is simple and loving and good in "his original nature"; he is warped out of shape, however, by a society based on private property and acquisitiveness, which make greed and envy important human attributes. This view of man finds reflection in the view that "it is society's fault that a man becomes a criminal" and in the educational theory that all students are ready to learn if only the teacher doesn't make class too boring.

For his part, the classical liberal does not think the average man "depraved" or otherwise befouled -- although classical liberals differ among themselves as to whether they take, as Andrew Jackson did, an essentially democratic, hopeful view of the "common man" or, as Alexis de Tocqueville did, a more aristocratically pessimistic view. Man is both capable of taking care of himself and capable of decency, and has a moral imperative to achieve both.

The classical liberal at the same time recognizes that men frequently have other tendencies. It is often painful or unpleasant to exert effort; creative work requires at the least a certain modicum of patience and tedium; accordingly, there will always be pressures on the human being to recline into sloth. There is no empirical basis for the assumption that he is spontaneously, invariably energetic and intelligent, particularly if he is sheltered, as collectivism would often seek to shelter him, from the exigencies of life. If we think man totally vigorous, we err; if we think him totally inert, we err; the truth, says the classical liberal, lies between the two poles.

In any event, men are inclined to abuse coercive power. The dictum of Lord Acton is so well known as to be cliched: "Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely."  It is a tendency that classical liberals seek to frustrate whenever possible.

 

Approach to Human Weakness. Whatever generalization we may make about human capabilities, it is evident that many men are weak and that much of the human race is of relatively low intelligence. This is an inescapable given.

Burkean conservatism answers the problem of weakness by urging a benevolent hierarchical society, intending that the lower orders should be subordinated to the higher and that all should live happily within an organic whole. This was the view expressed by Samuel Johnson in the conversations reported by Boswell.

Socialist thought has often been implicitly elitist, with the intellectual assuming that he will lead, but because of the alliance of the intelligentsia with the "have-not" against the man of commerce that has been so important to the modern left, the ideology and rhetoric of socialism have most often sought an actual leveling of society. At least in the theoretical model, all persons are thrown into hotchpot and guaranteed roughly the same level of well-being without regard to their attainments. Thus, socialism treats human weakness by pulling all men down to approximately the same level. The moral implications of this are self-evident.

The classical liberal answer to weakness is to motivate by competitiveness, to assert the moral imperative, and to resort first to private charity and finally to local government and only as a last resort to the central government to give assistance to those who cannot make it. Contrary to a recent ruling of the United States Supreme Court based on modern liberal assumptions, the classical liberal would differentiate between the 'deserving poor" and those who are not deserving.

 

A Society of Individuals. It is rare that an author will sum up in a single passage the real essence of something vital. In his The Acquisitive Society, the British socialist R.H. Tawney has laid his suppositions bare when he has written that "to say that the end of social institutions is happiness, is to say that they have no common end at all. For happiness is individual, and to make happiness the object of society is to resolve society itself into the ambitions of numberless individuals, each directed towards the attainment of some personal purpose." In so saying, he has stated succinctly the major premise of collectivist thought.

The classical liberal couldn't disagree more vehemently; to him, the end of social institutions is precisely to permit numberless individuals to attain their personal purposes. He knows no mold into which he would feel justified in pouring them. We will see later, however, that the proponents of the free society do need to give additional attention to the human craving for a sense of community and for a transcendental purpose -- needs that an individualistic social order has not usually placed at the forefront of its objectives.

 

The Need for a Framework. The classical liberal seeks to maximize individual voluntarism, but in a hedonistic age this is easily misunderstood. Within the classical liberal conception of liberty there is as much emphasis on responsibility as on the individual's unfettered right to do as he pleases. A system of mutually recognized rights within a society containing over two hundred million people and involving extensive human interaction has complexities far surpassing anyone's "commonsense" intuition. It depends profoundly upon an omnipresent net of subtle cultural patterns or mores, an ethical sensibility shared by the overwhelming majority of the population, and finally upon law and government. The right of the individual to live his own life is the overriding purpose, but to accomplish his requires all of the cements that go to hold civilization together. There must be centripetal as well as centrifugal forces. An exploration of what these preconditions are is, in fact, the central subject of classical liberal discussion; it is this that will occupy us in the next section.  

 

The Classical Liberal "Model"

Classical Liberalism 's Social Ideal or "Model." Each social philosophy includes a conception of society as it would like to see it, a "model." Burkean conservatives often assert that they are non-rationalistic in this sense; they say that they do not have a model, but actually they do -- except that, believing they are right, they are unwilling to admit that their conception of society is a "construct." For its part, classical liberalism has a specific social ideal.

This is not to say that classical liberals all agree on the model or its sources. Eighteenth century theorists spoke of society established according to a "social contract"; the content of the contract varied from thinker to thinker. Others begin with a conception of, say, "property rights" and deduce the consequences of these rights under varying conditions; their reasoning is almost invariably deductive, with any questions of policy incorporated in their original definition of property. There is a strong "natural rights" tradition in classical liberalism -- founded on such thinkers as Locke and Jefferson -- to which these approaches are related.

Another method is to look upon classical liberalism as an attempt to accommodate as many diverse human values as possible, and to formulate a social model by the "weighing" of conflicting interests against each other with the purpose of arriving at principles that will provide a mutual accommodation wherever possible.

I personally prefer this latter methodology. In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek began with this method, but wound up with the Rule of Law as his exclusive criterion, apparently because his studies had persuaded him that the Rule of Law has been central in the historical development of liberty.

 

Reduction of Coercion. Those who make a specific concept, such as private property or the Rule of Law, the center of classical liberal theory must first define it and state why they choose the definition they do. Those who pursue the "accommodation of interests" approach will concern themselves with how best to establish a voluntary nexus; and here their attention will focus on the problem of coercion.

I have defined coercion as the detrimental manipulation of another's alternatives. If A wants B to do something (such as to work for him) and makes this more attractive than B's alternatives, but does so by placing a penalty on those alternatives (such as "if you do any of them, I will harm your children"), then he may get B to do it; he will, however, have accomplished this at the expense of B's own view of his alternatives.

The opposite of this coercive transaction is a voluntary one, where A offers B an enhancement of one alternative to make it more attractive to B than his other options. This involves putting B in a better, not worse, overall position (though "exploitation" theories say otherwise). B's own values will be served without sacrificing them to A; the ends of both are harmonized, not placed in conflict.

Because of their "vitalist perspective," classical liberals believe a complex society can be built on the basis of this voluntary transaction; thus, the uncoerced contract becomes for them the basic building block for human relationships.

Some subtleties in defining "coercion" lead to differences among classical liberals. These involve two related questions: Does only physical violence or its threat constitute coercion? Is a person exercising coercion when, as a penalty, he threatens to withhold his own goods or services? Each classical liberal will have an almost reflexive response, one way or the other, to these questions.

The important thing in answering them is to look ahead to see whether one definition serves classical liberal purposes better than another.   Doing so, I opt for the broader definition; a man can be starved into submission by a boycott: physical violence is not necessary, and the effect may be accomplished by many people withholding simply their own services. This inclusive definition causes us to focus our minds more on the problem of aggregates, while those who take the narrower definition seem to look more favorably upon monopolistic restraints on trade, strikes and boycotts.

If we say that even the concerted withholding of goods and services cannot be coercive, then either our definition leads us to conclude that such restraints are legitimate or we conclude that there are some definitionally non-coercive actions that clash with classical liberal purposes. On the other hand, if we hold this to be coercive, we tend to declare such concerted action illegitimate; we also must then admit that some "coercive" acts, such as an individual's independent choice not to buy something, are legitimate.

I am not greatly concerned which view is adopted; what is important is that we be fully conscious of the semantic process, so that the definitional tail does not wag the substantive dog, as so often happens. Values must be kept in mind; whatever we formulate must serve the purpose of permitting men to co-exist with the least sacrifice of their individual ends.

If coercion is physical force, then we speak of eliminating it; if it is more broadly defined, we speak of "minimizing" it.

The Role of the State. Anarchists of the left want no state (just a collectivist social order), saying that men are essentially good if not made greedy by competitiveness. Anarchists of the right, the "anarcho-capitalists," posit, as do classical liberals, that men are not invariably considerate of the rights of others; they argue, however, that market-type institutions can perform all the present functions of government and that such institutions can certainly do no worse than the state.

A classical liberal accepts neither of these theses. He certainly does not think men innately loving; nor does he think the essential functions of order and of respect for reciprocal rights can be performed without a center of superior strength, the state. He is as concerned about the centripetal needs of a voluntaristic society as with the right to do as one pleases. Wishing assurance that all men will have the same right to do as they please, he is concerned for context. This is a concern that is not satisfactorily resolved by unduly wishful thinking about the market's usefulness. Thus, he favors a state -- but a state fearfully guarded. A major area of classical liberal theory consequently pertains to defining the legitimate functions of the state.

 

A Private Sphere for the Individual Within a Cultural, Ethical, Legal Shield. If he is to have a life of his own not impinged upon constantly by others, an individual must have a "private sphere" of his own. A large portion of the Anglo-Saxon common law, as of other legal systems, is concerned with protecting such a private sphere. Crimes and torts are often defined to protect the integrity of the person, his property, reputation or privacy.

The private sphere cannot rest entirely upon legal remedies, however; it depends even more on the virtually unquestioned acceptance of person, property, reputation and privacy by the community at large. This is, foremost, a cultural matter based on long experience; it also very much involves the ethic of the society.

To be "free" in the special sense that one does not have to worry about losing a job or being denied a promotion or the like, a man's private sphere must include an independent income. Few men in any society are able to be fully "free" in this sense.

 

Private Property. Private property bears an important relationship to the private sphere; it enables a man to have his own domain that is no one else's. There are at least two additional reasons for private property's importance to classical liberalism: as the subject matter of an economic system based on voluntary production and exchange, arid because private property involves a broad diffusion of power as compared to central state ownership.

If the state or a collective holds the major forms of property, it has the means, as Trotsky candidly admitted, to reduce the citizen to a beggar. To avoid this, classical liberalism seeks a broad, contractually arrived at, diffusion of property. A Marxist argues that this does not really diffuse property, but only places it in a social class (the bourgeoisie) -- but a classical liberal recognizes this argument as a way to obviate any voluntaristic arrangement of society.

 

The "Act of Exchange"; the Market Economy. Classical liberalism is alone among the major ideologies in wholeheartedly endorsing capitalism; it looks with favor upon the "act of exchange" as a constructive, peaceable nexus consonant with each man's pursuit of his own ends.

While it views competitiveness as an excellent motivator, the primary reason it favors capitalism is not that it works so well, though that is important; the reason is that capitalism is the necessary expression of individual liberty. An Olympian observer may like or not like the "allocation of resources" or "distribution of wealth" effected under capitalism, but a classical liberal will accept them as the by-products of liberty (unless they in some way undermine the preconditions of classical liberalism). He views the role of Olympian judge as presumptuous.

He is not without his own preferences; he may utterly dislike the general public's taste in music or books. But his "cosmic humility" makes it incumbent upon him to change their standards only by education.

Though considerable emphasis is placed on the market economy's competitive nature, the classical liberal thinks of it equally as much as being cooperative: though sellers compete with sellers and buyers with buyers, each transaction when consummated is an example of mutually beneficial cooperation. The entire system of division of labor is built upon this.

 

Accentuating the Voluntary. In Emergent Man, I have stated the classical liberal formula as being "to minimize coercion, and to accentuate the voluntary," assuming that the first does not automatically effect the second. Thus, I stated something over which classical liberals differ. To some, the state's action against coercion exhausts its functions; to others, the state has a role to play in establishing an institutional, legal, cultural and ethical "framework" for voluntarism.

Milton Friedman has written of "neighborhood effects" where some "actions of individuals have effects on other individuals for which it is not feasible to charge or recompense them." An example is the network of roads (though not long-distance turnpikes); everyone shares in their utility, but it would not be feasible to have them all privately owned and to charge a toll each time someone uses one of them. From this perspective, public roads are a legitimate service function of the state because they enhance the market economy. Along the same lines, a county "register of deeds" office is a useful aid to the system of private ownership; the Secretary of State's office, which accepts the filing of corporate documents, provides the institutional framework for the existence of corporate entities; the "power of eminent domain" makes possible certain forms of private activity (such as is involved in roads, airports and parks) that may not otherwise be able to be put together.

In my opinion it has hurt classical liberalism when its advocates have taken a narrow view on these questions; we fail in our intellectual demonstration when we do not formulate a model of a rounded, adequate, complete social system. It is true that classical liberals have been at the barricades fighting the expansion of governmental power for over a century, but they ought not to permit this emphasis to cripple their perception of what is needed as institutional preconditions for the society they seek to attain.

 

The Parameters of a Limited State. "What ought to be the functions of the state?" is one of the central issues in classical liberalism, upon which all considerations have a bearing. To some, this involves determining whether state action would in a given situation enhance or retard the voluntaristic objective; those whose primary criterion is "private property" often favor fewer state functions; a thinker such as Hayek who makes the Rule of Law an exclusive criterion may favor more extensive functions.

 

The Rule of Law. "Liberty under law" is an integral part of virtually all classical liberal models. The "Rule of Law," as Hayek tells us, was known to the Greeks as "isonomia." Historically, the Rule of Law has meant that the actions of the state should conform to criteria designed to make those actions mere impersonal guidelines that the acting man may use as data: that the rules be known, general, unambiguous, equal in their application, prospective rather than retrospective and applied by an independent judiciary. A Henry VIII who must rule according to English law is a different sort of king than a Henry VIII who can stretch the rules to behead whomever he pleases with the acquiescence of corrupt judges.

The Rule of Law has been debunked by modern liberalism, which has not generally understood the purpose for it and has confused empiricism with an ideal by arguing that "things don't work that way.” Statist ideologies almost invariably want more governmental flexibility than the Rule of Law allows.

 

Constitutionalism. Hayek has said that America's main contribution to the Rule or Law has been its written Constitution. A written document providing the basis for a judicial enforcement of the Rule of Law criteria is an important tool in restraining government, though it cannot in itself long hold back statist tendencies if they capture the intelligentsia and the culture generally.

 

Separation of Powers. Ever since Montesquieu, classical liberals have sought to separate the powers among the several branches of government so that no one person can have in his hands all of the power needed to be oppressive. The "checks and balances" limit power, and have often been at least partially effective -- as when Andrew Johnson stood in the way of a harsh Reconstruction during the first three years after the Civil War.

 

Decentralization of Power. "States rights" serve several classical liberal purposes: (a) By providing a number of governmental centers, a "coup d'etat" becomes very difficult. (b) Government is more democratically controlled at a local level; it is easier, say, for voters to replace members of a board of education than a federal education czar. (c) Because people could "vote with their feet," a despotism in one of the states could not last.

Modern transportation and communication have weakened the decentralization by breaking up local loyalties and somewhat homogenizing the country. In addition, the scale of federal activity today captures the imagination of intellectual and politician far more than does the statehouse. These tendencies weaken classical liberalism.

 

The Ethical Order. In a hedonistic age it is unpopular to speak favorably of moral restraints on individual behavior. Classical liberalism, however, depends vitally on a moral order. Not wishing to rely much on governmental action, it must rely on acculturation and ethical suasion. Racial discrimination, for instance, violates the ethic of an individualistic philosophy, which would have men judged by their talents, character and acts -- but a classical liberal is loath to bring in the police power to regulate all the subtle interpersonal relations among the races.

Young "libertarians" influenced by the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s sometimes tend to overlook this feature of classical liberalism. Liberty is not even primarily "doing as one pleases"; it involves continuing work and responsibility.

 

The Family. The monogamous family is in several ways important to classical liberalism: because it serves as a supportive unit for the individual; because it is a source of moral values; and because it provides a multicentered source for the passing on of ideas and values to the new generation. While the state nursery is the ideal of the totalitarian state, the family cluster is the ideal of classical liberalism.

The desirability of a pluralism of millions of families has implications in several areas. The classical liberal sexual ethic will seek to support the monogamous marriage. Classical liberal educational theory will seek to keep education in the hands of the parents, as through Milton Friedman's "voucher plan" which would permit parents to spend the tax money for education at schools of their own choice.

 

The Political System.   Because they are identified with the middle class, have confidence in men's capabilities, and desire a government beholdened to no one interest, classical liberals certainly include representative government in their model. However, they have differed among themselves as to how much they have trusted the "common man" to preserve liberty.

None are willing totally to subordinate the basic ingredients of individual liberty to the will of the majority. They favor majority rule in the operation of a limited government, but oppose majority rule to the extent that it becomes a rationale for widespread statist action. At a less advanced state of culture they would perhaps even opt for a limited, constitutional regime not founded on majority rule in preference to a more dangerous one based on a universal franchise, though the need for such a choice would mean that their ideal could not be totally achieved in that setting. 

 

Some Problem Areas

 

Although classical liberal residuals remain significantly in our society, and capitalism and the middle class have gone dynamically on despite the attacks made upon them, it is nevertheless true that classical liberalism is in many ways out of harmony with the intellectual and spiritual qualities of twentieth century man. This is due partially to its own incompleteness and partially to weaknesses in that type of man.

 

Relation to the Spiritual Qualities of Modern Man. Ours is one of the most paradoxical centuries in history.  In addition to our accomplishments on earth, we have escaped into outer space and stand at the advent of a new age. And yet one cannot help sensing with the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset the danger palpitating beneath the surface. As Ortega expressed it in The Revolt of the Masses, society is no longer headed by an established aristocracy; the "common man" pervades all life. This was the democratic aspiration and classical liberalism was involved in bringing it about; it offers, indeed, immense participative potential for the human race. At the same time, however, the spiritual mediocrity of the predominant type of man in our century creates the deepest problems for mankind and is involved in virtually all practical questions.

Ortega ascribes to this man the elements of a spoiled child's psychology: a wide expansion of desires, a wish for immediate gratification, impatience, a willingness to use "direct action" (as a child does a tantrum) to gain what he wishes, a lack of understanding of what has been involved in creating the means to the gratifications he seeks, and a lack of both real satisfaction and of gratitude for the gratification after he gets it. Hedonistically oriented, his life lacks central purpose; the psychologist Viktor Frankl has written that the characteristic twentieth century neurosis is that of a lack of perceived meaning in life. It is no wonder that the social religions of the age have had immense appeal when they have offered a filling of the void.

This cannot, of course, be the whole story; were it a complete description of modern man, western civilization would long since have perished. But it does describe certain salient features. Without reference to such spiritual factors it is impossible to understand the Russian nihilist, the pre-World War I German youth movement, the syndicalist, the fascist, the New Left and much more besides.

Ironically, by helping effect the freedom of the common man, classical liberalism has partially brought on its own spiritual negation. The spiritual qualities of modern man have played a major role in the decline of classical liberalism. Even if we were able to establish a thoroughly classical liberal social model today, there would be strong spiritual forces to undermine it. (We often think, say, that the Welfare State encourages indolence; it does so, but the causation also runs the other way: mediocrity breeds the Welfare State.)

The question of whether a free society is ultimately stable is still unresolved. A hundred years ago, Sir Henry Maine wrote that "popular government" had yet to prove itself viable. The horror is that in its absence there is no decent alternative.

 

The Intellectual Division in Modern Civilization. Classical liberalism was an integral part of the secularist, rationalist, empirical tendencies as western civilization emerged from the medieval emphasis on theology, faith and prescriptive right. It was also identified with the bourgeoisie, trade and individual liberty.

For the past two to three centuries, however, one of the most significant facts about our civilization has been a bifurcation of its intellectuality from the remainder of society. The great mass of intellectuals early became intensely alienated from the bourgeoisie. Several reasons are suggested: (1) Because the acting man has displaced the intellectual from the topmost role in society (Hoffer's displacement theory); (2) because of personal envy (the view expressed in Mises' The Anti-Capitalist Mentality); and (3) because of the presence of some real deficiencies in bourgeois life to which the intellectual is particularly sensitive (as witness the social critique by sensitive men of many persuasions for three centuries).

A centuries-long alliance between the intellectual and the "have-nots" against the man of commerce has been perhaps the most important consequence of this alienation. Many aspects of modern intellectuality can only be understood with reference to this not-altogether-natural alliance.

Additionally, the alienated intellectuals have become a sub-culture and the modern intellectual orthodoxy.

The upshot has been an intellectual abandonment of classical liberalism and, to that degree, of western civilization. Since the eighteenth century most intellectuals have gone to the left, with the result that capitalism and the middle class have received comparatively little continuing sympathetic attention. The effect has been to place classical liberalism on the defensive. This has strengthened it by making it probe deeply into its own fundamentals; I have already commented that some of its best work has been done in our time by, say, Rand, Mises, Hayek, Friedman and Roepke. But often the defensiveness has reduced classical liberals to dogmatists and apologists. There are today vast issues to which classical liberals have hardly addressed themselves because of their small numbers and their frequent inability to expand their horizons.

No doubt the greatest need of modern western civilization, and hence of the world, is for a reconstruction of modern intellectuality. Our civilization will lack constructive ideals and will remain extremely vulnerable until the division between the intellectual and the bourgeoisie is resolved. Though this will not occur unless conditions become ripe for it (and they may never do so), classical liberal values must necessarily be crucial to any such reconciliation.

 

Certain Unresolved Issues: Anti-Trust, Monetary Policy, Philosophical and Religious Base. It is not to be supposed that even in the absence of the drain on intellectual resources to which I have referred there would have developed a total consensus among classical liberals on all issues. Within classical liberalism today there are several viewpoints on major subjects.

One of these has to do with anti-trust. Some argue that no anti-trust laws are necessary because monopolies and restraints on trade would not exist without governmental help. Others agree that government plays a large role in creating monopolies, but that there is nevertheless a problem of the coercive potential of aggregates that it is a legitimate function of the classical liberal state to act against.

With regard to monetary and banking institutions, some classical liberals favor returning to the gold standard and perhaps favor a system of "free banking." Others would cut the economy free of gold and provide a set legal rule that the Federal Reserve Board would be required to follow with regard to the volume of money and credit. This difference in part reflects their differing assessments of what is workable within the modern setting as well as of what is politically achievable (see W .H. Hutt's recent monograph on the "politically impossible.")

Probably the deepest difference among classical liberals pertains to their religious and philosophical roots. While many classical liberals are sincere Christians, Ayn Rand has attacked Christianity for its altruistic ethic, which she says is fundamentally at odds with capitalism. Such questions can only be avoided by superficiality; they will necessarily lie at the heart of much future discussion.

 

Differing Ethical Methodologies. The sociologist Max Weber commented a number of years ago on two opposed approaches to ethical theory: that which holds that "the intrinsic value of ethical conduct is sufficient for its justification," and that which holds that "the responsibility for the predictable consequences of the action is to be taken into consideration."

In my discussions with young libertarians, I have seen the continuing importance of this distinction. Many start their theory with a moral axiom such as "private property" and follow strict deduction from it. No argument seems to them fully to the point that concerns itself with whether a workable model is established. Since my own methodology consists of starting only with classical liberal values as the given and then flexibly working out the optimal achievement of those values in an overall rationalistic model, my discussions with some of them reach an impasse founded upon Weber's distinction. Though the philosophy of someone who pursues the "pure axiom" method may in many ways be similar to my own, it is fundamentally different in methodology and will have practical differences that are irreconcilable. Robert LeFevre's anarcho-capitalist and pacifist philosophy is of this sort: he is willing to say "I will do what is right regardless of the consequences"; I am compelled to answer that "I only know what is right after I have evaluated the consequences."

The burgeoning anarcho-capitalist viewpoint is often based on this methodological error; I view it also as representative of the tendency of many thinkers to lose balance: by emphasizing some truths exclusively, they come out very differently than they would if they were to maintain a balance in perspective and of values. This has long been a characteristic failing among intellectuals of the left; we see it now on the right.

 

The Need for a Transcendence of Bourgeois Values. One of the great challenges to classical liberalism involves the need to transcend the lifestyle of its own supportive social class, the bourgeoisie. Though a classical liberal will easily see that the lifestyle of the bourgeoisie has much to commend it, the complaints of such diverse thinkers as Thoreau, Veblen, Weaver, Ortega and Roepke attest to its serious deficiencies. Since classical liberalism is the only major ideology that supports the middle class, it is the only philosophy in a position to lend itself to a sympathetic solution to these problems.

A commercial civilization, particularly if the "common man" is culturally predominant, will necessarily tend to stress extroverted or "outer-directed" human relationships. To the extent it is economically successful, its members will also tend toward a hedonistic preoccupation. And to the extent that it enjoys peaceable trade, there will be a mundane, everyday-life quality about it.

Little has been said in defense of this resulting culture, though much could be. And yet, its deficiencies are apparent; for many sensitive men the meaning of life depends upon its not being trivialized and rendered mundane: there needs to be a transcendent purpose in existing. To those who care deeply about ideas or sensibilities, a trivialized, mundane, fun-oriented human nexus can be deeply dissatisfying.

The alienated intellectuality of the past three hundred years has responded by attempting to tear down capitalism and the middle class. A classical liberal will see that a much more constructive answer lies in retaining a free society based on commerce and the common man, but adding to it a compatible but sensitive intellectuality. This intellectuality could address itself to spiritual solutions and could use such a culture as a plateau from which readily to rise to creative heights surpassing anything previously known to man.  

 

 

Today's Relevance and Tomorrow's Possibilities 

 

Classical Liberalism in Today's World.  It often seems to a classical liberal that the world, and even the United States, has turned sharply away from his concepts and values; he is forever arguing a minority position in academia and in the political arena. It is worthwhile, however, to recognize that this is only partially correct; it involves a matter of perspective. It seems true to him because he is fighting the basic drift among his fellows. On the other hand, an advocate of Marxism-Leninism or of the New Left looks upon contemporary American society as thoroughly bourgeois and as tending only toward such modifications of capitalism as may prove most conducive to mollifying its enemies and helping it continue in its broad outline. From this perspective, John F. Kennedy was not a representative of the American left leading America away from classical liberal values, but a "plutocrat" doing everything possible to preserve the basic system.

I am persuaded that the classical liberal, and not the other, has the more correct perspective; there are indeed important tendencies away from classical liberal values. And yet, the difference in viewpoint serves to highlight the point that America is still not far removed from those values. As I have remarked earlier, capitalism and the middle class have grown and prospered, covering a continent and proceeding to a fully cosmopolitan civilization in America, despite the overwhelming preponderance of world intellectuality against them and despite even the spiritual inertia to which I have referred. That civilization has its own force and dynamic and will not easily give way despite such factors. Its Zeitgeist may now generally be that of a form of leftist thought, it may have destroyed the original Constitutional order and replaced it with the vagaries of sociological jurisprudence, it may indeed have lost its confidence in itself and its knowledge of what its ideals ought to be -- but still it goes on, to the immense frustration of the alienated intellectual.

So long as its dynamic carries it forward, this society will provide a substantial, albeit imperfect, base for classical liberal thinking and practice. It is even possible that demographic changes and the pressures of a hostile world will render it more receptive to "conservative" approaches; hopefully, these will be constructively classical liberal.

 

The Potential for a "New Liberalism." In the United States particularly, we have arrived at a juncture in our intellectual life that now opens the possibility of a reconciliation of some of the most important intellectual elements with the culture at large and with each other.

American "liberalism" is, as I have argued, not simply an extension of classical liberalism by men who have thought an active state needful under modern circumstances. Instead, it has arisen out of the alienation of the intellectual from middle class culture. This intellectual has for a century gone to European socialist theory and applied it in his ideology. At the same time, this intellectual has played the part of a pragmatist in American life, rarely openly avowing the socialism in his theory and often building on such indigenous American elements as the Jeffersonian distrust for any marriage between money and government.

This pattern is, however, deeply fractured in the 1970s. The alienated intellectual is emboldened by his dominance in the media and in academia, and yet intensely frustrated over the continuing progress of our society. It has come to the point where the Welfare State simply is not enough to satisfy the alienation. The consequence is that those who have been deeply alienated are now espousing socialism and sometimes revolution. It is this phenomenon that we call the New Left in America.

But what of the "liberal" who has favored modern liberalism's programs and even imbibed its conceptual framework, but who simply has no deep hatred for the United States? What does he do when the alienated person begins attacking "liberalism" in the name of socialism?

His response will depend upon many things, not least of which will be his own personal situation and qualities. He could become an open socialist himself because of the conceptual frame of reference to which he has been so long accustomed. Or as a "loyalist" he could turn in a direction that would face him back toward classical liberalism. In the split in "liberal" intellectuality, there is an opening to the right.

In the transition, such a person might be subject to conversion to one of the forms of classical liberalism that is doctrinaire and that places tight limitations on governmental functions. But most are likely to be more receptive to an expansive, flexible sort of classical liberalism -- a "new liberalism" that can address itself to the great issues of our time.

This new liberalism need not in its theory vary from classical liberalism as I have described it, but it will need to be the sort of classical liberalism that understands the legitimacy of governmental action that creates a fully workable framework for a free society. For example, it will not be the type of classical liberalism that opposes all tax-supported education, but it will be the type that favors the voucher plan to permit parents to select schools, public or private, of their own choice. It will not be the type that argues that government ought to take a hands-off attitude about the monetary system, but the type that would subject the present system to the Rule of Law. It will not be the type that asserts that there is no problem of monopoly, but the type that supports anti-trust laws while at the same time making them less ambiguous and arbitrary and while driving hard toward the removal of governmental encouragements to monopoly.

It will be the type that has regained its role as social critic, perceiving that for many reasons the moral tone of our society is not what it ought to be and that there are indeed spiritual deficiencies in the middle class lifestyle that need to be transcended.

Thus it can at one and the same time be deeply loyal to and identified with American culture and the free society and be dynamic as a movement for social and spiritual reform. In other words, it can be what classical liberalism was itself envisioned to be before it lost its impetus and became purely defensive.

This is not to say that it will not have the opposition of major elements in contemporary American life. It is difficult to see a way in which organized labor with its coercive instruments can be reconciled with classical liberal theory (though a classical liberal society that establishes a truly satisfactory structure for the man who is employed, that is beyond the beginning stages of industrialization and that has reached a level of affluence that enables such a man to live comfortably and with leisure will over time be able to bypass the present union problem). Nor will the alienated intellectual acquiesce (except that a deeper concern for problems of lifestyle will tend to remove one of the grounds for his alienation, though unfortunately not the key one). And neither will such a new liberalism be able to escape the problems inherent in the "spoiled child" spiritual tone of modern man; there are no panaceas to cure that (except that the new liberalism would help by reversing the ethical relativism that has undermined contemporary standards of education and behavior).

 

Continuing Importance to Civilization. From this we can see that classical liberal values are far from obsolete in the America of the coming decades. Even less are they obsolete with regard to the long-term future of the human race. I hope that I have been able to give a sufficient description of the unique mixture that has been involved in modern western civilization to make it understandable now when I say that in the coming space age we will almost certainly have a different set of problems, with many of the old problems simply disappearing. The overriding social fact about our civilization has been the division between the intelligentsia and its chosen allies, the have-nots, against the acting man of industry and commerce. With a new age, this unique bifurcation may well disappear, and in the reconciliation classical liberalism will be very relevant indeed.