03 May 2019

On Liberty and Liberalism

Perhaps the most beautiful and lasting contribution of the European Enlightenment has been the idea of individual liberty. It's hard to draw a distinct line, but let's say that before about 1700 almost no one was free. For example, in England, the King owned all the land and all the resources and just let people use them, mostly to build political alliances. Any of all of it could be taken away and given to someone else. You didn't work for a boss and you could not quit. You were owned by a Lord; if you quit you could be summarily killed.

In early medieval Japan, one king bankrupted the state building temples to ward off natural disasters. This meant that peasants faced heavy taxes and forced labour. The Grand Canal and most of the Great Wall in China were built with forced labour. If you were a medieval peasant then you did what you were told. There were peasant revolts from time to time, but usually they faced an army of well-armed and well-trained soldiers who were prepared to cut them down. On the other hand, peasants were themselves often forced into impromptu armies to fight the largely peasant armies of the neighbouring kingdom. A practice that continued long enough to give English the phrase "cannon fodder".

In addition to this material slavery, the Church, especially the Catholic Church, imposed a kind of mental slavery on Europeans. Buddhists did the same across Asia. Michel Foucault writes germanely (if not well) on this subject in his book Madness and Civilisation. The Church used confession as a way of surveilling the minds of Christians and controlling their thoughts. It is not enough to be a physical subject of the king, one's very thoughts must be moulded to make one a mental subject as well. Religion very often characterises the human being as a beast which needs to be tamed and controlled. For the Abrahamic faiths it was a state of original sin that resulted from the story of Adam and Eve. Buddhists characterised our will, our desires, our very sense of self as being responsible for all suffering.

This situation prevailed for most of human history. It probably emerged with the first city states and kingdoms. These early states concentrated power and wealth in the hands of leader who used it as they saw fit. The principle of hereditary power inevitably led to a preponderance of bad leaders and thence to attempts to redistribute power away from kings, away from royal families and, eventually, in our own time, to the people, although even in a "democracy" people (demos) have little say in state level decisions or the day to day governance. Usually all we get is one vote every few years and the rest of the time we just shout at the television.

The various political, economic, and moral ideologies that take liberty as their central idea are (sometimes confusingly) called liberalism. Despite the rise and fall of political parties with various names, liberalism has been the dominant ideology in Europe and its colonies since the 18th Century. Liberalism still faces competition from conservatism and socialism, but tends to come out ahead because the ideals of liberalism are internalised by the population. Anyone espousing liberalism sounds sensible to the majority, because we value the goals of liberalism: typically framed as rights and freedoms. Critiques of socialism and conservatism abound, but the ideology of liberalism is often transparent or presented as natural law.

How did "liberal", which describes über right-wing economics (free markets, laissez faire), become synonymous with welfare and the left-wing? How is this related to libertarianism? What does the much abused term neoliberal mean? In this essay I will attempt to sketch the history of idea of liberalism and show how the various uses of the word are related.

Any relatively short essay inevitably over-generalises and truncates a subject which already fills a library of books. And, of course, I have an agenda in writing this essay and highlighting what seems most germane to that agenda. I make no pretence at neutrality; I think liberalism has made a valuable contribution but has become a dangerous cult. We need to think about our approach to civil society in light of modern science, but before we can do that we need to dismantle the current ideologies. I begin, therefore, with a relatively crude dissection.

Classical Liberalism

When did people start to rebel against the absolute authority of kings? Nobody really knows, but it probably coincides with the first king who was incompetent, insane, or immoral. Freedom from oppressive authority is one of the most basic definitions of liberty. This is what Isaiah Berlin termed "negative freedom". The assumption is that we are naturally free if left to our own devices.

One of the iconic moments in this history of this idea of liberty is the signing of the Magna Carta. The barons of England made a coalition to extract promises of fairness and justice (for the barons, not their human chattels) from a despotic king who used his power in an arbitrary way.

However, liberalism did not emerge as a coherent philosophy until the late 18th Century. Historians seem to agree that a few key figures gave liberalism its intellectual shape. Of course at any point in history there are thousands or millions of people involved in any movement. Liberalism was very much broader than a few individuals, it's just that for the purposes of writing history a movement can be summed up with reference to those few. And of course, liberalism is not a homogeneous movement by any means. The fact that is it used to label both right-wing economics and left-wing social policies should make this obvious.


Historians often point to Thomas Hobbes' 1651 book Leviathan as the beginnings of classical liberalism as a political ideology, though Hobbes does not use the word "liberal" and favoured monarchism. Hobbes gains his place in the canon because he asks on what grounds a citizen owes allegiance to a sovereign. It is perhaps the first articulation of the citizen not being the property of the king.

In Hobbes' view, the natural state of men is war, of everyone against everyone.* In this "natural" state the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Only a powerful ruler, the eponymous Leviathan, can bring order to the lives of men and thus men enter into a social contract between ruler and ruled, or between state and citizen. The ruler rules by the consent of the ruled, and they consent because the alternative is war.
* On the use of "man" here, my task is not to rehabilitate these thinkers. They were, on the whole, sexists who thought of women as inferior (J. S. Mill is one exception to this). Where they speak only of "man", I will report this accurately as a nail in their coffin.
Hobbes lived through a turbulent period in history with the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648) and the English Civil War (1642 – 1651). We could sum up the Civil War by saying that a weak ruler allowed his kingdom to fall apart and then a civilian army succeeded in overthrowing and beheading him. Conditions were exacerbated by rebellions in Scotland and Ireland and by opposition from the Scottish Churches. Thus conceivably this was an influence on Hobbes. However, the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive and disruptive conflicts in history, was prosecuted by Europe's Leviathan kings, which seems to contradict his view that Leviathan brings stability. In fact most wars are fought by kings using their citizens as proxies.

Other early liberal thinkers, including Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, developed the idea of the social contract.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), of course, wrote a great deal about the individual and their freedom, giving liberalism a rosy tinge of Romanticism. But he is seldom included in the main line of the development of liberalism. He saw our natural, i.e., free, state as that of the noble savage. In his view the social contract was the subjection of the individual will to the general will. This is an idea that is powerfully current in the UK today. Having won a 2% majority for leaving the EU in a referendum, Brexit campaigners repeatedly cite the "will of the people" and expect all to subject themselves to that will even when it is clear that opinion has shifted. Several of the main themes of liberalism are present in his work, but attention rightly focuses on another English philosopher as the father of liberal ideology.

John Locke

Locke (1632 – 1704) came from minor gentry and was a notable Whig. He was educated in an elite school and Oxford University where he became a don. He served as physician to the Whig politician, Lord Ashley (1621 – 1683, aka the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury), one of the richest men in England. It is conventional to see the Liberal Party as emerging from the Whigs.

The Whigs were a party of aristocrats with commercial interests who wanted to be protected from the power of the Crown to appropriate their wealth and raise taxes (mainly to fight wars in Europe). Inevitably, "commercial interests" is in many cases a euphemism for the transatlantic slave trade. Lord Ashley was part of a cabal that dominated the African slave trade, though a later Earl of Shaftesbury would be a prominent abolitionist.

Having lost his patron, Locke spent some time in Holland, where sat out the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw William of Orange take the English crown. Even with a Protestant on the throne, paranoia about Catholic plots continued. On his return to England in 1690, Locke published the tracts that established his reputation and lasting legacy, namely the Essay on Human Understanding and the two Treatises on Government.

Locke, like Hobbes, was concerned primarily with negative freedom; we are assumed to naturally be free except when something (usually a king) deprives us of freedom. He also believed that men are equal and attacked theological arguments for preordained hierarchies such as the divine right of kings. He believed that there were natural laws ordained by God that even in our natural state men must be bound by. These natural laws were revealed by the application of reason. If liberty is the most beautiful theme of the enlightenment then reason is the most problematic (as anyone who has read The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber will understand). The natural laws gave rise to natural rights, such as the right to life, the right to liberty, and freedom of worship. Freedom of worship in particular came to be seen as the long term solution to the question of the incessant conflict between Catholics and Protestants.

In his Treatises on Government (1690), Locke argued for the liberty of individuals and that any encroachment on their liberty had to be justified. Justifiable encroachments on liberty are strictly limited to preventing activities that harm others. Like Hobbes (and unlike Rousseau), Locke believed that, unless coerced, men had an incorrigible tendency to infringe the natural rights of others and thus civil society was necessarily bound by a social contract. Locke argued that the role of the sovereign is to protect the person and property of individuals.

This is a good place to make the distinction between liberalism and conservatism. Rousseau famously framed the problem of negative liberty as "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Edmund Burke, the quintessential conservative would have replied, "and a good thing too". Liberals argued for the need to break those chains (though typically for a small subset of society) while conservatives were and are concerned with building social institutions to ensure the chains remained in place. Like Hobbes, conservatives see a society without a strong ruler (a father figure) as chaotic and unworkable.

Locke was profoundly influential on the founding fathers of the USA and many of his ideas about liberty are encapsulated in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. One of the measures that they took was to carefully separate out the functions of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and have them operate independently of each other as far as possible.

There is an important point to be made about nascent and classical liberalism. Liberty is certainly the central issue, but none of the early liberals believed that it applied to everyone. And in these early days the exceptions were by far the majority of citizens. Liberty was not intended to apply to women, for example. Nor to anyone with dark skin. Nor did liberty pertain to the indigenous Americans who suffered genocide and expropriation.

Attitudes to slavery give us an important indicator for the evolution of liberalism. As note Locke's patron was a kingpin of the slave trade. Some of the founding fathers of the USA who wrote that "All men are created equal" were engaged in the slave trade and/or owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson railed against slavery but did not free the 600 he owned, allegedly because he could not afford to (with the implication that one white man going bankrupt was not worth the freedom of 600 Africans). He also thought that they should be trained in a trade before being freed so as not to be a burden on society. He managed to train and free just 6 men over his lifetime or about 1% of the slaves that he owned. Meanwhile, he also had children by one of his female slaves. Later, when slavery was abolished, slave owners were compensated for their loss, but slaves themselves received nothing in reparations.

Thus, when considering the history of the idea of liberty we always need to be attuned to whom liberty applied and did not apply. Of equal importance is the question of who was making such determinations about what constituted liberty: somehow these determinations always favoured the elite, the slave owners. Locke is part of the elite that wants to be free of oppression from the king, but who live by oppressing workers and slaves. Similarly in the USA, the genocide and expropriation of the original inhabitants was done in the name of liberty. I grew up watching Western movies in which the "Indians" were an oppressive force trying to prevent the settlers from being free.

Since Locke's time, the hereditary aristocracy has been largely replaced by industrialists at the ruling class: the bourgeoisie as Marx called them. Though this class also pass on wealth and influence along hereditary lines and use social connections to advance their own and exclude others. In the 19th Century, they represented a middle class between aristocrats and peasants, though "middle class" has taken on quite a different meaning now.

If Locke provided the philosophical inspiration then it was Adam Smith who translated liberalism into economics and who writing marks the beginning of classical liberalism.

The Wealth of Nations

Throughout the late Medieval period and into the Renaissance the merchant classes developed an approach to economics that served only their interests. Mercantilists saw trade as a zero sum game in which each nation attempted to accumulate wealth by outdoing the others. This was partly why Europe kept erupting into large scale wars for centuries, culminating in WWII.

The publication of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith in 1776 was a turning point in modern history. Many of the ideas that underpin modern nation states and how they trade are first enunciated by Smith. He might be called the first classical liberal, and is still the darling of economic liberals (if only via his later interpreters).

The primary argument is for free trade as a non-zero sum game. If trade is free, Smith says, then "everybody" benefits, although as before we have to be alert to the exclusions that liberal intellectuals always made. Thus we could see Smith as extending Locke's arguments about liberty and encroachment on liberty to the economic sphere. Any encroachment on economic activity must be justified, and then only to prevent harm. And when he says that everyone benefits, he means not workers, but those engaged in trade.

Smith argues for a view of humanity as rational and concerned primarily with self-interest. In his thesis, if every merchant rationally pursues his own self interest (while avoiding harm to others), then the market will guide his actions towards the greater good. This is a crude version of the so-called "law of supply and demand" expanded to cover the whole economy. I will have a good deal more to say about this in the next essay.

This view of economics takes a particular, quite abstract, view of humanity as rational and self-interested as well as primarily motivated by maximising their own benefit. This view of rationality is a feature of Enlightenment thinking about humanity. The modern versions of the theory of market economies also assume that we have perfect knowledge of the costs and benefits of all decisions and make rational decisions about what is best for us. In the economist's worldview everything is idealised with a particular slant. Unfortunately, as the field of economics progressed, that slant increasingly became whatever was required to produce simple mathematics.

Here we need to raise what now seems like an obvious question: had Smith actually met any people? Because it is obvious to any keen observer of humanity that we are seldom rational and that we are frequently not self-interested. We look after our ageing parents, for example, when it can hardly be in our economic interest to do so. If we were as coldly calculating as Smith makes out, for example, it would be in our interest to euthanize the elderly, the sooner to inherit their wealth before they squander it on extending lives of very poor quality. This question comes up again when we consider the other man with a claim to being the first classical liberal.

Bentham and the Mills

Three other key liberal thinkers were Jeremy Bentham, his friend, James Mill, and especially Mill's son John Stuart Mill.

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a child prodigy from a wealthy family. He was educated at an elite private school and Oxford University. It has been suggested that he was on the autistic spectrum, but I am deeply suspicious of such diagnoses long after the death of the individual. I've seen people diagnose me from my writing with psychopathologies that my psychiatrists entirely disagree with.

The name Bentham is synonymous with the philosophy of utilitarianism. In particular he conceived of man as governed by purely pleasure and pain. And from this he extrapolated a moral theory in which good could be understood as maximising pleasure, while evil maximises pain. The calculations involved in how much pleasure or pain was caused by any decision he called "hedonic calculus". Bentham dwelled on the sources of pleasure and categorised them according to intensity, duration, immediacy, and certainty of gratification.

James Mill (1773–1836) was, unlike most of the other liberals, from a modest background, but still benefited from a good education. The elder Mill was a close friend of Bentham and a leading philosophical radical who believed in the power of education. He co-founded London's University College. His view was that men could be persuaded by argument to make rational assessments before acting. We can only assume that, like Smith, he never met many men.

However, Bentham and Mill are both minor figures compared to J. S. Mill (1806–1873). Mill's influence is probably on a par with Adam Smith's and historians refer to him as the most influential English philosopher of the 19th Century. The importance of Mill's ideas about civil society in Britain cannot be overstated. In particular he unites Locke's liberalism and Bentham's utilitarianism.

Mill was educated at home by his father and Bentham, and he was kept isolated from other children other than his siblings. Like Bentham he was a prodigy and became well versed in many fields of knowledge at a very young age. As a non-conformist, Mill was barred from Oxbridge, but he attended lectures at University College and worked for the East India Company.

J. S. Mill made important contributions to a number of fields, and of interest to other parts of my project/object is that, along with Auguste Comte, he was amongst the first generation of emergentists. In his System of Logic (1843) Mill described emergent phenomena that were greater than the sum of their parts.

His book On Liberty (1859) extends Locke's ideas on liberty. Like Locke, he sees the role of the government as preventing individuals encroaching on each other's freedoms. However, Mill's justification for liberty is utilitarian along Benthamite lines. Freedom of speech, for example, allows for a plurality of opinions, which promotes debate and discussion on the best way forward and thus leads to the greatest good. An intellectual monoculture will stifle a society and cause it to stagnate, which is a cause of pain.

Unlike his predecessors, Mill rejects the idea of an explicit social contract, but he does recognise that in society we have mutual obligations. People living in a civil society are interdependent, which creates a problem for Mill. The idea, for example, that our actions can have no effect on those around us when we live in an interdependent society is difficult to defend. Everything we do has consequences for those around us. Arguably, any action that violates our mutual obligations is in some way harmful. This undermines the case for individualism. Where Mill was criticised, it was because he was overly vague on such questions. Drawing on modern understanding of human societies we can do much better, but I get ahead of myself.

In his Utilitarianism (1863), Mill revises and extends Bentham's ideas about Utilitarianism with a more sophisticated analysis of self-interest and pleasure. Where Bentham had been largely concerned with the quantity of pleasure, Mill introduced a qualitative distinction between higher and lower pleasures. Ultimately, utilitarianism aims for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, as Bentham put it. In Mill's understanding, moral terminology—e.g., "good", "evil", "duty", or "rights"—are subsumed into this scheme. Utilitarianism is a moral theory. Mill tries to argue that utilitarianism is "natural", i.e., that it emerges out of our social nature.

Mill was notably in favour of women's suffrage. The issue was becoming increasingly urgent in his day. Mill fell in love with, and eventually married, Harriet Taylor, who had a formidable intellect and was a vocal advocate of women's rights and she seems to have had a powerful (positive) influence on him.

However, Mill's view on India and China was they had regressed into barbarism and were incapable of ruling themselves. He was in favour of the "benevolent despotism" of the British Empire, as long as it helped the unfortunate barbarians to progress. Although, of course, it was the British Empire which had destroyed their civilisations, particularly through the cultivation of opium by indentured labourers in India and through addiction to opium in China. We should not forget that the British fought two wars with China (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860) to retain the "right" to push opium on the Chinese. Prior to these wars, China has the largest economy in the world and was a net exporter to the world. Over the period of the opium wars their share of global GDP halved. The situation in India was similar.

Mill, like other classical liberals, appears to be blind to the contradictions inherent in their worldview. Liberty for all, where "all" meant "rich white men". The greatest good for the greatest number, not counting Chinese, Indians, or the first nation peoples in America. And so on.

There were, of course, dozens of other people who made contributions to liberalism. In the figures mentioned we find the bare outlines of liberalism: individual liberty as the natural state of the elite, limited government combined with benevolent dictatorship of the elite; free trade for the mercantile class combined with servitude for workers; human beings as both rational and selfish. In general, the classical liberals were against democracy because ordinary people did not have the education required to understand human affairs, and they rightly intuited that the common people would want to limit the freedom of the elite to exploit them. However, they were also against wars of aggression since this impinged on trade and the liberty of the elite.

Spencer And Social Darwinism

There is one more influence from the mid-19th Century onwards that I wish to emphasise, since I see it as crucial to understanding neoliberalism. As I have emphasised, classical liberalism is closely tied to the expansion of the British Empire and to the rise of the Industrialists. Classical liberalism is the ideology which defends the right of the imperialist and the industrialist to engage in conquering and commerce (hand in hand) without interference, while justifying their dictatorship over those who are deemed incapable of exercising the rationality required for liberty (women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, and the working classes).

The new theory of evolution by natural selection proposed by Charles Darwin played into this imperialist narrative. "Natural" is a word that crops up a lot in the history of liberalism. Natural rights, for example. Natural laws, revealed by reason. And so on. So natural selection was always likely to attract the attention of liberals.

It was Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) who worked the idea of natural selection into liberal ideology. Spencer is infamous for his summation of evolution as "survival of the fittest". In evolution theory this applies at the species level. However, it suited the liberal agenda to apply it to the individual and link it to the idea of a natural hierarchy in nature. And this, to my mind, is one of the ley manoeuvres of neoclassical liberalism or neoliberalism. Spencer confused the idea of evolution with the idea of social progress, producing the idea of social Darwinism. The elite were always on the lookout for justifications of their behaviour.

By the time Spencer arrived on the scene the new liberalism had already begun to try to address the social catastrophe caused by classical liberalism. In a sense, in his denunciation of new liberalism and their interventions, Spencer may be counted the first neoliberal. For example, he opposed compulsory education, laws to regulate safety at work, tax funded libraries, and welfare reforms. For Spencer and the neoliberals, if people fall by the wayside, then they were not fit to survive and we are better off without them. Survival of the fittest, callously applied to individuals. Social inequality explained at the natural order of things.

Ayn Rand denies outside influences on her anti-altruistic "philosophy" of self interest, but the parallels between her denunciation of altruism and Spencer's social Darwinism are striking. Leading neoliberal Alan Greenspan was a direct disciple of Rand. And she continues to be an inspiration to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

It is this violent disregard for humanity, an existing tendency in liberalism made explicit and taken to the extreme, which marks out neoliberalism as distinction from classical liberalism. Neoliberals dropped any pretence of interest in or caring about human beings who are not part of the elite. If classical liberalism is an aberration then neoliberalism is a pathology.

From Whiggery to Liberalism via Radicalism

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) resulted in the loss of the American colonies or the founding of a great empire depending on which side of the Atlantic you identify with. In fact, the war ended when the Whigs (proto-liberals) came to power in Britain and began to negotiate a ceasefire and peace. Liberty in the sense of negative freedom became a founding principle of new United States of America.

However, as we have already seen there were significant exceptions to this liberty. Slavery persisted. And the genocide and expropriate of the First Nations people continued unabated. Women were not included. And as in Britain, democracy was resisted. It is not until the 20th Century that women get the vote and not until the 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. achieves equal status in the eyes of the law for African Americans. Nor has this legal and intellectual equality being internalised or realised. Women and people of colour still routinely experience discrimination, even in the land of the free.

Beginning in 1789, the French Revolution, which had adopted some ideas from liberal intellectuals, began to reshape the Francophone world. However, revolution quickly turned to terror and tyranny from which emerged the militarist state under Napoleon and a pan-European war. French liberalism went in a different direction and France was also strongly influenced by Marxism.

While the French revolution was not repeated in Britain, it did give birth to the Radicals, a cross party grouping which pursued social reforms of a progressive nature. In particular, Radicals moved, with the backing of the working class Chartist movement, to enfranchise more men, culminating in a series of reform acts. Classical Liberals in the UK and the USA were typically reluctant to extend enfranchisement because they saw democracy as a direct threat to their autonomy. Likewise, conservatives resisted democracy. It's quite likely that Churchill was not joking when he referred to it as "the worst form of government".

The radical influence split the Whigs and led to the formation of the Liberal Party in 1859. The Liberal party espoused the new liberal ideology rather than the older classical liberalism. They introduced the first welfare measures in the UK, although these were in the spirit not of collectivism, but of helping people to help themselves. Individualism remained a strong principle. 

The radicals were amongst the first to pursue what Isaiah Berlin termed positive freedom. The lack of a voice in parliament inhibited the freedom of men and so they argued, successfully, for more men to have the vote. Later, progressive liberals would also argue that women should have the vote as well.

Meanwhile in the UK a combination of factors were coming together to kickstart the industrial revolution: technology in the form of steam powered machinery and energy in the form of coal combined to create vast wealth along with a social revolution. Britain, like most other nations, until that point had a largely rural population. But factories needed workers and the money they paid attracted people to the cities. At the same time the mechanisation of farming reduced the amount of labour required and forced people to consider other kinds of work.

 Although it became colonial, the British Empire was first and foremost a money making venture. And it was incredibly successful. Soon a section of British society had masses of surplus capital and they were looking for ways to invest it to make even more money. The built factories and merchant ships and founded one of the great trading empires. However, when they turned to colonialism, government subsidies helped many poor, landless labourers to migrate to the colonies (including many of my ancestors).

Any attempt to tell this story as a linear concatenation of causes falsifies the reality. The changes in Europe and the US that brought liberalism to prominence were complex and part of greater changes in society. And, indeed, liberalism is far from homogeneous. The range of political ideologies that have sheltered under the umbrella of liberalism is bewildering.

The Liberal Divide

When I set out to research liberalism it was partly because I experienced confusion over what the word meant. It especially seemed to mean different things in the UK and the USA. I was particularly puzzled by the term neoliberal, because at least according to one common usage (in the UK and US) neoliberalism is profoundly illiberal in that it has grossly undermined the freedom of workers, reducing their claim on the means of production and to the value created by it, and has resulted in swinging cuts to welfare. Emblematically, Neoliberals and libertarians have blocked liberal attempts to ensure that all Americans have access to health care. How can we understand this apparent contradiction?

As we have seen, however, there were two strands of liberalism from an early period. I tend to think of them as economic liberalism and social liberalism. Classical liberalism, which is currently quite popular due to being espoused by Jordan Peterson, is primarily associated with liberal economic ideas. The historical classical liberals were the rump of the Whigs and other wealthy businessmen, concerned to protect their economic interests from the government. Classical liberalism is generally held to have emerged in the early 19th Century forming around the ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Mill and their successors. Classical liberal was and is elitist, imperialist, sexist, and racist.

Classical liberalism is the economic philosophy of the wealthy seeking to protect their wealth. They are happy to rule society but not to share their wealth and power with it. They were mainly concerned with negative freedom.

New Liberals

Classical liberalism ran different courses in the UK and the USA. In the UK, classical liberalism is tied to the emergence of the British Empire, while in the USA it is tied to the succession from that Empire and the consolidation of the states into a federal union. In the UK and Europe there was more concerted resistance to liberalism from socialists and communists on the left and conservatives in the centre-right. Anarchists played a role in Europe, mainly because they decided to demonstrate their contempt for leaders by assassinating them, inadvertently setting off World War One in the process.

The results of classical liberalism in Britain are graphically portrayed in the novels of Charles Dickens. Freedom amongst the bourgeoisie gave them an excellent standard of living that is still celebrated in BBC period dramas. What we see less of are the servitude, poverty, slums, disease, child labour, and early death that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. By the mid 19th Century, British society was in danger of collapsing under the influence of economic liberalism. The freedom of the elite creates a huge burden on the rest of society.

Although socialism and communism thrived under these conditions, and labour unions began to claw back some liberty for workers, many liberals were appalled by the world they had created. Liberals began to realise that if liberty was to mean anything then it had to extend to everyone. However, liberals remained committed to individualism. Unlike the left they did not see collectivism as the way to cure the ills of society. They approached the social problems caused by classical liberalism in terms of helping the poor to help themselves.

Liberalism was never simply a political or economic ideology. It was always a moral discourse as well. And part of that moral discourse included the idea that when rational people made good economic choices they prospered. In the liberal ideology, for someone to be poor meant they had made poor economic choices and were thus irrational and unfit to play a greater role in society. They completely overlooked the disadvantages of being born poor and not having access to the elite schools or the nepotism and cronyism of the elite social networks. In other words, classical liberals who were from the ruling classes completely neglected class and privilege in their social analysis.

Where classical liberals saw poverty as an indictment of the immorality of the poor, the new liberals began to see that the poor and working classes were in an impossible situation. Whereas the rich are born into liberty, the poor are born into servitude and lack the opportunities to apply themselves. It was the new liberals who concerned themselves with "social mobility" (still a phrase with a great deal of caché in British politics).

In the USA the political left has never had much traction. And classical liberalism (the right-wing of economics) ran on a lot longer, until the Great Depression. The lack of any real political left, of any true collectivism in the USA has skewed the political discourse. Roosevelt's New Deal is not a left-wing (collectivist) policy. It is a new liberal policy designed to mitigate the unequal economic opportunities individuals face as a result of circumstances beyond their control. The aim was equality of opportunity not, as with socialism, equality of outcome. In the absence of a genuine left-wing in US politics perceptions changed. Welfare liberals took the place of the left, though they are still right-wing by European standards. The new liberals are the "bleeding heart liberals".

So now we begin to see the two main ways the word is used. Classical liberalism or economic liberalism is the ideology of the entitled elite who are solely concerned with making a buck and keeping it. New liberalism or social liberalism wants to change social conditions so that all citizens have an equal opportunity. And as we have seen, classical liberalism combined with social Darwinism reacting against social liberalism gave rise to neoliberalism. In this view libertarians seek to take economic and social individualism to its logical conclusion: people living in isolation with no obligations. Libertarians tend to be utopian in outlook, suggesting that if they could only attain complete negative freedom they would live in the best of all possible worlds. 

Embracing and Hobbling Democracy

For liberals, democracy raised the spectre of another form of tyranny, the tyranny of the majority. Classical liberals were, on the whole, against democracy as a form of government, because of the threat that, outnumbered by the common man, the aristocrats and emerging industrialists would have their liberty restricted. However, it eventually became clear that democracy was unavoidable, partly because the tyranny of classical liberalism was so oppressive.  

In the post war period—a period of austerity and rebuilding for the UK and Europe and a period of unbridled expansion and prosperity in the USA—liberals turned more towards concern for positive freedom. Being born into poverty was now seen as a form of oppression to be removed. Equality of opportunity was the goal of the new liberals.

At the same time, a burgeoning ecological awareness began to push for environmental standards. Unhappy about polluted air, water, food, and land some groups pushed for limits to be placed on industry. The UK was forced to pass a Clean Air Act in 1956 after coal smoke made the air in London unbreathable. Meanwhile, the provision of welfare—designed to help individuals to help themselves—led to higher taxes and to burgeoning governments. Keep in mind that the largest part of the welfare spent in the UK is pensions for the retired. 

The growing role of government in the lives of citizens eventually led to a backlash from economic liberals (who thought of themselves as "conservative" by this stage). In 1971, Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the US Chamber of Commerce:
"No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack. This varies in scope, intensity, in the techniques employed, and in the level of visibility."
In the sense that Powell and his colleagues in the Chamber of Commerce saw the free enterprise system as an institution that had to be preserved, they were conservative. But more than anything they were economic liberals who resented inference in their profit making. So what if they were poisoning the air and water and causing climate change? That was entirely secondary to their right to make a buck.

Powell made a series of recommendations, which in retrospect look like a manifesto for a social revolution (which is really not what conservatives do). Conservative businessmen should, said Powell, begin to buy up media outlets. They should endow university business departments and even found new business schools to teach conservative business values and ideas by which he meant undiluted classical liberalism. The value being the liberty of the elite and the key ideas being free markets, laissez faire, low taxation, welfare reforms, and small government. But furthermore they should start and generously fund foundations and think tanks to employ the graduates of these new business schools. They would help to articulate businessmen's ideas and combat arguments against them, and use their newly owned media as leverage against citizens who wanted clean air etc. The think tanks would also lobby politicians to prevent, weaken, or repeal legal measures which infringed on the freedoms of businessmen.

And this is what businessmen did. Economic and social problems that emerged in the 1970s, not least of which were the oil shocks, propelled candidates into office on the promise of a neoclassical liberal economic program. At the same time a group of extreme libertarian economists seemed to be articulating similar ideas and articulating a reform program to dismantle the concessions of the new liberals to society. 

Although neoliberalism was an existing term, it soon came to be used to describe the program of economic reform undertaken by leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I sometimes call it the Alan Greenspan doctrine since he it was he who translated the ideology into policies. State assets were sold, often to foreigners; state enterprises were privatised, government let go the levers of power except for control of interest rates (aimed at controlling inflation) with the idea that markets would steer themselves. They ignored the increasing corruption that crept into virtually all of the large corporations who used their power to manipulate markets to their own ends, and usually to the detriment of everyone else. 

The same problems that plagued classical liberalism recurred. Wealth became concentrated in the hands of an elite and... surprise, surprise, they promptly used that power in an oppressive manner. They undermined democracy and the liberty of citizens. 

One of the key neoliberal programs was the stripping away of regulations governing the finance industry that had been in place since the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression. Private sector debt expanded by orders of magnitude and fuelled a series of bubbles that regularly burst producing economics recessions. This debt ratcheted up to 500% of GDP in the UK just prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which then threatened to take down the entire banking system of the world. In the UK £1.5 trillion (one year's GDP) was borrowed overnight to nationalise banks in order to stabilise the system. 

We know that J. P. Morgan, Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs, and company acted recklessly and without regard for anything other than the profit of the elite. We know that many companies made money out of the subprime mortgage scam. We know that banks were manipulating interest rates. We know that they were laundering billions for organised crime groups and kleptocrats. We know, but because they have captured government, there has been very little we can do. Most of the dishonest people involved have not been punished and have walked away with fortunes. 

Meanwhile the foundations and think tanks provided more and more lobbyists with PhDs in business and psychology. Each industry employed multiple lobbyists for each elected representative. We all remember the story of big tobacco being in denial about the health dangers of smoking and doing everything they could to prevent any government from curtailing their product or the profits they made. And this continued long after they were certain about the carcinogenic effects of smoking.

Today we see the same thing from automotive and oil companies. Internally they acknowledge the problem of climate change and their role in creating it, but externally they lobby to undermine the attempts to prevent climate change. We know for certain that ExxonMobil and Shell both knew that they were responsible for climate change but continued to publicly cast doubt on climate science and to weaken any environmental legislation. We know that car-makers falsified result of emissions tests. And so on. These are all symptoms of neoclassical liberalism.

If this were not bad enough we began to see a revolving door between senior positions in government and executive positions and directorships in big business. Having spent a few years running interference for business in government, men would be rewarded with high paying private sector jobs. In the USA the senior staff of the Treasury, including the Secretary, would inevitably come from top Wall Street companies. Much the same thing happens around the world. Government who support business know that when they leave government they will become very rich for very little effort. They basically retire on an executive salary. Former Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair, earns millions in consulting fees (often from very dodgy nation states) and hides his income in an elaborate structure of shell companies and trusts so that he pays no tax. What an example to nation. 

Companies used the lax legislative environment to buy up competitors and create monopolies or near monopolies. In media, only a handful of companies now own all the mainstream TV networks, all the newspapers, and all the publishing houses (including academic publishing) across the globe. Similarly in banking, supermarkets, the automotive, and electronics. There is a relentless consolidation of power and concentration of wealth, facilitated by governments around the world in exchange for generous private sector retirement packages. And along with this is the phenomenon of the bigger you are the less tax you pay. Amazon, to take one example, gets more in government subsidies to do business in the UK than is pays in taxes. It treats its workers like robots - timing their every moment, including bathroom breaks. These companies squeeze every last penny of profit out of citizens, workers, governments, and somehow never pay tax. They use our commercial infrastructure but make no contribution to it. Which puts more of a burden on citizens to cover the costs. 

Classical liberalism is almost always narrow in its application. Neoliberals want business to be free to make profits at any cost to citizens. One of the main costs has been that although we have the illusion of "democracy" because we get to vote for a local representative, in fact, government is not run by the people for the people and never has been. Frank Zappa called government "the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex." This seems more true every year.


There is no doubt that liberalism has made an enormous contribution to society. Many of the freedoms that we take for granted have come to us from the political activities associated with varieties of liberalism. Freedom of speech, of association, and of worship are all liberal values. Liberals are also, generally speaking, against wars of aggression. The project to link the previously adversarial nations of Europe together with networks of free trade, the free movement of capital and labour is essentially a liberal one. The whole idea of civil liberties we owe to liberalism.

However, we should not be naïve about the nature of liberalism. It was, and in many ways still is, anti-democratic. Liberals don't want people to have power because they fear the tyranny of the majority. And the majority don't care about becoming rich and powerful. Most people just want a certain amount of security: a roof over their heads, food on the table, education and healthcare. Most people are willing to work hard for these; in fact, much harder than anyone should have to work in this day and age. That willingness is too easily exploited.

Liberalism was always about freedom for the elite to do what they like. The classical liberals did not consider most people capable of exercising freedom because they were not capable of exercising reason. In this they included all women, all Africans, all indigenous people everywhere. Not only did they deny liberty to these classes, they also practiced genocide and expropriation. And what is more they did it in the name of liberty! And we should be outraged by this.

We should be outraged by the way that neoliberals have reorganised society to promote the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few white men. We should be outraged at the continued, if more subtle, denial of liberty to women, people of colour, indigenous peoples. We should, like the anarchist geographer, Dr Simon Springer, be saying "Fuck neoliberalism". Not being polite about it, but honoring the righteous anger at the rhetoric of freedom being used to enslave us.

One of the most troubling trends that follows in the decades of neoliberal abuses of power and office is the rise of fascism: ultranationalist, racist, authoritarian groups which make the same offer to citizens as the fascists of the 1930s did. The elite do not care about you, they say, but we will protect your interests against those of the elite. And plenty of citizens, tired of barely scraping a living, of feeling out of control, tired of watching the excesses of the seemingly untouchable elite, become receptive to the message of fascism.

We already know that economic liberalism is a failure. Given their liberty, the elite always misuse it to oppress others. That neoliberalism is now making fascism look attractive again ought to be a warning sign that something is terribly wrong.

But of course the single biggest indictment of neoliberalism is the failure to acknowledge the impact that all that industry has on the ecology of the planet. Under neoliberalism we have instituted a mass extinction of plant and animal species and created a genuine existential threat to civilisation that can only be compared to the Black Death in Europe when one third of the population died.

In my next essay I will look at some of the reasons that liberalism goes as wrong as it does, particularly in how it understands human beings and human societies. And I will ponder what politics might look like in a world that acknowledged the truth. 


Note: 8 May 2019. There is a good article by George Monbiot from 2016 on the modern manifestations of liberalism: Neoliberalism: the ideology at the root of all our problems. He covers Hayek and Friedman. Brilliant Hayek quote shows that he was in fact a classical, anti-democratic, liberal: “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism”.

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