From Hobson's Choice
Liberalism is a very carelessly and broadly used term for several disparate political philosophies. The word has been used since the 18th century to refer to fairly moderate or centrist views, although there is little or no consensus as to what liberals are supposed to believe or want. Not only does the word have very different meanings in different regions, it is applied to topics which are peripheral to politics generally. This site claims that the confusing jumble of different significations actually conform to a logically coherent outline.
At the back of the liberal idea are two principles. One is instrumental, and the other ethical.
- social problems that the government is required to address arise from shortcomings in social institutions;
- the fundamental organizing principle of justice is the rights of the individual.
From this derive all the confusing complexities and ambiguities of interpretation.
During the gradual rise of parliamentary politics (in England), the original conflict of interests was essentially threefold: those of the ruler (aristocratic "Tories"), those of the ruled (the bourgeois "Whigs"), and those outside the political continuum—the peasants, the poor, the religious dissenters and Catholics, women, and Manchester. At first, English political traditions naturally assigned far greater weight to the interests of the aristocracy, and less to lower social orders. Even then, however, the aristocracy needed to split the social base immediately below them, viz., the bourgeois, and co-opt the social base below the bourgeous: farming interests, military veterans, and opponents of the new industrialism. By the time of the English Revolution this had become impossible: the Tories were much too fractured to put up a unified (and therefore, reasonable) front to the Whigs, and the Whigs had won over the unrepresented radical classes of religious dissenters and urban poor. Victory in the Civil War was disastrous for the revolutionary coalition, and infighting naturally brought about the Restoration (1660). During the next several decades, the Whigs and the Tories battled over the royal prerogatives and control over the Anglican Church. During this period, parliamentary politics was wholly personal, dominated by patronage and tiny numbers of voters, and egregious opportunism. Political figures frequently changed sides regardless of ideological proclivities.
While the Usonian Revolution introduced dramatic polarization to British politics, it was accompanied by a sharp increase both in intrigue and in the power of the Commons. Confronting the French Revolution and subsequent period of warfare with a badly weakened aristocracy had a surprising effect: the bourgeois and some middle classes rallied to conservativism with great vigor. At this time, liberals and conservatives were identified more by what they were supposed to have been than what they actually were: the liberals were understood to have regarded the Revolution in France as initially wholesome and destructive of rank superstition, while the conservatives were regarded as defenders of a politically free and active church, a strong aristocracy, and the quiet order of the distant past. In effect, the conservatives believed that society had gone wrong by adopting unnatural and fatuous ideals, such as those espoused by the Enlightenment philosophers. Ideally, what was needed was a return to a sense of duty, moral rectitude, and respect for social rank. On the other hand, liberals favored a rapid reordering of society along rational lines, with the goal of sharply increasing prosperity. This was to become known as "classical liberalism": laissez-faire economic policies at home, free trade abroad, disestablishment of the state church, personal liberty, and collateral reforms.
This represented progressive thought because it rejected the then-conservative ideology of governing through strict control of social conduct. Instead of pushing people back into an idyllic past that had never existed, the object was to unleash industrial efficiency. Liberals generally sided the abolition of slavery, although this is a broad generalization. Classical liberalism developed an attachment to the concept of political rights of individuals, which led to some surprising results. The Whigs favored the initial reforms of voting rights, such as regular apportionment of seats in the Commons on the basis of current population (1832); but their heirs, the Liberals, opposed the extension of the franchise on the grounds that lower classes, armed with the vote, would encroach on the property rights of the upwardly mobile (see Social Democracy & Liberalism). After the 1867 Reform Bill was passed over their opposition the Liberals did favor the passage of the secret ballot; if voting was a right, it was meaningless if subject to coercion. In 1867, when the Second Reform Bill extended the vote to nearly a fourth of the adult population, the Whigs were mostly opposed; it was passed by the Conservative PM Disraeli (allegedly as part of a devious strategy to crush the Whigs). Liberalism regarded political power instrumentally: it was vested best to protect the structure of negatively-defined liberty.
The Rise of Social Liberalism
Social liberalism was not quite an antithesis to classical liberalism. First of all, liberalism had always merged the idea of an ambitious industrial system with political and economic freedom. While the initial strategy of the early British liberals was to unleash their nation's productive potential by focusing on property rights and freedom of action (negative liberty), this strategy was immediately revised in other Anglophonic republics: Canada and the USA, for example, required an industrial base for liberalism which neither country has, so the Conservative (i.e., pro-Imperial) Party devised the "national plan" of high tariffs and public improvements, while the Republican (i.e., pro-expansion for free laborers) Party did the same. At the time, the high tariff policy of the Republicans/Conservatives in the USA and Canada seemed the antithesis of the no-tariff policy of the Liberals in the UK, but in fact this was a classic example of the same ideology applied to different historical conditions. Canada, as a dominion, and the USA, as a republic, had to expand internally since they were rich in natural resources and poor in labor. Opposite conditions prevailed in the UK, so the bottlenecks to growth were released through foreign territorial expansion (or put another way: the US and Canada were the foreign territories where the expansion was taking place). Hence, at the boundaries of economic expansion, the dominions/USA needed to capture capital from abroad through financial inducements. This would enable them to employ the expropriated land and the immigrant labor, while retaining the same liberal precepts of humanitarian reform, free enterprise, property rights, and self-reliance.
An additional point to remember is that achievement of a stable industrial peace, in which workers were not seething with anger and employers were not clamoring for fascism, was a daunting task; liberalism would not be liberalism if it countenanced blanket repression. A fascist state in the service of free enterprise would be a joke; the legal system, an essential feature of capitalism, would have been too unreliable. Totalitarian politics and liberal economics were incompatible, so compromise on the purity of capitalism had to be reached. Universal suffrage was now understood as an essential feature of political transparency; oligarchies were associated with arbitrary and untrustworthy rule. Imperialism had been adopted as a necessary feature of British liberalism to ensure that free trade reached its potential, but the outcome was dictatorship by civil servant... or by racial elite. This was, clearly, a travesty. To be true to its roots, liberalism had to return to them. The deterioration in industrial relations had to be scrutinized in terms of potential reform, not as a new campaign of repression. Hence, social reforms like universal medical care, unemployment insurance, legalized labor organizing, and the like were seen as a more efficient way of economizing on the use of state force in defense of classical liberalism.
Conflicts with Social Democracy
In countries such as the above-mentioned (UK, US, Canada) and several others, liberalism has long had a confusing relationship with social democracy. The more articulate conservative critics of modern liberalism, such as Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, and William F. Buckley  and others, frequently attacked it for this alleged proximity. As a political coalition, the new "social" liberalism was aligned with social democracy. But they were quite different.
First of all, social democracy had its own tradition of activism and organizing, such as the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (1938-1948) and many others. Such organizations were effectively living social democracy: they had no state apparatus capable of top-down administration. In contrast, political liberalism was inherently a theory of governing. When liberals wanted to formulate the sorts of institutional reform that would raise living standards, they could use a think tank, or they could form an alliance with a pre-existing activist group. The think tanks are notorious for forming clever policies with little grounding in practical reality; in contrast, an alliance between a liberal government intent on reforms, and a social democratic movement like the American Association for Labor Legislation (1905-1943) was much more likely to create legislation with lasting favorable impact. Efforts by liberal governments to simply reform by fiat were usually fiascoes. The liberal administrators of the New Deal, such as Charles E. Merriam (head of the NRPB) and Henry S Dennison (NBER head), were mainly interested in modernizing the government role in capitalism; they would apply rational strategies of public administration. From their point of view, industrial capitalism was both secure and successful, but its constituent organizations had stumbled and needed to be repaired, replaced, or enhanced. They were not radicals; they had no involvement in exposing the social relations of production to democratic supervision.
The main social democratic reform of the New Deal, the Wagner Act, was politically explosive. It introduced an element of radical uncertainty to the economic and political system of the United States. Originally, Southern Democrats who had long stood as men of the people, now found themselves threatened by labor organizations that threatened to bypass them. As patrons and patricians, they had assumed the liberal political order would mean a distribution of benefits through them, and in most respects it did mean that. However, the liberalization of labor organizing created a base of power that was uniquely independent of the rural Southern power base; indeed, they threatened the very basis of state power in Southeastern states, since police forces in rural counties were frequently little more than private armies retained by local notables. Industrial management (including that of farms) was often so crude it required virtual peonage; in regions like the Deep South or the Central Valley of California, "industry" consisted chiefly of packaging farm commodities for shipping, canning, or refining. In such areas, reform might have been manageable, but social democracy was not.
In subsequent rollbacks of New Deal reforms (most notably the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947), liberals split with social democrats over the roll of political institutions. Liberals, despite their lenient reputation among conservatives, are inherently dependent upon the principle of a firm legal mechanism for the enforcement of the law. This means that the social democratic principle that the state's coercive function is always and everywhere open to question, is unacceptable to liberals. A pillar of the liberal ideal of governance is that, when reforms are complete, the integrity of the state as arbiter of civil order is above suspicion. A pillar of social democracy is that law enforcement is always subordinate to some vested class interest. Hence, liberals accepted the concept of labor organization and collective bargaining, but they were extremely wary of the right to strike. They assumed that, unless it was severely restricted, it would be used to destroy the property rights of capital. Liberals have always firmly supported law enforcement; serious questioning of the political and industrial control of the police power is something that a liberal does when she abandons liberalism for radicalism. Reform is never intended as a suicide pact for the reformed institution; it is intended to make the existing social order work better. Like a machine, the new cylinders and pistons of civil institutions must be impermeable for it to perform work. The social democrat, in contrast, tends to find the machinery analogy flawed, if not positively offensive. It treats citizens as insensate matter, and assumes good faith on the part of the social elites ("engineers").
Finally, social democracy and liberalism come into conflict over the goal of expansion. From Adam Smith to Gladstone, and from Henry C. Carey to J.M. Keynes, liberals harbored as an instrument of social uplift the goal of expansion. This was the path to civil harmony: everyone would become richer together, from the proletariat to the manager. Better still, expansion would led to mutual sympathy and respect on the part of classes, and the proletariat would not be dependent upon a sympathetic political regime. Under social welfare programs, the poor often lose their employability, while a change of political climate can leave them deprived of even emergency support. Yet the ideal of class harmony through economic expansion has many conflicts with the principle of social democracy. Firstly, it creates a race condition where workers are expected to run as fast as they can to remain in place. Expansion leads to full employment, but as wages rise, there is a substitution of capital for labor; and imports become competitive. If labor productivity is not continuously rising, then the enterprise will switch from employing workers to marketing imports from China. But continuously rising productivity implies an increase in fixed capital per worker, which of course means an increase in the economic significance of capital. Realistically, this also means periodic avalanches of technological unemployment, and cashiered workers too senior to rehire. It means, in effect, that even when capitalism works exactly as idealistically depicted, the domination of enterprise by management is ever-greater. If labor is organized, it is also bribed; it must shut up if it takes its money. The bargain is Faustian.
Worse, endless economic expansion in practice does not serve as a panacea for social ills. Using various indices of social performance, such as the ratio of White incomes to Black incomes, suggests there is a temporary social benefit from economic expansion; but this is usually reversed with the onset of recession. After a half century of historically unprecedented economic growth, inequality in income distribution have only slightly budged; gaps between Blacks and Whites have diminished somewhat; women have enjoyed an increase in opportunities outside the home, but also increased social burdens, i.e., they are increasingly obligated to be income earners as well as perform an excessive burden of household tasks; urban sprawl and global climate change have probably offset any positive impact of environmental protection. Economic growth has failed to led to commensurate gains in human development, one industrialization has run its course. A social democrat could reasonably conclude from the historical record that liberalism's preferences for property rights and exclusion of politics from social issues leads to gains that are not worth the sacrifices: economic growth, paternalistic government, and class harmony as against radical social change, popular debate on social goals, and class dissolution.
Conservative Criticism of Liberalism
Within the USA, conservative criticism of liberalism usually errs in equating it with social democracy (as mentioned above) or the left. Some will reject the distinction drawn between liberalism and the left, on the grounds that liberalism defends social democratic gains, such as universal public education, and more sweepingly, opens the door to a leftwing conquest of power. Conservative criticisms of this nature are more appropriately discussed in a discussion on that particular ideology, since they reflect conservative political typologies.
However, in cases where conservativism makes a philosophical objection to liberalism per se (as opposed to its parliamentary consequences), we can summarize it thus: liberalism tends to impose an unsustainable burden on society to serve its members. While a society may be understood to be more than the sum of its parts, its potential bounty for members is limited by their contributions. We may admire a society that asks little and gives much, but what society gives it must first take from its members. In cases of taxation, this is problematic enough: high taxes and ample assistance for nonproductive members may, over long periods of time, lead to severely diminished productivity. But when we extend this to other, nontangible forms of goods, then the argument is more compelling still. When people are dutiful and obedient to a generally accepted social hierarchy, then there is likely to be greater ease for the society to meet all the demands made of it. When men readily offer themselves up for valor, then the state is likely to be more interested in containing that valor, than stimulating it; in conservative societies, the elites are more afraid of war than the populace.
Criminality is another example of the this, as far as the conservative is concerned. Under a liberal system of governance, there is a reluctance to subject the criminal to the full force of criminal sanction. Since the time of Cesare Bonesana Marchese di Beccaria, some liberals have opposed the idea that the state power could legitimately put a convict to death for any crime; there was an absolute limit to the ability of a rational state to exact vengeance on the accused, arising from the constraints of the social contract. A person's moral worth transcends any act he commits or neglects. Conservatives then and now objected to this; unconditional worth meant that worthiness arising from upright and legal conduct, was cast into low value, since it could be had for nothing. The perpetrator of a wicked crime could, moreover, hide behind the moral qualms of a just society. This diminished the power of the sovereign to defend his people, and yet mitigating factors in a criminal's trial could include his past brutalization: something the nation would find harder to prevent.
Since higher demands on society went hand in hand with diminished generosity towards it (such as diminished patriotism or duty), it comes as no surprise that liberal society makes up the deficit with uncertainty and a harried vulgarity. This, then, is the conservative rebuke of liberalism.
- ↑ During the Usonian Civil War, the Liberal Party in Britain was vehemently hostile to the Union and supportive of the CSA; the Whig Party in the USA was sectionally split, with Zachary Taylor (s.1849-1850) siding with the slavocracy.
- ↑ To be fair, some liberals, like William Gladstone, favored the 1867 Reform. See "William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898)," Victorian Web.
- ↑ Robert Bork, "Hard Truths About the Culture War" First Things 54 (June/July 1995): 18-23.
- ↑ Irving Kristol, "American conservatism 1945-1995" Public Interest (Fall 1995)
- ↑ William F. Buckley Jr., "Standing athwart history, yelling Stop" National Review (originally published 1955/2004)
- ↑ Examples of successful political reforms, such as New Deal legislation, are documented in John Egerton's Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, University of North Carolina Press (1995). The New Deal remains very controversial, despite the great modesty of its actual reforms. Those that were the most significant, such as the National Labor Relations [Wagner] Act, represented ideas that the labor movement had fought for since its inception. Other reforms, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), were designed by crank economists using already-outmoded theories. See Patrick D. Reagan, Designing a New America: The Origins of New Deal Planning, 1890-1943 Univ of Massachusetts Press (2000).
- ↑ Per the desire of the Southern Democrats, nearly all New Deal programs were administered by states. This allowed them to tweak the distribution of benefits. In some cases, such tweaking allowed politically connected plantation owners to distribute assistance to their employees in lieu of actually paying them living wages. See Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, W. W. Norton & Company (2005); Katznelson's book covers the period of major permanent New Deal programs (as opposed to emergency programs like the WPA) and Fair Deal Programs (such as the GI Bill of Rights).
- ↑ See, for example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996. This was intended to prove to the Republican Party that the Democrats had leaned the lesson of '68, that economic populism was politically unsustainable. Opposition to militarism had long since been thrown to the wolves.
- ↑ Algernon Austin, "What a recession means for black America," Economic Policy Intitute (January 2008). As is generally noted, the ratio of Black incomes to White incomes, and Black unemployment to White Unemployment, stays roughly the same during a typical business cycle. See William A. Darity, Jr. & Samuel L. Myers, Jr, "The Relative Decline in Black Family Incomes during the 1990s" , Paper prepared for presentation at the Southern Economic Association meetings, (Nov 2000).
- ↑ Richard A. Easterlin & Laura Angelescu, "Modern Economic Growth and Quality of Life: Cross Sectional and Time Series Evidence" , Institute for the Study of Labor, University of Bonn, BRD (April 2007). Easterlin & Angelescu find evidence of human development indicator (HDI) and social indicator improvements loosely correlated with GDP growth, but even very large gains in GDP per capita may result in negligible improvements. Humans prefer high incomes, but the quality of life is more strongly affected by other social factors, such as public goods.
- ↑ See Matthew White, "Democracies Do Not Make War on One Another...or Do They?." White's paper uses historical evidence to argue that democracies are actually somewhat more likely to fight wars, including with other democracies. This is somewhat distinct from arguing that conservative societies are less warlike, but a subjective review of White's examples could be used to support that conclusion. Also, my point is not that conservative societies are less likely to need to wage war because of internal political issues; it's that conservatives have historically argued this. Thucydides (The Pelopponesian War) and Xenophon (A History of My Times) essentially devote their works to making this very point.
- Gerald Gaus & Shane D. Courtland, "Liberalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)