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Reactionary Liberals

Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 06, 2010 by

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[American Affairs, 1947]

The American tradition is the "liberal" tradition, but when "liberal" is used to designate the views of Henry Wallace, we are not even aware that the word has been twisted to mean its exact opposite. For some three hundred years the term "liberal" has expressed a philosophy which is in direct conflict with the philosophy of those who, today in the United States, term themselves "liberals." Liberal and liberalism are defined as follows.

Liberal

"One who favors greater freedom in political or religious matters" (Webster's Dictionary)

Liberalism

"A belief in the value of human personality, and a conviction that the source of all progress lies in the free exercise of human energy" (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Liberalism

"Liberalism has advocated … individual liberty in government, economics and religion … In political and economic thought, John Stuart Mill represents English liberalism." (Columbia Encyclopedia)

"Liberalism" in the historic sense is the struggle of man to assert his liberty against authority. In the political field, this struggle is against the authority of the state. Those who, today, call themselves liberals believe in increasing the authority of the state at the expense of individual liberty. It is true that they do so for the laudable purpose of advancing the public welfare but, whatever their motives, they have taken their stand against individual liberty and in favor of authority. Whatever they may call themselves, they are not liberals.

"Liberalism" in the historic sense regards government as a necessary evil. It looks upon all governments, including our own, with suspicion. It believes that the only way to safeguard liberty and protect the individual from the tyranny of government is to limit the functions of government. It fears government and seeks to impose restraints upon the power of government.

"Liberalism," as the term is used today, looks upon the citizen with suspicion and upon government with approval. It seeks to build a strong government to control and regiment the individual for the good of society, to prevent the strong from taking advantage of the weak, to offset inequalities in wealth and incomes, and to play the historic role of Robin Hood, who robbed the rich and distributed some of the proceeds to the poor.

The principle of authority, which has enslaved the human spirit during the greater part of recorded history, has been challenged effectively only for a brief period in ancient Greece and again in the last 300 years and only by that concept of life which historically is known as liberalism.

Although the roots of liberalism lie deep in history, liberalism as an organized doctrine begins with the revolt of Oliver Cromwell against constituted authority in England and the rise of the Dutch Republic in Holland. It found eloquent expression in the great essay of John Milton, Areopagitica, which he wrote in 1644, in defiance of law, to uphold the right of free speech and to protest to Parliament against establishment of a censorship.

Nearly a century later, John Locke expounded the principles of liberalism and his writings "became the political Bible of the following century." In the 18th century, the American Revolution established a new type of government based upon the doctrines of Locke, and Adam Smith formulated the liberal doctrine in economic terms. In the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Bentham, Cobden and Bright were the spokesmen of liberalism.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States stem directly from liberal doctrine. The Constitution of the United States expresses the fear of governmental authority which is characteristic of liberalism. It is designed, not for efficiency, but to safeguard liberty. It shows distrust of all branches of government — of the president, of congress and of the courts and makes each a check upon the others.

The statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" was not intended to mean that they are equal in intelligence, in physical strength, in character or in any other respects in which individuals differ. On the contrary, that statement means that under a just government, all men are equal under the law.

This new and revolutionary doctrine was a moral pronouncement and an affirmation of political belief in direct conflict with the principle of authority under which men are not equal under the law. Under the rule of authority a man's status in the social structure determines what laws apply to him and what he must obey.

Two examples will illustrate the point:

  1. In France, before the French Revolution, the nobility and clergy were not subject to taxes imposed upon other classes of society.

  2. In England, under the Statute of Artificers enacted in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a common laborer or a skilled artisan was not permitted to leave his parish without the consent of his last employer.

The special privileges of French nobles and clergy and the discriminatory restraint upon the freedom of English workmen were based on their status in society. This concept of status is in direct conflict with the liberal philosophy of equality under the law.

Today we can note a definite tendency in our law (for which congress is chiefly to blame) to abandon these liberal principles and to substitute for them the old, discredited, reactionary standards of personal justice and of status. This tendency is most marked in some federal administrative agencies, such as the National Labor Relations Board, which act as prosecutor, judge and jury, unhampered by rules of evidence or ordinary principles of law.

Most of our courts try to follow "the rule of law" but a tendency is apparent, chiefly in our highest court, to substitute justice based upon class distinctions for equality under the law. It is no longer the act alone that constitutes the crime but the act in relation to the status of the actor. A striking example of this is found in the 1934 anti-racketeering law which was construed by the United States Supreme Court as not applying to labor unions.

Modern liberals, as the term is currently used in the United States, are faced with an inescapable moral and intellectual dilemma. This dilemma arises from the fact that they are trying to go in two different directions at once and to follow two wholly conflicting and opposite philosophies of life.

Sincere, modern liberals do not deliberately desire to set up an authoritarian government. All they want to do is to improve the lot of mankind. They want everyone to be decently housed, decently fed, decently clothed, and they are willing to give government unlimited authority to accomplish desirable ends. They wish to override individual liberties only when individual liberties hinder government in accomplishing results which they approve. They want government to be powerful to do good without being powerful to do harm.

The weakness of a benevolent despotism is that there is no guarantee that it will remain benevolent. The Social Welfare State, the modern liberals' goal, is essentially a Germanic concept. Bismarck was a pioneer in providing social security benefits in 1884 and fostered state-guaranteed insurance for workmen against sickness, accidents, old age and disability. Karl Marx and Bismarck had much in common.