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Was Classical Liberalism a "Strife of Interests Masquerading as a Contest of Principles"?

Mises Daily: Thursday, August 05, 2010 by

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[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Was Classical Liberalism a 'Strife of Interests…'?"]

Ambrose Bierce famously defined politics as a "strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage." Harry Elmer Barnes never quotes this quip of Bierce's anywhere in his Survey of Western Civilization, first published in 1947. Nor, as far as I can tell, does he ever quote it anywhere else in his many books. But he certainly writes in his Survey of Western Civilization as though Bierce's definition of politics were one of his working assumptions.

For example, in 1947, Barnes wrote as follows of the events that took place between 1775 and 1790 in England's North American colonies: "The American Revolution of 1775–1783 … was primarily a revolt and a triumph of the commercial classes … the powerful merchant classes," which

did not at first actually desire an open rebellion [but] had hoped to intimidate England into ordering a discontinuance of the new and restrictive commercial policy that it had determined upon in 1763. Ultimately, the movement of protest the merchants had encouraged among the common people of the coast towns grew into overt revolution, which they found themselves obliged to support.

Once the war for political independence had been won, however, "the merchant class … gave up most of their radical notions of the revolutionary period" — that is, their liberal ideals — and "framed a relatively conservative constitution designed … to advance the interests of the business classes. Their leader was Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the ablest economic statesman in the history of American capitalism." It is helpful to remember here that what Barnes means by "capitalism" in this passage is not the free market. Rather, he is using the term in its original sense and in the sense intended by virtually all writers since Marx who have thought of themselves as members of the Left — that is, by "capitalism," Barnes means the use of the power of the state to advance the perceived interests of capitalists, the owners and deployers of capital.

It is also useful, I think, to bear in mind the enormous intellectual debt Barnes owed to the distinguished American historian Charles Austin Beard, who tended to see conflicts of economic interest behind all political controversies. Or, to put the matter in Ambrose Bierce's terms, when Charles Beard looked at politics, he tended to see a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. He tended to see two or more parties seeking control of the state in order to conduct public affairs for private advantage.

Barnes first fell under Charles Beard's influence while in graduate school at Columbia just before World War I, and he remained under Beard's influence for the rest of his life. When, in 1947, at the age of 58, Barnes published his Survey of Western Civilization, he dedicated it "to Charles Austin Beard, courageous historian and incorruptible patriot." And his portrayal of the American Revolution and its aftermath has obviously been influenced by Beard's famous 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

Barnes's understanding of the politics of 17th-century England is, however, very similar to his understanding of the politics of Boston and Philadelphia late in the 18th century. Barnes seems to have agreed, basically, with H.G. Wells that occupants of the English throne had been trying, as Wells put it in 1920, "to make the government of England a 'personal monarchy' of the continental type," since the time of the House of Tudor — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and the original Queen Elizabeth — in the 16th century.

All of these monarchs had favored what Barnes calls a "policy [of] complete governmental regulation of economic activities," the policy "known as Mercantilism in England." Barnes notes that "almost before mercantilism had taken definite shape as a policy, some objections to it began to be raised," for, even in the very beginning, "some of those engaged in trade … found this regulation inimical to their interests." And the political importance of "those engaged in trade" grew steadily during the 16th and 17th centuries.

As Barnes wrote, "the oceans were conquered for the first time.… Trade attained a volume, variety, and geographic scope hitherto unknown." There was now "far greater volume of trade than ever before, a greater total bulk of commodities traded, and a greater variety and diversity of commodities exchanged. More goods were made at home for trade, and more were brought in from foreign countries and climes. This meant the stimulation of manufacturing." And this in turn meant a "remarkable increase in the numbers, wealth, and power of the middle class or bourgeoisie."

This "growing middle class," made up mostly of "merchants and small business men" along with lawyers and other professionals, "soon found the rule of these autocrats" — the Tudor monarchs — "burdensome and restrictive." Increasingly, they began agitating for political change. And, as Barnes pointed out, they agitated increasingly for political change of a particular sort. "In the political realm," he wrote in his Survey of Western Civilization,

the most important item in the program of the new commercial middle class was their drive for representative government. They soon lost their faith in their ability to protect their interests merely through unofficial negotiations and compromises with the monarchs. They felt that they must take an active part in government and, if possible, secure dominion over the kings. This could be done only through increasing the power of the legislative or elective branch of the government.

This, in England, meant Parliament.

Still, as Barnes told the tale back in 1947, "there were no active clashes between the Crown and Parliament in the age of Elizabeth," because "her policies in the main were favorable to the rising commercial groups. When they openly challenged her policies in Parliament, she usually stalled for time and then graciously conceded their demands if it seemed strategic to do so."

Elizabeth, the so-called Virgin Queen, left no heir, however, and the English throne passed to James VI, the king of Scotland, who, in 1603, became James I, king of both England and Scotland. Harry Elmer Barnes put the matter succinctly: "James I," he wrote, "first of the Stuart kings, was more presumptuous than Elizabeth and more lacking in tact and discretion." James spent lavishly and financed his spending by illegally imposing new taxes on the English public — "illegally," because he did so without the approval of Parliament. Barnes wrote that these "new taxes fell directly upon the merchants … increasing their financial burdens and reducing their profits. In addition, James interfered with the freedom of manufacturing and trade by arbitrarily establishing industrial and commercial monopolies."

James's son, Charles I, was even worse than his father. Not only did Charles spend lavishly and impose new taxes without even bothering to seek the approval of Parliament, he also had his critics and political opponents arrested; he had them tried before special tribunals packed with his flunkeys; he had them imprisoned, often for years at a time, for nothing more than expressing their political opinions. He flouted every effort by Parliament to restrain him or limit his power. Finally, in 1642, there began what Barnes described as "a period of civil war that lasted with brief interludes until the execution of the King in 1649."

Seven years of civil war were followed by nine more years with no king at all. As Barnes wrote in his Survey of Western Civilization, "from 1649 to 1658 England was ruled by the Commonwealth government presided over by Oliver Cromwell, who had been the most successful military leader in the struggle against Charles." Barnes maintains that "most of the program of the middle-class parliamentarians was put into operation" by Cromwell, who "governed, with or without Parliament, in a manner that was generally favorable to the mercantile middle class." On the other hand, Cromwell's "naval wars disturbed trade" and he imposed "commercial restrictions" of his own. So, after Cromwell's death in 1658, the Stuarts were invited back, with the blessing of the mercantile middle class.

According to Barnes, the first of these restored Stuart monarchs, Charles I's son, Charles II, "followed the general policy of Elizabeth in discreetly observing what the traffic would bear in the royal conflict with Parliament. He gave way whenever any open clash seemed probable." But "Charles was succeeded in 1685 by his brother James II, who was far less politic than Charles. He put down revolts with great brutality. He challenged the trading interests of the middle class and distinctly sacrificed their well-being.… To accomplish his ends, James even tried to pack Parliament with his partisans."

Clearly, the arrogance of these kings knew no bounds. They were inclined to believe, as Murray Rothbard reminds us in his Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, that

subjects must obey the king in any and all circumstances, whether or not the king or his actions were good or evil. There must be no resistance whatever, even to evil princes. The king is the divinely mandated representative of God on earth by hereditary right. To question, much less to disobey the king, therefore, was not only treason but blasphemy. Disobeying the king [was] disobeying God.

After all, as these monarchs saw it, once again quoting Rothbard, "good kings are a blessing sent to the people by God; wicked kings are a punishment equally sent by the divinity. In either case the duty of the subject is absolute obedience to God's/the king's commands." According to Rothbard, at times, the kings and their supporters "came close to saying that a monarch could never harm his people: in other words, however evil his deeds may seem, they must really be good, virtually by definition."

Despite recent memory of the conduct in office of Cromwell and his minions, the conduct of the newly restored Stuart monarchs, according to Harry Elmer Barnes, "provoked another rebellion of the middle class," and this rebellion culminated in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689. Barnes wrote that "James's supporters were too few and weak to carry on another civil war," so James II was driven out "without serious bloodshed," and "James's Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange … were summoned to take over the British throne."

And how did the middle class justify this high-handed treatment of "the divinely mandated representative of God on earth"? Harry Elmer Barnes wrote in 1947 that

the middle class produced a body of economic and political theory to justify its attitudes and program. In the realm of economic policy it gradually came to favor complete withdrawal of the state from all types of interference with economic life. In the field of political theory it developed a related type of interpretation. What it desired above all was freedom from arbitrary taxation and other forms of oppression. Hence it worked out a doctrine of the natural rights of man to "life, liberty, and property." This theory of natural rights was closely allied to the notion of a natural order that lay at the foundation of the economic philosophy of laissez faire. These natural rights of life, liberty, and property, which included, specifically, freedom from arbitrary confiscation of property, imprisonment, illegal taxation, and censorship, were held by middle-class writers to be inherent in the order of nature from the beginnings of human society. The state or civil authority was established not to limit or terminate these supposed inherent natural rights, but rather still more firmly to assure and protect them. No ruler had any real authority to infringe upon these natural rights.

As Barnes noted, there were a number of "middle-class writers" who took more or less this line, but "by far the most influential" of them "was the 17th-century English philosopher, John Locke. Many of his theories were taken up and popularized in America by Thomas Jefferson."

This brings us to the question Barnes's account of political developments in 17th-century England poses for us. For it seems clear that the theory Barnes depicts as having been developed to "justify" the economic and political program of the middle class is none other than what we call today by the name "libertarianism." And John Locke is, of course, one of the major heroes of the libertarian intellectual pantheon. But should we regard Locke in this way? Was he one of the pioneers in the effort to discover and work out the implications of libertarian principle? Or was he merely a clever propagandist — a composer of "justifications" for political policies actually designed to benefit the middle class economically?

(To be continued.)