The Liberal Tradition from Fox to Keynes

Alan Bullock Maurice Shock

Long before our time, the word liberal meant: leave society alone to manage itself. In economics, it meant laissez-faire and private property. In government, it meant the rule of law. In civic life, it meant more liberty. Freedom was the watchword, the solution to whatever ailed the social order.

Its achievements are chronicled in the pages of this fantastic book, edited by Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock, published first in 1957, in the words of the champions of liberalism in England from the 18th century and forward. Liberalism crushed protectionism. It achieved absolute security of private property, civil liberties for women and Jews, the end of slavery, the establishment of the freedom of association and religion, the end of mercantilism and the institutionalization of free trade, the end of torture and cruelty in penal laws, the hard-core opposition to imperialism, the celebration of the merchant class, the heralding of individualism.

Liberalism’s achievements are magnificent and sweeping. Reading through this volume with its orations and declarations, you can feel your heart racing with excitement. The statism of old was being swept away. In the minds of these great figures, there could never be too much liberty.

And yet the book also documents the change that began to overtake liberalism in the late 19th century, all resulting from what Hans Hoppe has called the great failing of liberalism: its belief that the state could itself be made liberal, benign, and even part of the structure of society itself.

And so you begin to detect a change in the narrative, all based on the myth of the possibility of good government. The first sector to fall is education, as we might expect. Then we have slippage in the area of foreign policy, stemming from the view that the state itself could become the liberator of peoples. World War I then changed everything and liberalism lost its anti-statist core and abandoned laissez-faire in economics.

The book ends with Keynes’s famous essay calling for an end to individualism. “Progress lies in the growth and the recognition of semi-autonomous bodies within the State-bodies whose criterion of action within their own field is solely the public good as they understand it.” He is critical of socialism because it is too enamored with the idea of freedom!

In any case, despite the ending, this is a wonderful collection with great lessons to teach us today. With its focus on English history, it has much to teach Americans about their own history.

The Liberal Tradition
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New York University Press, 1957