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A Different Look at Classical Liberalism

August 2, 2010

Tags Free MarketsWorld HistoryEntrepreneurshipPhilosophy and Methodology

Forty years ago, historian Ralph Raico completed his dissertation under the direction of F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Its title masks its power and importance: The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. It has been published for the first time by the Mises Institute, and this is not merely to honor a great historian and thinker. The research contained within it amounts to a major contribution to the public intellectual life of the United States at the time. The issue he addresses — the revelation of a different form of early liberalism — has major implications in our own time as well.

Let us back up a bit and understand the controversies that were boiling over in the 1960s. The Cold War was raging. Conservatism, to whom the defense of free enterprise had fallen after the Second World War, had already been redefined (or even defined) by the work of National Review to mean the backing of the US military state in its life-or-death struggle with communism abroad. Though young people today know next to nothing about this entire episode in American political culture, it was all-consuming for most anyone living between 1955 and 1990.

As Murray Rothbard explained in Betrayal of the American Right, the conservatives claimed to favor freedom, but what really rallied the troops was the issue of war against Russia and its satellite states. Whole libraries of books appeared purporting to expose the scary Soviet menace (this was long before the pathetic poverty of these countries came out in the open), and the pro-freedom agenda of cutting the state stayed planted in the backseat as conservatives rallied the troops for a seemingly endless escalation of nuclear bombs and military buildup.

There were three competitive political positions to the conservative mainstream at the time. There were the prowar Democrats who consistently favored both the military buildup and the Keynesian planning apparatus with a welfare state at home. Then there was of course the left-wing socialist position, which favored welfare-state expansion plus nationalization of industry, while opposing the Cold War, though it was easy to get the impression that this crowd was not only against the war but for the triumph of Sovietism. For this reason, this crowd was constantly jeered as anti-American.

For the true intellectuals, the people who consistently opposed statism in all its forms, there was the new libertarianism fashioned by Murray Rothbard. He and his followers opposed both the welfarism of the Left and the warfarism of the Right, and favored in their stead a revival of the old liberalism of the Jeffersonians, souped up dramatically by a rigorous intellectual apparatus. This package proved very attractive to the smart set fed up with both dumbed-down nationalism and naive welfarism.

This libertarianism proved a viable competitor to conservatism. In every generation, serious nonleftists felt the need to choose sides. Would they go the direction of conservatism, or would they embrace the radical libertarianism of the Rothbardians and eschew the state and its works? Many students at the time, opposed to the Vietnam War and worried about the growth of Leviathan in all areas of life, were drawn to libertarianism.

This was the battleground that Raico faced in the late 1960s. The argument between conservatives and libertarians was fundamentally about the Cold War, but that was not the only subject discussed. Instead, the conservatives came to characterize the libertarians as not only strategically flawed but philosophically corrupt. And why? Because they had inherited the secularism, the anticlericism, the essential immoralism and antinomianism of the old-liberal school of the Enlightenment (a word to be spoken with sneering disdain).

You see, the conservatives said, the libertarians imagine a world of autonomous individualism in which people run around and do whatever they want, free of the shackles of religion and morality, and this, they believe, is the true end of existence. Freedom and nothing else is their rallying cry! Thus did the conservatives attempt to paint the libertarians with the brush of the hippy, dropout generation — a sector of the New Left that spoke vaguely of freedom while rejecting all manner of social authority.

Did the critique apply? Were the liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries truly foreshadowing the hippies of the 1960s, and thereby in need of the correcting force of conservatism to add piety and an appreciation of tradition to their love of freedom?

The grain of truth here is that the liberal party of old had risen up in the age of the Enlightenment, when freedom was not only something that existed in absence of the overweening state; it was also something that required throwing off the shackles of tradition, of church control, of the moral limits imposed by superstitions of the past.

To some extent, this tendency in old liberalism found its justification in the too-close relationship between church and state in Europe's old regimes; the liberals believed that both had to be battled in the name of the rights of individuals. But in other cases there were genuine mistakes, as with John Stuart Mill, who variously imagined social authority to be as much a threat to freedom as the state itself.

But this attitude in no way characterized the whole of the old-liberal tradition. There was another tradition of liberalism that was not necessarily antireligion and antitradition but rather focused its critique of coercion against the state alone. After all, it is only the state, not religious institutions, that possess that critical power to aggress against the life and liberty of the individual.

To the extent the church can tax, it is only through the power and authority of the law over which the state possesses the monopoly. What's more, this other sector of liberalism did not see freedom alone as the sole point of existence, but rather as a means to an end of achieving higher moral purpose.

What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren't many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).

All three were distinguished for

  1. consistent antistatism,
  2. appreciation for modernity and commerce,
  3. love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
  4. a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
  5. a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.

What's more, these thinkers are people whom conservatives have tended to revere if only in passing, but have they really studied their thought to see their radicalism, their deep love of freedom, and their true attachment to the old-liberal cause?

Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition, and not come anywhere near fulfilling the stereotype that conservatives were then creating of libertarians. Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.

Forty years later, it is striking how poignant Raico's treatise remains. And it is a fact: conservatives who were blasting away at libertarians at the time never saw this book. It is just now published. It is this way with great books, classic studies of this depth: it remains as powerful and relevant now as ever.

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