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A Caricature of Classical Liberalism: It's All about Individualism and Materialism

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The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century
by Helena Rosenblatt
Princeton University Press, 2018
xii + 348 pages

Helena Rosenblatt, a historian who teaches at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, has written a valuable history of liberalism that is disfigured by her bias against the free market and its advocates. She aims to provide

a word history of liberalism. I feel certain that if we don’t pay attention to the actual use of the word, the histories we tell will inevitably be different and even conflicting….My approach leads to some surprising discoveries. One is the centrality of France to the history of liberalism….Another discovery is the importance of Germany, whose contributions to the history of liberalism are usually underplayed, if not completely ignored. (p. 3, emphasis in original)

She is an authority on French political thought and has written well-received books on Benjamin Constant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but this book ranges widely from Cicero to the present. She is particularly anxious to combat the view that equates liberalism with self-interest and individual rights, which is

a very recent development in the history of liberalism. It is the product of the wars of the twentieth century and especially the fear of totalitarianism during the Cold War. For centuries before this, being liberal meant. . .being a giving and civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good. (p. 4)

In what follows, I shall give examples of the insights of this erudite author but also of her many mistakes, by no means limited to the bias mentioned above.

An example of both insight and error occurs in the first chapter of the book. She tells us that liberalitas (liberality) meant to Seneca and Cicero the magnanimous behavior appropriate to a free citizen. This was an aristocratic notion, but by the time of the Enlightenment its meaning had broadened. “Its scope was expanded and, in some sense, democratized. It now became possible to speak not only of liberal individuals, but of liberal sentiments, ideas, and ways of thinking” (p. 26, emphasis in original). One of these extensions of liberality was “fostering religious toleration” (p. 27). Rosenblatt rightly mentions in this connection John Locke, but she ignores Pierre Bayle, with Locke the key defender of religious toleration in the seventeenth century. The omission is ironic in view of her complaint that accounts of liberalism downplay the importance of French and German authors.

She gives an excellent account of Constant.

Constant had learned the lessons of the Terror and Napoleon’s authoritarian rule. He had seen how easily popular sovereignty could ally itself with dictatorship. One of his main goals, therefore, was to prevent a dictatorship based on popular sovereignty from masquerading as a liberal regime. It was less the form of government that mattered…than the amount. (pp. 65–66, emphasis in original)

Later, she notes that Constant was a “laissez-faire liberal,” although he did not rule out all government intervention in the economy. She complains that after World War II, “Constant’s defense of individual rights was emphasized above all his other concerns. His efforts at state building and constant worries about morals, religion, and ‘perfectibility’ were downplayed or completely ignored” (p. 273). Constant was not a “radical individualist,” as some of his twentieth-century interpreters take him to be. So far, so good; but in a lecture on Constant given shortly before her book appeared, Rosenblatt attacked Ralph Raico as among those who wrongly viewed Constant as an antisocial “individualist” (the discussion of Raico occurs around 24:00). Had she read Raico’s article on Constant rather than the title of the journal in which the article first appeared, the New Individualist Review, she would have seen that his account of Constant is similar to her own. He too stresses “the development and enrichment of personality” and in fact quotes Constant as saying, “it is not for happiness alone, it is for self-perfectioning that destiny calls us.” The process of self-perfectioning, Raico emphasizes, takes place through various social institutions. Perhaps, though, I am unfair to Rosenblatt. There is nothing about Raico in the book, though the surrounding material in the lecture makes it to the text; maybe she actually read his article and decided to omit him from her list of miscreants.

The curious pattern of insight and omission continues. She mentions the “history of liberalism written by the Prussian professor of philosophy Wilhelm Traugott Krug in 1823,” (p. 78), but nowhere in the book does she discuss Wilhelm von Humboldt, perhaps the greatest of all German classical liberals. His The Limits of State Action is far more important than Krug’s book. (Krug, by the way, is best known for his challenge to Schelling to deduce the existence of his pen.)

In her account of the new versus the old liberals, she deserves great credit for pointing out that some of those who wished to unshackle the state from the limits of laissez-faire defended forced sterilization.

[John A.] Hobson, one of the most respected liberal theorists of his time, supported the prevention of “anti-social procreation.”…In America too, progressives from Richard Ely and Herbert Croly to Woodrow Wilson were enthusiastic advocates of eugenics…in 1911, then New Jersey governor Wilson signed the state’s forcible sterilization legislation, which targeted “the hopelessly defective and criminal classes.” (p. 237)

Rosenblatt devotes considerable attention to the battles over education and other matters between various liberals and the Catholic Church. In the course of her discussion, she says, “In 1854, Pius [IX] announced the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, by which the Virgin Mary was declared free of sin” (p. 140). That is not correct. The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that Mary was, from the moment of her conception, free from the stain of original sin. This is not the same doctrine as the sinlessness of Mary. 

When she reaches the twentieth century, things worsen. Rosenblatt says about Mises,

In his book Liberalism, published in 1927, the influential Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises lamented the disputes over the meaning of the word. True liberalism, he insisted, was not about any humanitarian objectives, however noble they might be. Liberalism had nothing else in mind than the advancement of a people’s material welfare. Its central concepts were private property, freedom and peace. Anything beyond that was “socialism,” for which Mises had only disdain. Those who thought that liberalism had something to do with spreading humanity and magnanimity were “pseudo liberals.” (p. 260)

This is a misleading summary of what Mises says.

Rosenblatt makes it seem as if Mises had no concerns beyond material well-being. But he in fact says,

Every ideology—aside from a few cynical schools of thought—believes that it is championing humanity, magnanimity, real freedom, etc. What distinguishes one social doctrine from another is not the ultimate goal of universal human happiness, which they all aim at, but the way by which they seek to attain this end. The characteristic feature of liberalism is that it proposes to reach it by way of private ownership of the means of production.

Further, contrary to Rosenblatt, one doesn’t for Mises become a pseudoliberal just by thinking liberalism has to do with spreading humanity and magnanimity. What makes one a pseudoliberal is that one favors socialism or interventionism. “Almost all who call themselves ‘liberals’ today decline to profess themselves in favor of private ownership of the means of production and advocate measures partly socialist and partly interventionist.”

In her relentless pursuit of the “individualists” who exalt self-interest, John Rawls, of all people, becomes a target. She says,

For the sake of argument, Rawls posited a group of self-interested but also rational individuals and showed that such persons—endeavoring to maximize their advantages in conditions of uncertainty—would choose not a laissez-faire society but the welfare state. In so arguing, he was, in a sense, turning a conservative and rights-based argument around against itself. In the process, however, he suggested that there was little need for any deliberate promotion of the common good for a liberal society to work. There was no need to worry about overcoming man’s selfish impulses. It had become okay to be selfish. (p. 273)

That is a travesty. Rawls’s original position is a thought experiment, and the motives ascribed to people within it are not intended as guides to conduct in the actual world. Rawls, for better or worse, was as “public spirited” as they come. It is of less importance that she also misrepresents the aims of those in the original position. She is also grievously in error about Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. A reader of her account of the book (p. 263) would never guess that Hayek supports a modest welfare state. Eric Voegelin was not a Catholic (p. 271). She is also wrong to say of Herbert Hoover that “Despite the economic catastrophe, he continued to defend the laissez-faire version of liberalism well into the 1940s.” This confuses Hoover’s free market rhetoric with the reality of his policies, which in many respects prefigured Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Rosenblatt would benefit from reading Murray Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression, if she were willing to study its central argument in addition to consigning its author to the circle of hell where individualists reside.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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