Gian Piero de Bellis
Polyarchy : essays on statism
(2003 - 2011)
Liberalism / Antiliberalism
There are, in history, some recurrent themes and problems that manifest themselves, generally, whenever some basic traits of human nature are put under stress. They emerge, for instance, when the domineering and exploitative individual tries to impose himself and encounters the opposition of other human beings who are strong enough to contest these pretences, which they see as unreasonable.
In the past we had, for example, attempts at imposing:
- Monopolies of power. The most famous case and the first one to be highly documented refers to the struggle between the King of England, trying to affirm his discretionary supremacy and the English Barons wanting to restrict that power. The results was the issuing, in 1215, of a document under the name of Magna Charta Libertatum, in which the Barons succeeded in safeguarding their rights and privileges against the arbitrary power of the King and, in so doing, introduced clauses protecting also the rights and liberties of the commoners.
- Monopolies of wealth. Whilst rebelling against a central power above of them, the feudal masters tried, in their turn, to impose their power of exploitation on all those living in the territory they controlled, aiming, by that way, to enjoy a monopoly of wealth. Under this measure, the rural people had to allocate some of their time to cultivate the fields of the master, had to transfer to him a quota of their produce, were obliged to use only the equipments of the master (mills and ovens) paying him a fee. In other words they were used as simple appendages of the land of their masters. The radical solution to avoid this condition of subjection, was, at least for the most venturesome of the rural servants, to abandon the feudal territory and to set up, somewhere, new agglomerations (free boroughs) and new activities (craft, trading). In doing so they became the forerunners of the enterprising and trading bourgeoisie.
- Monopolies of religion. The introduction of the printing press (1439) and the circulation of ideas that came with it, increased the number of literate individuals and free thinkers who found abhorrent any imposition, especially in matters of religion. An example were the Protestants who left France when Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes (1685) that had granted them the possibility to practice their religious beliefs undisturbed. And many were those, during the age of state absolutism (16th and 17th centuries), who were arrested, tortured and suffered death at the hand of a power that wanted to impose the same faith on all the subjects living within a specific territory.
In all these cases of rebellion we are concerned with individuals who, because of their pride (the barons), their energy (the rural servants) or their moral strength (the free thinkers), were willing to stand and fight in order to preserve and affirm their individuality.
Many of those who, in the remote past, have uphold their free-will and free-thinking aspirations against the crushing power by an alliance of the state and church, can be considered the predecessors of a conception (Liberalism) that will develop in the second half of the 17th century and gain momentum in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The formulation of the idea (^)
The existence of individuals rebelling against a monopolistic power is a constant datum of history, but it is only from the middle of the seventeenth century that we have the emergence of a corpus of ideas openly attributing to individuals fundamental rights, intrinsic to human nature.
This happened following the formation and strengthening of the absolutist state and the publication of the writings of thinkers like Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Robert Filmer (1588-1653) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) justifying the divine origin of the power of sovereigns and their position above the law, as they were seen as the source of every law.
The first step in the direction of a development of the idea of Liberalism can be found in John Locke's First Treatise of Government (1689) that is a precise refutation of the position asserting the divine right of kings held by Rober Filmer in his Patriarcha (1680).
However, it is in Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689) that we find a clearer expression of what will be taken as the principles of Liberalism, namely:
- The existence of natural rights. Locke affirms that it is for the protection of these natural rights, that are antecedent to the emergence of any government, that the individuals associate and form a society, called civil or political, in which the rulers act on the basis of the consent and for the benefit of the people.
- The existence of property rights. The most relevant natural right is the right of property, by which term (property from Latin proprius = what is one's own) Locke means "life, liberty and estate." As for “estate,” that is material property, this comes into being when someone, exerting a personal effort, mixes his labour with natural resources and is rewarded by appropriating and enjoying the fruits of his activity.
Another important point that is associated with Liberalism is the advocacy of religious tolerance. Here again Locke expressed quite advanced ideas in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). Contrary to Thomas Hobbes, Locke thought that a proliferation of religions and their free practice, one next to the other, was not detrimental to order in a civil society, because religion and civil government operate in different spheres. With regard to this Locke wrote “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” (A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689)
The development of liberal ideas took place also in France through the writings of Montesquieu (1689-1755) and Voltaire (1694-1778) and the activities of those thinkers known as les philosophes, some of which collaborated in the redaction of L'Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1772) under the direction of Diderot (1713-1784) and d'Alembert (1717-1783).
The aim of all those that, in Europe, shared the values of the Enlightenment was to oppose absolutism and obscurantism represented by the alliance between the state, enjoying a power perceived as unlimited and arbitrary, and the Catholic Church, seen as an obstacle to the development of science and the free expression of ideas.
To restrain the power of the absolutist state, Montesquieu advocated in De l'esprit des lois (1748) the separation of state powers (executive, legislative, judiciary) by differentiating the functions and introducing reciprocal controls and counterbalancing weights.
As to the obscurantism of the hierarchies of the Catholic Church and their meddling in everybody's life, Voltaire gave free rein to his sarcasm and witticism in various writings and expressed his ideas in favour of religious tolerance in his Traité sur la tolérance (1763).
With reference to social and economic life, during the course of the 18th century a group of thinkers known as the Physiocrats stressed the existence in the social relations of a "natural order" that didn't need state interference in order to function for the benefits of individuals. This is the same concept that will be taken up by Adam Smith (1723-1790) in The Wealth of Nations (1776) under the appealing image of the "invisible hand."
If we add to these various themes and thinkers, the work of Wilhelm von Humbolt (1767-1835) on the limits to state action and the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) praising the Enlightenment and the élan towards cosmopolitanism, we have the main structural components of what is called Liberalism.
During the 19th century all these ideas were further developed, especially in France and in England, by thinkers and activists such as Fréderic Bastiat (1801-1850), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Richard Cobden (1804-1865) with the Anti-Corn Law League and their fight against protectionism. At a certain point, towards the middle of the 19th century, it seemed that the development of international free trade would introduce an era of constant social and economic progress and harmonious living, with the definitive abolition of wars. If such a scenario had materialised, it would have represented the implementation of freedom and the triumph of Liberalism.
Before examining why this did not happen, it is necessary to go very briefly through some historical events in which we find the practical implementation of some of the ideas put forward by the thinkers and writers previously mentioned
The actuation of the idea (^)
The advancement of liberal ideas and the retreat of state absolutism is marked by three revolutions:
- The English Revolution (1642-1651) and the Glorious Revolution (1688). The first was a civil war between Parliamentarians (the supporter of the Parliament) and Royalists (the supporters of king Charles I and Charles II). It ended with the trial and execution of Charles I and the escape and exile of his son Charles II. The Glorious Revolution saw the overthrow of king James II and the accession to the throne of his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. But, a part from these changes, what is more relevant is that this proved to be the end of absolute power exercised by the kings. This was replaced by the power of Parliament. The clearest signs of this transformation were the introduction by the Parliament of the Habeas Corpus Act (1679) and of the Bill of Rights (1689). These Acts circumscribed the power of the Crown, highlighted the rights of Parliament in matters of legislation, taxation and administration of justice, affirmed the freedom of speech and declared that no one could be prosecuted before a court of justice if unlawfully detained. These measures contributed to make the English institutions amongst the most tolerant and liberal in Europe.
- The American Revolution (1775-1783). The inhabitants of the thirteen colonies, that broke their allegiance to the British Crown in order to form the United States of America, were the most luminous example of liberal principles of self-determination and the expression of natural rights. These principles were condensed, first of all, in the battle cry "no taxation without representation" and then exposed, in a very pregnant way, in the Declaration of Independence (1776). In the preamble to the Declaration are contained the basic ideas of the liberal outlook: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
In 1787 the Constitution of the United States was ratified by the assemblies of each state of the Union. In the Constitution are expressed the basic principles guiding the relations between the federal government, the states and the people. In 1789, ten amendments were added to the Constitution by the House of Representatives; they were later on ratified by the states and came into effect in December 1791, representing the Bill of Rights that protects the natural rights (liberties and property) of every individual. This completed the liberal structure that gave birth to the political entity known as the United States of America.
- The French Revolution (1789-1799). On the basis of the ideas and aspiration of the philosophes of the Enlightenment and following the example of the American Revolution, the people of France, especially those of Paris, took part from 1789 onwards, in a radical transformation of their political and social structure. The main aim was the overcoming of feudal strictures and privileges and the safeguarding of the freedom of the individual against any abuse and exploitation by the powers of the Ancien Régime (the Crown, the Church, the Aristocracy).
These aspirations found expression in the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen - Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) adopted by the Assemblée Nationale Constituante - National Constituent Assembly on the basis of a draft text presented by the Marquis de Lafayette. In it we find condensed the main liberal ideas: the upholding of universal natural rights of "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." (art. 2); the principle of sovereignty residing in the nation, that is the people (art. 3); the supremacy of the law against arbitrary rules (art. 5); the separation of powers (art. 16).
An even stronger document in defence of individual freedom and against the oppression of illegitimate power was the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du citoyen de 1793 - Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.
The theoretical and practical foundations and aspirations expressed by these three revolutions can be summed up in the words of the famous motto of the French Revolution, which has a universal value and appeal: Liberté - Egalité – Fraternité.
The liberal aspects of these revolutions can be found in three aspects that were intended to operate against any type of monopoly (of power, of wealth, of religion):
- The separation amongst the state powers (executive, legislative, judiciary)
- The separation between state and economic activities (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
- The separation between state and religious institutions (religious tolerance).
However, from the start, a gap appeared between intentions and declarations on one side and implementations and realizations on the other. Some of the problems were probably due to the inability of the individuals to overcome difficulties and obstacles in a creative way and some might be ascribed directly to the limitations contained in the original formulations of the liberal concept.
The practical limitations of the idea (^)
The liberal ideas that were behind the political revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries produced, in the 19th century, liberal movements and liberal parties that took part, all over Europe, in political struggles for national independence and for the introduction of constitutional charters.
In Spain, a group called Liberales fought, at the beginning of the 19th century, for the implementations of the articles contained in the Constitution of 1812, advocating, amongst other measures, universal male suffrage, national sovereignty, constitutional monarchy and the freedom of the press.
These were also the demands of the liberals that participated in the political upheavals of 1848 throughout Europe, aiming at the introduction of written constitutions and the end of state absolutism. The path was open also for the establishment of two large states in Italy (1861) and Germany (1871). Independence movements were active in Poland, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Montenegro, resulting, in some cases, in the recognition of new independent states at the Congress of Berlin (1878)
The accession of liberal politicians to power, especially in England with Gladstone, towards the middle of the 19th century, marked the acceptance and implementation of the classic ideas of liberal thinkers of previous centuries. However, it was this very successful political outcome that led liberalism astray, in the vane pursuit of the contradictory idea of a “liberal state” based on the monopoly of territorial sovereignty.
In fact, the occupation of state positions by self-proclaimed liberal politicians, led to a re-evaluation of the role of the state and to the continuous enlargement of its sphere of intervention, which was contrary to the basic principles of original liberalism. It is then appropriate to say that "once liberals came to power, state building was among their primary objectives." (Adrian Shubert, The Liberal State, in, Encyclopedia of Social History, 2001)
So, the absolutist state in which the king and the aristocracy had, in theory, arbitrary powers, that was, in practice, limited by conventional restraints, and an ineffectual role of social intervention, started to be replaced by the liberal state in which the wealthy strata, elected to the Parliament, intervened increasingly in the social and economic life of the people, grouped and governed as a homogenized compound called “the Nation.”
It was in the course of the 19th century that, confronted with the reality of their own power, many liberals retraced from the lofty ideals of universal freedom and limited state power contained in the message of classical liberalism and, step by step, went for a new version marked by:
- National liberalism. Once the struggle for independence was completed, the liberals considered that the fight for freedom was over and that it was time to assert themselves as national leaders of powerful nation states on the world scene. Within a short span of time, many liberal politicians, sometimes in alliance with conservative politicians, embraced imperialism in the name of the Nation.
- Democratic liberalism. The stress on the individual and on personal freedom gave way to democratic suffrage (progressively extended) and to the power of the majority represented in Parliament. Likewise any other politicians, liberals went with the tide in the direction of a mass society in which the role of the individual is steadily reduced to that of a cog within and under the state machine.
- Political liberalism. The fact of occupying political positions of power within the state led liberal politicians to place a stress on the political aspects of freedom (electoral representation, checks and balances) belittling the freedom from an invasive state power in the social and economic spheres. In fact, economic freedom was detached from political freedom and almost dropped and liberalism was reduced to the freedom of political choice between constitutional parties willing to govern individuals.
For many liberal politicians in a liberal state based on national and democratic ideas, freedom came to be identified with the freedom reserved to:
- Their race. Many powerful pages in favour of freedom were written by individuals (like Thomas Jefferson and John C. Calhoun) who owned slaves and were in favour of slavery. For them liberalism meant essentially the freedom of the white man and the defence of the white race and of white minorities (as in the case of the fight against the English Crown).
- Their country. Liberal politicians quickly abandoned any idea of cosmopolitism present in the liberal outlook and supported their country even if that meant aggression and suppression of liberty for the inhabitants of other regions of the earth. Many liberals (exemplary is the case of John Stuart Mill) accepted the thesis of the civilizing mission of the white man and, once in power, behave often not like any other expansionist ruler.
- Their class. Liberals were generally very cultivated individuals that belonged to the aristocratic or wealthy strata of society. Once they became also the political ruling élite in the national Parliament, they used the power of the state in order to protect and promote their interests, presented as the interests of the entire society.
In other words, liberalism, intended as liberal parties controlling the levers of state power, was, in the end, not much different from any other conception and movement. The difference was only in the social strata (the wealthy and powerful) that were now putting themselves under the banner of liberalism. For the rest, liberals had the same aim of using state power for controlling and manipulating the public and for extracting favours and revenues. No wonder then that, during the last decades of the 19th century, in “Vienna, Berlin, Rome, and elsewhere … a galaxy of Liberals – bankers, entrepreneurs, public officials, cabinet ministers – were charged with such unpleasant things as fraud, peculation, bribery, and conspiracy.” (Carlton J. H. Hayes, 1941)
However, it should be added that these limitations and distortions to the concept and practice of liberalism were not shared by all liberals. In fact, some of them remained highly critical of the social arrangements that followed the overcoming of the Ancien Régime and some of them presented ideas that, if accepted and implemented, could have addressed liberalism towards a very different and promising path.
The missed development of the idea (^)
The spur motivating the classic liberals was, as previously pointed out, the overcoming of monopolies (of power, wealth and religion) and the affirmation of the autonomous tolerant individual. In the sphere of production and commerce this aspiration was condensed in the famous expression of laissez-faire laissez-passer.
The expansion of freedom, that characterized especially England between the 18th and the 19th century, made possible a massive growth in the means of production (capital) that was later on qualified with the name of the Industrial Revolution.
On the Continent, this idea that laissez-faire laissez-passer was the key to economic prosperity and could be also the key to social well-being was taken up by a liberal thinker by the name of Paul Emile de Puydt (1810-1891).
What he proposed was to introduce free competition between governments within the same territory, similar to the economic competition between industries located in the same country or to different churches that exist side by side and attract faithful followers on the basis of the appeal of their message and the approval for their deeds. The implementation of this proposal, according to de Puydt, would put an end to political squabbles and economic squandering of public resources, and would allow those offering the best social services to emerge and to operate. At least, as long as they were capable and willing to offer services demanded by eager and satisfied customers.
The radical novelty of this position presented under the name of Panarchy (1860), can be better seen when contrasted with some basic ideas of classic liberalism, namely:
A) The idea of personal contracts in place of a social contract.
Locke (following Thomas Hobbes and followed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau) ascribes the origin of governments to the stipulation of a social contract that binds rulers and ruled to reciprocal obligations. The different stress on obligations and limitations (a stress put more on the ruled by Hobbes and more on the ruler by Locke and Rousseau) distinguishes the absolutist from the liberal vision of power. However, it is only when the social contract is replaced by personally undersigned engagements that we make a qualitative leap towards effective substantial freedom for the individual. In fact, with the social contract the individual find himself obedient to the existing majority and in abeyance to past legacy. On the contrary, with the personal contract, the individual expresses his choices according to what is in agreement with his/her actual or changing aspirations and necessities.
B) The idea of various competing governments in place of one sovereign government with separate counterbalancing parts.
The notion, expressed by Montesquieu and taken up by classical liberal thinkers, that the separation of powers (legislative, executive, judiciary) is the solution, granting everybody freedom from political oppression, has resulted either in a fictitious myth or in a squabbling mess. As for the fictitious myth, the actual reality is that, generally, one state power prevails over the others; as for the squabbling mess, when the various powers fight and block each other, the result is total paralysis. Much more effective appears to be the proposal to put governments (and the services provided by them) in competition and let the people decide which government and which services they are willing to finance and use. If monopolies are bad in the economic sphere, according to liberal thinking, it would be quite extraordinary if they were seen as good in the political sphere. This is the message that de Puydt wanted to convey on the basis of a clear and coherent understanding of the best liberal principles.
The path to the proposal of Panarchy by de Puydt had been prepared by the writings of a famous liberal economist, Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912), for many years the editor of the Journal des Économistes. In 1849 he wrote a seminal paper, De la production de la sécurité (On the production of security), in which he advocated something that represents the necessary conditions for the implementation of the proposal of competing governments, namely:
C) The idea of competing security agencies in place of the state police monopoly.
The vision of the state as a night watchman was first put forward with scorn, in a speech in Berlin in 1862, by Ferdinand Lassalle, a state socialist who wanted the state to be the supreme entity in the social and economic life of the masses. The expression was then taken up, with a positive twist, by liberals who intended to confine the role of the state to that of being, uniquely, the sole provider of security within a specific territory (the national territorial state). The fallacy inherent to this position consists in the fact that, historically, no entity having the monopoly of violence has restricted his activity to the simple role of suppressing acts of aggression and maintaining peace and order.
It is, indeed, a fact, confirmed by many historical events, that those who hold the territorial monopoly of violence are put in or find themselves in the favourable and indispensable condition for:
- initiating violence (against external agents in order to obtain territorial gains);
- imposing control (upon minorities and non-conformist individuals and groups);
- extracting resources (from all the subjects inhabiting the territory).
The turn of events favouring the development of an invasive state, even when liberal ideas seemed to be on the ascendancy, has been very well documented and decried by writers like Frédéric Bastiat, Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton (1834-1902).
Bastiat has conducted, especially towards the end of his brief life, a struggle against myths and illusions, the most notably being those of protectionism as the instrument for increasing national wealth and of the state as a benevolent all-providing father. In order to destroy (unfortunately unsuccessfully) any illusion that was growing around the state, Bastiat came out with what is one of the best definitions of the state: L'état, c'est la grande fiction à travers la quelle tout le monde s'efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde. [The state is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else] (L'État, 1848)
Tocqueville expressed (1835) his worries, reiterated later on by John Stuart Mill (1859), about a possible transformation of democracy into the “tyranny of the majority,” whenever the sphere reserved to the individuals became increasingly restricted.
Lord Acton made clear, more than any other, that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely"; and that “[T]here is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”(Letter to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887). His warnings did not receive the attention they deserved probably because the most unpalatable aspects of the absolute state had gone and, now, the new "liberal" state was capable of presenting itself under more appealing but also more deceiving appearances.
Bastiat called this new posture of the state "philanthropic despotism" (La Loi, 1850) but not many shared his critical view. Certainly not many other liberals that, especially in England, were diverting liberalism towards a new path in which society, represented by the state, would receive and assume a quite substantial role
The actual diversion of the idea (^)
The most relevant exponent of liberal thinking in England during the 19th century was John Stuart Mill. In his writings, especially On Liberty (1859), we find some of the best expressions of liberal principles, condensed, for instance, in the statement: "The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it." (Mill, 1859)
On the basis of this principle it follows that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." (Mill, 1859)
However, alongside these very clear statements upholding personal freedom and individual autonomy, we find in Mill other formulations that can accommodate a much wider intervention of the state in promoting civilization (for instance in backward regions of the world) or human amelioration (for instance, with respect to disadvantaged strata of society).
In his Representative Government (1861) Mill declares that "the proper functions of a government are not a fixed thing, but different in different states of society: much more extensive in a backward than in an advanced state." (Mill, 1861) This point of view opens the gate for state intervention whenever a state measure can be presented as leading to an improvement of social conditions.
It was in this way that liberalism, in England, became more and more tinged with philanthropic tendencies that were not intrinsically reproachable if they had not led, (a) domestically, to state paternalism and the invasion by the state of all fields of service provision and, (b) externally, to the acceptance and support of a supposedly “beneficent” imperialism by way of a “liberal” English state intent on a civilizing mission on the world stage.
Then, in the second half of the 19th century Liberalism was diverted towards a state interventionist approach thanks to a group of scholars based in Oxford who were attracted by the philosophy of Hegel. A major exponent of the group was the liberal philosopher Thomas H. Green (1836-1882) who, through his writings and political engagement (he was a councillor at the Oxford City Council) expounded what will be known as social liberalism.
Other exponents of social liberalism were Bernard Bosanquet (1842-1923), Leonard T. Hobhouse (1864-1929) and John H. Hobson (1858-1940).
The basic idea of these thinkers was that, in the presence of sharp inequalities and slow progress towards personal development, the task of liberalism was to stimulate society, as a whole, to intervene, by establishing democratic institutions, in order to promote measures that would facilitate the growth of individuals. To do so it was necessary to move from a negative to a positive idea of liberty, that is from a policy of abstaining and non-interference. to the more active fostering of better social conditions.
It is fair to say that, in England at that time, and elsewhere, there were plenty of justifications, for anyone with good intentions and a belief in personal and social justice, to intervene in order to redress past and present wrongs, committed by the ruling strata with the protection of state power. In the past, the landed gentry had appropriated (through the various Enclosures Acts) vast tracts of land, with the blessing and approval of a Parliament which they dominated. During the Industrial Revolution the interests of the industrialists had been highly safeguarded by the state with the prohibition of worker's associations (trade unions) fighting for better working conditions. And this was made often in the name of liberal principles of competition that the industrialists could very well discard by tacit agreements.
Adam Smith was very aware of this situation when he wrote: “We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate.”
At the same time, when the workers combine, “masters ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.” (The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8)
So, there were justifications for those who favoured abandoning the aloofness of a liberalism that decried any intervention by anyone, even by social groups, as an undue interference with the natural state of things. The reasons for intervention were even more cogent especially because the supposedly natural state of things, that existed at that time, was not at all natural but the result of political interventions in the past to which, it was argued, new political measures could now put a remedy.
However, a vibrant group of new liberal thinkers and activists might have identified every obstacle erected, in the past, by any power (the state, the gentry, the industrialists, the financiers, etc.) and that still impeded the free development of individuals, and intervened to eliminate them. For instance in terms of taxation, of state expansionist policies, and freedom from imposed cultural conventions. Unfortunately, instead of strengthening the individual by freeing him from any surviving social stricture, the liberals of the Oxford school lent their voices to a strengthening of the state hoping, by that way, to help the individuals to become free.
In other words, social liberals were responsible, on the par with state socialists, for installing the state on a pedestal, or as a deus ex machina descending from above, to solve most if not all social problems.
This is very evident in the writings of Thomas H. Green in which the stress on individuals is always tempered and quite often suffocated by the stress on the providential power of the state. An example of this ambivalence is contained in statements like "we cannot significantly speak of freedom except with reference to individual persons" followed by the remark that "the realization of freedom in the state can only mean the attainment of freedom by individuals through influences which the state (in the wide sense spoken of) supplies." (Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, 1882)
The devaluation of the status of the individual and the attribution to the state of the grounds for human existence, is, implicitly but very clearly, revealed from the following statement: "To ask why I am to submit to the power of the state, is to ask why I am to allow my life to be regulated by that complex of institutions without which I literally should not have a life to call my own, nor should be able to ask for justification of what I am called on to do." (Thomas H. Green, 1882)
From this outlook, it is not surprising that this "liberal" author expounded the belief that "education should be enforced by the state" and that "the freedom of contract ought probably to be more restricted in certain directions than is at present the case." (Thomas H. Green, 1882) This because "[O]ur modern legislation [then] with reference to labour, and education, and health, involving as it does manifold interference with freedom of contract, is justified on the ground that it is the business of the state ... to maintain the conditions without which a free exercise of the human faculties is impossible.” (Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract, 1861). In practice we discover, through the words of a “liberal” thinker, that without the state there is no education, no contracts, no overall freedom.
An even more accentuated position in favour of the “Liberal State” is found in Bernard Bosanquet, where the state is seen as the highest manifestation and implementation of freedom in society. In The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) he advocated the abandonment of some basic tenets of liberalism, as for instance the uniqueness of the individual, in order to merge every human being in the mare magnum of the general will and to effect "a transition from the private self into the great communion of reality." (1899) Bosanquet referred approvingly to Rousseau's idea of "being forced to be free," clearly by way of a superior institution, that is the state. In fact Bosanquet considered "the state as the main organ and condition of the fuller liberty." (1899)
Bosanquet's idea of personal freedom was that of a human being addressed, disciplined and animated by the supreme ethical entity: the state. For him "The State is the fly-wheel of our life." "The State is ... the individual mind writ large." (1899)
With Bosanquet, the season of liberalism which started with Locke is definitively over, at least from a theoretical point of view. We are back to the absolutism of Hobbes' Leviathan under the apparently more palatable disguise of Rousseau General Will. The State is the individual or, in Bosanquet's words, we have "the identification of the State with the Real Will of the Individual." (1899)
That the new “liberal” creed was totally in favour of state dominance cannot be doubted anymore when we read that "the State, as the widest grouping whose members are effectively united by a common experience, is necessarily the one community which has absolute power to ensure, by force, if need be, at least sufficient adjustment of the claims of all other groupings to make life possible." (1899)
In sum, the Oxford Liberals did drive a nail in the coffin of classic Liberalism by expounding and successfully spreading fallacious ideas and expectations like:
- the confusion between state and society ("By the State, then, we mean Society as a unit, recognised as rightly exercising control over its members through absolute physical power." - Bosanquet, 1899);
- the illusion that state intervention brings forth personal well-being. ("The State, then, exists to promote good life." - Bosanquet, 1899).
In the presence of these types of diversions from the original conception, it is appropriate to say that, at the end of the 19th century, liberalism as an idea was practically dead. The historical events taking place in the following decades will confirm it.
The regrettable deviation of the idea (^)
When the bases for a theoretical revision of liberal thinking were twisted in a direction that justified the intervention of the state for supposedly social reasons, the road was wide open for the state playing an increasingly important role in every aspect of social life. A role actively promoted by liberal politicians, sometimes in alliance with state conservatives and state socialists.
Politics seems to be the cemetery of every conception and aspiration in search of freedom and emancipation. Following the setting up of liberal parties in Europe (for instance, the Liberal Party in England in 1859) the effort of every politician was focused on making people believe that freedom was a matter of legislation and that the legislators were the indispensable vehicle for introducing measures intended to improve the life of the masses.
In an age in which an increasing number of people were admitted to the electoral suffrage and in which socialistic ideas of economic equality were in the ascendancy, all political parties, in order to gain power or to stay in power, were keen to introduce measures that satisfied the desire for social security of the masses, rather than meeting the personal aspirations of individuals.
The political game became then centred on whom would be more capable of courting the favour of the people, catering for them and capturing them in a net made of cultural propaganda (reach-out) and economic patronage (hand-outs).
In this game of selling illusions and distributing favours, liberal parties and liberal politicians participated in earnest. Albert Nock decried this attitude with these scorching words: “of all forms of political impostorship, Liberalism always seemed to me the most vicious, because the most pretentious and specious.” (Anarchist's Progress, 1927)
During the nineteen century, by way of political movements and parties, Liberalism became characterised by three aspects that altered irretrievably some of its original specific features and prepared for worst to come. These three aspects are:
- Nationalism. The national struggles for independence, for instance that of the Italian patriots, were animated and promoted by many individuals holding liberal ideas; they inspired and attracted the sympathies of many other liberals all over Europe (for instance, those of Gladstone in England). Unfortunately, in the course of time, nationalism, from being a cultural lever for producing new independent individuals with a cosmopolitan outlook, became a political factor for the spreading of state imperialism, as every nation state started looking for its territorial aggrandisement. With reference once again to Italy, the first big move in that direction was by a liberal statesman, Giovanni Giolitti, when he started the campaign to annex Libya (1911). In this imperialistic adventure he had been preceded and would be followed by other liberal and conservative politicians in many European states (e.g. Lord Asquith in England, Jules Ferry in France, Friedrich Naumann in Germany). It is then appropriate to say that "[B]asically the new imperialism was a nationalistic phenomenon" (C. J. H. Hayes, A Generation of Materialism, 1941) and liberals were amongst its promoters.
- Welfarism. The first push towards the welfare state started in Germany with the ultra-conservative chancellor Bismarck and a series of measures introduced during the 1880s (sickness insurance in 1883, accident insurance in 1884, disability and old-age insurance in 1889). This example proved contagious especially because these were measures that could satisfy both the conservative instinct (looking after the lower strata in order to assuage the fears of the upper strata) and the progressive humanitarian instinct (caring for the lower strata in order to appease the sense of guilt of the upper strata). Liberal parties were therefore at the forefront in the introduction of all sorts of state interventions, starting from the municipal level, as preached by Robert Blatchford, a very patriotic journalist and author, in his highly popular book, Merrie England (1893). During the first decades of the 20th century, with the liberal politician Lloyd George we reach one of the peaks of state liberalism under the shape of the paternalistic state on the way to superintending the life of individuals from cradle to grave.
- Laicism. While some outstanding liberal classic thinkers were catholic (like Lord Acton) or inspired by religious feelings (like Constant and Tocqueville), many liberal politicians saw religion as an ideology that might conflict with the full allegiance of state subjects, and the Church as an authority in direct competition with state power. So, both. Religion and the Church, had to be controlled, marginalised and, if possible, disposed of, even in the name of the separation of powers, meaning, in reality, that the state had to become all powerful and the Church all powerless (i.e. subordinate to state power). In Germany, for instance, we had Baron Virchow, one of the founders of the liberal party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei) who, in alliance with Bismarck, promoted a campaign against the Catholic Church (the cultural struggle or Kulturkampf) seeking, successfully, for the introduction of anti-clerical laws (1873). In France the radical Jules Ferry was instrumental in gaining, for the state, full control of education, aiming to replace the religion of the Church (catholicism) with the religion of the State (statism).
If we take into account these three aspects of the transformation of liberal thinking and practice, we can appropriately apply, to almost all “liberal” governments, what a classic liberal thinker (Piero Gobetti) wrote with reference to the socio-economic policies of an Italian liberal politician (Giovanni Giolitti), namely, that "economic liberalism becomes state socialism" and that "Giolitti had the heroic cynicism of presenting as liberal this politics of state pillage." (La rivoluzione liberale, 1924)
Some liberals were very quite frank about the direction they were undertaking, as in the case of the British liberal politician Sir William Harcourt who, in a speech made in 1887, famously declared "We are all socialists now." However, he should have been more accurate in the use of words, by proclaiming instead: "We, liberal politicians, are all state socialists, now". And this would have provided a more truthful picture of the manipulation of an idea into something very different from its origin and from what it could have become.
By this transformation, all the premises had been put in place for the total destruction of the liberal concept. This eventually happened with the outbreak of the First World War, a catastrophic outcome that would have been inconceivable and highly improbable in a European context of truly liberal societies, based on universal tolerance, cosmopolitanism and free world trade
The total breakdown of the idea (^)
The preparation for war, at the beginning of the 20th century, marked by a sharp increase in military spending by the major European states, and their subsequent rush into the fighting arena, is the clearest sign that Liberalism was already pretty extinct when the insane carnage started in August 1914.
The First War World represented the end of Liberalism as a concept and a practice based on the individual and his/her free choices in all fields of social life and the transformation of liberalism (and every other "ism") into a tool for state power and state control.
The Anglo-Saxon world that had produced the basic ideas to which the name of Liberalism was later attributed, was again in the forefront in the elaboration of the new conception of "modern" or "progressive" liberalism that would turn upside down the ideals of the “classic” one.
The theoretical formulations of Leonard Hobhouse (Liberalism, 1911) and the practical measures taken by the liberal administrations of Lord Asquith and Lloyd George (Old Age Pensions, 1908; National Health Insurance Act, 1911) marked the real beginning of the welfare state in the United Kingdom.
John A. Hobson was ready to recognize this when he wrote: “For the first time in the history of English Liberalism, leaders with a powerful support of the rank and file have committed themselves with zeal and even passionate conviction to promote a series of practical measures which, though not closely welded in their immediate purport, have the common result of increasing the powers and resources of the State for the improvement of the material and moral condition of the people.” (The Crisis of Liberalism, 1909)
However, it was after the war that liberal thinkers and politicians abandoned definitively the basic tenets of minimum government and laissez-faire in order to embrace extensive state intervention and state regulation in social and economic life.
In Italy, the philosopher Benedetto Croce, the most relevant voice of liberalism, was intent in detaching, conceptually, political from economic freedom: the former considered the true mark of liberalism (i.e. political liberties as basic human rights); the latter, under the name of liberism, seen as a fungible if not unnecessary addition to a liberal discourse and practice. For Croce "the utopia of laissez-faire laissez-passer ... as panacea for social ills, was disavowed by facts." (Storia d'Europa nel secolo decimonono, 1932) According to him, liberism (economic liberalism) and protectionism were only different economic approaches, both acceptable and suitable in relation to changeable historical situations and were not at all opposing ways of thinking and acting in the economic sphere, as it was assumed by classical liberals. Croce then gave a tremendous blow to some of the ideas that were considered an indispensable part of the liberal concept. In fact, Bruce Smith, an Australian businessmen, barrister and politician had been very explicit about it when he wrote: “it is about as clear that one man cannot possibly be a 'Liberal and a Protectionist', at one and the same time” (Liberal and Liberalism, 1887).
To operate even more successfully this U-turn, what was needed was for a famous economist to intervene and declare the unworkability of social and economic relations without the regulatory presence of the state. In other words, to declare, as a scientific fact, that Liberalism was dead. This happened courtesy of the most famous liberal economist of the age: John Maynard Keynes.
In a series of essays of which the most famous are The End of Laissez-Faire (1926) and National Self-Sufficiency (1933), Keynes openly advocated the end of free trade and a retreat into national autarchic economies. In his major work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) Keynes provided the state with theoretical tools and moral justifications for an extensive intervention in the economic sphere. The state as night watchman, so derided by Lassalle, was no more, not even as a liberal illusion; in its place there was now the state as a busybody, to use the subtitle of a book (Ernest Benn, Modern Government, 1936) that appeared the same year as the Keynes publication.
The final touch to the total destruction of the liberal idea of minimum state intervention was put by another liberal, William Beveridge, who produced policy Reports (Social Insurance and Allied Services 1942; Full Employment in a Free Society, 1944) that contained ideas and proposals that were implemented by the Labour Government of Clement Attlee for the setting up of the modern British Welfare State.
The influx of this new “liberal” approach was so successful that, in the United States, the word liberal became the mark of those advocating the intervention of the state in order to solve all sorts of problems.
It is then not a wild exaggeration to say that the modern interventionist state is much more a creation of liberal thinkers and liberal politician than the work of state socialists. In England the Labour party was only instrumental in embarking on a path and putting into practice ideas that liberals had already amply favoured. We could even add that the paternalistic state promoted by liberals was not what many socialist workers had in mind when they talked and fought for emancipation. In fact, the "liberal" reform of National Insurance introduced by Lloyd George was opposed by the bulk of the manual workers attracted by socialism and mutualism and suspicious of state interference, as they were already insured through their own friendly societies and voluntary insurance associations.
The main features of this new liberalism can be summed up as:
- Particularism. The nation-state with general suffrage, parliamentary majorities and political scheming becomes, for modern liberals, the final word in social and political organization. The cosmopolitanism of the past is gone, replaced by the particularism of national interests; and even when dealing with supra-national problems through international organizations, the nation-state remains, for most liberal thinkers and activists, the main active force.
- Protectionism. The belief in the “invisible hand” and in a spontaneous harmony or adjustment of interests is gone and in its place liberals put the regulatory state and policies protecting the national economy. In this way liberals become the advocates (especially through Keynes) of a new mercantilism.
- Paternalism. The upper strata of society that had a voice in articulating many ideas of liberalism, finally embrace paternalism in the form of the welfare state, out of deep fears of social upheaval or of benevolent attitudes of social relief. However, in so doing, they impede the process of individual self-emancipation that was one of the pillars of classic liberal thinking and acting.
To explain this total change of perspective by liberals we can perhaps refer to a growing social mood in favour of state intervention. This is indicated, for instance, by the increasing appeal of state socialist (the social-democratic and national-socialist parties) and the demise of anarchist and Marxist movements for whom, in different ways, the state belonged to the museum of antiquities, according to the colourful expression employed by Friedrich Engels (The Origin of Family, Private Property and State, 1884). Whatever the possible explanation, it remains nevertheless quite disheartening to see a conception, centred on the individual and on the development of his freedom and autonomy, become a movement represented by political parties that advocate the widespread intervention of a paternalistic state, in which the individual is put under state guidance and tutelage.
In contrast to this general debacle of liberalism, a very limited number of thinkers intervened, with their writings and activities, to oppose the advancement of totalitarian statism during the first half of the 20th century. They represented the ultimate attempt to salvage classic liberalism and to redirect liberalism towards new horizons.
The attempted rescues of the idea (^)
In a world dominated by intellectuals supportive of the state and state-based political parties, despite their different denominations and cultural background, some individuals emerged that attempted to salvage liberalism through a radical critique of state socialism and a new appreciation of free activities and free exchanges.
We refer here briefly to three efforts:
- The resumption of classical liberalism. The names associated with a revival of classical liberalism are especially those of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Amongst the vast production of work of von Mises it is sufficient to refer to two early publications: Socialism (1922) in which he intended to show the impossibility of rational economic calculation in the absence of free choices and free exchanges; Liberalism (1927) in which he sought to present the everlasting appeal of the classical liberal tradition. As for Hayek, classic liberalism was the framework of his seminal work, The road to Serfdom (1944) that is a damning indictment of state totalitarianism. His clear message was that only self-reliant individuals and independent communities could overcome the subordination to the state that was, at that time, a quite common human condition.
- The exploration of liberal socialism. In Italy, the accession of the Fascists to state power (1922) was one of the reasons behind the anti-conventional thinking of some liberals that had been influenced by socialism and Marxism but were firmly opposed to state socialism. A relevant figure was Piero Gobetti who expounded in his La Rivoluzione Liberale (1924) a liberalism based on the producers, first of all the workers, stressing the fact that "il problema del movimento operaio è problema di libertà e non di uguaglianza sociale" [“the problem of the working movement is a problem of freedom and not of social equality.”] (1924). A quite similar approach was taken by Carlo Rosselli in Socialismo Liberale (1930) where he tried to overcome the opposition between the two conceptions, of socialism and liberalism, considering one (socialism) the extension of the other (liberalism). Clearly the socialism alluded to and advocated was one based on voluntarism and federalism.
- The proposition of anarcho-capitalism. In the United States, the term liberalism having been appropriated by those favourable to state intervention, there was the need for a new characterisation to designate those opposed to state interference and dominance. During the fifties, the economist Murray Rothbard came out with the term anarcho-capitalism and anarcho-capitalist to qualify those anarchists that were advocating free market relations and supporting legitimate claims to private property. Another term used in that respect was that of libertarianism and libertarians. Clearly, the capitalism alluded to and advocated had nothing to do with crony capitalism (corporatism) under the protection of the state.
While there are strong merits and strong arguments in support of all these three positions, they did not succeed, in the first half of the 20th century, in altering the scenario characterised by the presence of an all pervading state. Even the collapse of the totalitarian states in Europe (Germany, Italy) was due to their defeat in the Second World War rather than to reasons of moral persuasion and rational reflection on the perils of state power. That is why, with the transition to the democratic state, we still have a strong presence of state tutelage and state sovereignty. This is probably also due to some misunderstanding and limitations, strategical and tactical, contained in the positions briefly sketched above. For instance:
- Classical liberalism. The resumption of classical liberalism should have been the occasion for dropping some aspects that were incompatible with a truly free individual. For instance, the pretence by the state of having territorial monopolistic sovereignty is totally incongruous with the exercise of personal freedom (of movement, of choice amongst different protective agencies, etc.). Nevertheless, even von Mises took for granted the indispensable role of the territorial state and of its monopolistic sovereignty. In fact he wrote: "For the liberal, the state is an absolute necessity, since the most important tasks are incumbent upon it: the protection not only of private property, but also of peace, for in the absence of the latter the full benefits of private property cannot be reaped." (Liberalism, 1927)
- Liberal socialism. The originality and unconventionality of liberal socialism was also the main reason for its absolute frailty. In fact, it had to overcome the deeply entrenched and widespread conviction about the existence of an opposition between the two conceptions, of liberalism and socialism. The battle conducted, for instance, by von Mises, a giant of liberal thinking, was directed essentially against socialism (state socialism) and not against statism (the state as the holder of a territorial monopolistic sovereignty). Moreover, the best advocates of liberalsocialism (Gobetti and Rosselli) were killed by fascist thugs when fascists were in power, and their conceptual heirs (the exponents of the Partito d'Azione) adapted themselves to a more modest role within the new post-fascist state.
- Anarcho-capitalism. For the advocates of anarcho-capitalism the difficulty they had to overcome consisted in the fact that the two terms, anarchism and capitalism, were (and still are) improperly associated, in the minds of too many, with the unpalatable images of disorder and exploitation. So, the first big obstacle, an almost unsurmontable one, was to make opponents understand that what was envisaged was something very different, something based on voluntary arrangements and free activities. Once this was accepted, the next step was to show that, under this label, one can fit all possible personal and social configurations, even those that had nothing to do with anarchism and capitalism, provided that they were all voluntarily chosen. However, to succeed in this cultural revolution was something extremely difficult, given that they had adopted two of the most abused terms ever posited.
These critical remarks lead us then to envisage that, what is probably required, is a more radical approach that, while preserving the best of the liberal attitudes and ideas, goes beyond liberalism and antiliberalism in order to offer a conception and a practice that is in tune with the basic exigencies of human nature and the needs, possibilities and aspirations of the human beings in the 21st century.
Beyond liberalism and antiliberalism (^)
All the conceptions, dealing with political and social organization, produced in the previous centuries, and primarily Liberalism and Socialism, have been so much distorted and misused, that it is no wonder that they have lost their genuine meaning and their true power of attraction. When people use these terms, it is quite often as tools of propaganda and abuse in a political game.
To be called a socialist by a political foe has become equivalent to be qualified as a property thief and an unreformed thug. The same is true for the appellatives of liberal-liberalism and capitalist-capitalism. For too many people Liberalism (and the associated terms of neo-liberalism and ultra-liberalism) have become words of vilification, pointing to a conception and a practice totally disrespectful of human dignity, bent on treating individuals as usable and disposable commodities.
These purely propagandistic verbal clashes are the more absurd and laughable considering that, when socialist or liberal parties have gained state power, the differences of their policies in terms of refraining from meddling in everybody's life and practising social justice, have been negligible or non-inexistent.
State Liberals, sometimes even more than State Socialists, have been in the forefront of expropriating properties and repressing dissenting voices or those in the minority. To offer just an historical example, in the Kingdom of Piedmont the then liberal Prime Minister, the Count of Cavour, in the 1850's suppressed 334 convents housing 4280 monks and 1200 nuns. This measure was followed, in the new Kingdom of Italy, by a law, during the premiership of the liberal Bettino Ricasoli (1866), that dissolved the majority of religious establishment and sold their properties to the benefit of the state. The expropriation and sale of Church properties at the hand of governments controlled by liberal statesmen has been, quite often, the instrument employed to replenish state coffers and maintain the financial survival and political viability of the state.
Moreover, liberal parties fighting the cultural influence of the Church, have promoted the monopoly of the state in educational matters, as the indispensable way to succeed in shaping the minds of subjects of the state. This has been achieved, for instance in France and Spain, by suppressing schools run by religious orders (like the Jesuits) and putting all educational establishments under the control of a state ministry; a measure that Marx had strongly decried when he affirmed that " 'Education of the people by the state' is altogether objectionable." (Karl Marx, 1875)
In the economic sector, liberals in power have implemented state protectionism and intervention in association with state conservatives and state socialists, whenever they deemed it useful for the so-called national interest. From Joseph Chamberlain to John Maynard Keynes, major liberal politicians and intellectuals have undermined the idea of free trade and of state non intervention. In 1933 Keynes wrote, with reference to the United Kingdom: "economic internationalism embracing the free movement of capital and of loanable funds as well as of traded goods may condemn this country for a generation to come to a much lower degree of material prosperity than could be attained under a different system." (National self-sufficiency, 1933). The different system he suggested was protectionism. By advocating the introduction of tariffs, liberals became then the party of big business and crony (called national) capitalism.
During the 20th century, those supporting both liberalism and socialism dropped the revolutionary aspects of their theoretical vision and practical aspirations becoming, at least nominally, the ideology of the upper élite (liberalism) and of the lower strata (socialism). In actual fact, liberalism and socialism were used only as propagandistic tools by politicians battling for the control of state power. Politicians, pitting one notion against the other, destroyed the common aspects these conceptions shared in terms of protagonists (the productive individuals) and programs (against monopolies, in favour of cosmopolitism-internationalism). Moreover, the politicians succeeded in conveying the deceitful conviction that freedom is opposed to equality; on the contrary, they are both strongly related because liberty means, first of all, the end of privileges and the holding of special powers by some individuals. This is what equality means. (Roderick T. Long, Liberty: The Other Equality, 2005).
After performing their tricks, state liberals embraced “freedom,” which to them meant giving the upper strata free rein to exploit the workers and enjoy state-granted privileges (tariffs, patents, funding, etc.); while state socialists embraced "equality" intended by them as homogenization and reduction of everybody, with the exception of the state ruling élite, to a lower common denominator.
Liberals have been responsible, in particular, for engendering and propagating three illusions on which they have erected the biggest of all illusions, that of a “Liberal State,” that is on a par with the “Free State” advocated by the socialists of the German Workers' party in their Gotha Programme (1875) and on which Marx put so much scorn (Karl Marx, 1875).
These illusions are:
- The democratic state: many liberal politicians believed that, replacing the divine rights of kings with popular sovereignty would put an end to arbitrary decisions and lead to people's freedom. However, state power has never been so massively unrestrained and arbitrary as in the time of the democratic state in which the masses have played a substantial, albeit subordinate, role.
- The legal state: many liberals had an irrational faith in the existence of a Constitution and in what is called the state of rights (Rechtsstaat, état de droit, stato di diritto). However, the fact that the state has the monopoly or the absolute supremacy in fixing the rules of social life opens the door to the introduction of all sorts of abuses and restrictions of civil rights and personal liberties, often in the name of the superior interests of society, whose reality and existence is cunningly mixed up with that of the state.
- The minimum state: classical liberals were and still are deeply attached to the idea of a minimum state, even if the fact of enjoying a territorial monopoly of violence demands from any state ruler, liberals included, a capacity of restraint from enlarging their sphere of intervention that is on more than a human scale. The minimum monopolistic state is then both a logical absurdity and a practical impossibility.
On the basis of these considerations, it is highly recommended that efforts should be made to overcome the false contraposition between liberalism and antiliberalism that has been used only to mask the emergence and consolidation of statism (the state ideology). To go beyond liberalism and antiliberalism does not mean, at all, to abandon the ideas of freedom and personal autonomy that are, by now, part not just of the liberal conception, but also theoretical and practical foundations of the human civilisation.
In fact, those everlasting ideas are better revived and put to work if they are freed from the ascription to any specific ideology and given universal value and applicability. We can sum them up as:
- The principle of non-aggression (let go, let alone). The basic norm of any civilised person, stressed in the works of philosophers and in religious texts alike, is the principle of non-aggression. This is also part of a rational world based on consistency (don't do to other what you don't want to be done to yourself) and reciprocity (do ut des).
- The practice of universal tolerance (let say, let will). From the principle of non aggression derives the practice of universal tolerance that allows for the emergence of a variety of ideas and behaviours, none of which, to be consistent with the previous principle, should threaten the well-being of anyone. Out of this, the most likely outcome is a situation of spontaneous order, with recurrent adjustments and harmonisation between individuals and communities.
- The project of voluntary communities (let chose, let try). The lack of coercion for any tolerant behaviour allows for the coming into being of all sorts of personal and social experiments in the form of voluntary communities competing and cooperating amongst each other. The world society becomes then a vast laboratory of social experimentation making possible a progress in the social sciences like the one that has been achieved through experimentation in the physical sciences.
So, out of the best ideas and practices elaborated and implemented in the past and in the present, the process of human development and emancipation continues.
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Web Sites and Web Pages
Catallaxia: libéralism alternatif (Français)
DMOZ open directory project: Liberalism (English)
DMOZ open directory project: Libéralisme (Français)
Fordham University: Liberalism (list of e-texts)
Liberal International – Liberal Thinkers
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Liberalism
Ludwig von Mises Institute
Wikipedia: History of Liberalism
Wikipedia: Classical Liberalism