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Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse was a theorist and sociologist who believed in liberal politics. In Liberalism, Hobhouse explains Liberalism and breaks down the critical beliefs within it. Liberalism is an influential and significant text for understangin New Liberalism. Read Hobhouses's passionate take on the subject and get a better understanding of Liberal beliefs from a historical perspective.


L. T. Hobhouse


Chapter I
Before Liberalism

The modern State is the distinctive product of a unique civilization. But it is a product which is still in the making, and a part of the process is a struggle between new and old principles of social order. To understand the new, which is our main purpose, we must first cast a glance at the old. We must understand what the social structure was, which — mainly, as I shall show, under the inspiration of Liberal ideas — is slowly but surely giving place to the new fabric of the civic State.

The older structure itself was by no means primitive. What is truly primitive is very hard to say. But one thing is pretty clear. At all times men have lived in societies, and ties of kinship and of simple neighbourhood underlie every form of social organization. In the simplest societies it seems probable that these ties — reinforced and extended, perhaps, by religious or other beliefs — are the only ones that seriously count. It is certain that of the warp of descent and the woof of intermarriage there is woven a tissue out of which small and rude but close and compact communities are formed. But the ties of kinship and neighbourhood are effective only within narrow limits. While the local group, the clan, or the village community are often the centres of vigorous life, the larger aggregate of the Tribe seldom attains true social and political unity unless it rests upon a military organization. But military organization may serve not only to hold one tribe together but also to hold other tribes in subjection, and thereby, at the cost of much that is most valuable in primitive life, to establish a larger and at the same time a more orderly society. Such an order once established does not, indeed, rest on naked force. The rulers become invested with a sacrosanct authority. It may be that they are gods or descendants of gods. It may be that they are blessed and upheld by an independent priesthood. In either case the powers that be extend their sway not merely over the bodies but over the minds of men. They are ordained of God because they arrange the ordination. Such a government is not necessarily abhorrent to the people nor indifferent to them. But it is essentially government from above. So far as it affects the life of the people at all, it does so by imposing on them duties, as of military service, tribute, ordinances, and even new laws, in such wise and on such principles as seem good to itself. It is not true, as a certain school of jurisprudence held, that law is, as such, a command imposed by a superior upon an inferior, and backed by the sanctions of punishment. But though this is not true of law in general it is a roughly true description of law in that particular stage of society which we may conveniently describe as the Authoritarian.

Now, in the greater part of the world and throughout the greater part of history the two forms of social organization that have been distinguished are the only forms to be found. Of course, they themselves admit of every possible variation of detail, but looking below these variations we find the two recurrent types. On the one hand, there are the small kinship groups, often vigorous enough in themselves, but feeble for purposes of united action. On the other hand, there are larger societies varying in extent and in degree of civilization from a petty negro kingdom to the Chinese Empire, resting on a certain union of military force and religious or quasi-religious belief which, to select a neutral name, we have called the principle of Authority. In the lower stages of civilization there appears, as a rule, to be only one method of suppressing the strife of hostile clans, maintaining the frontier against a common enemy, or establishing the elements of outward order. The alternative to authoritarian rule is relapse into the comparative anarchy of savage life.

But another method made its appearance in classical antiquity. The city state of ancient Greece and Italy was a new type of social organization. It differed from the clan and the commune in several ways. In the first place it contained many clans and villages, and perhaps owed its origin to the coming together of separate clans on the basis not of conquest but of comparatively equal alliance. Though very small as compared with an ancient empire or a modern state it was much larger than a primitive kindred. Its life was more varied and complex. It allowed more free play to the individual, and, indeed, as it developed, it suppressed the old clan organization and substituted new divisions, geographical or other. It was based, in fact, not on kinship as such, but on civic right, and this it was which distinguished it not only from the commune, but from the Oriental monarchy. The law which it recognized and by which it lived was not a command imposed by a superior government on a subject mass. On the contrary, government was itself subject to law, and law was the life of the state, willingly supported by the entire body of free citizens. In this sense the city state was a community of free men. Considered collectively its citizens owned no master. They governed themselves, subject only to principles and rules of life descending from antiquity and owing their force to the spontaneous allegiance of successive generations. In such a community some of the problems that vex us most presented themselves in a very simple form. In particular the relation of the individual to the community was close, direct, and natural. Their interests were obviously bound up together. Unless each man did his duty the State might easily be destroyed and the population enslaved. Unless the State took thought for its citizens it might easily decay. What was still more important, there was no opposition of church and state, no fissure between political and religious life, between the claims of the secular and the spiritual, to distract the allegiance of the citizens, and to set the authority of conscience against the duties of patriotism. It was no feat of the philosophical imagination, but a quite simple and natural expression of the facts to describe such a community as an association of men for the purpose of living well. Ideals to which we win our way back with difficulty and doubt arose naturally out of the conditions of life in ancient Greece.

On the other hand, this simple harmony had very serious limitations, which in the end involved the downfall of the city system. The responsibilities and privileges of the associated life were based not on the rights of human personality but on the rights of citizenship, and citizenship was never co-extensive with the community. The population included slaves or serfs, and in many cities there were large classes descended from the original conquered population, personally free but excluded from the governing circle. Notwithstanding the relative simplicity of social conditions the city was constantly torn by the disputes of faction — in part probably a legacy from the old clan organization, in part a consequence of the growth of wealth and the newer distinction of classes. The evil of faction was aggravated by the ill-success of the city organization in dealing with the problem of inter-state relations. The Greek city clung to its autonomy, and though the principle of federalism which might have solved the problem was ultimately brought into play, it came too late in Greek history to save the nation.

The constructive genius of Rome devised a different method of dealing with the political problems involved in expanding relations. Roman citizenship was extended till it included all Italy and, later on, till it comprised the whole free population of the Mediterranean basin. But this extension was even more fatal to the free self-government of a city state. The population of Italy could not meet in the Forum of Rome or the Plain of Mars to elect consuls and pass laws, and the more wisely it was extended the less valuable for any political purpose did citizenship become. The history of Rome, in fact, might be taken as a vast illustration of the difficulty of building up an extended empire on any basis but that of personal despotism resting on military force and maintaining peace and order through the efficiency of the bureaucratic machine. In this vast mechanism it was the army that was the seat of power, or rather it was each army at its post on some distant frontier that was a potential seat of power. The “secret of the empire” that was early divulged was that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome, and though a certain sanctity remained to the person of the emperor, and legists cherished a dim remembrance of the theory that he embodied the popular will, the fact was that he was the choice of a powerful army, ratified by the God of Battles, and maintaining his power as long as he could suppress any rival pretender. The break-up of the Empire through the continual repetition of military strife was accelerated, not caused, by the presence of barbarism both within and without the frontiers. To restore the elements of order a compromise between central and local jurisdictions was necessary, and the vassal became a local prince owning an allegiance, more or less real as the case might be, to a distant sovereign. Meanwhile, with the prevailing disorder the mass of the population in Western Europe lost its freedom, partly through conquest, partly through the necessity of finding a protector in troublous times. The social structure of the Middle Ages accordingly assumed the hierarchical form which we speak of as the Feudal system. In this thorough-going application of the principle of authority every man, in theory, had his master. The serf held of his lord, who held of a great seigneur, who held of the king. The king in the completer theory held of the emperor who was crowned by the Pope, who held of St. Peter. The chain of descent was complete from the Ruler of the universe to the humblest of the serfs. But within this order the growth of industry and commerce raised up new centres of freedom. The towns in which men were learning anew the lessons of association for united defence and the regulation of common interests, obtained charters of rights from seigneur or king, and on the Continent even succeeded in establishing complete independence. Even in England, where from the Conquest the central power was at its strongest, the corporate towns became for many purposes self-governing communities. The city state was born again, and with it came an outburst of activity, the revival of literature and the arts, the rediscovery of ancient learning, the rebirth of philosophy and science.

The mediæval city state was superior to the ancient in that slavery was no essential element in its existence. On the contrary, by welcoming the fugitive serf and vindicating his freedom it contributed powerfully to the decline of the milder form of servitude. But like the ancient state it was seriously and permanently weakened by internal faction, and like the ancient state it rested the privileges of its members not on the rights of human personality, but on the responsibilities of citizenship. It knew not so much liberty as “liberties,” rights of corporations secured by charter, its own rights as a whole secured against king or feudatory and the rest of the world, rights of gilds and crafts within it, and to men or women only as they were members of such bodies. But the real weakness of the city state was once more its isolation. It was but an islet of relative freedom on, or actually within, the borders of a feudal society which grew more powerful with the generations. With the improvement of communications and of the arts of life, the central power, particularly in France and England, began to gain upon its vassals. Feudal disobedience and disorder were suppressed, and by the end of the fifteenth century great unified states, the foundation of modern nations, were already in being. Their emergence involved the widening and in some respects the improvement of the social order; and in its earlier stages it favoured civic autonomy by suppressing local anarchy and feudal privilege. But the growth of centralization was in the end incompatible with the genius of civic independence, and perilous to such elements of political right as had been gained for the population in general as the result of earlier conflicts between the crown and its vassals.

We enter on the modern period, accordingly, with society constituted on a thoroughly authoritarian basis, the kingly power supreme and tending towards arbitrary despotism, and below the king the social hierarchy extending from the great territorial lord to the day-labourer. There is one point gained as compared to earlier forms of society. The base of the pyramid is a class which at least enjoys personal freedom. Serfdom has virtually disappeared in England, and in the greater part of France has either vanished or become attenuated to certain obnoxious incidents of the tenure of land. On the other hand, the divorce of the English peasant from the soil has begun, and has laid the foundation of the future social problem as it is to appear in this country.

The modern State accordingly starts from the basis of an authoritarian order, and the protest against that order, a protest religious, political, economic, social, and ethical, is the historic beginning of Liberalism. Thus Liberalism appears at first as a criticism, sometimes even as a destructive and revolutionary criticism. Its negative aspect is for centuries foremost. Its business seems to be not so much to build up as to pull down, to remove obstacles which block human progress, rather than to point the positive goal of endeavour or fashion the fabric of civilization. It finds humanity oppressed, and would set it free. It finds a people groaning under arbitrary rule, a nation in bondage to a conquering race, industrial enterprise obstructed by social privileges or crippled by taxation, and it offers relief. Everywhere it is removing superincumbent weights, knocking off fetters, clearing away obstructions. Is it doing as much for the reconstruction that will be necessary when the demolition is complete? Is Liberalism at bottom a constructive or only a destructive principle? Is it of permanent significance? Does it express some vital truth of social life as such, or is it a temporary phenomenon called forth by the special circumstances of Western Europe, and is its work already so far complete that it can be content to hand on the torch to a newer and more constructive principle, retiring for its own part from the race, or perchance seeking more backward lands for missionary work? These are among the questions that we shall have to answer. We note, for the moment, that the circumstances of its origin suffice to explain the predominance of critical and destructive work without therefrom inferring the lack of ultimate reconstructive power. In point of fact, whether by the aid of Liberalism or through the conservative instincts of the race, the work of reconstruction has gone on side by side with that of demolition, and becomes more important generation by generation. The modern State, as I shall show, goes far towards incorporating the elements of Liberal principle, and when we have seen what these are, and to what extent they are actually realized, we shall be in a better position to understand the essentials of Liberalism, and to determine the question of its permanent value.

Chapter II
The Elements of Liberalism

I cannot here attempt so much as a sketch of the historical progress of the Liberalizing movement. I would call attention only to the main points at which it assailed the old order, and to the fundamental ideas directing its advance.

1. Civil Liberty

Both logically and historically the first point of attack is arbitrary government, and the first liberty to be secured is the right to be dealt with in accordance with law. A man who has no legal rights against another, but stands entirely at his disposal, to be treated according to his caprice, is a slave to that other. He is “rightless,” devoid of rights. Now, in some barbaric monarchies the system of rightlessness has at times been consistently carried through in the relations of subjects to the king. Here men and women, though enjoying customary rights of person and property as against one another, have no rights at all as against the king’s pleasure. No European monarch or seignior has ever admittedly enjoyed power of this kind, but European governments have at various times and in various directions exercised or claimed powers no less arbitrary in principle. Thus, by the side of the regular courts of law which prescribe specific penalties for defined offences proved against a man by a regular form of trial, arbitrary governments resort to various extrajudicial forms of arrest, detention, and punishment, depending on their own will and pleasure. Of such a character is punishment by “administrative” process in Russia at the present day; imprisonment by lettre de cachet in France under the ancien régime; all executions by so-called martial law in times of rebellion, and the suspension of various ordinary guarantees of immediate and fair trial in Ireland. Arbitrary government in this form was one of the first objects of attack by the English Parliament in the seventeenth century, and this first liberty of the subject was vindicated by the Petition of Right, and again by the Habeas Corpus Act. It is significant of much that this first step in liberty should be in reality nothing more nor less than a demand for law. “Freedom of men under government,” says Locke, summing up one whole chapter of seventeenth-century controversy, “is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it.”

The first condition of universal freedom, that is to say, is a measure of universal restraint. Without such restraint some men may be free but others will be unfree. One man may be able to do all his will, but the rest will have no will except that which he sees fit to allow them. To put the same point from another side, the first condition of free government is government not by the arbitrary determination of the ruler, but by fixed rules of law, to which the ruler himself is subject. We draw the important inference that there is no essential antithesis between liberty and law. On the contrary, law is essential to liberty. Law, of course, restrains the individual; it is therefore opposed to his liberty at a given moment and in a given direction. But, equally, law restrains others from doing with him as they will. It liberates him from the fear of arbitrary aggression or coercion, and this is the only way, indeed, the only sense, in which liberty for an entire community is attainable.

There is one point tacitly postulated in this argument which should not be overlooked. In assuming that the reign of law guarantees liberty to the whole community, we are assuming that it is impartial. If there is one law for the Government and another for its subjects, one for noble and another for commoner, one for rich and another for poor, the law does not guarantee liberty for all. Liberty in this respect implies equality. Hence the demand of Liberalism for such a procedure as will ensure the impartial application of law. Hence the demand for the independence of the judiciary to secure equality as between the Government and its subjects. Hence the demand for cheap procedure and accessible courts. Hence the abolition of privileges of class. Hence will come in time the demand for the abolition of the power of money to purchase skilled advocacy.

2. Fiscal Liberty

Closely connected with juristic liberty, and more widely felt in everyday life, is the question of fiscal liberty. The Stuarts brought things to a head in this country by arbitrary taxation. George III brought things to a head in America by the same infallible method. The immediate cause of the French Revolution was the refusal of the nobles and the clergy to bear their share of the financial burden. But fiscal liberty raises more searching questions than juristic liberty. It is not enough that taxes should be fixed by a law applying universally and impartially, for taxes vary from year to year in accordance with public needs, and while other laws may remain stable and unchanged for an indefinite period, taxation must, in the nature of the case, be adjustable. It is a matter, properly considered, for the Executive rather than the Legislature. Hence the liberty of the subject in fiscal matters means the restraint of the Executive, not merely by established and written laws, but by a more direct and constant supervision. It means, in a word, responsible government, and that is why we have more often heard the cry, “No taxation without representation,” than the cry, “No legislation without representation.” Hence, from the seventeenth century onwards, fiscal liberty was seen to involve what is called political liberty.

3. Personal Liberty

Of political liberty it will be more convenient to speak later. But let us here observe that there is another avenue by which it can be, and, in fact, was, approached. We have seen that the reign of law is the first step to liberty. A man is not free when he is controlled by other men, but only when he is controlled by principles and rules which all society must obey, for the community is the true master of the free man. But here we are only at the beginning of the matter. There may be law, and there may be no attempt, such as the Stuarts made, to set law aside, yet (1) the making and maintenance of law may depend on the will of the sovereign or of an oligarchy, and (2) the content of the law may be unjust and oppressive to some, to many, or to all except those who make it. The first point brings us back to the problem of political liberty, which we defer. The second opens questions which have occupied a great part of the history of Liberalism, and to deal with them we have to ask what types of law have been felt as peculiarly oppressive, and in what respects it has been necessary to claim liberty not merely through law, but by the abolition of bad law and tyrannical administration.

In the first place, there is the sphere of what is called personal liberty — a sphere most difficult to define, but the arena of the fiercest strife of passion and the deepest feelings of mankind. At the basis lies liberty of thought — freedom from inquisition into opinions that a man forms in his own mind the inner citadel where, if anywhere, the individual must rule. But liberty of thought is of very little avail without liberty to exchange thoughts — since thought is mainly a social product; and so with liberty of thought goes liberty of speech and liberty of writing, printing, and peaceable discussion. These rights are not free from difficulty and dubiety. There is a point at which speech becomes indistinguishable from action, and free speech may mean the right to create disorder. The limits of just liberty here are easy to draw neither in theory nor in practice. They lead us immediately to one of the points at which liberty and order may be in conflict, and it is with conflicts of this kind that we shall have to deal. The possibilities of conflict are not less in relation to the connected right of liberty in religion. That this liberty is absolute cannot be contended. No modern state would tolerate a form of religious worship which should include cannibalism, human sacrifice, or the burning of witches. In point of fact, practices of this kind — which follow quite naturally from various forms of primitive belief that are most sincerely held — are habitually put down by civilized peoples that are responsible for the government of less developed races. The British law recognizes polygamy in India, but I imagine it would not be open either to a Mahommedan or a Hindu to contract two marriages in England. Nor is it for liberty of this kind that the battle has been fought.

What, then, is the primary meaning of religious liberty? Externally, I take it to include the liberties of thought and expression, and to add to these the right of worship in any form which does not inflict injury on others or involve a breach of public order. This limitation appears to carry with it a certain decency and restraint in expression which avoids unnecessary insult to the feelings of others; and I think this implication must be allowed, though it makes some room for strained and unfair applications. Externally, again, we must note that the demand for religious liberty soon goes beyond mere toleration. Religious liberty is incomplete as long as any belief is penalized, as, for example, by carrying with it exclusion from office or from educational advantages. On this side, again, full liberty implies full equality. Turning to the internal side, the spirit of religious liberty rests on the conception that a man’s religion ranks with his own innermost thought and feelings. It is the most concrete expression of his personal attitude to life, to his kind, to the world, to his own origin and destiny. There is no real religion that is not thus drenched in personality; and the more religion is recognized for spiritual the starker the contradiction is felt to be that any one should seek to impose a religion on another. Properly regarded, the attempt is not wicked, but impossible. Yet those sin most against true religion who try to convert men from the outside by mechanical means. They have the lie in the soul, being most ignorant of the nature of that for which they feel most deeply.

Yet here again we stumble on difficulties. Religion is personal. Yet is not religion also eminently social? What is more vital to the social order than its beliefs? If we send a man to gaol for stealing trash, what shall we do to him whom, in our conscience and on our honour, we believe to be corrupting the hearts of mankind, and perhaps leading them to eternal perdition? Again, what in the name of liberty are we to do to men whose preaching, if followed out in act, would bring back the rack and the stake? Once more there is a difficulty of delimitation which will have to be fully sifted. I will only remark here that our practice has arrived at a solution which, upon the whole, appears to have worked well hitherto, and which has its roots in principle. It is open to a man to preach the principles of Torquemada or the religion of Mahomet. It is not open to men to practise such of their precepts as would violate the rights of others or cause a breach of the peace. Expression is free, and worship is free as far as it is the expression of personal devotion. So far as they infringe the freedom, or, more generally, the rights of others, the practices inculcated by a religion cannot enjoy unqualified freedom.

4. Social Liberty

From the spiritual we turn to the practical side of life. On this side we may observe, first, that Liberalism has had to deal with those restraints on the individual which flow from the hierarchic organization of society, and reserve certain offices, certain forms of occupation, and perhaps the right or at least the opportunity of education generally, to people of a certain rank or class. In its more extreme form this is a caste system, and its restrictions are religious or legal as well as social. In Europe it has taken more than one form. There is the monopoly of certain occupations by corporations, prominent in the minds of eighteenth-century French reformers. There is the reservation of public appointments and ecclesiastical patronage for those who are “born,” and there is a more subtly pervading spirit of class which produces a hostile attitude to those who could and would rise; and this spirit finds a more material ally in the educational difficulties that beset brains unendowed with wealth. I need not labour points which will be apparent to all, but have again to remark two things.

1) Once more the struggle for liberty is also, when pushed through, a struggle for equality. Freedom to choose and follow an occupation, if it is to become fully effective, means equality with others in the opportunities for following such occupation. This is, in fact, one among the various considerations which lead Liberalism to support a national system of free education, and will lead it further yet on the same lines. (2) Once again, though we may insist on the rights of the individual, the social value of the corporation or quasi-corporation, like the Trade Union, cannot be ignored. Experience shows the necessity of some measure of collective regulation in industrial matters, and in the adjustment of such regulation to individual liberty serious difficulties of principle emerge. We shall have to refer to these in the next section. But one point is relevant at this stage. It is clearly a matter of Liberal principle that membership of a corporation should not depend on any hereditary qualification, nor be set about with any artificial difficulty of entry, where by the term artificial is meant any difficulty not involved in the nature of the occupation concerned, but designed for purposes of exclusiveness. As against all such methods of restriction, the Liberal case is clear.

It has only to be added here that restrictions of sex are in every respect parallel to restrictions of class. There are, doubtless, occupations for which women are unfit. But, if so, the test of fitness is sufficient to exclude them. The “open road for women” is one application, and a very big one, of the “open road for talent,” and to secure them both is of the essence of Liberalism.

5. Economic Liberty

Apart from monopolies, industry was shackled in the earlier part of the modern period by restrictive legislation in various forms, by navigation laws, and by tariffs. In particular, the tariff was not merely an obstruction to free enterprise, but a source of inequality as between trade and trade. Its fundamental effect is to transfer capital and labour from the objects on which they can be most profitably employed in a given locality, to objects on which they are less profitably employed, by endowing certain industries to the disadvantage of the general consumer. Here, again, the Liberal movement is at once an attack on an obstruction and on an inequality. In most countries the attack has succeeded in breaking down local tariffs and establishing relatively large Free Trade units. It is only in England, and only owing to our early manufacturing supremacy, that it has fully succeeded in overcoming the Protective principle, and even in England the Protectionist reaction would undoubtedly have gained at least a temporary victory but for our dependence on foreign countries for food and the materials of industry. The most striking victory of Liberal ideas is one of the most precarious. At the same time, the battle is one which Liberalism is always prepared to fight over again. It has led to no back stroke, no counter-movement within the Liberal ranks themselves.

It is otherwise with organized restrictions upon industry. The old regulations, which were quite unsuited to the conditions of the time, either fell into desuetude during the eighteenth century, or were formally abolished during the earlier years of the industrial revolution. For a while it seemed as though wholly unrestricted industrial enterprise was to be the progressive watchword, and the echoes of that time still linger. But the old restrictions had not been formally withdrawn before a new process of regulation began. The conditions produced by the new factory system shocked the public conscience; and as early as 1802 we find the first of a long series of laws, out of which has grown an industrial code that year by year follows the life of the operative, in his relations with his employer, into more minute detail. The first stages of this movement were contemplated with doubt and distrust by many men of Liberal sympathies.

The intention was, doubtless, to protect the weaker party, but the method was that of interference with freedom of contract. Now the freedom of the sane adult individual — even such strong individualists as Cobden recognized that the case of children stood apart — carried with it the right of concluding such agreements as seemed best to suit his own interests, and involved both the right and the duty of determining the lines of his life for himself. Free contract and personal responsibility lay close to the heart of the whole Liberal movement. Hence the doubts felt by so many Liberals as to the regulation of industry by law. None the less, as time has gone on, men of the keenest Liberal sympathies have come not merely to accept but eagerly to advance the extension of public control in the industrial sphere, and of collective responsibility in the matter of the education and even the feeding of children, the housing of the industrial population, the care of the sick and aged, the provision of the means of regular employment. On this side Liberalism seems definitely to have retraced its steps, and we shall have to inquire closely into the question whether the reversal is a change of principle or of application.

Closely connected with freedom of contract is freedom of association. If men may make any agreement with one another in their mutual interest so long as they do not injure a third party, they may apparently agree to act together permanently for any purposes of common interest on the same conditions. That is, they may form associations. Yet at bottom the powers of an association are something very different from the powers of the individuals composing it; and it is only by legal pedantry that the attempt can be made to regulate the behaviour of an association on principles derived from and suitable to the relations of individuals. An association might become so powerful as to form a state within the state, and to contend with government on no unequal terms. The history of some revolutionary societies, of some ecclesiastical organizations, even of some American trusts might be quoted to show that the danger is not imaginary. Short of this, an association may act oppressively towards others and even towards its own members, and the function of Liberalism may be rather to protect the individual against the power of the association than to protect the right of association against the restriction of the law.

In fact, in this regard, the principle of liberty cuts both ways, and this double application is reflected in history. The emancipation of trade unions, however, extending over the period from 1824 to 1906, and perhaps not yet complete, was in the main a liberating movement, because combination was necessary to place the workman on something approaching terms of equality with the employer, and because tacit combinations of employers could never, in fact, be prevented by law. It was, again, a movement to liberty through equality. On the other hand, the oppressive capacities of a trade union could never be left out of account, while combinations of capital, which might be infinitely more powerful, have justly been regarded with distrust. In this there is no inconsistency of principle, but a just appreciation of a real difference of circumstance. Upon the whole it may be said that the function of Liberalism is not so much to maintain a general right of free association as to define the right in each case in such terms as make for the maximum of real liberty and equality.

6. Domestic Liberty

Of all associations within the State, the miniature community of the Family is the most universal and of the strongest independent vitality. The authoritarian state was reflected in the authoritarian family, in which the husband was within wide limits absolute lord of the person and property of wife and children. The movement of liberation consists (1) in rendering the wife a fully responsible individual, capable of holding property, suing and being sued, conducting business on her own account, and enjoying full personal protection against her husband; (2) in establishing marriage as far as the law is concerned on a purely contractual basis, and leaving the sacramental aspect of marriage to the ordinances of the religion professed by the parties; (3) in securing the physical, mental, and moral care of the children, partly by imposing definite responsibilities on the parents and punishing them for neglect, partly by elaborating a public system of education and of hygiene. The first two movements are sufficiently typical cases of the interdependence of liberty and equality. The third is more often conceived as a Socialistic than a Liberal tendency, and, in point of fact, the State control of education gives rise to some searching questions of principle, which have not yet been fully solved. If, in general, education is a duty which the State has a right to enforce, there is a countervailing right of choice as to the lines of education which it would be ill to ignore, and the mode of adjustment has not yet been adequately determined either in theory or in practice. I would, however, strongly maintain that the general conception of the State as Over-parent is quite as truly Liberal as Socialistic. It is the basis of the rights of the child, of his protection against parental neglect, of the equality of opportunity which he may claim as a future citizen, of his training to fill his place as a grown-up person in the social system. Liberty once more involves control and restraint.

7. Local, Racial, and National Liberty

From the smallest social unit we pass to the largest. A great part of the liberating movement is occupied with the struggle of entire nations against alien rule, with the revolt of Europe against Napoleon, with the struggle of Italy for freedom, with the fate of the Christian subjects of Turkey, with the emancipation of the negro, with the national movement in Ireland and in India. Many of these struggles present the problem of liberty in its simplest form. It has been and is too often a question of securing the most elementary rights for the weaker party; and those who are not touched by the appeal are deficient rather in imagination than in logic or ethics. But at the back of national movements very difficult questions do arise. What is a nation as distinct from a state? What sort of unity does it constitute, and what are its rights? If Ireland is a nation, is Ulster one? and if Ulster is a British and Protestant nation, what of the Catholic half of Ulster? History has in some cases given us a practical answer. Thus, it has shown that, enjoying the gift of responsible government, French and British, despite all historical quarrels and all differences of religious belief, language, and social structure, have fused into the nation of Canada.

History has justified the conviction that Germany was a nation, and thrown ridicule on the contemptuous saying of Metternich that Italy was a geographical expression. But how to anticipate history, what rights to concede to a people that claims to be a self-determining unit, is less easy to decide. There is no doubt that the general tendency of Liberalism is to favour autonomy, but, faced as it is with the problems of subdivision and the complexity of group with group, it has to rely on the concrete teaching of history and the practical insight of statesmanship to determine how the lines of autonomy are to be drawn. There is, however, one empirical test which seems generally applicable. Where a weaker nation incorporated with a larger or stronger one can be governed by ordinary law applicable to both parties to the union, and fulfilling all the ordinary principles of liberty, the arrangement may be the best for both parties. But where this system fails, where the government is constantly forced to resort to exceptional legislation or perhaps to de-liberalize its own institutions, the case becomes urgent. Under such conditions the most liberally-minded democracy is maintaining a system which must undermine its own principles. The Assyrian conqueror, Mr. Herbert Spencer remarks, who is depicted in the bas-reliefs leading his captive by a cord, is bound with that cord himself. He forfeits his liberty as long as he retains his power.

Somewhat similar questions arise about race, which many people wrongly confuse with nationality. So far as elementary rights are concerned there can be no question as to the attitude of Liberalism. When the political power which should guarantee such rights is brought into view, questions of fact arise. Is the Negro or the Kaffir mentally and morally capable of self-government or of taking part in a self-governing State? The experience of Cape Colony tends to the affirmative view. American experience of the negro gives, I take it, a more doubtful answer. A specious extension of the white man’s rights to the black may be the best way of ruining the black. To destroy tribal custom by introducing conceptions of individual property, the free disposal of land, and the free purchase of gin may be the handiest method for the expropriator. In all relations with weaker peoples we move in an atmosphere vitiated by the insincere use of high-sounding words. If men say equality, they mean oppression by forms of justice. If they say tutelage, they appear to mean the kind of tutelage extended to the fattened goose. In such an atmosphere, perhaps, our safest course, so far as principles and deductions avail at all, is to fix our eyes on the elements of the matter, and in any part of the world to support whatever method succeeds in securing the “coloured” man from personal violence, from the lash, from expropriation, and from gin; above all, so far as it may yet be, from the white man himself. Until the white man has fully learnt to rule his own life, the best of all things that he can do with the dark man is to do nothing with him. In this relation, the day of a more constructive Liberalism is yet to come.

8. International Liberty

If non-interference is the best thing for the barbarian many Liberals have thought it to be the supreme wisdom in international affairs generally. I shall examine this view later. Here I merely remark: (1) It is of the essence of Liberalism to oppose the use of force, the basis of all tyranny. (2) It is one of its practical necessities to withstand the tyranny of armaments. Not only may the military force be directly turned against liberty, as in Russia, but there are more subtle ways, as in Western Europe, in which the military spirit eats into free institutions and absorbs the public resources which might go to the advancement of civilization. (3) In proportion as the world becomes free, the use of force becomes meaningless. There is no purpose in aggression if it is not to issue in one form or another of national subjection.

9. Political Liberty and Popular Sovereignty

Underlying all these questions of right is the question how they are to be secured and maintained. By enforcing the responsibility of the executive and legislature to the community as a whole? Such is the general answer, and it indicates one of the lines of connection between the general theory of liberty and the doctrine of universal suffrage and the sovereignty of the people. The answer, however, does not meet all the possibilities of the case. The people as a whole might be careless of their rights and incapable of managing them. They might be set on the conquest of others, the expropriation of the rich, or on any form of collective tyranny or folly. It is perfectly possible that from the point of view of general liberty and social progress a limited franchise might give better results than one that is more extended. Even in this country it is a tenable view that the extension of the suffrage in 1884 tended for some years to arrest the development of liberty in various directions. On what theory does the principle of popular sovereignty rest, and within what limits does it hold good? Is it a part of the general principles of liberty and equality, or are other ideas involved? These are among the questions which we shall have to examine.

We have now passed the main phases of the Liberal movement in very summary review, and we have noted, first, that it is co-extensive with life. It is concerned with the individual, the family, the State. It touches industry, law, religion, ethics. It would not be difficult, if space allowed, to illustrate its influence in literature and art, to describe the war with convention, insincerity, and patronage, and the struggle for free self-expression, for reality, for the artist’s soul. Liberalism is an all-penetrating element of the life-structure of the modern world. Secondly, it is an effective historical force. If its work is nowhere complete, it is almost everywhere in progress. The modern State as we see it in Europe outside Russia, in the British colonies, in North and South America, as we begin to see it in the Russian empire and throughout the vast continent of Asia, is the old authoritarian society modified in greater or less degree by the absorption of Liberal principles. Turning, thirdly, to those principles themselves, we have recognized Liberalism in every department as a movement fairly denoted by the name — a movement of liberation, a clearance of obstructions, an opening of channels for the flow of free spontaneous vital activity. Fourthly, we have seen that in a large number of cases what is under one aspect a movement for liberty is on another side a movement towards equality, and the habitual association of these principles is so far confirmed.

On the other hand, lastly, we have seen numerous cases in which the exacter definition of liberty and the precise meaning of equality remain obscure, and to discuss these will be our task. We have, moreover, admittedly regarded Liberalism mainly in its earlier and more negative aspect. We have seen it as a force working within an old society and modifying it by the loosening of the bonds which its structure imposed on human activity. We have yet to ask what constructive social scheme, if any, could be formed on Liberal principles; and it is here, if at all, that the fuller meaning of the principles of Liberty and Equality should appear, and the methods of applying them be made out. The problem of popular sovereignty pointed to the same need. Thus the lines of the remainder of our task are clearly laid down. We have to get at the fundamentals of Liberalism, and to consider what kind of structure can be raised upon the basis which they offer. We will approach the question by tracing the historic movement of Liberal thought through certain well-marked phases. We shall see how the problems which have been indicated were attacked by successive thinkers, and how partial solutions gave occasion for deeper probings. Following the guidance of the actual movement of ideas, we shall reach the centre and heart of Liberalism, and we shall try to form a conception of the essentials of the Liberal creed as a constructive theory of society. This conception we shall then apply to the greater questions, political and economic, of our own day; and this will enable us finally to estimate the present position of Liberalism as a living force in the modern world and the prospect of transforming its ideals into actualities.

Chapter III
The Movement of Theory

Great changes are not caused by ideas alone; but they are not effected without ideas. The passions of men must be aroused if the frost of custom is to be broken or the chains of authority burst; but passion of itself is blind and its world is chaotic. To be effective men must act together, and to act together they must have a common understanding and a common object. When it comes to be a question of any far-reaching change, they must not merely conceive their own immediate end with clearness. They must convert others, they must communicate sympathy and win over the unconvinced. Upon the whole, they must show that their object is possible, that it is compatible with existing institutions, or at any rate with some workable form of social life. They are, in fact, driven on by the requirements of their position to the elaboration of ideas, and in the end to some sort of social philosophy; and the philosophies that have driving force behind them are those which arise after this fashion out of the practical demands of human feeling. The philosophies that remain ineffectual and academic are those that are formed by abstract reflection without relation to the thirsty souls of human kind.

In England, it is true, where men are apt to be shy and unhandy in the region of theory, the Liberal movement has often sought to dispense with general principles. In its early days and in its more moderate forms, it sought its ends under the guise of constitutionalism. As against the claims of the Stuart monarchy, there was a historic case as well as a philosophic argument, and the earlier leaders of the Parliament relied more on precedent than on principle. This method was embodied in the Whig tradition, and runs on to our own time, as one of the elements that go to make up the working constitution of the Liberal mind. It is, so to say, the Conservative element in Liberalism, valuable in resistance to encroachments, valuable in securing continuity of development, for purposes of re-construction insufficient. To maintain the old order under changed circumstances may be, in fact, to initiate a revolution. It was so in the seventeenth century. Pym and his followers could find justification for their contentions in our constitutional history, but to do so they had to go behind both the Stuarts and the Tudors; and to apply the principles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in 1640 was, in effect, to institute a revolution. In our own time, to maintain the right of the Commons against the Lords is, on the face of it, to adhere to old constitutional right, but to do so under the new circumstances which have made the Commons representative of the nation as a whole is, in reality, to establish democracy for the first time on a firm footing, and this, again, is to accomplish a revolution.

Now, those who effect a revolution ought to know whither they are leading the world. They have need of a social theory — and in point of fact the more thorough-going apostles of movement always have such a theory; and though, as we have remarked, the theory emerges from the practical needs which they feel, and is therefore apt to invest ideas of merely temporary value with the character of eternal truths, it is not on this account to be dismissed as of secondary importance. Once formed, it reacts upon the minds of its adherents, and gives direction and unity to their efforts. It becomes, in its turn, a real historic force, and the degree of its coherence and adequacy is matter, not merely of academic interest, but of practical moment. Moreover, the onward course of a movement is more clearly understood by appreciating the successive points of view which its thinkers and statesmen have occupied than by following the devious turnings of political events and the tangle of party controversy. The point of view naturally affects the whole method of handling problems, whether speculative or practical, and to the historian it serves as a centre around which ideas and policies that perhaps differ, and even conflict with one another, may be so grouped as to show their underlying affinities. Let us then seek to determine the principal points of view which the Liberal movement has occupied, and distinguish the main types of theory in which the passion for freedom has sought to express itself.

The first of these types I will call the theory of the Natural Order.

The earlier Liberalism had to deal with authoritarian government in church and state. It had to vindicate the elements of personal, civil, and economic freedom; and in so doing it took its stand on the rights of man, and, in proportion as it was forced to be constructive, on the supposed harmony of the natural order. Government claimed supernatural sanction and divine ordinance. Liberal theory replied in effect that the rights of man rested on the law of Nature, and those of government on human institution. The oldest “institution” in this view was the individual, and the primordial society the natural grouping of human beings under the influence of family affection, and for the sake of mutual aid. Political society was a more artificial arrangement, a convention arrived at for the specific purpose of securing a better order and maintaining the common safety. It was, perhaps, as Locke held, founded on a contract between king and people, a contract which was brought to an end if either party violated its terms. Or, as in Rousseau’s view, it was essentially a contract of the people with one another, an arrangement by means of which, out of many conflicting individual wills, a common or general will could be formed. A government might be instituted as the organ of this will, but it would, from the nature of the case, be subordinate to the people from whom it derived authority. The people were sovereign. The government was their delegate.

Whatever the differences of outlook that divide these theories, those who from Locke to Rousseau and Paine worked with this order of ideas agreed in conceiving political society as a restraint to which men voluntarily submitted themselves for specific purposes. Political institutions were the source of subjection and inequality. Before and behind them stood the assemblage of free and equal individuals. But the isolated individual was powerless. He had rights which were limited only by the corresponding rights of others, but he could not, unless chance gave him the upper hand, enforce them. Accordingly, he found it best to enter into an arrangement with others for the mutual respect of rights; and for this purpose he instituted a government to maintain his rights within the community and to guard the community from assault from without. It followed that the function of government was limited and definable. It was to maintain the natural rights of man as accurately as the conditions of society allowed, and to do naught beside.

Any further action employing the compulsory power of the State was of the nature of an infringement of the understanding on which government rested. In entering into the compact, the individual gave up so much of his rights as was necessitated by the condition of submitting to a common rule — so much, and no more. He gave up his natural rights and received in return civil rights, something less complete, perhaps, but more effective as resting on the guarantee of the collective power. If you would discover, then, what the civil rights of man in society should be, you must inquire what are the natural rights of man, and how far they are unavoidably modified in accommodating the conflicting claims of men with one another. Any interference that goes beyond this necessary accommodation is oppression. Civil rights should agree as nearly as possible with natural rights, or, as Paine says, a civil right is a natural right exchanged.

This conception of the relations of the State and the individual long outlived the theory on which it rested. It underlies the entire teaching of the Manchester school. Its spirit was absorbed, as we shall see, by many of the Utilitarians. It operated, though in diminishing force, throughout the nineteenth century; and it is strongly held by contemporary Liberals like M. Faguet, who frankly abrogate its speculative foundations and rest their case on social utility. Its strength is, in effect, not in its logical principles, but in the compactness and consistency which it gives to a view of the functions of the State which responds to certain needs of modern society. As long as those needs were uppermost, the theory was of living value. In proportion as they have been satisfied and other needs have emerged, the requirement has arisen for a fuller and sounder principle.

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