Renascent Liberalism

The Conservative Tinge In The Renascent “Liberalism”

But now, having compared the renascent liberalism of this epoch with the original, late-eighteenth-century liberalism, with regard to the optimism that was present in both but made even more pronounced in the later version by its inclusion of the fully developed liberal theory of progress, I am going to compare and (in a measure) contrast the two in a different respect, in a way which may at first confuse the reader-or seem to be in conflict with a part of what I have just said. As com­pared with the original eighteenth-century form of the classical liberal­ism, the revival-and-revision of it which was the late nineteenth cen­tury's ruling climate of opinion was, I think, in a not great but signif­icant degree, less "radical" or more "conservative"—in a sense now to be explained. The liberal vision of the good society of free individuals was now (in the later period) less a vision of a new order still to be achieved through emancipative reforms or a throwing off of stilj existing and strong, old, traditional restraints; it was more nearly or largely just a favorable, theoretical depiction and celebration of an order thought of as already largely achieved or existing, or well on the way to full realization, and an armory of arguments in its defense, against new, incipient threats to it, arising from the advance of democ­racy and expanding activities of democratic governments, the growing strength and demands of labor or the working class, and the continuing socialist movements. But to clarify, explain, and defend all that I have in mind about this, I must say more about the historic meanings and relations of "liberalism" and "conservatism."

The expression "conservative liberalism" can seem self-contradictory only if one thinks, in the far too simple but common way, of "liberal" and "conservative" as words with simply, directly opposite meanings, i.e., of the "liberal" simply as the "progressive" person, favoring re­forms or changes (of just any kind, or all kinds?), and of the "con­servative" simply as the standpatter or opponent of all changes away from whatever is the status quo in his particular time and country. But the absolute relativism to which this leads makes little sense; e.g., it im­plies that, in a Communist country, the orthodox Communist is the true "conservative." And of course it has long been abundantly clear to the reader of this book that "liberalism" in the classical sense cannot be equated with reformism or progressivism of just any or every kind. Throughout its history or development, "liberalism" in this more defi­nite sense has always been a particular vision of "the good society," mainly stressing its ideas of the proper liberties or freedoms of all in­dividuals, which for everyone must be extensive but limited for the sake of the similar freedoms of all other men, and an equitable balance of the freedoms of all; and a scheme of institutions harmonizing the free activities of all, in pursuit of their own ends, with the requirements of their common welfare. Indeed, an ideal of progress also has always been inherent in this liberalism—but progress, first (from all older, non-liberal starting points) to the fullest possible realization of that vision; and then continuing progress mainly through free, private efforts and innovations by all in all departments of life, and competitive selection of many among those for general or widespread adoption and continuance; with later, new, institutional reforms or changes only as made necessary by emerging new conditions, for continuing realizations of the old, en­during, liberal ideals. This liberalism, then, was relatively "radical" in the contemporary setting when it first appeared as a fully formed and articulate "vision," in a still very nonliberal actual world, and implied or called for a sharp break with or away from the dominant nonliberal traditions; and the same liberalism became, in the altered setting of a later time, relatively more "conservative," when its "vision" was, or was being, largely realized. All this, however, still does not fully bring out my meaning in referring to "Victorian conservative liberalism"; let us look, next, at the also not very simple historic meaning of "conserva­tism."

The old European conservatism that was dominant most of the time through long ages before the Enlightenment, and resurgent for a time just after it, was rooted in the nonliberal conviction that extensive free­doms for all individuals would be certain to prove incompatible with, and would destroy, any good or tolerable order in society. For this out­look stressed the inequality or diversity or unlikeness of men, i.e., the existence, in many grades, of naturally superior and inferior kinds of men—as regards all kinds of intellectual, practical, and moral ca­pabilities; and the necessity of control of inferiors by superiors, as the sine qua non for a well-ordered society. There must be firm government by an elite of the wise and good, a definite and (by all) accepted social hierarchy, fixed statuses and roles for all men, and strict subordination of all private individual desires to a common conception of "the com­mon good" and the duties of all in relation to that, imposed by the rul­ing elite; in short, in this sense, an "organic" society. From Plato to Burke, this outlook in different forms had many great exponents. There is a clear contrast between its basic assumptions and those of liberalism, which stress the near-equality or similarity or "common human nature" of all men, and attribute to (nearly) all alike innate, potential capacities for adequate rationality and decency, or wisdom and virtue. Obviously the liberal assumptions lead to the liberal belief in the possibility and desirability of achieving and maintaining all needed order and har­mony in society, through a free agreement and collaboration among all in developing and supporting the necessary institutions to make secure the freedoms of all, and justice among all, and the growth of a system of exchanges or mutual services aligning their private with their com­mon interests. At the respective foundations of the two outlooks lie, above all, liberal optimism and conservative pessimism about the native mental and moral capacities of most men—all ordinary men—or "the many."

Now by no means all eighteenth-century liberals—advocates of a great enlargement of the individual liberties or freedoms of "the many," or a general abolition of most of the old conservative restrictions upon those—were conscious "radicals" in like degrees. Many did not at all fully realize how "radically" or greatly the old order might be transformed in the long run by the results of the carrying out of their program; for they tended to suppose that when all became "free," their behavior in most respects would change but little from what it had been under the traditional controls, which they regarded as simply unneces­sary. In particular the structure or hierarchy of the social classes, and he roles and relations of and attitudes between the upper and lowet classes, were not expected by many to be greatly changed. Even under the new conditions, of absence of the old compulsions, and freedom of all individuals to follow the dictates of their own interests or desires, there would still be leadership by those best qualified to lead, and suf­ficient, voluntary deference to them by the majority; for as intelligent and decent individuals, all would see their own interests as best served by these relations. The liberals in any case were not complete, extreme, all-out, or absolute libertarians in the manner of the anarchists; nor were they (generally) egalitarians like the socialists. The most moderate among them envisioned continuing, general, "free" acceptance of a social order on the whole more like than unlike the old familiar one, or involving only a few limited departures from it.

But in the early nineteenth century, the state of things became, in fact, greatly altered. Partly in consequence of the new individual freedoms and the uses made of them by growing numbers of self-made captains of industry, and workingmen, and others, and partly in consequence of changes of conditions which would have occurred to a great extent in any case, there appeared to most observers to have been a great growth of widespread distress, disorders, and disharmonies in the work­ing of the "free" societies—new tensions and conflicts, and so on. Hence there were, in different quarters, the strong resurgence of the old conservatism, the growth of radical, Utopian socialist dreams and agitations, and the tendency of even liberal thought to become strongly tinged with unwonted pessimism. The still later improvement of con­ditions, already described above, toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, brought about the revival of very widespread acceptance of the liberal outlook, and of its confident optimism; but the trial it had gone through, and the lasting effects of the earlier, renewed preaching of the old conservatism, left a mark upon it. The body of liberal-in­dividualistic belief in the late nineteenth century, in the upper and middle strata in Western societies or among all the most influential people in them, was a liberalism that had absorbed and been modified by a little of the outlook of the old conservatism, so that it was a relatively conservative liberalism, more consciously than that of the late eighteenth century had been. The composition of the really governing class or classes had changed. The men of business and wealth, more than those of high birth, were now dominant; but they tended to imi­tate the old aristocracy or take on many of its attitudes and views, to be­lieve in the right and duty of their class to exert the main influence in society and the state, and to consider it the duty of the members of the lower classes to accept subordination to them. At the same time, the growth of political democracy was transferring potential, predominant political power to those lower classes; hence the laissez-faire maxim of economic liberalism became primarily a demand that democratic gov­ernments be not allowed to enlarge their spheres of authority and ac­tivity, and invade or restrict the spheres of the independent authority of businessmen and organizations over their affairs and employees or subordinates, and/or do things contrary to their strong desires.