The Variety Of Viewpoints

The Variety Of Viewpoints, Especially Among “Intellectuals”

Yet I must now immediately "qualify" that too simple or single ac­count of the liberal outlook of this era, which rather describes the rel­atively most conservative variant, or part of the rather wide spectrum of differing "shades" that in fact coexisted in different quarters. The variant just described was indeed widely prevalent, especially among the rich and the men of business, but never universal even among them. In other quarters there were many exponents of other outlooks considerably unlike that—often much more universally and impartially humane-liberal, and progressive or reformist on various lines, and in some cases quite "radical." The very stability, security, confidence, and optimism that prevailed favored tolerance of dissent, and there were many viewpoints and much free discussion. My whole effort in the first part of this chapter, to portray the general climate of opinion of the era, is designed only as a prelude to discussion of the new developments, within it, of liberal-and-scientific economic theory, which were in­fluenced by and related to that climate. But there were important differ­ences, as I will hereafter indicate more fully, of the (varying) political views of the eminent economists who carried out those new develop­ments, from the views or sentiments predominant in the business community and already generally characterized here. Nor were the economists alone in "deviating," in various ways and degrees, from the standpoint of just that body of conservative-liberal opinion. It is, for my purpose here, an awkward fact that systematic, broadly comprehen­sive, articulate, social-philosophical thinking and writing, or political theory in that sense, was already declining in this era, which produced few important political philosophers and, among them, fewer still who had much knowledge or understanding of or interest in economic prob­lems and affairs as such. The on-going growth of intellectual specializa­tion was further separating the newer developments of economic analysis, on the one hand, from those of political reflection, on the other, in some ways to the detriment of both. Hence most of the writings, by noneconomist intellectuals, in the broader field of general social, moral, and political philosophy, that I might refer to here, did not in fact have much clear relevance to the problems of main interest to us. But it may be worthwhile to refer very briefly in passing to a few such writers and their points of view.

Herbert Spencer's extreme individualism and antistatism, and "social Darwinist" theory of all social "evolution" (identified with "prog­ress"), glorifying the unmoderated competitive struggle among men and groups and societies as "nature's" method of producing progress through innovations, conflicts, and "survival of the fittest," had a wide vogue among the successful and especially conservative, conservative-liberal businessmen and other people in this period. But Spencer went, in these matters, to an extreme position far beyond the views of most economic-liberal economists, and his outlook must not be confused with theirs. How far "liberal" thought, within this same era, could diverge or differ from Spencer's variety is well shown by the example of the Oxford political philosopher, T. H. Green, a humane-idealist re­former who wanted the state to do a great deal, to create and maintain for all men the conditions—involving many restrictions of their "free­doms" in the simplest, ordinary meaning of the word—under which all would be enabled and helped to develop in themselves the good human characters that would make them "free," in a deeper sense, from the inner compulsions of their evil passions, and from the frustrations the unwise run into. But Green's interesting philosophy, also, had little relevance to or connection with the liberalisms of the era's liberal political economists.

And the same must be said even of the different political ideas of the essayist, Walter Bagehot, despite the fact that Bagehot was himself a respectable economist in his way and on the side. His Lombard Street, a study of the workings of the London money market, deservedly be­came a classic in its field; and his short essay on The Postulates of Political Economy gave an excellent statement of the conditions and limits of the empirical validity of the traditional assumptions and re­sulting "laws" of economic theory. But Bagehot's social and political philosophy expressed a point of view and an array of insights which lay (alas!) beyond the mental horizons of this era's leading economic theo­rists. His political outlook was conservative-liberal (with the main ac­cent on "conservative"), in a way or sense which meant that he and they had little in common. He had a fine blend of two different visions, not often combined. On the one hand, he had the Burkeian and romantic-conservative vision of the socially useful and necessary, though non-rational, emotional, and imaginative foundations of social unity or co­hesion, order, and voluntary deference and loyalty from below upward, and responsible humaneness from above downward in the social hier­archy. And with that he combined the liberal-individualistic, rational and practical (economic and utilitarian) vision stressing free pursuits and fulfillments of and adjustments among the self-interests of all, in the competitive economy and in the political system of the democratic state, as they could work within the limiting, modifying, and protect­ing milieu of that other part of the spiritual, cultural, or moral, social order. Adam Smith could have understood Bagehot—indeed these two had much in common—but the fields of awareness of the liberal econ­omists of this later time did not, I think, generally extend far into this other area. It is time now to turn to what can be said about their so­cial philosophies or outlooks.