Victorian Conservatie Liberalism

Victorian Conservative Liberalism and NeoClassical Economics

The Late Nineteenth Century’s Ruling Climate Of Opinion


The intellectual scenery now changes, abruptly and radically, as we turn our attention away from Marxism to the main new developments in our field of interest in the last few decades of the nineteenth century: the resurgence of the classical liberalism, which again became (with some new modifications), the ruling climate of opinion in the Western world; and the associated new advances of the main-traditional, lib-eral-and-scientific kind of economic theory. In fact the outlook that prevailed most widely in this final part of the nineteenth century— and on into the present century, down to the First World War— was not only extremely unlike the outlook of Marx. It was also, al­though less markedly, considerably unlike any of the diverse outlooks that had been widely prevalent, in different quarters, in earlier parts of the nineteenth century, and expressed or reflected in such diverse intel­lectual productions as the political economy of Malthus and Ricardo, ro­mantic-conservative political philosophies, early (pre-Marxian) social­ism, and the composite pattern of the views of J. S. Mill. And the changes, from the early and middle parts to the latter part of the cen­tury, of the background of prevailing, real economic and social condi­tions and popular attitudes undoubtedly helped to produce this change of the intellectual climate.

Until rather late in the nineteenth century, industrial capitalism, the bourgeois civilization, and democracy were all still young or incipient, immature, raw or crude, at once promising and disturbing, distress-laden, and diversely received, controversial affairs. Hence the times produced a wide range of rival philosophies and programs. At about the center of that range stood the classical liberalism—expressed as a whole most fully in Benthamism—and the liberal, classical political economy; but they were under strong and widespread, hostile, critical attacks from both sides—from romantic-conservative or reactionary critics to the "right" of them, and from the early radical prophets of socialism to the "left" of them. Moreover, even the liberal economists —Malthus, Ricardo, and their followers—presented a rather largely and deeply pessimistic view of the current operation, tendencies, and prospects of the liberal capitalist economy, and the current and pros­pective state or condition of society and the people. They thus expressed a sense of the existing and prospective evils, or widespread miseries, which was not entirely unlike the impressions that underlay and mo­tivated those other rival creeds and gospels, even though the liberal economists alone regarded those evils as resulting from unalterable "laws of nature" and not from the liberal system or institutions, which they favored as the best attainable.

But later, when time and the further evolution of the modern West­ern societies had moved on into the last few decades of the nineteenth century, industrial capitalism and the business civilization and democ­racy had become well established, mature, successful, and much more generally or widely accepted. Prosperity was unmistakably both rising and spreading to more and more of all the people everywhere. The old European-conservative kind of opposition or resistance to the liberal-in­dividualistic outlook and regime had declined or moderated to the point of making its peace with the latter and, so to speak, entering into a kind of synthesis or symbiosis with it, which modified it in a measure only. And the socialist outlook, although still flourishing and developing in its own circles, was now, for the time being, a less widely prevalent and potent, not immediately menacing, rather small minority affair. Thus the (slightly modified) classical liberalism as a general outlook or point of view not only was resurgent but attained the greatest degree of prevalence, secure predominance, and practical influence it has ever had. Moreover, the tone of most liberal thought was now again more optimistic, as it had been in the time of its origin, the late eighteenth century; the element of pessimism, which had been introduced by the views of Malthus and Ricardo, faded away. This again may be explained by the background change of real conditions. Population pressure was being relieved by the results of the opening up of great new areas of fertile land as sources of food for the European peoples, a rate of con­tinuing technological and economic progress such as Malthus and Ricardo had by no means fully foreseen, and a falling birth rate. Thus events were wot fulfilling Ricardo's gloomy forecast; the real wages of labor were rising generally, the rates of profit on new capital invest­ments were not falling seriously, and the land-rent share of the value of output was not growing relatively or at the expense of the other in­come shares; and there was no sign of the approach to "the stationary state." Most important, in this new and more comfortable (for most people) state of the Western world, the earlier prevailing sense of the pervasive presence of inevitable, grim class conflicts over income-dis­tribution tended to decline, and allow a full or nearly full renewal of the still earlier (eighteenth-century) faith in "the economic harmonies" in the "natural" operation of the liberal economy, that is, in the full conduciveness of a universal "free play" of individual self-interests (within the limits of liberal legal justice among all) to the economic and general welfare of all the people.

Furthermore, the liberal outlook in this period was optimistic in an­other way, which had not been fully paralleled in the eighteenth cen­tury: the idea of ever-on-going, all-around, inevitable, automatic, hu­man-social progress, which had been "born" but not fully developed within the Enlightenment, and had been hardly able to develop freely or win general outright acceptance amid the troubled conditions preval­ent in the earlier parts of the nineteenth century, now came into its own. I speak here in particular of the simple liberal theory of progress in that sense, which was unlike the Hegel-Marx theory of a tortuous, fluctuat­ing, eventual progress through a series of alternating phases of improve­ment and deterioration, grim struggles or conflicts, wars or revolutions, new forward surges, and so on. The simpler and different liberal theory involved merely the idea of a rather steady or continuous cumulative growth and advance of all knowledge and wisdom or "enlightenment," and of application of that to all social problems, and hence progress in solving the latter or improving institutions and practices in all the ways shown by advancing knowledge to be needed to make them bring about the best results for human welfare. There was failure to realize the great limitations within which progress of that kind is confined; that it always has been clear-cut only in a restricted range of fields—the strict sciences and the techniques based on them, economic, "material" production, medicine and public health, etc.—and depends, even in these fields, on the presence of the right social and cultural conditions, thus far prevalent in human history only in the last few centuries of Western civilization, and by no means certain to become universal or endure forever. It was not realized that in the even more vital fields of aesthetic and ethical insight and achievement—prevailing discernment or appreciation, pursuit, and realization of the highest values, or wisdom in the choice of ultimate ends and thus in the use of all progressive knowledge or the knowledge that is power—that here such "progress" as there has been in history has been at best only occasionally recurrent through brief intervals, or highly fitful, and subject to frequent, long, disastrous declines or. reversals; or in short, that. the. chances of widespread and enduring achievements in this most vital sphere are always highly precarious.

Moreover, the much too simple and absolute, overoptimistic, Iate-nineteenth-century liberal theory of progress greatly exaggerated the power or ability of the best intellectual and spiritual achievements to control the actual conduct and course of practical affairs and the evolu­tions of societies. The dynamics of objective social evolution or history are extremely complex and still by no means fully understood by any­one; certainly they were not fully or correctly understood by Marx, though he had some insights absent from the liberal theory in question here. The effects of intellectual progress on social reality are subject to much counteraction and complication by developments running in the other direction, i.e., effects of changes of "material" conditions, through consequently prevailing attitudes, upon all intellectual and cultural life and achievement. The nonrational, emotional factors in all human behavior, and the power struggles among groups, classes, na­tions, etc., play important and often antiprogressive or progress-revers­ing roles which the liberal theory of progress never sufficiently allowed for. This phase of the optimism that was prevalent, to an extent now hardly conceivable, in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth cen­turies, has been rudely shattered since then by two world wars, and we live now in a world pervaded by a mood of pessimism verging on despair that I think is equally, in the opposite direction, excessive and unwarranted. In spite of all that I have said and all that needs to be said in adverse criticism of that confident, hopeful, progressive oudook, it is easy now to despise it much too completely and respect it much too little. It inspired much steady, intelligent work to help along all the progress believed in, and thus much progress was achieved.