Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west

by John MacBeath Watkins

Liberalism started as a way to explain why government was needed in a time when governments were facing a crisis in legitimacy.

Now, we have people arguing that government is the problem, not the solution, a motto which directly contradicts the founding thinkers of liberal thought. This can only be true if they are thinking of a different problem than Thomas Hobbes was thinking of when he wrote Leviathan.

The reason for this change is a tendency, as liberalism has developed, to place increasing emphasis on the rights of the individual, and less on the social contract.

The term liberal has quite a few meanings, and the most important founding thinkers of liberalism were dead by the time the word started being used to describe their system of thought. In the sense of tending to favor freedom and democracy, its use began in France in 1801, and it started to be used in England by its critics during the excesses of the French Revolution. Prior to that, it had been used in 16th and 17th century England as a term of reproach, referring to a lack of restraint on speech and action, a sense that is retained in the word

In our earlier ruminations on liberalism, we discussed its roots in social contract theory. As the name "social contract" implies, Thomas Hobbes was importing the values of the marketplace into the public sphere to deal with the crisis in legitimacy that struck the governments of Northern Europe in the wake of the 30 Years War and the English Civil War. Mankind had been ruled through most of history by force and faith: The strong backed by the clergy demonstrated by their strength their fitness to rule, and by the backing of God’s earthly representatives the rightness of their rule. In a time when religious rifts meant that some large portion of the populations of Northern European states would regard any ruler as belonging to the wrong church, making them apostates who could not possibly rule by the mandate of heaven. The result was constant warfare.

Hobbes and John Locke both tended to emphasize how individuals made a contract with each other to form a society, because to live in a society is far better than the war of each against all. Hobbes, in fact, insisted that the need for public order was so great that the Leviathan was needed to protect citizens from violent death, and this was the motivation for the social contract. Locke, rather strangely, made this protection of the individual's life a consequence of the states' role in defending property, because you own your life.
The rights of the individual could only exist in the context of the social contract, because without the sovereign to protect them, there was no guarantee that the individual could enjoy life itself, let alone the rights Locke insisted we were born with and could not sell, or in his quaint turn of phrase, alienate.

In modern day America, it seems that the right and left have a conversation that stays largely within the bounds of liberalism. In matters related to property, conservatives emphasize the rights of the individual and progressives emphasize the social contract, while in the sphere of criminal law conservatives emphasize the social contract and liberals emphasize individual rights. Both stay within the bounds of liberalism. Socialism, in the sense of the state (representing the People) owning the means of production, is a discredited economic philosophy, and fascism has been a discredited political philosophy for even longer. Indeed, Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary, made this distinction:

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. [Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911]

Perhaps this is what the end of history, in Hegel's sense, looks like: Brothers battling over small differences in their interpretations of a doctrine they both accept, in which mankind has a natural right to liberty and the state exists to serve the governed. Terms like "fascist" and "socialist" are still thrown about, but not with their original meaning, instead referring to the poles of this smaller universe of acceptable debate.

The individual looms larger in this debate than it did for Hobbes and Locke, and the values of the marketplace have become such a powerful force in our model of how the world works that there are people -- libertarians -- who regard government's only legitimate role as being to protect property rights. The U.S. Constitution states that congress shall provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, but there's a virulent strain of thought that says that while defense is a legitimate role for government, the welfare of its citizens is not.

How did we get from a philosophy based on the need for people to come together to one that insists, in some cases literally, on the sovereignty of the individual? Certainly the term "sovereign citizen" would have seemed incoherent to Hobbes; the sovereign in his view was needed by the people to govern the society they had formed, so an individual could only be a sovereign by ruling other people. But then, he was the tutor for a future sovereign, Charles II.

It can be difficult to put ourselves in the minds of people who did not work with the same concepts we do. It used to be that economics, then called "political economy," was done not based on notions of how individuals would act, but based on the way classes of people would act. Markets were understood by reference to how landowners as a class would act and how workers as a class would act, regardless of whether the economist was a liberal or a communist. This changed with the notion of marginal utility, a revolutionary concept in economics that was developed most famously by Austrians.

But before we could have a marginal revolution, we had to have a concept of utility as it related to a system of values. That was developed by the utilitarians, notably Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Just as Adam Smith became interested in markets because, as a moral philosopher, he was interested in values, the utilitarians started with a system of moral values.

Utilitarianism maintains that to act ethically, we should consider the consequences of our actions, and the moral worth of an act can be calculated by how much happiness and how little pain results from it. It is a logical and reductionist theory that would allow someone with no moral sense -- a term which as used here means an emotional feeling about what is right -- to calculate what action is morally acceptable. Psychologists relying on ethics tests based on utilitarian ethics have found that psychopaths do better on them than normal people. Presumably this is because psychopaths have a lack the empathy that makes normal ethical responses inaccessible to them, so to pass as normal they learn to make the logical calculation utilitarianism calls for.

But of course, it is the very calculating nature of utilitarianism that makes it attractive to economists. It means that you can do math related to what people value. The utility of a thing can be measured in dollars and cents, and because you can infer the value from the financial figures, you can apply mathematics to a science of human values.

The Austrians made this concept more powerful by noting that there is such a thing as diminishing marginal utility. If I am hungry, enough food to satisfy my hunger has a certain value, and more food has a lesser value because I know it's going right to parts of my anatomy I wish were smaller, and at the extreme, if I eat too much I'll puke. You can actually chart the extent of my value for food on a supply and demand curve to arrive at the proper price. Suddenly, a philosophy that was interesting to philosophers became essential to bankers and businessmen. And since there was no unit of value called the Util, they applied the value of money to the problem of turning this into mathematical equations.

And it didn't need to regard how classes interacted. You could make calculations about how people would decide to spend their money while regarding them as an aggregation of individuals rather than as members of a class.

While this was happening in the intellectual world of liberalism, geographic mobility was rapidly increases for people in general and Americans in particular. In all of pre-modern Europe, as in most of the world, the vast majority of people lived and died in a community, often going no more than 50 miles from the center of that world in their lifetime. The opening of the American West meant that people left their communities in order to -- well, Firesign Theatre puts it better than I can:
WAGON BOSS: My fellow settlers! We stand here at the Edge O' Civilization, on the banks of the Mississippi River, lookin' West, at Our Destiny!
PIONEER: You can say that again!
WAGON BOSS: What may appear to the fainthearted as a limitless expanse of Godforsaken wilderness...
WAGON BOSS:, in reality, a Golden Opportunity for humble, God-fearin' people like ourselves, an' our families, an' our children, an' the generations a-comin', to carve a new life - outta the American Indian!

Of course, they could only do this with the support of the U.S. Cavalry (and the Buffalo soldiers) but in leaving their communities behind, they felt as if they were doing this as individuals rather than relying on the community they had grown up in. The conquest of a continent (some would say theft, but the words mean much the same) was an enterprise that only a powerful community could accomplish, but the satisfaction was quite often individual, and people therefore tended to assign credit to themselves.

The feeling of individualism in this country therefore tends to relate to our history, but the philosophy of individualism owes much to the way the values of the market have become more dominant in our society as time has gone on. As a philosophical stance, libertarian and Objectivist ideas of how the world should work are attempts to find a rational basis for society, which sounds fine to us children of the Enlightenment, until you consider that the French Revolution produced the Terror, and the Marxist revolutions that also attempted to find a rational basis for society produced worse nightmares of reason. Bierce had excellent reasons for his cynical observations of the difference between conservatives and liberals.

The irony of our present situation is that two sorts of extremists have made common cause, as conservatives who want to see the domination of traditional beliefs, social institutions and prejudices have joined with libertarians whose dream is a rational, individualist, disenchanted world that a psychopath might understand better than Edmund Burke. Burke articulated the philosophy of conservatism and a spirited defense of prejudice at a time when intellectuals like Hegel were claiming that the ideas of liberalism were triumphant.

There is additional irony in the fact that Hobbes first applied the values of the marketplace to restore legitimacy to government, and now, some people prefer to think that only the market is legitimate. The ultimate expression of this is libertarian anarchism, in which the claim is that the state is a forced monopoly, so the social contract is invalid. Rodrick Long makes the argument here. It strikes me that he gives short shrift to Hobbe's claim that a social contract was needed to protect the individual. Hobbes wrote at the end of the 30 Years War, and certainly had some idea what the breakdown of society looked like.

Libertarian anarchists are as utopian as Marxists. But whereas Marxists proposed abolishing two of society's main ways of organizing itself, property and religion, leaving only the state as an organizing principle, libertarian anarchists would remove the state, leaving the market as the only organizing principle. It is as much based on reason to the exclusion of experience as Marxism, and if attempted, would probably produce its own evils.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy


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