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Classical Liberalism and The Liberal Democrats

By Barry Stocker
September 22nd, 2011 at 6:47 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

It’s party conference time, members of Liberal Vision are in Birmingham (though not me unfortunately) and the political positioning of the party is a matter for discussion.  Strange to say LiberalVision sometimes encounters criticism of our existence in the Liberal Democrats, and this time of year tends to intensify that discussion.  It is even sometimes said we are an elite force detached from party activism.  I say it’s strange because individuals connected with LiberalVision are enthusiasts for the Liberal Democrats, work for the party, and prefer it very enthusiastically to any other political party.  We are all active in the party (even I do a bit round Croydon on visits from Istanbul).  LV associates are in local and student politics, campaign for Liberal Democrats of every stripe to get into public office, and stand for public office themselves on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.  Some of us have, or have had, connections with policy institutes in Britain, and elsewhere, but that does not keep us away from ordinary party activism.  Our classical liberal and libertarian position, is deeply embedded in Liberal and Liberal Democrat history.  I don’t just mean the nineteenth century past, though our history in that time should certainly  be something still living for us today.  Something the party recognises in the tradition of party presidents passing on a copy of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty to successors.  A book that is without doubt a definitive text of classical liberalism.

John Stuart Mill

If we look at more recent history, Jo Grimond, who brought the Liberal Party back to full life in the 1950s after earlier near death experiences, wrote for the classical liberal Institute of Economic Affairs in the later part of his life.  The veteran Financial Times journalist Sam Brittan, one of the most distinguished economic commentators in Britain is  long standing classical liberal supporter of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats.  Though it is fair to say that the ‘New Liberalism’ of the early twentieth century lessened the influence of classical liberalism, classical liberalism never disappeared from the party and some of the leading New Liberals, like the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, and the economist J.M. Keynes, saw their positions as a continuation of earlier liberalism, not a move away from it.

There is no clear homogeneous majority of ‘social’ liberals in the Liberal Democrats at present.  Yes more people self-identify as social or left-leaning liberals, than as as economic or classical liberals.  The social liberal label is, however, a very broad one concealing many differences within it.  Some of the most ‘left’ social liberals have positions which are popular in LiberalVision, such as support for open immigration and legalisation of drugs.  The number of party members who self-identify as economic liberal is a minority, but a  significant one amounting to about a third according to the evidence I have seen.  That includes many people who might find LiberalVision too radical, but then many ‘social liberals’ disagree with particular ‘left’ policies and positions in the party.

Jo Grimond

A better to way to think of positions, within the Liberal Democrats, is to take the party as a coalition of overlapping groups.  These groups include ‘radicals’ leaning towards  the green left and very strong forms of decentralisation, social democrats oriented towards constitutional reform and human rights issues, localist community activists, pragmatist centrists, and John Hemming style anti-conformist characters, as well as people more or less influenced by classical liberalism and libertarianism.  I put radical greens and libertarians on the opposite end of the list, but you can find people in both of those camps who are enthusiasts for the principle of  land taxation, and maybe its extension into the politics of geo-mutualism (land taxation as the unique source of public revenues).

There are reasons why all these people are together in one party, why we feel part of the historical narrative of Liberalism/Liberal Democracy in this country, rather than the Labour or Conservative narratives.  We all find that is the Liberal tradition which is most open in its attitudes to political ideas and political debate.  We all reject the machine like nature of the Labour and Conservative parties; the predictable interest groups they serve; and the associated style of party organisation based on mistrust of individual members.    For Labour, authority serves a client state where increasing numbers become dependent on poor public services and welfare handouts, along with parts of the employment market dominated  by Labour linked unions  For the Conservatives, authority serves existing property relations, and holding back challenges to the way that wealth, and income, go to those with the most political influence, and the most connections with the state.

William Ewart Gladstone

All currents in the Liberal Democrats can recognise that these are the things we are against, and that the only way to create enduring alternatives is through a politics of social tolerance, individual variety, open debate, constitutional reform, civil liberties, and decentralisation.  We are all opposed to the forces of conformism, entrenched economic interests, established authority, power without balances, and centralisation.  The policies differ, but we do share a political culture, a way of thinking which puts particular values at the centre.  In LiberalVision we are committed to the Liberal Democrats, even where policy decisions go strongly against us.  If policy decisions were to consistently move in our direction, I would still expect the other groupings to stay in the party, and I hope that we would still be carrying on our debate of what liberalism should be with those liberal friends.

To all those who say market liberalism is a conservative position, I say that they should remember that Gladstone was accused of socialism by the Conservative party, because he supported reform of those laws which entrenched economic privilege.  The laws governing tenant-landlord relations in Ireland is a particularly notable case.  That is what LiberalVision is about, social progress through challenging laws and state policies, which serve and entrench privilege.  We may disagree about some of the means with other Liberal Democrats, but surely we can recognised shared concerns and goals.


Listen to Tom Papworth Today

By Barry Stocker
September 21st, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Comments Off on Listen to Tom Papworth Today | Posted in Uncategorized

Our very own Tom Papworth is interviewed on Radio 5 Drive today, briefly at about 6 after Nick Clegg’s speech and at greater length about 6.30. Tune in or get online to hear Tom’s perspective.

James M. Buchanan (1919- ) and Gordon Tullock (1922- ). The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (1962)

By Barry Stocker
July 26th, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Comments Off on James M. Buchanan (1919- ) and Gordon Tullock (1922- ). The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (1962) | Posted in Uncategorized

The Calculus of Consent was published two years after Friedrich Hayek  published The Constitution of Liberty. Buchanan and Tullock should be  placed with Hayek and Friedman in the revival of classical liberal ideas of  individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.  It’s not likely that  any books by Buchanan and Tullock will ever be as widely read as  Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or even the rather longer book, The  Constitution of Liberty.  Buchanan and Tullock write with great intellectual  elegance, but not with elegance of style, or humour of any kind.  It has to be  said that even Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, which is very  philosophically demanding, is nevertheless more witty and stylish.    However, it would be a great loss for Buchanan and Tullock to be left purely  to the attentions of those concerned with the more formalised aspects of economics and political science.  They use a minimum of formalism, and can be read by those who lack their own mathematical abilities.  Their arguments are clear even if dry.

Buchanan got his doctorate in economics at Chicago, while Tullock got his doctorate in law at Chicago.  This indicates the strength of law and economics at Chicago, as well as of those disciplines taken separately.  The Chicago economics faculty is well known as a centre of free market influenced thinking, and both appropriately ended up at George Mason University in Virginia, a great centre of classical liberalism and libertarianism in economics, and related field.  Tullock was a law professor there, but his work is clearly important in economics.  Both read Human Action, Ludwig von Mises’ main treatise on economics, at an early stage, and were deeply impressed, without becoming fully associated with, Austrian Economics.  Both taught at the University of Virginia and Virginia Polytechnic University before transferring to GMU, and therefore their position is often referred to as Virginia Public Choice Theory.  Though their work is often taken together, The Calculus of Consent is an unusual example of joint authorship.  Buchanan received a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1986, it is surely something of an injustice that it was not a joint award including Tullock, or that Tullock has not received the prize in his own right since.  For example, it is Tullock who developed the concept of ‘rent seeking’, that is the use of the political process to receive non-market economic rewards.

In Calculus of Consent, Buchanan and Tullock, admit to lack of expertise in political theory,  but do refer to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s classic of eighteenth-century liberalism, The Limits of State Action.  They see in it a clear example of the distinction between public goods and private goods.  Humboldt restricts public goods (which he refers to as negative welfare) to law and order and national defence.  Buchanan and Tullock find this too restrictive in its understanding of public good, but share the idea that it is important to establish a distinction.  Buchanan and Tullock do not draw such a clear line as Humboldt does.  They establish a way of thinking about where to draw the line which depends on context and a dynamic relation between changeable factors.  Collective decision making about state provided goods need to be less inclusive of a large proportion of the population, that is rest on a level of consent of more than a bare majority, where the population tends to think in universalist rather than sectional terms, that is pays relatively more attention to public goods than private interest.  It is not possible to achieve complete virtue in that areas, and undesirable to try since private self-interest is necessary to motivate human behaviour.  A  more universalist thinking population makes state provision of public goods more acceptable, though still strictly limited because the collective action required rests less on a coalition of self-interest, which has negative impacts on those in the minority.  Issues of self-interested coalition building through exchanging benefits from collective action mean that there is always a limit to how much good can be achieved by collective action, and too much collective action undermines incentives necessary to the economy.

What Buchanan and Tullock are proposing is in part an economic analysis  of politics, and they aim to create some common ground between economics and political science.  As with the private economy, there are imperfect markets in political decision making.  In politics that arises through the possibility of building winning coalitions, and which make decisions at the expense of the minority, the process which is then repeated leads to everyone enduring a growing burden of costs for collective action of a kind which creates privileged exemptions from economic forces, rather than genuinely universal benefits.  Increased collective action, even if justified by the aim of assisting the poor, tends to harm the poor by transferring resources to those who are part of winning political coalitions.

Largeness of size of the area over which collective decision making is exercised is another factor that tends to lead to more bad decision making, and therefore requires more unanimity, that is inclusiveness before action is taken.  This does not mean that states should be broken up into micro-communities, because spill over effects of decision between localities makes makes effective decision making impossible.  The decision making community has to reach a certain size to allow for spill overs between actions in different  localities.  The problems of collective decision making can also be ameliorated by two chamber national assemblies and veto powers of the head of state, or some equivalent form of separation of constitutional powers.  That is because such measures make it less easy to engage in collective actions, without a level of consent approaching the ideal of unanimity.  For Buchanan and Tullock, it is a basic goal to extend economic discussions of individual action into the constitutional sphere, so that the constitution itself will have the best possible rules for decision making in areas with economic impact.


Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Reflections On The Revolution In France (1790)

By Barry Stocker
June 25th, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Comments Off on Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Reflections On The Revolution In France (1790) | Posted in Liberal Philosophy

Edmund Burke is often referred to as the founder of modern conservatism.  Nevertheless,  he certainly has a part in the history of liberal thought (as understood by classical  liberals and libertarians).  How much is a matter of discussion.  Two of the reasons for  considering Burke in the liberal tradition are William Ewart Gladstone  and Friedrich Hayek.

Gladstone (1809-1898) one of Britain’s most distinguished Prime Ministers in four  terms adding upto 14 years, and the greatest political figure in nineteenth century British  liberalism.  Gladstone was a life time reader of Burke from his early ultra-Tory years, to  his later years as a Liberal with a contempt for the Tory British establishment that it  returned.  Gladstone’s progress can in part be traced to his belief that the aristocracy  pursued sectional interests, in betrayal of its legitimate role as provider of disinterested  national leadership.  In some degree, Gladstone was the converse of the stereotypical  socialist whose view changes on encounter with harsh reality.  He did not agree with  everything in Burke, seeing him as too resistant to political change, but did read him  frequently, maybe daily, for a large part of his life.

Hayek as in the economist and political thinker, who was probably the greatest figure in the twentieth century revival of classical liberalism.  As we have seen in earlier posts, Hayek also had a highly appreciative view of John Rawls, the political philosopher often associated with  left liberalism and social democracy.  One lesson here is that traditions of political thought overlap and interpenetrate, so that we cannot, and should not, try to isolate liberalism as an immaculate doctrine with a completely self-contained existence.

The issues on which Gladstone disagreed with Burke included the French Revolution.  Burke was a fierce opponent of the French Revolution, which began in 1789, passed through its most radical  phase in the years 1792 to ’94 , and came to an end with Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1798 (or maybe Bonaparte’s coronation as Emperor in 1804).  Burke’s opposition came as a surprise to many, and alienated him from the more radical Whigs in Parliament, like Charles Fox and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, with whom he had been associated.  Whig refers to the more parliamentary of the two main political forces of the time, along with the Tories.

Burke himself, like Sheridan, came from Ireland, spending his adult life in England.  He made a name as a writer early on, particularly for his 1757 book on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  The connection between that book and his political ideas is that Burke, like many Enlightenment thinkers, including his friends David Hume and Adam Smith, thought of a taste for beauty and for the sublime, as growing in history, in conjunction with the growth of commerce, law, and civil society.  Burke moved to England and became one of the great parliamentarians of British history, though more for the content of his speeches than any capacity for exciting delivery.  He was often on the most radical side in parliament, most famously with regard to the treatment of Ireland, India and the American colonies.  Nevertheless, this did not extend to a wish to change the aristocratically dominated  political system, or challenge national traditions.  This became clear in his reaction to the French Revolution.  Though he claimed to be still a Whig, he was closer to the Tories now than to his old Whig associates, or the radicals, republicans, and liberty lovers of the time, who were often what we would now call classical liberals.

Burke’s attitude to the French Revolution surprised many, but also came to seem prophetic.  Burke might be taken to have exaggerated the violence of the first three years of the Revolution, but the Jacobin Terror of 1792 to ’94 and the rise of the young army officer Bonaparte to absolute power, also made Burke seem like a seer, who grasped the violent forces that the Revolution was unleashing.  Burke encountered ridicule when he famously lamented the failure of French men to follow medieval traditions of chivalry in defending Queen Marie Antoinette, but also correctly perceived that the Revolution would brutally crush any royal, or aristocratic opposition, and that of the most humble people whose rights it claimed to advance.

Burke explained that he thought liberty must be an ordered liberty, which requires the rule of law, and that the rule of law requires respect for traditional institutions, and authority.  The state needs to be restrained from exercising absolute power, through the plurality of dispersed, and localised, institutions and customs, which grow over time.  Those restraining forms also required deference from the lower classes, and a sense of mystique, to reinforce intellectual and moral respect.

Burke claimed that the radicalism and violence of the French Revolution was in contrast with British history, where even revolutions came in legal forms respectful of legal traditions, and which reflected the understanding of most people of all classes about rights and authority.  This claim of continuity, and unity, in British history certainly does not command universal assent. All the horrors that Burke identifies in the French Revolution have equivalents in British history, from Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands (1536-41), through the Civil War (1642-51), the Glorious Revolution (1688), the crushing of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, and so on.  Where Burke refers to such events, he goes to implausible lengths to describe them as legal, and as continuous with time worn traditions.

Whether we think these thoughts belong more to the liberal or conservative tradition, Burke certainly had an impact on liberal thinking.  He ought to be read by anyone who cares for the use of good English literary style in presenting political ideas, the history of political ideas, and a rounded understanding of liberal thought.



Polybius (200-118 BCE) The Histories

By Barry Stocker
March 3rd, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Comments Off on Polybius (200-118 BCE) The Histories | Posted in Uncategorized


Polybius was born in Megalopolis in Greece and was the son of the leader of the Achaen League, a confederation of Greek city states which had some success in reducing the domination of the Macedonian monarchy in Greece.  This was a struggle for liberty, in the ancient sense of living in an independent state, in which citizens had equal rights and participated in government.  The Macedonian monarchy under Philip II and Alexander the Great had largely undermined that antique liberty, by subordinating those states and reducing the power of their institutions of self-government.

The Achaen League found itself caught between Macedonia and the rising power of Rome.  The solution for a while was to ally with Rome.  However, Rome did not trust the League and Polybius was one of those taken to Rome as a hostage.  In the end, all of Greece came under Roman rule and was no more free than under Macedonian hegemony.  Nevertheless Polybius was deeply impressed by the Roman constitution.  Even as a hostage, he befriended Scipio Africanus the Younger, a general who played a major role in the defeat of Carthage, the north African city which was Rome’s rival in the western Mediterranean.

Polybius’ histories largely discuss the wars of the time, and are particularly famous for the discussion of Hannibal’s war with Rome.  Hannibal was the Carthaginian general who led an army, including elephants, from Spain into Italy via the Alps.  Polybius walked through Hannibal’s route through the Alps.  The other, particularly famous aspect of The Histories, is the discussion of the Roman constitution in Book Five.  Some of the best ancient discussion of ideas of liberty can be found in the work of historians.  The main examples, apart from Polybius, are the Greek Thucydides; and the Romans Livy and Tacitus.

Polybius’ discussion of the Roman constitution, and comparisons of it with the constitutions of various Greek city states, was enormously influential in the Ancient world, particularly through Cicero.  Cicero’s On the Republic, includes Polybius’ friend Scipio Africanus the Younger as a speaker.   Polybius’ influence lasted into the Italian republics of the late medieval and early modern period, like Venice and Florence, which transmitted ideas of antique liberty and republicanism to the rest of Europe.  Polybius was very well known to seventeenth and eighteenth century British political thinkers, and was one of the major references in the discussions behind the American Constitution.

The key idea that all these people drew on was a of a ‘mixed constitution’, that is a constitution which shared power between people, aristocracy and monarchy.  For the founders of the American Republic, the President was the equivalent of the monarch, the Senate was an aristocratic body, and the House of Representatives was the people.  For ancient writers, the people meant a poor uneducated majority.  Polybius, like Aristotle before him, and Cicero after him, feared ‘democracy’ as the unrestrained power of such people.  In the language, which began to develop around the American Constitution, we can think of this of the fear of the power of unrestrained temporary majorities.  Polybius’ conception of senatorial and monarchical elements in the constitution does in part refer to the idea that some people are naturally better than others, but also refers to the idea that no one part of society, or of the constitutional structure, should have unlimited power.  Unlimited democracy leads to mob rule, unlimited aristocracy leads to oligarchy, unlimited monarchy leads to tyranny.

Polybius saw a model for restraint, in the way that the Roman republican constitution set up divisions and overlaps between popular, aristocratic, and monarchical power.  For ancient and early modern writers, it was normal to think of a republic, or the Greek word that was its equivalent, polity, as consistent with limited forms of monarchy.  The Roman Republic (that is the Roman system from the overthrow of the last ‘tyrannical’ king to the emergence of the Imperial system under Julius Caesar) took the idea of a limited form of monarchy to the extreme in the Consulship, which was two aristocrats elected to rule jointly for one year only.  The aristocracy participated as a whole through the Senate; and the people were represented through meetings of all citizens, and elected tribunes with veto powers.  Polybius saw this as a system, which produced enduring strength and harmony, through creative tension between the three elements, and which always found a compromise between them.

Polybius’ second best constitution was the Greek state of Sparta.  Sparta has acquired the image of a precursor of modern totalitarianism, but Sparta was taken as a possible model for republican liberty for a long time.  That small minority of the population, who were citizens, did rule themselves through a mixed constitution of the type favoured by Polybius, with city assemblies, a senate, and a dual monarchy, but also with Ephors who shared monarchical type powers for a year.  Polybius, like other ancient republicans thought of freedom in terms of promoting common virtue and strength in war, which may not seem like liberalism now.  However, these ideas of virtue are a precedent for modern ideas of civil society, in which humans flourish, through their individual energy, and moral responsibility, in voluntary activity, and associations.  The military strength was thought of as expressing individual pride and courage, and these are precedents for modern ideas of inner responsibility and independence.