Was Classical Liberalism and Social Democracy Opposed?
Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance? And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?
Where the hell do these people preach social democracy?
“Not monarchy” does not mean “a republic”. And you are calling others ignorant?
The broadest definition of classical liberalism is all liberalism prior to the 20th century. I realize modern right-wingers have come to define classical liberalism narrowly to only refer to themselves and assert that it represents the ‘true’ conservative tradition. But some modern liberals also claim their lineage comes from classical liberalism. And it must be noted that the liberal values and vision of social democracy existed long before the Progressivism of the 20th century. Alan Wolfe writes (from A False Distinction):
[E]verywhere I go, the moment I tell people that I have written a book about liberalism, I am invariably asked which of the two I mean. Classical liberalism, my interlocutors patiently explain to me, is that wonderful notion of the free market elucidated by Adam Smith that worships the idea of freedom. The modern version, by contrast, is committed to expansion of the state and, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to slavery. One must choose one or the other. There really is no such thing, therefore, as modern liberalism. If you opt for the market, you are a libertarian. If you choose government, you are a socialist or, in more recent times, a fascist.
I try to explain to people that in my book I reject any such distinction and argue instead for the existence of a continuous liberal understanding that includes both Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. But so foreign is this idea to them that they stare at me in utter disbelief. How could I have possibly written a book on liberalism, I can almost hear them thinking, when this guy doesn’t know a thing about it?
[ . . . ] I think of the whole question of governmental intervention as a matter of technique. Sometimes the market does pretty well and it pays to rely on it. Sometimes it runs into very rough patches and then you need government to regulate it and correct its course. No matters of deep philosophy or religious meaning are at stake when we discuss such matters. A society simply does what it has to do.
When instead we do discuss human purpose and the meaning of life, Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes are on the same side. Both of them possessed an expansive sense of what we are put on this earth to accomplish. Both were on the side of enlightenment. Both were optimists who believed in progress but were dubious about grand schemes that claimed to know all the answers. For Smith, mercantilism was the enemy of human liberty. For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.
Liberalism and conservatism aren’t specific ideologies so much as they are general attitudes. By definition, a conservative wishes to conserve and a liberal does not. This brings us to one of the problem of American politics. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.” So, conservatism will criticize the living breathing liberalism of the moment often in defense of the fossilized liberalism of the past. This is why conservatives will claim classical liberalism as their own. Liberalism of the past is safe because it’s been cleansed of all unknown, and hence uncontrollable, elements. Even though neither is a specific ideology, conservatism is forever seeking to conserve the ideologies of the past whether they are considered liberal or conservative. Conservatives in the past would have criticized classical liberalism, but conservatives today can safely admire it because it’s been made into a set doctrine. This might also explain why many Americans identify as conservative even as they hold traditionally ‘liberal’ positions. Progressive policies were liberal when they were first proposed, but now that they’ve been established for almost a century they’ve become a part of the American tradition and so many conservatives will seek to conserve something like Social Security.
Liberalism, by nature, is constantly changing, constantly pushing the boundaries, constantly trying new things (or putting old things in new contexts). As such, liberalism isn’t a single set of beliefs and policies. When conservatives are getting used to classical liberalism, liberals are already onto another original concept or system. Liberals adapt to present circumstances seeking to go in new directions. Nonetheless, there is a fundamental core to the liberal attitude. As Wolfe points out, “For Keynes, monopolies were. It makes perfect sense for an eighteenth century thinker to conclude that humanity would flourish under the market. For a twentieth century thinker committed to the same ideal, government was an essential tool to the same end.” A liberal is less concerned for the method than for the desired results (which the conservative, burdened by traditions of the past, might consider overly idealistic and pragmatically unrealistic; this reminds me of research that showed optimists are less realistic about the present but, for that reason, less likely to get stuck in present problems; therefore, it’s more difficult for the pessimistic conservative to envision a new future or to trust what a liberal envisions). As such, a liberal is willing to try any method or system to achieve the desired result, always with their ideal as the pole star to guide them. Liberalism is broad and wide-ranging because liberalism wants to expand, to liberate. Here is a general definition of liberalism:
Liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”) is the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but most liberals support such fundamental ideas as constitutions, liberal democracy, free and fair elections, human rights, capitalism, free trade, and thefreedom of religion. These ideas are widely accepted, even by political groups that do not openly profess a liberal ideological orientation. Liberalism encompasses several intellectual trends and traditions, but the dominant variants are classical liberalism, which became popular in the eighteenth century, and social liberalism, which became popular in the twentieth century.
Such a definition includes classical liberalism but obviously isn’t limited to it. Liberals, starting with the classical liberals, focus on the individual. They put greater importance on the human being than on the system. The system is merely there to serve people, not the person to conform to the system. When faced with an oppressive or unfair government, liberals will seek to free themselves by limiting government (i.e., classical liberalism). When faced with an oppressive or unfair capitalism, liberals will seek to free themselves by regulating capitalism (i.e., social democracy). It’s the same impulse just responding to different problems at different times. Both responses are seeking the public good by decreasing that which impinges upon individual freedom. It’s not mere idealization of the individual. It’s an understanding that what is good for one is good for all and what is bad for one is bad for all. But at any given time the balance between public good and individual freedom is never perfect, constantly shifting in order to adapt to present realities. This is why classical liberals, faced with an oppressive social system, emphasized individual freedom. And this is why social democrats, faced with an oppressive corporatist plutocracy, emphasized public good.
The conservative, on the other hand, wants a set of principles that will stand for all time. For this reason, the conservative prefers to find a system that has proven itself over time, a tradition (whether religious, political, or economic). The commonality between the fiscal conservative and social conservative is that both want to conserve, but American tradition is such a mixed bag that there are many choices about what a conservative may choose to conserve. American conservatives are put in an odd position. America was founded on radical change. How does one conserve radical change?
American Politics & Thomas Paine
What differentiates American politics is that Classical liberals “established political parties that were called “liberal”, although in the United States classical liberalism came to dominate both existing major political parties.” The struggle of early American politics wasn’t whether to be liberal or not, but how liberal to be. Thomas Paine, for example, was a radical liberal. Compared to Paine, many of the founding fathers were conservative in that they still wanted to conserve a ruling class of landowners and of educated elite. However, compared to the British political system, the founding fathers were liberal in that they wanted to eliminate the monarchy. This was the meaning the founding fathers had in mind when they used the word ‘republic’ to describe America. The original and most basic meaning of republic was a government that wasn’t a monarchy. Power didn’t come from a monarch but from the people (‘republic’ originates from res publica: the public thing/affair, commonwealth).
The debate between Paine and some of the founding fathers is rather telling about the internal conflict of American politics (that continues to this day). It was Paine’s radical vision that inspired the American Revolution, but that radical vision was tamed when the constitution was written. Many of the founding fathers were conservatives in that they feared change. They didn’t merely want to create something radically new as Paine proposed. The founding fathers saw themselves as part of a small ‘r’ republican tradition that had it’s roots in British culture. They revolted against the monarchy not to be radicals but to conserve this republican tradition. They didn’t trust the general public any more than they trusted the British monarchy. They weren’t against an aristocracy per se. They just wanted a political elite based on a meritocracy rather than on mere inheritance. They assumed the upper class of landowners were superior to the common rabble. That is why they explicitly denied the majority of the population the right to vote or to hold public office.
Paine, however, was against all aristocracy, against all ruling elites. Paine wanted all men and women to be free, to have the right to vote and hold public office. He realized that for practical reasons representation was necessary for democracy, but he wanted democracy to be as direct, as grassroots, as localized as possible. He wanted democracy to literally be in the hands of the people, no matter how poor, no matter whether man or woman, no matter what race or religion. Paine wasn’t shy in his defense of equal rights nor shy in his criticisms of those who would disenfranchise others of their rights (Dissertation on the First Principles of Government):
But the offensive part of the case is that this exclusion from the right of voting implies a stigma on the moral character of the persons excluded; and this is what no part of the community has a right to pronounce upon another part. No external circumstance can justify it: wealth is no proof of moral character; nor poverty of the want of it.
On the contrary, wealth is often the presumptive evidence of dishonesty; and poverty the negative evidence of innocence. If therefore property, whether little or much, be made a criterion, the means by which that property has been acquired ought to be made a criterion also.
The only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others. The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected.
To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. The proposal therefore to disfranchise any class of men is as criminal as the proposal to take away property.
When we speak of right we ought always to unite with it the idea of duties; rights become duties by reciprocity. The right which I enjoy becomes my duty to guarantee it to another, and he to me; and those who violate the duty justly incur a forfeiture of the right.
Let me now respond to the first part of utubehayter’s comment:
Hold on, you think classical liberals were for social democracy? Oh boy, what Thomas Paine are you reading? The same anarchist that almost got himself killed by the Jacobins for his anti-democracy stance?
I must admit that I’m still learning about Thomas Paine. I’ve learned about Paine mostly by my reading Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye and therefore my understanding of Paine is biased by this author, although I have read a bit of Paine’s writing on its own. Here is a quote where Kaye describes why so many different types of people have tried to claim Paine as one of their own (Kindle location 767):
In words that would forever delight libertarians and anarchists, he distinguished between society and government and maintained that “society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” Yet Paine was neither a libertarian nor an anarchist or for that matter a Lockean liberal. He was a revolutionary democrat, and contrary to the commonly accepted view, his tale was rendered not so much as a diatribe against government, at least not all forms of government, as a narrative of democratic beginnings and commitments.
So, that is the premise of Kaye’s book. I’ll now share some sections that make the case that Paine was a social democrat who believed government played an important role. There is a concept that conservatives don’t seem to understand. A person can be both a small ‘r’ republican and a small ‘d’ democrat’. In fact, one of the first American parties was the Democratic-Republican Party (the name is used by political scientists, but the members of the party often would call it either Republican or Democratic, “the two terms often used interchangeably.“). Kaye explains Paine’s own understanding of republicanism and democracy (Kindle location 841):
Republicanism to Paine, as he would later explain, meant not a “particular form of government” but a government constituted for “respublica … or the public good,” as opposed to one that served “despotic” ends. And he understood the particular form of government he advanced as representative democracy: “By ingrafting representation upon democracy, we arrive at a system of government capable of embracing and confederating all the various interests and every extent of territory and population.”24
The America Paine portrayed was not thirteen separate entities but a single nation-state. Deeply concerned that the tenuous colonial alliance might fall apart, he was the first to propose the idea of convening a conference to frame a “Continental Charter.” And—making it all the more original—his democratic commitments and sensibilities led him to insist that the conference be “impowered by the people.”
When Paine spoke of democracy, he meant it in the most radical and inclusive sense as an uncompromising egalitarianism (Kindle location 1129):
“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.”61 Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”
It’s true many of the founding fathers feared democracy, but Paine did not. One of the reasons the founding fathers feared democracy is because they feared what they saw happening in France. Paine’s response to France was to be optimistic. He hoped revolution would spread all across Europe and Paine’s writings inspired revolutionary fervor in many countries. The founding fathers feared that Paine would inspire in America what helped to inspire in France. But Paine believed in, rather than feared, the common man (Kindle location 1300):
Conceding the danger of “mobs,” Paine attributed their actions to the brutality of aristocratic societies, especially their cruel forms of punishment. Rejecting Burke’s thesis that generations were obliged to defer to their ancestors, he upheld the “rights of the living” and insisted that generations cannot “bind” future generations: “Every age and generation must be free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it.” And countering Burke’s propositions about the “ancient” origins of rights, he retorted that Burke did “not go far enough into antiquity,” for the “natural rights of man” went all the way back to “creation” and remained in every generation “equal” and “universal” among men. Divinely ordained, natural rights might be suppressed, but they could not be forfeited or alienated.16
Paine expressed tremendous confidence in the “genius and talents” of common people, if only governments would engage them: “There is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him … to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.”
In Paine’s vision of America, he saw the possibility of a government that would help the common person. He believed a government could empower the public by putting the power of the government in the hands of the public. He wanted a government that was literally for and by the people. For this reason, he wasn’t seeking to lessen the power of the government but to increase the power of the people through self-governance. A government was only worthy in his eyes to the degree that it helped all people equally and helped all people to achieve some semblance of equality. Paine was a social democrat in that he saw the necessity of a welfare state to lessen the problems of modern civilization, not a paternalistic state but an empowering government (Kindle location 1365):
Paine did more than censure Britain’s political order. Reviving the plan he had begun to formulate years earlier but had set aside in his encounter with America, he extended his radical-democratic thinking by outlining a series of welfare programs that a revolutionary change in government would afford. Along with suggesting a progressive estate tax to limit accumulation of property, he recommended raising the incomes of the poor by remitting their taxes and augmenting the sums, distributing special relief for families with children, creating a system of social security for the elderly, instituting public funding of education through a voucher system, providing financial support for newly married couples and new mothers, and establishing employment centers for the jobless. He also rendered a most appealing image of the good society:
When it shall be said in any country in the world, “My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness”: when these things can be said, then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.27
Even as Paine pushed radicalism in a social-democratic direction, he proclaimed, “I have been an advocate for commerce, because I am a friend to its effects.” It may seem odd to many of us today, but like many eighteenth-century radicals confronting the legacies of absolutism, Paine comprehended “political liberty and economic liberty” as mutually interdependent and imagined that economic freedom served to assure equality of opportunity and results. Witnessing monarchical regimes taxing the productive classes, transferring wealth to parasitic royals and aristocrats, and punishing working people and the poor, he personally had come to view nondemocratic governments, not markets, as the fundamental cause of social inequality and oppression. Consequently, he proposed the liberation of the market and expansion of commercial activity.28
Commerce was, for Paine, “a pacific system, operating to unite mankind by rendering nations, as well as individuals, useful to each other … If commerce were permitted to act to the universal extent it is capable of, it would extirpate the system of war, and produce a revolution in the uncivilized state of governments.” As much as he appreciated the manifold potential of free markets, however, he did not hold that equality and democracy must necessarily defer to the imperatives of commerce and trade. And as his revolutionary proposal for welfare-state policies attests, he increasingly realized that the democratic governments for which he fought would have to politically address inequality and poverty.
If you had any doubts about Paine being a radical social democrat (which isn’t the same as socialist or communist), the following should eliminate all doubts entirely (Kindle location 1562):
In July 1795 Paine published Dissertation on First Principles of Government, fervently reaffirming his commitment to republican democracy. While he granted that “property will ever be unequal,” he argued against the right of any regime to divide the citizenry into civil or political ranks by wealth and rejected the notion that owning property afforded any entitlements. Furthermore, he demanded the establishment of universal manhood suffrage. And laying down that “the only ground upon which exclusion from the right of voting is consistent with justice would be to inflict it as a punishment for a certain time upon those who should propose to take away that right from others,” he proclaimed. “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which others are protected.”49
When, regardless of his complaints, the government proceeded with its constitutional plans, Paine withdrew from the Convention and went to work on finishing the second part of The Age of Reason. That autumn he again fell seriously ill, and rumors flew around the Atlantic that he had passed away. But Mrs. Monroe nursed him back to health.
Back on his feet, Paine immediately set himself to writing a series of new pieces, including the highly original Agrarian Justice. He had come to see all the more clearly that inequality and poverty were the consequences not simply of exploitative systems of taxation and government expenditure but also of economic power and the payment of inadequate wages. “Civilization,” he wrote, “has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state … [T]he accumulation of personal property is, in many instances, the effect of paying too little for the labor that produced it; the consequence of which is that the working hand perishes in old age, and the employer abounds in affluence.”50
Paine refused to blame the poor for the economic circumstances to which they were reduced, for “poverty is a thing created by … civilized life,” which, he believed, did not exist “in the natural state.” In the face of increasing disparities, he grew increasingly impatient: “The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and … a revolution should be made in it.” And even more strenuously than he had in Rights of Man, Paine propounded that society had an obligation to address material inequality and poverty through a system of public welfare. This “ought to be considered as one of the first objects of reformed legislation,” he insisted, and its aim should be to “preserve the benefits of what is called civilized life, and to remedy at the same time the evil which it has produced.”51
Paine had been led to write Agrarian Justice by Bishop Richard Watson’s sermon “The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both rich and poor,” which Watson had included in his reply to The Age of Reason. “It is wrong to say God made both rich and poor,” Paine responded. “He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance.” Paine then held that since God had provided the land as a collective endowment for humanity, those who had come to possess the land as private property owed those who had been dispossessed of it—“on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization”—an annual ground rent. Specifically, he delineated a limited redistribution of income by way of a tax on landed wealth and property:
To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property: And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.
And notably, Paine did not limit the initial stake or later payments to men.52
Paine also made it clear that he was not proposing a charity but rather was advocating the “right” of the dispossessed to “compensation.” And he then enunciated an important democratic principle and practice, namely that “the payments [are to] be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions.” Those who “do not choose to receive it,” he added, “can throw it into the common fund.”53
While Paine called for a “revolution in the state of civilization,” he was not a socialist. He did not suggest redistributing or recollectivizing the land. He did not contest the right of the propertied to hold their property. Nor did he long to restore some lost “golden age.” The progress of “civilization” had created inequality and poverty, yet it had also materially improved life. Not only was the natural state clearly “without those advantages which flow from agriculture, art, science and manufactures,” but “it is never possible to go from the civilized to the natural state.” There was no turning back the historical clock.
Paine’s vision of America is radical even by today’s standard of a welfare state. I don’t think it’s fair to even call Paine’s vision welfare because he merely saw it the egalitarian protection of God-given rights. God gave us all rights, but God didn’t give the ruling elite their wealth and land. Even today, most wealth in America is inherited rather than earned wealth. We always hear the promise of America that any person can grow up to be anything, even president. But we all know that is a lie, just pretty words to uplift the peasants from the drudgery of their existence. Paine, however, actually believed in those words.
Henry David Thoreau: Liberal?
Finally, let me deal with the last part of the comment by utubehayter:
And Henry David Thoreau, the “almost an anarchist” classical liberal?
I actually don’t know what Thoreau identified as, but I’d imagine he wasn’t much interested in confining himself to labels. Thoreau probably was inspired by classical liberalism. In fact, he was inspired by many things considering he read widely including books from Eastern countries. Whether or not we label him a classical liberal, it’s for certain he was a liberal even by modern standards of liberalism. It’s funny that utubehayter thinks there is a conflict between liberalism and anarchism considering that the latter is an just extreme version of the former. You can’t get any more liberal than anarchism. Anyway, I don’t think Thoreau was an anarchist. He was just a humanist who was cared about people and was suspicious of corrupt power, both in government and in capitalism.
I’ve written about this before:
Henry David Thoreau: Founding Father of American Libertarian Thought | by Jeff Riggenbach
Thoreau was a liberal libertarian who argued for egalitarianism and later inspired civil rights leaders such as Ghandi and Martin Luther King jr. Also, I’ve never seen any example of Thoreau defending property rights as do conservative libertarians. When he moved to Walden, he lived on someone elses property (Emerson’s property as I remember which Emerson had inherited from his wife). He did his own work as he was very industrious and knowledgeable, but he was perfectly fine with receiving gifts of goods he needed and borrowing tools.
“Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it.”
Thoreau had some anti-statist tendencies for sure, but this wasn’t based on his feeling territorial about the home he built or protective of his private property. He apparently wasn’t even bothered by minor acts of theft.
“I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State. I had no lock nor bolt but for the desk which held my papers, not even a nail to put over my latch or windows. I never fastened my door night or day, though I was to be absent several days; not even when the next fall I spent a fortnight in the woods of Maine. And yet my house was more respected than if it had been surrounded by a file of soldiers. The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire, the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper. Yet, though many people of every class came this way to the pond, I suffered no serious inconvenience from these sources, and I never missed anything but one small book, a volume of Homer, which perhaps was improperly gilded, and this I trust a soldier of our camp has found by this time.”
Watching this video helped me to articulate the difference between the two wings of libertarianism. A conservative libertarian tends to argue for rights in terms of capitalist terminology (e.g., property rights and contractual rights). And a liberal libertarian tends to define capitalism in terms of civil rights. This shows a difference of priority. Conservative libertarians are more accepting of hierarchical power and liberal libertarians prefer egalitarianism (liberalism being the common thread between libertarianism and anarchism).
“I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”