Between the Burkean Gentlemen on the Right and Benthamite technocrats on the left, classical liberalism never had a chance, and today we see the culmination of these two influences and a large crack in the system they've built.
Burke can be called the Father of Conservatism. Burke didn't care for principle and theory -- he believed the operation of the State is more natural, an interplay of diverse interests within the inherited institutions of the State which find their resolutions through the prudent comprises of qualified State officials to discover what's best in the given circumstances. Burke placed no importance on founding, so he was not attempting to conserve first prinicples of founders, just the existing British Constitution as applied by Gentlemen to current situations -- Gentleman being well-bred, well-educated men who can interpret the people's voices in a way which prevents the chaos of unhampered freedom such as was found in the French Revolution. At heart, Burke was a utilitarian who believed in order and slow progress -- progress made by prudent, moderating compromises between disparate factions which naturally, through wise rule, find the right notes and prevent extremes. The idea is that a natural elite in government will sort out the confusion and allow the common people a measure of ordered freedom -- no need for arrogant control, because the way of nature will sort out the wise rulers and ruled, and each will accept their station.
Harvey Mansfield Jr. on Burke:
Burke leaves the obvious partisanship of prejudice out of account. Although he often speaks of the few and the many, he does not stress the differences of opinion, the gentlemen's prejudice against the vulgar versus the people's resentment of privilege. As may be recalled, Burke does not think that every man has a natural right nor the people a natural desire to rule. The people are content to let their wisdom be latent rather than to assert it, and so the aristocracy can be bred to rule without asserting its own distinctiveness.
More on Burke later.
Jeremy Bentham was a progressive who believed in the rational ordering of society. Bentham believed that what had been designed before was a mish-mash of laws, customs and superstitions which needed reform based on what works best to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Bentham was unequivocal about utilitarianism and realized that what's best for the most is necessarily not what's best for some. Bentham influenced modern technocrats who are presently attempting to engineer a better society.
The main difference between Burke and Bentham is that Burke believed most common people are incapable or unwilling to self-govern and need/want an elite for guidance -- Bentham believed that with education and enlightenment people can achieve freedom through the State. But, Bentham believed there are no natural rights, no absolute best way, so it depends on people recognizing that submission to laws developed by legislators, designed to achieve the greatest happiness for the most, is the way of progress -- Bentham says this is not coercive, since people agree it's for the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
It's easy to see that both these influences have led to our present State, and it boils down to trusting that the State will do what's best, whether it's elite guidance from the Right to assure a moral society, or the representative control of technocrats on the Left who create legislation designed to achieve the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The former assumes that people want guidance and are in need of guidance from wise rulers, and the latter assumes an enlightened public which submits to the laws designed by legislators which are for the greater good.
They both ignore a society which might want personal soveriegnty with laws which merely prevent aggression against one another and a limited government which provides this protection, settles disputes in courts of law and protects the country from foreign attack. Apparently, very few believed the Declaration of Independence
It appears that many people now reject the traditional conservative idea of moral and practical guidance from elite leaders, although Burkes' conservativism is much more complex than this -- it serves to reduce it here, because I want to get to the main influence which has power presently. Conservatives are saying they are changing the established mindset and now support a limited government, but whether moral guidance has been ditched remains to be seen. It's difficult to believe that conservatives have accepted libertarian philosophy, which means a transfer of governance from the elite to the people, for the people and by the people, but we'll see. On to the main topic.
Progressives, like Bentham, believe in the technocratic developement of legislation which will provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number, so, let's say this is possible -- most people will be happier with an education, so if the State insures that the greatest number possible can receive an education, whether they can afford it or not, then the utilitarian value is established -- on to healthcare, housing, food, clothing, etc. - all these provisions will increase happiness for the greatest number. Not all will need government assistance, but a very large number will, as we've seen. The assumption is that everyone agrees with this, that by insuring the common welfare, happiness is increased for the greatest number.
Timothy Fuller on Jeremy Bentham:
The science of law "is, to the art of legislation, what the sience of anatomy is to the art of medicine...The opposition between conservatives and progressives is to be resolved in favor of progress by Bentham and his utilitarian followers: the scientifically informed pursuit of happiness is justified on the ground that no empirically demonstrable limit on human self-fulfillment or improvement has yet been shown. In the tradition of Francis Bacon, Bentham believed that the work of relieving man's estate had barely begun but was the great hope of the future.
It's still the progressive hope of technocrats to "empower" the people through the State. On one hand we have the Burkean Gentlemen who accept natural inequalities but assure the people that the Gentlemen's wise counsel is benevolent, that alms will be given to the most needy and that the unfortunate by accidents of birth or situation can find comfort in their religion-- on the other hand, we have the Benthamite technocrats preaching self esteem, achievement and confidence through the power of the State -- as parts of the State, people have power, and the scientific engineering of society will achieve a collective power and happiness that none can achieve alone against the exploiters of capital in the jungle of the market.
In neither world are people actually independent and free -- independence has been reduced to atomism and selfishness, the very reason for a powerful State. Both views are remnants of the ancien regime's rule of the wise few. Although there is a faction of conservatism today which claims to support independence and freedom, it remains to be seen if they can resist being co-opted by the Burkean Gentlemen of the establishment. So what of independence and freedom -- do they engender atomism and myopic selfishness, ignorant of the common good and the enriching bonds found in community and altruism?
Alexis de Tocqueville studied these aspects of democracy and the high placement of value on equality. Much of what Toqueville wrote was in comparison to societal arrangements before modern democracy, especially European feudalism. The idea that we are all equal before the law was a powerful idea which had some detrimental effects. What was impossible to consider in a system where your lot was determined mostly by heredity, in democracy the potential to access the finer things in life is a reality, which, as many have pointed out, can lead to atomism, commercialism and an inordinate concentration on the self and fulfillment of desires.
It's true that most reasonable people when allowed the freedom to be independent take resposibility for the lives they've been given, and most have concern for their family and friends -- this selfishness is natural, but it's also true that humans possess the capacity to care for community and nation, even the world itself, although these attachments and concerns are generally weaker. The reasons for all this are well documented, and Tocqueville believed an enlightened self interest creates the realization that working together toward goals is good for us and the society in which we live.
Despite the continued concern for individualism, atomism and selfishness, the greater concern today is group warfare. Rather than the prospect of a market economy where everyone is equal under the law and no one is seen as naturally superior to another, what has developed is a combination of cronyism, centralized management and social engineering which lures special interest groups in a battle for subsidies, favoritism and advantage. The individual is impotent in and of himself/herself. In a free market people have to depend on one another to succeed, but in a statist system, individuals can join together and lobby government for empowerment, and in a turn of events, groups act as atomistic, selfish individuals fighting for their interests to the detriment of other groups.
It's true there is competition in a free market, but it's not coercive, and the process by which the market creates the best offerings through competition benefits everyone -- cooperative efforts are necessary for businesses to function. Even among charitable, private, not-for-profit organizations, or churches, or local community associations, these groups of interest must offer something valuable or they can't continue to exist.
In the statist system, groups are motivated by the desire to gain advantage through government assistance, with the promise the group will support a certain political party to help it maintain power. In either situation you could say that individuals are working interdedendently and that this ameliorates islolation and atomism, but in the case of the private organization, it must have social value beyond the group to maintain its existence and grow, whereas special interests working in the political realm are looking for an unfair advantage to further the special interests of the group at the expense of others. Unions come to mind as a group seeking advantage through government favor, which comes at the expense of tax payers who receive no benefit from the union and might believe that unions gaining an unfair advantage in wages and benefits hurts the economy, which hurts the non-union tax payers forced to help the unions.
Special interest groups fighting at the government feeding trough create divisions in society and an atmosphere of group against group fighting over limited resources. Tocqueville's vision of associations working to protect against the tyanny of the majority was somewhat misguided, as was his utilitarian theory of using democracy's high valuation of equality, individualism and self-interest as mere apsects of human nature which can be manipulated for the common good.
What has made so many men, since untold ages, stake their all on liberty is its instrinsic glamour, a fascination it has in itself, apart from all "practical" considerations....The man who asks of freedom anything other than itself is born to be a slave.
Tocqueville should have stopped there, rather than fall into the utilitarian trap that so many fell into, including Adam Smith. To the extent Burke, Smith, Bentham, Tocqueville and others were observers of human nature and merely reporting their findings, all is fine -- even suggestions, based on these findings, regarding how best to live in society are fine and proper -- people can choose to follow their ideas or not. The problems come in when the utilitarian is promoting State manipulation of perceived human traits, desires, ambitions, fear, etc. to coercively order society according to the plans of Society Designers and Masters.
These observations and theories regarding the motives of individuals as they act in society can be interesting for the intellectually curious, but when they become leverage for management and control, government has crossed a line and freedom is violated. If people in a community form an association to promote charity and goodwill, their individual motives are private and of no concern to government unless they are violating the basic rights of others. If an individual starts a business and makes tons of money, the individual's motives might be interesting to an observer, but it is of no concern to government, as long as the practices aren't fraudulent and the individual is not coercing anyone against their will -- if there are no violations of basic rights.
The question of individuality, self-interest or private behavior is of no concern to the government. Once this is established, moralists may attempt to persuade individuals of collective needs, etc., but the individual also has the freedom to not be persuaded by anything but her own conscience or moral codes. Establishing the limitations of government and gaining an understanding of State in light of freedom, the classical liberal position is solidly against government social engineering and central planning which operates in service of a powerful State.
Collectivism has been a haven for the consequences of equality. Equality, as Tocqueville pointed out, necessitates individuality, and individuality can create a feeling of impotence and powerlessness, so collectivism offers safety in number and purpose. This tension between modern individuality and the lingering allure of collectivism has created a division between the special interest groups and those in society who have chosen the individual route as an expression of freedom.
Although there is no duty to exhibit fellow-feelings and address universal needs, most individuals choose to cooperate with others and care about concerns outside their immediate interests -- they might contribute to their church, or volunteer to help a community member in need, or participate in the political process, or support certain environmental causes, on and on, dependng on whether the individual chooses to contribute or not. However, some may choose to contribute little or nothing to any concerns outside his immediate interests, even though he has to cooperate at work to accomplish his tasks, and he interacts in the economy as a consumer, and whatever other actions involving others he has to take to satisfy his personal interests.
The combination of these separate activities by individuals throughout society and the global market are unfathomable to observers who at best can experience only a part or abstractly understand a limited amount. Burke, Bentham, Tocqueville, today's thinkers -- they can see further than many, but their vision is necessarily limited because of the complexity, and their understanding of motivations can at best be approximately true for many, but not absolutely true of all.
Human beings usually have multiple motivations for their actions and many reasons for their beliefs, and they might be only partially known to the individual. It's a noble cause to attempt to help people with their spiritual growth or education and understanding of themselves and the world around them, but it remains an individual journey, and within society only the individual's actions count as the true business of others, if others are affected by the actions. It's really none of my business what motivates my neighbor or how she developed her beliefs, but if she interferes and violates my right of privacy, for instance, then it becomes my business -- or if she approaches me and wants to start a dialog to explain herself, I can choose to take interest, but I can also refuse and let her know I have no interest.
Just as this is true of me and my neighbor, so it's true of government and the public. I will continue this tomorrow. I want to start from here and write about an alternative to political means.