Liberalism (Concepts in the Social Sciences) Paperback – 1 Aug 1995
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From the Back Cover
Since the publication in 1986 of the first edition of Liberalism, both the world and the author's views have changed significantly. In this new edition, John Gray argues that whereas liberalism was the political theory of modernity, it is ill equipped to cope with the dilemmas of the postmodern condition. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.See all Product Description
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1) Individualist - it asserts the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity
2) Egalitarian - it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal or political order of differences in moral worth among human beings
3) Universalist - it affirms the moral unity of the human species and according to a second importance to specific historic associations and cultural forms
4) Meliorist - it affirms the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements
The book is then divided into two parts: part one deals with the historical development of liberalism and part two deals with some of the philosophical issues associated with liberalism. The first part covers the pre-modern and early modern precursors of liberalism (which were of less interest to me), the characteristics of the liberalism of the Enlightenment period (mainly the 18th century), the liberalism of the Liberal Era (mainly the 19th century), the fall of liberalism (in the early and mid 20th century) and its revival (in the late 20th century). The liberalism of the Enlightenment period stressed the equal and natural rights of all men. While it believed that government should guarantee these rights (i.e., freedom of press, freedom of speech, private property, etc.), it generally proposed a limited role of government and stressed the importance of a free-market economy (i.e., free trade, low taxation and low public expenditure). The argument was that political freedom was inherently dependent on economic freedom. Enlightenment liberalism also emphasized reason over superstition and religious fanaticism, taking on a particularly anti-clerical character in countries where the Catholic Church had a very strong presence.
In the liberal era (19th century), however, there was a transition from classical liberalism to modern/revisionary liberalism, the latter expanding on the role of government. Jeremy Bentham (most famous for his conception of the panopticon prison) and John Stuart Mill were key figures in this transition. Bentham's philosophy of Utilitarianism promoted the idea that social institutions could improve society and led to attempts at social engineering. Mill advanced the idea that government ought to correct some of the injustices that occur in the free market system.
These changes, combined with the competition of popular democracy (the public voting against liberal policies) and the general disillusionment caused by WWI and WWII, led to the rise of the ideas of J. M. Keynes who sought to correct the injustices of capitalism with government intervention. Nevertheless, in the 1970s classical liberalism returned as the ideas of Friedrich Hayek found a voice in Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the US. Following Hayek's argument that socialist economic policies led to totalitarian political policies and economic stagnation, Thatcher and Reagan pushed for limited government and free market reform with some clearly visible successes. The fall of the Soviet Union bolstered the belief that government management of the economy was a failure.
In the second part of the work, the author deals with some of the important philosophical concerns of liberalism, one of which is the concept of freedom. Gray asserts that classical liberals have a negative concept of freedom in that they believe freedom is assured by what the government does "not" do. For them, freedom is brought about by government NON-intervention (one is reminded of Reagan's famous slogan "Government is the problem, not the solution."). Revisionary liberals, on the other hand, have a positive view of freedom, that is, they believe in giving all citizens the opportunity for self-realization. This translates into their belief that government should provide certain basic resources to all individuals, which ultimately calls for government involvement rather than non-intervention. According to Gray: "The demarcation between classical liberalism and modern (revisionary) liberalism is that the latter believe that freedom as autonomy presupposes governmental provision of economic resources and governmental correction of the market process, whereas the former insist on free market policies" (59-60).
Gray also discusses the role of private property in liberalism arguing that private property is an essential part of individual freedom. Following the classical liberal tradition, Gray asserts that under a private property system, the individual can make decisions for himself; he is free in the sense that he is not subject to collective decision making when it comes to how to administer his own property. Gray argues that even non-property owners are freer under such a system because there are more choices in employers and products than there would be if the state controlled everything.
Moreover, Gray gives some time to the potential for conflict between liberalism and democracy. In a liberal system, for example, one should not be able to use a democratic vote and/or representative democracy to call for government intervention in the free market or to take away the right to freedom of speech. Anyone who is familiar with political thought of the 19th century knows that many liberals had a terrible fear of democracy since they viewed it as a "tyranny of the masses." They feared that their rights (and their economic privileges) would be taken away by the will of the ignorant and uninformed majority whose emotions and opinions were easily swayed. The US Constitution attempts to resolve this conflict through a system of checks and balances in which the court serves as a check on the democratic branches of government by ensuring that the laws they pass never violate certain basic liberal principles, or rights, guaranteed in the Constitution. Recent demagoguery revolving around "judicial activism" shows that the conflict between democracy and liberalism can easily be revived.
Although an apologist for classical liberalism, the author tries to give an evenhanded account of the criticisms of both classical and revisionary liberalism. Nevertheless, in my opinion, some of his arguments in favor of a free market economy fall flat. For one, as a proponent of a laissez-faire type economy, he fails to address the inherent contradiction of classical liberalism, which is that ALL classical liberals make exceptions to their own rules when they see fit. For example, Gray acknowledges that a pure laissez-faire economy has never existed, and that classical liberals of all stripes endorse some form of government intervention in the economy (i.e., military defense, education, anti-monopoly laws etc.). However, if we accept that the free market always operates better unhindered by government intervention, such exceptions cannot be justified; they simply undermine the whole liberal thesis. Moreover, in his insistence that private property is key to individual freedom, he does not address the fact that sometimes the rights of the private property holder can usurp the basic rights of other individuals. To give one example (obvious and extreme): when Shell Oil began polluting the land and water in Nigeria that the Ogoni people depended on for subsistence, the government hanged several of the activists who protested the company's actions. First, the destruction to the environment that Shell was causing was overriding these people's "right to life"- these people depended on this land for survival. Secondly, in an attempt to protect this corporation's "right" to do what it wanted on its own private property, the government failed to protect communal property as well as the protestors' right to freedom of expression and association. The government clearly turned to brutal, authoritarian measures to protect the rights of the property holders over those of the propertyless. Along these same lines, the idea that individual freedom and the free market go hand in hand has been proven categorically false as many a brutal dictatorial regime have thrived under free market economies (i.e., Guatemala, Chile). Finally, I think Gray could have mentioned (at least once?) that women, and slaves in the US and European colonies, were initially excluded almost entirely from the liberal project.
Yet, overall I found this work to be a useful and comprehensive overview of the subject.
The first several chapters are devoted to exploring the history of classical liberalism. AS to whether classical liberal elements appear in Ancient Greek thought, Gray is more ambivalent than some. The Classical Greeks certainly had no concept of rights similar to our current ones, but saw rights as duties to the state and society to fulfill one's social function. While there were hints of the idea of moral equality amongst the Stoics and Sophists, it was a minority position amongst a people who believed that slavery and moral hierarchy were simply part of the natural order. Liberalism arrived with the likes of Hobbes and Spinoza, both of whom justified government solely by appeal to self-interest. The idea was taken further by Locke, who tied a natural right to self-ownership (existing in a state of nature) to a right to property and minimal government.
The Scottish Enlightenment, American Revolution, and French Revolutions are compared and contrasted, each containing different variations on liberal themes. Gray also outlines the advent of utilitarianism which, while its champions were quite liberal in an individualist sense, sowed the seeds for the gradual introduction and expansion of social engineering for the sake of the "general good" and, with it, the decline of liberalism. At the point Gray was writing, classical liberalism had been enjoying a 30-or-so year resurgence thanks to the prominence of liberals like Hayek, Friedman and (to a lesser degree) Rothbard. Gray ends the section by remaining cautiously agnostic on whether classical liberalism's curious alliance with conservative politics would prove fruitful. (In retrospect, I think we can sadly say that the tension between these two ideologies warranted Gray's later skepticism.)
The second half of the book discusses the philosophical issues involved in liberalism. First, Gray discusses the various attempts - deontological, utilitarian, contractarian - to justify classical liberal policy. Liberalism's primacy on negative liberty is discussed next, Gray (rightly) seeing tension between the primacy on negative liberty and a recognition that autonomy is also an important part of liberty, (In Gray's words," Freedom may be curbed by means other than coercion, and it is a virtue of the idea of freedom as autonomy (in contrast with the more stringently negative view) that it accommodates this fact" (60).) The critics of a liberal approach - namely, conservatism and socialism - are discussed and rejected for not offering coherent visions to compete with liberalism. The relationship between individual freedoms and property rights are also discussed and defended on Hayekian grounds.
To this reviewer, one key strength of this book is that it looks at liberalism not as a default or inevitable political position, but as a historical phenomena with ebbs, flows, not as a position, but as a group of positions with a "family resemblance." Some liberals have tended towards an absolutistic defense of negative liberty (Spencer, Rothbard), while others have tended to a more utilitarian idea of autonomy as the goal of any good government (Mill, Friedman). Some have taken the Lockean road of rigorous adherence to a natural rights principle, while others have followed Hume and Smith, appealing more to the utilitarian benefits of markets and liberty.
This is a very thoughtful, concise, and really well-written examination of liberalism, its evolution, and its "general position." The book is made all the more interesting because, in retrospect, we know that Gray abandoned several - certainly not all - of his liberal zeal with future works. The book appearing after this one, Two Faces of Liberalism, saw Gray abandon the traditionally liberal ideas of historical progress and the universallizabiity of liberal tenets .Whether you are interested in liberalism, or the mind of John Gray, this book is a great one to read and think about.