What Does It Mean to be a Liberal?
[Posted to the Land-Theory, discussion group,
A thought occurred to me yesterday as I was reading Paul Goldstene,
The Collapse of Liberal Empire. Goldstene proposes that classical
liberalism is based on a theory of human nature in which reason is at
odds with the passions (particularly the desire for power). Rights, he
suggests, are the basis upon which reason builds a barrier against
domination. But power is necessary in order to be able to protect
rights. As Goldstene says, "The real liberal concern is not
rights, but . . . the guarantee of the reality of rights--the rational
arrangement of power."
Herein lies the basic dilemma or paradox at the heart of liberal
thought: Power threatens rights, and yet power is also necessary for
the protection and realization of rights. The liberal solution
involves balancing powerful interests against each other to prevent
any faction from being able to dominate others. Unlike most authors,
who trace the founding principles of liberalism to Locke, Goldstene
proposes that the notion that liberty is protected by a balance of
forces became a central tenet of liberalism as a result of the
enunciation of Newton's Third Law: that order in a system is produced
by a balance of equal and opposite forces. What was significant about
Newton was that he offered a unified mechanical view of nature and
human nature that could replace the "sympathetic" idea of
the relationship between microcosm and macrocosm ("as above, so
below") that had governed thought for hundreds of years.
(Newton's Principia appeared two years before Locke's Two Treatises,
although I don't think that timing is particularly significant.
Clearly both works had an enormous influence on the intellectuals of
The liberal idea that the self is divided between reason and passion
was not a new idea in the 17th century. Socrates and Plato understood
the problem of personal and political governance in the same way--how
can reason control emotion?
What was new in the 17th century was Protestantism, particularly
Calvin's theology. One of the basic principles of Reformation theology
was the imperfectability of humanity and human institutions.
(Calvinists, then and now, express this in terms of the inherent or
original sinfulness of humans, but since that term is so widely
misunderstood, I hesitate to use it.) For the Calvinist and the
liberal, human nature is a struggle to manage the will to power. If it
is not managed, society will collapse in a heap.
Since I had basically accepted the Newtonian-Lockean view of
countervailing power as the only means of preserving liberty, what
struck me as I was reading this in Goldstene is that Henry George
suggests the possibility of escaping the liberal dilemma. Perhaps,
then, George is not truly a liberal.
My thesis is that Calvin's shadow is present in all liberal thought
about human nature. I do not mean that 17th century liberals were
Calvinists, because they clearly disagreed with Calvin's own vision of
a highly autocratic theocracy. I mean simply that the early liberal
thinkers were influenced by the Calvinist notion of human sinfulness
(will to power) and that they rejected the idea of building a society
based on human reason (such as Plato's Republic). Just as the 16th
century leaders of the Reformation assumed that the church, as a human
institution, would inevitably be corrupt, so the liberals of the 17th
century assumed the same would be true of secular governments. It is
no accident that Cromwell, Locke, and other republicans in 17th
century England were Puritans. Once Calvin's view of human nature is
freed of the moorings of Geneva, it seems everywhere to have given
rise to republican sentiments. In England, Cromwell's dictatorship
reinforced the belief that no human is to be trusted with power.
What seems new (though not entirely so) in Henry George's thought is
the rejection of the idea that human nature is inherently corrupt.
George is most similar to the tiny band of 17th century radicals known
as the Diggers. As M. Judd Harmon, Political Thought: From Plato to
the Present, says: "The Diggers held to the venerable Christian
idea that the communal state is perfect, whereas the private ownership
of property is evidence of man's fall. The concept was, however,
altered in Digger thought. In Christian theory, man's sinfulness
necessitated private property; the Diggers held that private property
is the *cause* of sin and of the inequality and degradation of
mankind. . . . The Diggers [contended] that wealth is the result of
community effort and that justice demands consideration of the
community in its distribution."
In Book IX of Progress and Poverty, George implicitly develops a
theory of human nature at odds with the Calvinist-liberal one.
Corruption or power-seeking are no longer imbedded in the soul of the
individual as inherent characteristics. George argues that these
apparently indelible characteristics of humans are in fact the
products of unjust institutions. First, at the end of Book IX, chapter
2, he argues that "in a condition of society in which no one need
fear poverty, no one would desire great wealth--at least no one would
take the trouble to strive and to strain for it as men do now."
He concludes the chapter "Were this insane desire to get rich at
any cost lessened, mental activities now devoted to scraping together
riches would be translated into far higher spheres of usefulness."
In chapter 4 of Book IX, George continues to make the case that human
nature is quite different than what it appears to be under current
conditions. "The growth of morality consequent upon the cessation
of want would tend to a like diminution in [the] civil business of the
courts." "The rise of wages, the opening of opportunities
for all to make an easy and comfortable living, would at once lessen
and would soon eliminate from society the thieves, swindlers, and
other classes of criminals who spring from the unequal distribution of
wealth." George also believed that standing armies would soon
disappear. Greed would cease to exist as a motivating force because
the shame and degradation of poverty would be eliminated, and that is
the wellspring of greed. "Men are greedy of wealth because the
conditions of distribution are so unjust that instead of each being
sure of enough, many are certain to be condemned to want." George
makes this clearest with a parable:
"On the crowded steamers of
early California lines there was often a marked difference between
the manners of the steerage and the cabin, which illustrates this
principle of human nature. An abundance of food was provided for the
steerage as for the cabin, but in the former there were no
regulations which insured sufficient service, and the meals became a
scramble. In the cabin, on the contrary, where each was allotted his
place and there was no fear that everyone would not get enough,
there was no such scrambling and waste as were witnessed in the
steerage. The difference was not in the character of the people, but
simply in this fact."
The final sentence is crucial: "The difference was not in the
character of the people." George sees character or human nature
as something conditioned and thus constituted socially, not as
something fixed or unalterable. This is the way in which George
separates himself from the great stream of liberal thought, much as
Marx had done. Society creates the person. People do not first exist
autonomously and then join together to form a social contract or
social order. The character of humans is overwhelmingly influenced by
the kind of social relationships that are determined by the rules of
ownership. Thus, it is possible to change human nature -- or at least
the visible manifestations of it--by changing the rules of ownership.
I know of nothing in Locke or any other liberal thinker that is
comparable to this analysis. If George's understanding of human nature
is correct, then the liberal obsession with the countervailing power
is simply based on a misdiagnosis of the nature of the problem. The
will to power is not something inherent in human nature. Rather, it is
an artifact of the unequal distribution of natural opportunities.
George seems to suggest that if that problem were corrected, humans
could return to the natural harmony of the Garden of Eden.
I wonder what were the roots of George's limited optimism that
represent such a radical departure from the assumptions of classical
liberalism. It certainly represents a minority view in Western
thought. Perhaps he simply discovered these principles on his own.
Perhaps he had been influenced by Gerard Winstanley.
Whatever the source of his views, George is distinctive in that his
optimism was not based on the naive assumption that collective
ownership of property would automatically make people give up their
egoistic desires, a belief that has characterized most utopian
thought. Instead, he was realistic about the need of individuals to
have command over some limited sphere. In effect, he believed that if
everyone had a reasonable amount of power, the desire for control and
domination would be abated. The state apparatus could then simply "wither
away," to use the well-known phrase of George's authoritarian
That is as far as my thinking has gone on this subject. Since I
believe it is important for Georgists to develop a political
philosophy (which includes a theory of the self), I am hoping for
serious criticism of this thesis, particularly from those who contend
that George was a classical liberal.