What Does It Mean to be a Liberal?

Cliff Cobb

[Posted to the Land-Theory, discussion group, May 2000]

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 day.)

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 rival.

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.