Classical liberalism triumphed in the early modern period. It defeated both traditionalism and absolutism. But in history and politics, no victory is forever.
The essential problem for classical liberalism is its misguided anthropology.
As I mentioned in a previous installment there is much to recommend classical liberalism. Nevertheless, it is based on a false understanding of man, insofar as, it consistently undervalues the political and social nature of the human person. Man is by nature a political and social animal. Although human beings are metaphysically individual substances, human nature dynamically inclines men to form social bonds and political communities. Indeed, the individual is “imperfect” (incomplete) without robust political order.
The individualism at the heart of classical liberalism thwarts authentic human flourishing.
It does so by consistently promoting the individual good — my rights, my life, my property — over the common good. Individual goods cannot be shared by many, and this fact inevitably leads to excessive competition, instability, and conflict. And whether we will admit it or not, in any competition there are winners and losers, and the losers often develop resentment and contribute to an ever-increasing sense of anxiety.
The rising wave of instability and human suffering gave rise to two opposed reactions within classical liberalism: progressivism and conservatism. In this post, I’m going to focus on progressivism. This term has been reclaimed by the political left but a progressive movement existed before Donald Trump.
Originally progressivism was a nineteenth-century reform movement in the U.S. and U.K. inspired by the desire to “improve” social and economic conditions.
Progressives were appalled by the conditions that emerged from the combination of classical liberalism and the industrial revolution, in which large segments of the population found themselves divested of traditional occupations and reduced to exploited wage-slaves in the new capitalist-industrial complex. Progressives recognized in this development the limits of classical liberalism, which under the new conditions ended up simply enriching and empowering one class at the expense of another. Progressives wished to remedy these problems through increased government regulation and the development of publically funded and government controlled social institutions, including public schools.
Progressives justified the expansion of government by appealing to the theory of utilitarianism. This theory has had an enormous impact in reshaping basic ethical and political ideas in the English-speaking day. In its own day, utilitarians like John Stuart Mill were leading social and political reformers.
The basic thesis of the utilitarianism is the principle of utility: we should always do whatever promotes the greatest good for the greatest number.
The principle of utility enjoins the maximization of net satisfaction over dissatisfaction. Although this principle does not actually guarantee equality, under most circumstances its implementation is intended to bring about an aggregate decrease in what is seen as needless suffering. Indeed, the elimination of human suffering is at the heart of progressive politics.
The principle of utility was employed by progressives to justify public education, repeal supposedly harsh penal laws, construct modern prisons, etc. Although these developments are taken for granted in our contemporary world they were hotly contested at the time because they were often seen as an illegitimate expansion of government. Progressive “reforms” required the redistribution of property through taxation and expanded the scope of government beyond the very limited role of protecting natural rights.
Indeed progressivism was really the first step towards the establishment of the contemporary managerial state that guarantees entitlements not just protections.
Of course, progressives continued to espouse liberty and property rights, but in principle, they had quietly walked away from the limitation of government to the protection of natural rights. In doing so they departed from the last vestiges of the natural law and accepted the belief that “positive” outcomes could justify a departure from principle, natural rights, established law, and legal tradition.
It should be recognized that progressivism was not a return to tradition
Indeed, progressivism did much to undermine the last vestiges of precedent, local rights, public religion, and custom. Moreover, maximum aggregate satisfaction is not the common good; rather it is the maximization of the individual good for the very obvious reason that “satisfaction” is an individual feeling; my satisfaction is not your satisfaction. And you got that right. With progressivism, politics became ultimately and primarily about feelings, not principles. To be sure this marks a dramatic departure from classical political wisdom.
Simply put, progressivism was a disaster because it represents the collapse of politics into pure sentiment. Unfortunately, this approach to politics continues to inspire contemporary “center-left” politics (the Democratic Party, the Labor Party). Interestingly, contemporary progressives continue to invoke utilitarian ideas in defense of euthanasia, abortion, contraception, and government expansion. I will have more to say about this in a future post.
Although progressivism is certainly worthy of criticism it is important to remember that it emerged as a response to the failures and limitations of classical liberalism. In this way, progressivism resembles its most important contemporary opponent, namely, “conservatism.” Coming to understand the conservative ethos, will help us understand the eventual demise of classical liberalism and just what the terms “left” and “right” really mean.