Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rise, Fall, and Renaissance of Classical Liberalism

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In the 17th century, England, too, was threatened by royal absolutism, in the form of the House of Stuart. The response was revolution, civil war, the beheading of one king and the booting out of another. In the course of this tumultuous century, the first movements and thinkers appeared who can be unequivocally identified as liberal.

With the king gone, a group of middle-class radicals emerged called the Levellers. They protested that not even Parliament had any authority to usurp the natural, God-given rights of the people. Religion, they declared, was a matter of individual conscience: it should have no connection with the state. State-granted monopolies were likewise an infringement of natural liberty. A generation later, John Locke, drawing on the tradition of natural law that had been kept alive and elaborated by the Scholastic theologians, set forth a powerful liberal model of man, society, and state. Every man, he held, is innately endowed with certain natural rights. These consist in his fundamental right to what is his property — that is, his life, liberty, and "estates" (or material goods). Government is formed simply the better to preserve the right to property. When, instead of protecting the natural rights of the people, a government makes war upon them, the people may alter or abolish it. The Lockean philosophy continued to exert influence in England for generations to come. In time, its greatest impact would be in the English-speaking colonies in North America.

The society that emerged in England after the victory over absolutism began to score astonishing successes in economic and cultural life. Thinkers from the continent, especially in France, grew interested. Some, like Voltaire and Montesquieu, came to see for themselves. Just as Holland had acted as a model before, now the example of England began to influence foreign philosophers and statesmen. The decentralization that has always marked Europe allowed the English "experiment" to take place and its success to act as a spur to other nations.

In the 18th century, thinkers were discovering a momentous fact about social life: given a situation where men enjoyed their natural rights, society more or less runs itself. In Scotland, a succession of brilliant writers that included David Hume and Adam Smith outlined the theory of the spontaneous evolution of social institutions. They demonstrated how immensely complex and vitally useful institutions — language. morality, the common law, above all, the market — originate and develop not as the product of the designing minds of social engineers, but as the result of the interactions of all the members of society pursuing their individual goals.

In France, economists were coming to similar conclusions. The greatest of them, Turgot, set forth the rationale for the free market:

"The policy to pursue, therefore, is to follow the course of nature, without pretending to direct it For, in order to direct trade and commerce it would be necessary to be able to have knowledge of all of the variations of needs, interests, and human industry in such detail as is physically impossible to obtain even by the most able, active, and circumstantial government. And even if a government did possess such a multitude of detailed knowledge, the result would be to let things go precisely as they do of themselves, by the sole action of the interests of men prompted by free competition."

The French economists coined a term for the policy of freedom in economic life: they called it laissez-faire. Meanwhile, starting in the early 17th century, colonists coming mainly from England had established a new society on the eastern shores of North America. Under the influence of the ideas the colonists brought with them and the institutions they developed, a unique way of life came into being. There was no aristocracy and very little government of any kind. Instead of aspiring to political power, the colonists worked to carve out a decent existence for themselves and their families.

Fiercely independent, they were equally committed to the peaceful — and profitable — exchange of goods. A complex network of trade sprang up, and by the mid-18th century, the colonists were already more affluent than any other commoners in the world. Self-help was the guiding star in the realm of spiritual values as well. Churches, colleges, lending-libraries, newspapers, lecture-institutes, and cultural societies flourished through the voluntary cooperation of the citizens.

When events led to a war for independence, the prevailing view of society was that it basically ran itself. As Tom Paine declared:

"Formal government makes but a small part of civilized life. It is to the great and fundamental principles of society and civilization — to the unceasing circulation of interest, which passing through its million channels, invigorates the whole mass of civilized man — it is to these, infinitely more than to anything which even the best instituted government can perform that the safety and prosperity of the individual and the whole depend. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. Government is no further necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilization are not conveniently competent."

So, one may notice that the Culture Wars are being fought over changing the meaning of words. Not natural evolutionary change, but deliberate and cynically deceptive intentional change. Liberal no longer means what Thomas Paine meant. Now it is for those who advocate government solutions for personal problems. Gay now has only one meaning in current usage. The euphemism has now become the official nomenclature for an entire class of people and has lost it's usefulness for describing any other kind of party, cocktail lounge, cruise ship, resort, attitude, or tea dance. Marriage next will cease to be a synonym for matrimony, and sex will become synonymous with orgasm rather than signifying sexual reproduction. Sex will no longer theoretically require a zygote and have reference to purely biological intercourse.

Thank you, President Clinton, for distinquishing between sexual relations and fellatio and teaching our youth that lies and deception are just fine.

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