Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything

Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything.

[The following is my entry for the second Thorpe-Freeman Blog Contest, originally published at Notes on Liberty on June 25th. It was one of two runners up. My entry for last July’s contest (I chose not to enter the August contest because The Freeman combines the two months into one issue), can be read here.]

Many classical liberals and their ideas have been maligned by their interpreters. We must set the record straight. Professor Ross Emmett, in “What’s Right with Malthus,” from The Freeman, champions the cause of Thomas Robert Malthus, who, contrary to what one might think after encountering Malthus’ followers and critics,

argued that private property rights, free markets, and…marriage were essential features of an advanced civilization.

Some disciples of Malthus took his erroneous population theory as evidence of the need for eugenics, population control, and environmental “regulation.” They ignored Malthus’ arguments favoring institutions more capable of (and more compassionate in) achieving their desired ends; institutions that first came about not by design, but by convention. The eugenicists Francis Galton and Julian Huxley (both related to Darwin), and eco-catastrophist Paul Ehrlich come to mind.

But there were also critics, who, preferring utopian visions of the perfectibility of mankind, denounced Malthus’ pessimistic views. Anarchists William Godwin and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon are most notable in this regard. Godwin and Malthus had exchanged criticisms (noted by Emmett) in some of their essays. Malthus attacked Godwin’s utopianism. Godwin assailed Malthus’ assumption of arithmetical increase in agricultural output, as compared to geometrical increase of population. And Proudhon targeted the overzealous Malthusians of his day, citing as grievances the former’s antagonism toward the lower classes. While neither Godwin nor Proudhon did terrible injustice to Malthus himself, they unintentionally contributed to the myth that the worst variety of population catastrophists were the most orthodox.

Notice the themes that Professor Emmett brings to our attention. First, that even in their controversial and disputable contributions, great theorists illuminate the path for later philosophers. Second, that human institutions can mitigate human nature’s undesirable effects.

In light of these, consider two other social theorists whose ideas have been abused by overenthusiastic students and overreactive peers alike: Herbert Spencer (insightful Malthus adherent), and the aforementioned Mr. Proudhon (noteworthy Malthus critic).

Leading “social Darwinist” (a pejorative used to link eugenics and capitalism), Herbert Spencer (considered a conservative anarchist by Georgi Plekhanov) was, like Darwin, influenced by Malthus’ idea that the fittest tend to survive overpopulation-induced catastrophes. He is known for having coined “survival of the fittest,” a term later used by Darwin in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species (1859). Spencer originally used it to convey Darwin’s concept of natural selection, and drew parallels between biological evolution through natural selection and social evolution through market competition. But he never implied that they were identical or that marketplace competition was necessarily an outgrowth of natural selection.

If anything, it should be thought of as an alternative to natural selection. Humans, to survive as a species, might practice natural selection as a matter of biological fact. And without the ability to reason this might eventually lead to a Hobbesian jungle. But since man is rational, natural selection’s role in social evolution is significantly lessened. Society arises from the natural order of things. There is no need for the Commonwealth or the General Will to step in and provide it.

Friedrich Engels saw things differently when he wrote in the introduction to his Dialectics of Nature (1872/1883):

Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind…when he showed that free competition…is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only…production and distribution…carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world…

Competition exists in both the natural world and free markets, so the connection between natural selection and marketplace competition, though spurious, seems all too obvious for critics of one or the other. They wrongfully project the cold, deterministic properties of nature onto economic freedom. But marketplace competition is an outgrowth of the ability to reason, not base survival instincts. The will to survive is certainly a factor of social progress, but taken on its own would tend toward more similarities with nature, such that the life of man would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Man has the faculties to escape the jungle, to leave the animal kingdom, to better his life without worsening others’.

Communist anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (influenced by Godwin) juxtaposed social Darwinism, evolution requiring competition, with his own take, evolution requiring cooperation, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). In so doing, he disagreed with Engels on Darwin, by describing how natural selection depended at least as much upon cooperation as it did biological competition. But unfortunately he conformed to Engels on the false dichotomy between rational competition (free markets) and cooperation (mutual aid).

Our second subject, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a mutualist, an anarchist and a socialist. Yet some of his ideas are more in line with libertarianism than with contemporary socialism. They were often based on a fairly consistent concept of natural rights, but understood in light of fallacious economic principles, especially the labor theory of value (held by Locke, Smith, Ricardo, and Marx).

But utility-based theories are in vogue among today’s classical liberals and much of Proudhon’s economics has been rightly tossed aside. But his theory of spontaneous order and support for free markets should not be so readily discarded. Leave that to conservatives fearful of anything tainted by the socialist label, and to leftists whose only alternative would be to admit that the labor theory is passé.

Proudhon (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, 1851) was also opposed to Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s social contract theories, having his own:

What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No…The social contract is an agreement of man with man…from which must result what we call society…Commerce…the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.

Organic institutions, neither designed nor imposed!

It seems there’s much knowledge and inspiration to be gained by examining the forgotten words of discredited intellectuals. Warts and all.


5 thoughts on “Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything

  1. “from which must result what we call society…Commerce…”
    Yeah…early man emerged from the wilderness because of the lure of shiny things and money. Any society that looks to its purpose as anything else than extending survival for all its members to the greatest extent possible can not be called society, but rather the jungle.

    “But marketplace competition is an outgrowth of the ability to reason, not base survival instincts”
    Actually, neither. It’s base pleasure instincts. Well actually yes it is about survival instincts. Actually let me backtrack. Short term profiteering which rules everything in capitalism is based on pleasure principle. Black people are excluded moreso than others for biological reasons (ie primitive fear on behalf of the excludor) and then there is the natural tendency of people to engage in nepotism not for reasons based on reason, but based on a subconscious yearning to promulgate ones own genes, aka the principle of survival.

    ” Man has the faculties to escape the jungle, to leave the animal kingdom, to better his life without worsening others’.” Maybe, but he doesn’t have the will to resist his own nature. Hoarding more resources than you could possibly ever use may be survival instinct (dynastic considerations, let’s your ilk survive but everyone else hopefully dies out) but it probably it’s just a mental disorder. Markets have very little to do with reason at all outside of the profit principle or outside of the very few examples that occur from time to time of rational utility maximization or whatever you assholes call it. Producers use it sometimes, consumers rarely ever use it. Behavioral economics has basically shot libertarian anarcho capitalism all to hell

    • Just a few quick notes for now. I’ll get down to details next chance I get.

      One, Behavioral economics and Anarcho-Capitalism are not inherently at odds. They are not even on the same spectrum of ideas. One is positive. The other is normative. If you were talking about statism vs. anarchism, or Behavioral economics vs. Austrian economics, that would be different. But you’re not, you’re blathering on about Behavioral economics (which you read a book about that one time, I’m sure) vs. Anarcho-Capitalism. If I didn’t already know you were a conceited noob I would be shocked by your making of this error, but as it is, I only find it amusing.

      Two, Behavioral economics has a completely different definition of “rational” than Austrian economics, so to use the definition and implications of the word under one to refute the other is another substantial error.

      Three, by “reason”, I was referring to the profit motive, in a sense. And not just in terms of a business’ profit margin, or whatever other narrow definition you probably have, but in fact any instance of exchange (voluntary or otherwise) where at least one party leaves the transaction better off (this is subjective and determined by each party to the transaction at the exact moment in time the exchange takes place). By admitting that the profit motive is in some sense rational, whether as defined by Behavioral economics or Austrian economics, you have have allowed me to define for myself what the profit motive is, and thus qualified away your own position. You should have stuck to saying that no human endeavors, especially en masse, are reasonable. You would have still been wrong but it would have been harder for me to argue against it because it would have been internally consistent.

  2. Also look at this charming thing on your sidebar. Yes, begging likeminded people for money so you can make a film dedicated to convincing people to let business destroy our natural habitat beyond its ability to cope in pursuit of a couple more years of profit. How reasonable and clearly an outgrowth of that good ol’ rational free market!

    “But utility-based theories are in vogue among today’s classical liberals and much ”
    Hmmm, is that why people are paying thousands of dollars for Louis-Vuiton bags and natural diamonds? Because they’re so useful? Is that why Shelden Adelson has $16 billion but isn’t yet satisfied, because he wants to make a private lake and paper money is the best thing to swim in? Or is it because libertarians have a harder time getting their work into a university than a yacht getting into a glass bottle?

    “Organic institutions, neither designed nor imposed!” Natural monopoly, all the better to crush you with my dear.

    • I see you have mastered the art of the non-sequitor. I must give you credit for that as I had already written you off as someone incapable of formulating an argument. I guess bad, fallacious arguments are better than non-arguments (like those left elsewhere on my blog). What is it you are saying? That having a free banner ad for my friend is somehow proof that capitalism is bad for the environment? Aren’t you a bright one? Must be one of those university-published non-libertarians you mentioned. And those responses in the top comment are sheer genius. Thank you for sharing them.

      Keep drinking the climate alarmist kool aid. All you have is hysteria, a manufactured consensus (so-called “climate” scientists, an industry that only arose out of the hysteria, nothing more than a label adopted by those who had their conclusion before soberly considering the evidence), confirmation bias and several conflicts of interests (Herp. Derp. The ones spouting the propaganda are the ones benefitting from it? Nothing to see here. Move along!) When was the last time propaganda disguised as scientific evidence was used to justify the deaths of millions? (Make no mistake, you can’t “save the environment” overnight without causing exactly this, and you can’t have a smoother, more gradual transition either because we’re in dire need, the polar ice caps are melting and “New York City will be under fifty feet of water in two or three generations”.) Oh yeah, that would be the Nazis. The company you keep, Mr. Hooper, the company you keep.

      You don’t have the slightest clue what the term utility means. What a person finds “useful” is entirely subjective. It could be the lamest, most worthless piece of frivolous trash, and still have value for that person. You and whoever’s been handing out the plastic solo cups full of artificially flavored red sugar-water don’t get to pass judgement on what is objectively useful. Your hubris amazes and disgusts me. Learn what the subjective theory of value actually says before arguing against it. It can be found in any number of books. You probably don’t read too many of those. Other than Behavioral Economics for Dummies, of course.

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