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.

One thought on “Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything

  1. Pingback: Classical Liberals Who Weren’t Right About Everything | The Libertarian Liquidationist

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