by L. T. Hobhouse
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First published in 1911, and reprinted in 1919, 1923, 1927, 1929, 1934, 1942 and 1944





II THE ELEMENTS OF LIBERALISM 1. Civil Liberty. 2. Fiscal Liberty. 3. Personal Liberty. 4. Social Liberty. 5. Economic Liberty. 6. Domestic Liberty. 7. Local, Racial, and National Liberty. 8. International Liberty. 9. Political Liberty and Popular Sovereignty 21













The modern State is the distinctive product of a unique civilization. But it is a product which is still in the making, and a part of the process is a struggle between new and old principles of social order. To understand the new, which is our main purpose, we must first cast a glance at the old. We must understand what the social structure was, which—mainly, as I shall show, under the inspiration of Liberal ideas—is slowly but surely giving place to the new fabric of the civic State. The older structure itself was by no means primitive. What is truly primitive is very hard to say. But one thing is pretty clear. At all times men have lived in societies, and ties of kinship and of simple neighbourhood underlie every form of social organization. In the simplest societies it seems probable that these ties—reinforced and extended, perhaps, by religious or other beliefs—are the only ones that seriously count. It is certain that of the warp of descent and the woof of intermarriage there is woven a tissue out of which small and rude but close and compact communities are formed. But the ties of kinship and neighbourhood are effective only within narrow limits. While the local group, the clan, or the village community are often the centres of vigorous life, the larger aggregate of the Tribe seldom attains true social and political unity unless it rests upon a military organization. But military organization may serve not only to hold one tribe together but also to hold other tribes in subjection, and thereby, at the cost of much that is most valuable in primitive life, to establish a larger and at the same time a more orderly society. Such an order once established does not, indeed, rest on naked force. The rulers become invested with a sacrosanct authority. It may be that they are gods or descendants of gods. It may be that they are blessed and upheld by an independent priesthood. In either case the powers that be extend their sway not merely over the bodies but over the minds of men. They are ordained of God because they arrange the ordination. Such a government is not necessarily abhorrent to the people nor indifferent to them. But it is essentially government from above. So far as it affects the life of the people at all, it does so by imposing on them duties, as of military service, tribute, ordinances, and even new laws, in such wise and on such principles as seem good to itself. It is not true, as a certain school of jurisprudence held, that law is, as such, a command imposed by a superior upon an inferior, and backed by the sanctions of punishment. But though this is not true of law in general it is a roughly true description of law in that particular stage of society which we may conveniently describe as the Authoritarian.

Now, in the greater part of the world and throughout the greater part of history the two forms of social organization that have been distinguished are the only forms to be found. Of course, they themselves admit of every possible variation of detail, but looking below these variations we find the two recurrent types. On the one hand, there are the small kinship groups, often vigorous enough in themselves, but feeble for purposes of united action. On the other hand, there are larger societies varying in extent and in degree of civilization from a petty negro kingdom to the Chinese Empire, resting on a certain union of military force and religious or quasi-religious belief which, to select a neutral name, we have called the principle of Authority. In the lower stages of civilization there appears, as a rule, to be only one method of suppressing the strife of hostile clans, maintaining the frontier against a common enemy, or establishing the elements of outward order. The alternative to authoritarian rule is relapse into the comparative anarchy of savage life.

But another method made its appearance in classical antiquity. The city state of ancient Greece and Italy was a new type of social organization. It differed from the clan and the commune in several ways. In the first place it contained many clans and villages, and perhaps owed its origin to the coming together of separate clans on the basis not of conquest but of comparatively equal alliance. Though very small as compared with an ancient empire or a modern state it was much larger than a primitive kindred. Its life was more varied and complex. It allowed more free play to the individual, and, indeed, as it developed, it suppressed the old clan organization and substituted new divisions, geographical or other. It was based, in fact, not on kinship as such, but on civic right, and this it was which distinguished it not only from the commune, but from the Oriental monarchy. The law which it recognized and by which it lived was not a command imposed by a superior government on a subject mass. On the contrary, government was itself subject to law, and law was the life of the state, willingly supported by the entire body of free citizens. In this sense the city state was a community of free men. Considered collectively its citizens owned no master. They governed themselves, subject only to principles and rules of life descending from antiquity and owing their force to the spontaneous allegiance of successive generations. In such a community some of the problems that vex us most presented themselves in a very simple form. In particular the relation of the individual to the community was close, direct, and natural. Their interests were obviously bound up together. Unless each man did his duty the State might easily be destroyed and the population enslaved. Unless the State took thought for its citizens it might easily decay. What was still more important, there was no opposition of church and state, no fissure between political and religious life, between the claims of the secular and the spiritual, to distract the allegiance of the citizens, and to set the authority of conscience against the duties of patriotism. It was no feat of the philosophical imagination, but a quite simple and natural expression of the facts to describe such a community as an association of men for the purpose of living well. Ideals to which we win our way back with difficulty and doubt arose naturally out of the conditions of life in ancient Greece.

On the other hand, this simple harmony had very serious limitations, which in the end involved the downfall of the city system. The responsibilities and privileges of the associated life were based not on the rights of human personality but on the rights of citizenship, and citizenship was never co-extensive with the community. The population included slaves or serfs, and in many cities there were large classes descended from the original conquered population, personally free but excluded from the governing circle. Notwithstanding the relative simplicity of social conditions the city was constantly torn by the disputes of faction—in part probably a legacy from the old clan organization, in part a consequence of the growth of wealth and the newer distinction of classes. The evil of faction was aggravated by the ill-success of the city organization in dealing with the problem of inter-state relations. The Greek city clung to its autonomy, and though the principle of federalism which might have solved the problem was ultimately brought into play, it came too late in Greek history to save the nation.

The constructive genius of Rome devised a different method of dealing with the political problems involved in expanding relations. Roman citizenship was extended till it included all Italy and, later on, till it comprised the whole free population of the Mediterranean basin. But this extension was even more fatal to the free self-government of a city state. The population of Italy could not meet in the Forum of Rome or the Plain of Mars to elect consuls and pass laws, and the more wisely it was extended the less valuable for any political purpose did citizenship become. The history of Rome, in fact, might be taken as a vast illustration of the difficulty of building up an extended empire on any basis but that of personal despotism resting on military force and maintaining peace and order through the efficiency of the bureaucratic machine. In this vast mechanism it was the army that was the seat of power, or rather it was each army at its post on some distant frontier that was a potential seat of power. The "secret of the empire" that was early divulged was that an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome, and though a certain sanctity remained to the person of the emperor, and legists cherished a dim remembrance of the theory that he embodied the popular will, the fact was that he was the choice of a powerful army, ratified by the God of Battles, and maintaining his power as long as he could suppress any rival pretender. The break-up of the Empire through the continual repetition of military strife was accelerated, not caused, by the presence of barbarism both within and without the frontiers. To restore the elements of order a compromise between central and local jurisdictions was necessary, and the vassal became a local prince owning an allegiance, more or less real as the case might be, to a distant sovereign. Meanwhile, with the prevailing disorder the mass of the population in Western Europe lost its freedom, partly through conquest, partly through the necessity of finding a protector in troublous times. The social structure of the Middle Ages accordingly assumed the hierarchical form which we speak of as the Feudal system. In this thorough-going application of the principle of authority every man, in theory, had his master. The serf held of his lord, who held of a great seigneur, who held of the king. The king in the completer theory held of the emperor who was crowned by the Pope, who held of St. Peter. The chain of descent was complete from the Ruler of the universe to the humblest of the serfs.[1] But within this order the growth of industry and commerce raised up new centres of freedom. The towns in which men were learning anew the lessons of association for united defence and the regulation of common interests, obtained charters of rights from seigneur or king, and on the Continent even succeeded in establishing complete independence. Even in England, where from the Conquest the central power was at its strongest, the corporate towns became for many purposes self-governing communities. The city state was born again, and with it came an outburst of activity, the revival of literature and the arts, the rediscovery of ancient learning, the rebirth of philosophy and science.

The mediaeval city state was superior to the ancient in that slavery was no essential element in its existence. On the contrary, by welcoming the fugitive serf and vindicating his freedom it contributed powerfully to the decline of the milder form of servitude. But like the ancient state it was seriously and permanently weakened by internal faction, and like the ancient state it rested the privileges of its members not on the rights of human personality, but on the responsibilities of citizenship. It knew not so much liberty as "liberties," rights of corporations secured by charter, its own rights as a whole secured against king or feudatory and the rest of the world, rights of gilds and crafts within it, and to men or women only as they were members of such bodies. But the real weakness of the city state was once more its isolation. It was but an islet of relative freedom on, or actually within, the borders of a feudal society which grew more powerful with the generations. With the improvement of communications and of the arts of life, the central power, particularly in France and England, began to gain upon its vassals. Feudal disobedience and disorder were suppressed, and by the end of the fifteenth century great unified states, the foundation of modern nations, were already in being. Their emergence involved the widening and in some respects the improvement of the social order; and in its earlier stages it favoured civic autonomy by suppressing local anarchy and feudal privilege. But the growth of centralization was in the end incompatible with the genius of civic independence, and perilous to such elements of political right as had been gained for the population in general as the result of earlier conflicts between the crown and its vassals.

We enter on the modern period, accordingly, with society constituted on a thoroughly authoritarian basis, the kingly power supreme and tending towards arbitrary despotism, and below the king the social hierarchy extending from the great territorial lord to the day-labourer. There is one point gained as compared to earlier forms of society. The base of the pyramid is a class which at least enjoys personal freedom. Serfdom has virtually disappeared in England, and in the greater part of France has either vanished or become attenuated to certain obnoxious incidents of the tenure of land. On the other hand, the divorce of the English peasant from the soil has begun, and has laid the foundation of the future social problem as it is to appear in this country.

The modern State accordingly starts from the basis of an authoritarian order, and the protest against that order, a protest religious, political, economic, social, and ethical, is the historic beginning of Liberalism. Thus Liberalism appears at first as a criticism, sometimes even as a destructive and revolutionary criticism. Its negative aspect is for centuries foremost. Its business seems to be not so much to build up as to pull down, to remove obstacles which block human progress, rather than to point the positive goal of endeavour or fashion the fabric of civilization. It finds humanity oppressed, and would set it free. It finds a people groaning under arbitrary rule, a nation in bondage to a conquering race, industrial enterprise obstructed by social privileges or crippled by taxation, and it offers relief. Everywhere it is removing superincumbent weights, knocking off fetters, clearing away obstructions. Is it doing as much for the reconstruction that will be necessary when the demolition is complete? Is Liberalism at bottom a constructive or only a destructive principle? Is it of permanent significance? Does it express some vital truth of social life as such, or is it a temporary phenomenon called forth by the special circumstances of Western Europe, and is its work already so far complete that it can be content to hand on the torch to a newer and more constructive principle, retiring for its own part from the race, or perchance seeking more backward lands for missionary work? These are among the questions that we shall have to answer. We note, for the moment, that the circumstances of its origin suffice to explain the predominance of critical and destructive work without therefrom inferring the lack of ultimate reconstructive power. In point of fact, whether by the aid of Liberalism or through the conservative instincts of the race, the work of reconstruction has gone on side by side with that of demolition, and becomes more important generation by generation. The modern State, as I shall show, goes far towards incorporating the elements of Liberal principle, and when we have seen what these are, and to what extent they are actually realized, we shall be in a better position to understand the essentials of Liberalism, and to determine the question of its permanent value.


[1] This is, of course, only one side of mediaeval theory, but it is the side which lay nearest to the facts. The reverse view, which derives the authority of government from the governed, made its appearance in the Middle Ages partly under the influence of classical tradition. But its main interest and importance is that it served as a starting-point for the thought of a later time. On the whole subject the reader may consult Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age, translated by Maitland (Cambridge University Press).



I cannot here attempt so much as a sketch of the historical progress of the Liberalizing movement. I would call attention only to the main points at which it assailed the old order, and to the fundamental ideas directing its advance.

1. Civil Liberty.

Both logically and historically the first point of attack is arbitrary government, and the first liberty to be secured is the right to be dealt with in accordance with law. A man who has no legal rights against another, but stands entirely at his disposal, to be treated according to his caprice, is a slave to that other. He is "rightless," devoid of rights. Now, in some barbaric monarchies the system of rightlessness has at times been consistently carried through in the relations of subjects to the king. Here men and women, though enjoying customary rights of person and property as against one another, have no rights at all as against the king's pleasure. No European monarch or seignior has ever admittedly enjoyed power of this kind, but European governments have at various times and in various directions exercised or claimed powers no less arbitrary in principle. Thus, by the side of the regular courts of law which prescribe specific penalties for defined offences proved against a man by a regular form of trial, arbitrary governments resort to various extrajudicial forms of arrest, detention, and punishment, depending on their own will and pleasure. Of such a character is punishment by "administrative" process in Russia at the present day; imprisonment by lettre de cachet in France under the ancien regime; all executions by so-called martial law in times of rebellion, and the suspension of various ordinary guarantees of immediate and fair trial in Ireland. Arbitrary government in this form was one of the first objects of attack by the English Parliament in the seventeenth century, and this first liberty of the subject was vindicated by the Petition of Right, and again by the Habeas Corpus Act. It is significant of much that this first step in liberty should be in reality nothing more nor less than a demand for law. "Freedom of men under government," says Locke, summing up one whole chapter of seventeenth-century controversy, "is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society and made by the legislative power erected in it."

The first condition of universal freedom, that is to say, is a measure of universal restraint. Without such restraint some men may be free but others will be unfree. One man may be able to do all his will, but the rest will have no will except that which he sees fit to allow them. To put the same point from another side, the first condition of free government is government not by the arbitrary determination of the ruler, but by fixed rules of law, to which the ruler himself is subject. We draw the important inference that there is no essential antithesis between liberty and law. On the contrary, law is essential to liberty. Law, of course, restrains the individual; it is therefore opposed to his liberty at a given moment and in a given direction. But, equally, law restrains others from doing with him as they will. It liberates him from the fear of arbitrary aggression or coercion, and this is the only way, indeed, the only sense, in which liberty for an entire community is attainable.

There is one point tacitly postulated in this argument which should not be overlooked. In assuming that the reign of law guarantees liberty to the whole community, we are assuming that it is impartial. If there is one law for the Government and another for its subjects, one for noble and another for commoner, one for rich and another for poor, the law does not guarantee liberty for all. Liberty in this respect implies equality. Hence the demand of Liberalism for such a procedure as will ensure the impartial application of law. Hence the demand for the independence of the judiciary to secure equality as between the Government and its subjects. Hence the demand for cheap procedure and accessible courts. Hence the abolition of privileges of class.[2] Hence will come in time the demand for the abolition of the power of money to purchase skilled advocacy.

2. Fiscal Liberty.

Closely connected with juristic liberty, and more widely felt in everyday life, is the question of fiscal liberty. The Stuarts brought things to a head in this country by arbitrary taxation. George III brought things to a head in America by the same infallible method. The immediate cause of the French Revolution was the refusal of the nobles and the clergy to bear their share of the financial burden. But fiscal liberty raises more searching questions than juristic liberty. It is not enough that taxes should be fixed by a law applying universally and impartially, for taxes vary from year to year in accordance with public needs, and while other laws may remain stable and unchanged for an indefinite period, taxation must, in the nature of the case, be adjustable. It is a matter, properly considered, for the Executive rather than the Legislature. Hence the liberty of the subject in fiscal matters means the restraint of the Executive, not merely by established and written laws, but by a more direct and constant supervision. It means, in a word, responsible government, and that is why we have more often heard the cry, "No taxation without representation," than the cry, "No legislation without representation." Hence, from the seventeenth century onwards, fiscal liberty was seen to involve what is called political liberty.

3. Personal Liberty.

Of political liberty it will be more convenient to speak later. But let us here observe that there is another avenue by which it can be, and, in fact, was, approached. We have seen that the reign of law is the first step to liberty. A man is not free when he is controlled by other men, but only when he is controlled by principles and rules which all society must obey, for the community is the true master of the free man. But here we are only at the beginning of the matter. There may be law, and there may be no attempt, such as the Stuarts made, to set law aside, yet (1) the making and maintenance of law may depend on the will of the sovereign or of an oligarchy, and (2) the content of the law may be unjust and oppressive to some, to many, or to all except those who make it. The first point brings us back to the problem of political liberty, which we defer. The second opens questions which have occupied a great part of the history of Liberalism, and to deal with them we have to ask what types of law have been felt as peculiarly oppressive, and in what respects it has been necessary to claim liberty not merely through law, but by the abolition of bad law and tyrannical administration.

In the first place, there is the sphere of what is called personal liberty—a sphere most difficult to define, but the arena of the fiercest strife of passion and the deepest feelings of mankind. At the basis lies liberty of thought—freedom from inquisition into opinions that a man forms in his own mind[3]—the inner citadel where, if anywhere, the individual must rule. But liberty of thought is of very little avail without liberty to exchange thoughts—since thought is mainly a social product; and so with liberty of thought goes liberty of speech and liberty of writing, printing, and peaceable discussion. These rights are not free from difficulty and dubiety. There is a point at which speech becomes indistinguishable from action, and free speech may mean the right to create disorder. The limits of just liberty here are easy to draw neither in theory nor in practice. They lead us immediately to one of the points at which liberty and order may be in conflict, and it is with conflicts of this kind that we shall have to deal. The possibilities of conflict are not less in relation to the connected right of liberty in religion. That this liberty is absolute cannot be contended. No modern state would tolerate a form of religious worship which should include cannibalism, human sacrifice, or the burning of witches. In point of fact, practices of this kind—which follow quite naturally from various forms of primitive belief that are most sincerely held—are habitually put down by civilized peoples that are responsible for the government of less developed races. The British law recognizes polygamy in India, but I imagine it would not be open either to a Mahommedan or a Hindu to contract two marriages in England. Nor is it for liberty of this kind that the battle has been fought.

What, then, is the primary meaning of religious liberty? Externally, I take it to include the liberties of thought and expression, and to add to these the right of worship in any form which does not inflict injury on others or involve a breach of public order. This limitation appears to carry with it a certain decency and restraint in expression which avoids unnecessary insult to the feelings of others; and I think this implication must be allowed, though it makes some room for strained and unfair applications. Externally, again, we must note that the demand for religious liberty soon goes beyond mere toleration. Religious liberty is incomplete as long as any belief is penalized, as, for example, by carrying with it exclusion from office or from educational advantages. On this side, again, full liberty implies full equality. Turning to the internal side, the spirit of religious liberty rests on the conception that a man's religion ranks with his own innermost thought and feelings. It is the most concrete expression of his personal attitude to life, to his kind, to the world, to his own origin and destiny. There is no real religion that is not thus drenched in personality; and the more religion is recognized for spiritual the starker the contradiction is felt to be that any one should seek to impose a religion on another. Properly regarded, the attempt is not wicked, but impossible. Yet those sin most against true religion who try to convert men from the outside by mechanical means. They have the lie in the soul, being most ignorant of the nature of that for which they feel most deeply.

Yet here again we stumble on difficulties. Religion is personal. Yet is not religion also eminently social? What is more vital to the social order than its beliefs? If we send a man to gaol for stealing trash, what shall we do to him whom, in our conscience and on our honour, we believe to be corrupting the hearts of mankind, and perhaps leading them to eternal perdition? Again, what in the name of liberty are we to do to men whose preaching, if followed out in act, would bring back the rack and the stake? Once more there is a difficulty of delimitation which will have to be fully sifted. I will only remark here that our practice has arrived at a solution which, upon the whole, appears to have worked well hitherto, and which has its roots in principle. It is open to a man to preach the principles of Torquemada or the religion of Mahomet. It is not open to men to practise such of their precepts as would violate the rights of others or cause a breach of the peace. Expression is free, and worship is free as far as it is the expression of personal devotion. So far as they infringe the freedom, or, more generally, the rights of others, the practices inculcated by a religion cannot enjoy unqualified freedom.

4. Social Liberty.

From the spiritual we turn to the practical side of life. On this side we may observe, first, that Liberalism has had to deal with those restraints on the individual which flow from the hierarchic organization of society, and reserve certain offices, certain forms of occupation, and perhaps the right or at least the opportunity of education generally, to people of a certain rank or class. In its more extreme form this is a caste system, and its restrictions are religious or legal as well as social. In Europe it has taken more than one form. There is the monopoly of certain occupations by corporations, prominent in the minds of eighteenth-century French reformers. There is the reservation of public appointments and ecclesiastical patronage for those who are "born," and there is a more subtly pervading spirit of class which produces a hostile attitude to those who could and would rise; and this spirit finds a more material ally in the educational difficulties that beset brains unendowed with wealth. I need not labour points which will be apparent to all, but have again to remark two things. (1) Once more the struggle for liberty is also, when pushed through, a struggle for equality. Freedom to choose and follow an occupation, if it is to become fully effective, means equality with others in the opportunities for following such occupation. This is, in fact, one among the various considerations which lead Liberalism to support a national system of free education, and will lead it further yet on the same lines. (2) Once again, though we may insist on the rights of the individual, the social value of the corporation or quasi-corporation, like the Trade Union, cannot be ignored. Experience shows the necessity of some measure of collective regulation in industrial matters, and in the adjustment of such regulation to individual liberty serious difficulties of principle emerge. We shall have to refer to these in the next section. But one point is relevant at this stage. It is clearly a matter of Liberal principle that membership of a corporation should not depend on any hereditary qualification, nor be set about with any artificial difficulty of entry, where by the term artificial is meant any difficulty not involved in the nature of the occupation concerned, but designed for purposes of exclusiveness. As against all such methods of restriction, the Liberal case is clear.

It has only to be added here that restrictions of sex are in every respect parallel to restrictions of class. There are, doubtless, occupations for which women are unfit. But, if so, the test of fitness is sufficient to exclude them. The "open road for women" is one application, and a very big one, of the "open road for talent," and to secure them both is of the essence of Liberalism.

5. Economic Liberty

Apart from monopolies, industry was shackled in the earlier part of the modern period by restrictive legislation in various forms, by navigation laws, and by tariffs. In particular, the tariff was not merely an obstruction to free enterprise, but a source of inequality as between trade and trade. Its fundamental effect is to transfer capital and labour from the objects on which they can be most profitably employed in a given locality, to objects on which they are less profitably employed, by endowing certain industries to the disadvantage of the general consumer. Here, again, the Liberal movement is at once an attack on an obstruction and on an inequality. In most countries the attack has succeeded in breaking down local tariffs and establishing relatively large Free Trade units. It is only in England, and only owing to our early manufacturing supremacy, that it has fully succeeded in overcoming the Protective principle, and even in England the Protectionist reaction would undoubtedly have gained at least a temporary victory but for our dependence on foreign countries for food and the materials of industry. The most striking victory of Liberal ideas is one of the most precarious. At the same time, the battle is one which Liberalism is always prepared to fight over again. It has led to no back stroke, no counter-movement within the Liberal ranks themselves.

It is otherwise with organized restrictions upon industry. The old regulations, which were quite unsuited to the conditions of the time, either fell into desuetude during the eighteenth century, or were formally abolished during the earlier years of the industrial revolution. For a while it seemed as though wholly unrestricted industrial enterprise was to be the progressive watchword, and the echoes of that time still linger. But the old restrictions had not been formally withdrawn before a new process of regulation began. The conditions produced by the new factory system shocked the public conscience; and as early as 1802 we find the first of a long series of laws, out of which has grown an industrial code that year by year follows the life of the operative, in his relations with his employer, into more minute detail. The first stages of this movement were contemplated with doubt and distrust by many men of Liberal sympathies. The intention was, doubtless, to protect the weaker party, but the method was that of interference with freedom of contract. Now the freedom of the sane adult individual—even such strong individualists as Cobden recognized that the case of children stood apart—carried with it the right of concluding such agreements as seemed best to suit his own interests, and involved both the right and the duty of determining the lines of his life for himself. Free contract and personal responsibility lay close to the heart of the whole Liberal movement. Hence the doubts felt by so many Liberals as to the regulation of industry by law. None the less, as time has gone on, men of the keenest Liberal sympathies have come not merely to accept but eagerly to advance the extension of public control in the industrial sphere, and of collective responsibility in the matter of the education and even the feeding of children, the housing of the industrial population, the care of the sick and aged, the provision of the means of regular employment. On this side Liberalism seems definitely to have retraced its steps, and we shall have to inquire closely into the question whether the reversal is a change of principle or of application.

Closely connected with freedom of contract is freedom of association. If men may make any agreement with one another in their mutual interest so long as they do not injure a third party, they may apparently agree to act together permanently for any purposes of common interest on the same conditions. That is, they may form associations. Yet at bottom the powers of an association are something very different from the powers of the individuals composing it; and it is only by legal pedantry that the attempt can be made to regulate the behaviour of an association on principles derived from and suitable to the relations of individuals. An association might become so powerful as to form a state within the state, and to contend with government on no unequal terms. The history of some revolutionary societies, of some ecclesiastical organizations, even of some American trusts might be quoted to show that the danger is not imaginary. Short of this, an association may act oppressively towards others and even towards its own members, and the function of Liberalism may be rather to protect the individual against the power of the association than to protect the right of association against the restriction of the law. In fact, in this regard, the principle of liberty cuts both ways, and this double application is reflected in history. The emancipation of trade unions, however, extending over the period from 1824 to 1906, and perhaps not yet complete, was in the main a liberating movement, because combination was necessary to place the workman on something approaching terms of equality with the employer, and because tacit combinations of employers could never, in fact, be prevented by law. It was, again, a movement to liberty through equality. On the other hand, the oppressive capacities of a trade union could never be left out of account, while combinations of capital, which might be infinitely more powerful, have justly been regarded with distrust. In this there is no inconsistency of principle, but a just appreciation of a real difference of circumstance. Upon the whole it may be said that the function of Liberalism is not so much to maintain a general right of free association as to define the right in each case in such terms as make for the maximum of real liberty and equality.

6. Domestic Liberty.

Of all associations within the State, the miniature community of the Family is the most universal and of the strongest independent vitality. The authoritarian state was reflected in the authoritarian family, in which the husband was within wide limits absolute lord of the person and property of wife and children. The movement of liberation consists (1) in rendering the wife a fully responsible individual, capable of holding property, suing and being sued, conducting business on her own account, and enjoying full personal protection against her husband; (2) in establishing marriage as far as the law is concerned on a purely contractual basis, and leaving the sacramental aspect of marriage to the ordinances of the religion professed by the parties; (3) in securing the physical, mental, and moral care of the children, partly by imposing definite responsibilities on the parents and punishing them for neglect, partly by elaborating a public system of education and of hygiene. The first two movements are sufficiently typical cases of the interdependence of liberty and equality. The third is more often conceived as a Socialistic than a Liberal tendency, and, in point of fact, the State control of education gives rise to some searching questions of principle, which have not yet been fully solved. If, in general, education is a duty which the State has a right to enforce, there is a countervailing right of choice as to the lines of education which it would be ill to ignore, and the mode of adjustment has not yet been adequately determined either in theory or in practice. I would, however, strongly maintain that the general conception of the State as Over-parent is quite as truly Liberal as Socialistic. It is the basis of the rights of the child, of his protection against parental neglect, of the equality of opportunity which he may claim as a future citizen, of his training to fill his place as a grown-up person in the social system. Liberty once more involves control and restraint.

7. Local, Racial, and National Liberty.

From the smallest social unit we pass to the largest. A great part of the liberating movement is occupied with the struggle of entire nations against alien rule, with the revolt of Europe against Napoleon, with the struggle of Italy for freedom, with the fate of the Christian subjects of Turkey, with the emancipation of the negro, with the national movement in Ireland and in India. Many of these struggles present the problem of liberty in its simplest form. It has been and is too often a question of securing the most elementary rights for the weaker party; and those who are not touched by the appeal are deficient rather in imagination than in logic or ethics. But at the back of national movements very difficult questions do arise. What is a nation as distinct from a state? What sort of unity does it constitute, and what are its rights? If Ireland is a nation, is Ulster one? and if Ulster is a British and Protestant nation, what of the Catholic half of Ulster? History has in some cases given us a practical answer. Thus, it has shown that, enjoying the gift of responsible government, French and British, despite all historical quarrels and all differences of religious belief, language, and social structure, have fused into the nation of Canada. History has justified the conviction that Germany was a nation, and thrown ridicule on the contemptuous saying of Metternich that Italy was a geographical expression. But how to anticipate history, what rights to concede to a people that claims to be a self-determining unit, is less easy to decide. There is no doubt that the general tendency of Liberalism is to favour autonomy, but, faced as it is with the problems of subdivision and the complexity of group with group, it has to rely on the concrete teaching of history and the practical insight of statesmanship to determine how the lines of autonomy are to be drawn. There is, however, one empirical test which seems generally applicable. Where a weaker nation incorporated with a larger or stronger one can be governed by ordinary law applicable to both parties to the union, and fulfilling all the ordinary principles of liberty, the arrangement may be the best for both parties. But where this system fails, where the government is constantly forced to resort to exceptional legislation or perhaps to de-liberalize its own institutions, the case becomes urgent. Under such conditions the most liberally-minded democracy is maintaining a system which must undermine its own principles. The Assyrian conqueror, Mr. Herbert Spencer remarks, who is depicted in the bas-reliefs leading his captive by a cord, is bound with that cord himself. He forfeits his liberty as long as he retains his power.

Somewhat similar questions arise about race, which many people wrongly confuse with nationality. So far as elementary rights are concerned there can be no question as to the attitude of Liberalism. When the political power which should guarantee such rights is brought into view, questions of fact arise. Is the Negro or the Kaffir mentally and morally capable of self-government or of taking part in a self-governing State? The experience of Cape Colony tends to the affirmative view. American experience of the negro gives, I take it, a more doubtful answer. A specious extension of the white man's rights to the black may be the best way of ruining the black. To destroy tribal custom by introducing conceptions of individual property, the free disposal of land, and the free purchase of gin may be the handiest method for the expropriator. In all relations with weaker peoples we move in an atmosphere vitiated by the insincere use of high-sounding words. If men say equality, they mean oppression by forms of justice. If they say tutelage, they appear to mean the kind of tutelage extended to the fattened goose. In such an atmosphere, perhaps, our safest course, so far as principles and deductions avail at all, is to fix our eyes on the elements of the matter, and in any part of the world to support whatever method succeeds in securing the "coloured" man from personal violence, from the lash, from expropriation, and from gin; above all, so far as it may yet be, from the white man himself. Until the white man has fully learnt to rule his own life, the best of all things that he can do with the dark man is to do nothing with him. In this relation, the day of a more constructive Liberalism is yet to come.

8. International Liberty.

If non-interference is the best thing for the barbarian many Liberals have thought it to be the supreme wisdom in international affairs generally. I shall examine this view later. Here I merely remark: (1) It is of the essence of Liberalism to oppose the use of force, the basis of all tyranny. (2) It is one of its practical necessities to withstand the tyranny of armaments. Not only may the military force be directly turned against liberty, as in Russia, but there are more subtle ways, as in Western Europe, in which the military spirit eats into free institutions and absorbs the public resources which might go to the advancement of civilization. (3) In proportion as the world becomes free, the use of force becomes meaningless. There is no purpose in aggression if it is not to issue in one form or another of national subjection.

9. Political Liberty and Popular Sovereignty.

Underlying all these questions of right is the question how they are to be secured and maintained. By enforcing the responsibility of the executive and legislature to the community as a whole? Such is the general answer, and it indicates one of the lines of connection between the general theory of liberty and the doctrine of universal suffrage and the sovereignty of the people. The answer, however, does not meet all the possibilities of the case. The people as a whole might be careless of their rights and incapable of managing them. They might be set on the conquest of others, the expropriation of the rich, or on any form of collective tyranny or folly. It is perfectly possible that from the point of view of general liberty and social progress a limited franchise might give better results than one that is more extended. Even in this country it is a tenable view that the extension of the suffrage in 1884 tended for some years to arrest the development of liberty in various directions. On what theory does the principle of popular sovereignty rest, and within what limits does it hold good? Is it a part of the general principles of liberty and equality, or are other ideas involved? These are among the questions which we shall have to examine.

We have now passed the main phases of the Liberal movement in very summary review, and we have noted, first, that it is co-extensive with life. It is concerned with the individual, the family, the State. It touches industry, law, religion, ethics. It would not be difficult, if space allowed, to illustrate its influence in literature and art, to describe the war with convention, insincerity, and patronage, and the struggle for free self-expression, for reality, for the artist's soul. Liberalism is an all-penetrating element of the life-structure of the modern world. Secondly, it is an effective historical force. If its work is nowhere complete, it is almost everywhere in progress. The modern State as we see it in Europe outside Russia, in the British colonies, in North and South America, as we begin to see it in the Russian empire and throughout the vast continent of Asia, is the old authoritarian society modified in greater or less degree by the absorption of Liberal principles. Turning, thirdly, to those principles themselves, we have recognized Liberalism in every department as a movement fairly denoted by the name—a movement of liberation, a clearance of obstructions, an opening of channels for the flow of free spontaneous vital activity. Fourthly, we have seen that in a large number of cases what is under one aspect a movement for liberty is on another side a movement towards equality, and the habitual association of these principles is so far confirmed. On the other hand, lastly, we have seen numerous cases in which the exacter definition of liberty and the precise meaning of equality remain obscure, and to discuss these will be our task. We have, moreover, admittedly regarded Liberalism mainly in its earlier and more negative aspect. We have seen it as a force working within an old society and modifying it by the loosening of the bonds which its structure imposed on human activity. We have yet to ask what constructive social scheme, if any, could be formed on Liberal principles; and it is here, if at all, that the fuller meaning of the principles of Liberty and Equality should appear, and the methods of applying them be made out. The problem of popular sovereignty pointed to the same need. Thus the lines of the remainder of our task are clearly laid down. We have to get at the fundamentals of Liberalism, and to consider what kind of structure can be raised upon the basis which they offer. We will approach the question by tracing the historic movement of Liberal thought through certain well-marked phases. We shall see how the problems which have been indicated were attacked by successive thinkers, and how partial solutions gave occasion for deeper probings. Following the guidance of the actual movement of ideas, we shall reach the centre and heart of Liberalism, and we shall try to form a conception of the essentials of the Liberal creed as a constructive theory of society. This conception we shall then apply to the greater questions, political and economic, of our own day; and this will enable us finally to estimate the present position of Liberalism as a living force in the modern world and the prospect of transforming its ideals into actualities.


[2] In England "benefit of clergy" was still a good plea for remission of sentence for a number of crimes in the seventeenth century. At that time all who could read could claim benefit, which was therefore of the nature of a privilege for the educated class. The requirement of reading, which had become a form, was abolished in 1705, but peers and clerks in holy orders could still plead their clergy in the eighteenth century, and the last relics of the privilege were not finally abolished till the nineteenth century.

[3] See an interesting chapter in Faguet's Liberalisme, which points out that the common saying that thought is free is negated by any inquisition which compels a man to disclose opinions, and penalizes him if they are not such as to suit the inquisitor.



Great changes are not caused by ideas alone; but they are not effected without ideas. The passions of men must be aroused if the frost of custom is to be broken or the chains of authority burst; but passion of itself is blind and its world is chaotic. To be effective men must act together, and to act together they must have a common understanding and a common object. When it comes to be a question of any far-reaching change, they must not merely conceive their own immediate end with clearness. They must convert others, they must communicate sympathy and win over the unconvinced. Upon the whole, they must show that their object is possible, that it is compatible with existing institutions, or at any rate with some workable form of social life. They are, in fact, driven on by the requirements of their position to the elaboration of ideas, and in the end to some sort of social philosophy; and the philosophies that have driving force behind them are those which arise after this fashion out of the practical demands of human feeling. The philosophies that remain ineffectual and academic are those that are formed by abstract reflection without relation to the thirsty souls of human kind.

In England, it is true, where men are apt to be shy and unhandy in the region of theory, the Liberal movement has often sought to dispense with general principles. In its early days and in its more moderate forms, it sought its ends under the guise of constitutionalism. As against the claims of the Stuart monarchy, there was a historic case as well as a philosophic argument, and the earlier leaders of the Parliament relied more on precedent than on principle. This method was embodied in the Whig tradition, and runs on to our own time, as one of the elements that go to make up the working constitution of the Liberal mind. It is, so to say, the Conservative element in Liberalism, valuable in resistance to encroachments, valuable in securing continuity of development, for purposes of re-construction insufficient. To maintain the old order under changed circumstances may be, in fact, to initiate a revolution. It was so in the seventeenth century. Pym and his followers could find justification for their contentions in our constitutional history, but to do so they had to go behind both the Stuarts and the Tudors; and to apply the principles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in 1640 was, in effect, to institute a revolution. In our own time, to maintain the right of the Commons against the Lords is, on the face of it, to adhere to old constitutional right, but to do so under the new circumstances which have made the Commons representative of the nation as a whole is, in reality, to establish democracy for the first time on a firm footing, and this, again, is to accomplish a revolution.

Now, those who effect a revolution ought to know whither they are leading the world. They have need of a social theory—and in point of fact the more thorough-going apostles of movement always have such a theory; and though, as we have remarked, the theory emerges from the practical needs which they feel, and is therefore apt to invest ideas of merely temporary value with the character of eternal truths, it is not on this account to be dismissed as of secondary importance. Once formed, it reacts upon the minds of its adherents, and gives direction and unity to their efforts. It becomes, in its turn, a real historic force, and the degree of its coherence and adequacy is matter, not merely of academic interest, but of practical moment. Moreover, the onward course of a movement is more clearly understood by appreciating the successive points of view which its thinkers and statesmen have occupied than by following the devious turnings of political events and the tangle of party controversy. The point of view naturally affects the whole method of handling problems, whether speculative or practical, and to the historian it serves as a centre around which ideas and policies that perhaps differ, and even conflict with one another, may be so grouped as to show their underlying affinities. Let us then seek to determine the principal points of view which the Liberal movement has occupied, and distinguish the main types of theory in which the passion for freedom has sought to express itself.

The first of these types I will call the theory of the Natural Order.

The earlier Liberalism had to deal with authoritarian government in church and state. It had to vindicate the elements of personal, civil, and economic freedom; and in so doing it took its stand on the rights of man, and, in proportion as it was forced to be constructive, on the supposed harmony of the natural order. Government claimed supernatural sanction and divine ordinance. Liberal theory replied in effect that the rights of man rested on the law of Nature, and those of government on human institution. The oldest "institution" in this view was the individual, and the primordial society the natural grouping of human beings under the influence of family affection, and for the sake of mutual aid. Political society was a more artificial arrangement, a convention arrived at for the specific purpose of securing a better order and maintaining the common safety. It was, perhaps, as Locke held, founded on a contract between king and people, a contract which was brought to an end if either party violated its terms. Or, as in Rousseau's view, it was essentially a contract of the people with one another, an arrangement by means of which, out of many conflicting individual wills, a common or general will could be formed. A government might be instituted as the organ of this will, but it would, from the nature of the case, be subordinate to the people from whom it derived authority. The people were sovereign. The government was their delegate.

Whatever the differences of outlook that divide these theories, those who from Locke to Rousseau and Paine worked with this order of ideas agreed in conceiving political society as a restraint to which men voluntarily submitted themselves for specific purposes. Political institutions were the source of subjection and inequality. Before and behind them stood the assemblage of free and equal individuals. But the isolated individual was powerless. He had rights which were limited only by the corresponding rights of others, but he could not, unless chance gave him the upper hand, enforce them. Accordingly, he found it best to enter into an arrangement with others for the mutual respect of rights; and for this purpose he instituted a government to maintain his rights within the community and to guard the community from assault from without. It followed that the function of government was limited and definable. It was to maintain the natural rights of man as accurately as the conditions of society allowed, and to do naught beside. Any further action employing the compulsory power of the State was of the nature of an infringement of the understanding on which government rested. In entering into the compact, the individual gave up so much of his rights as was necessitated by the condition of submitting to a common rule—so much, and no more. He gave up his natural rights and received in return civil rights, something less complete, perhaps, but more effective as resting on the guarantee of the collective power. If you would discover, then, what the civil rights of man in society should be, you must inquire what are the natural rights of man,[4] and how far they are unavoidably modified in accommodating the conflicting claims of men with one another. Any interference that goes beyond this necessary accommodation is oppression. Civil rights should agree as nearly as possible with natural rights, or, as Paine says, a civil right is a natural right exchanged.

This conception of the relations of the State and the individual long outlived the theory on which it rested. It underlies the entire teaching of the Manchester school. Its spirit was absorbed, as we shall see, by many of the Utilitarians. It operated, though in diminishing force, throughout the nineteenth century; and it is strongly held by contemporary Liberals like M. Faguet, who frankly abrogate its speculative foundations and rest their case on social utility. Its strength is, in effect, not in its logical principles, but in the compactness and consistency which it gives to a view of the functions of the State which responds to certain needs of modern society. As long as those needs were uppermost, the theory was of living value. In proportion as they have been satisfied and other needs have emerged, the requirement has arisen for a fuller and sounder principle.

But there was another side to the theory of nature which we must not ignore. If in this theory government is the marplot and authority the source of oppression and stagnation, where are the springs of progress and civilization? Clearly, in the action of individuals. The more the individual receives free scope for the play of his faculties, the more rapidly will society as a whole advance. There are here the elements of an important truth, but what is the implication? If the individual is free, any two individuals, each pursuing his own ends, may find themselves in conflict. It was, in fact, the possibility of such conflict which was recognized by our theory as the origin and foundation of society. Men had to agree to some measure of mutual restraint in order that their liberty might be effective. But in the course of the eighteenth century, and particularly in the economic sphere, there arose a view that the conflict of wills is based on misunderstanding and ignorance, and that its mischiefs are accentuated by governmental repression. At bottom there is a natural harmony of interests. Maintain external order, suppress violence, assure men in the possession of their property, and enforce the fulfilment of contracts, and the rest will go of itself. Each man will be guided by self-interest, but interest will lead him along the lines of greatest productivity. If all artificial barriers are removed, he will find the occupation which best suits his capacities, and this will be the occupation in which he will be most productive, and therefore, socially, most valuable. He will have to sell his goods to a willing purchaser, therefore he must devote himself to the production of things which others need, things, therefore, of social value. He will, by preference, make that for which he can obtain the highest price, and this will be that for which, at the particular time and place and in relation to his particular capacities, there is the greatest need. He will, again, find the employer who will pay him best, and that will be the employer to whom he can do the best service. Self-interest, if enlightened and unfettered, will, in short, lead him to conduct coincident with public interest. There is, in this sense, a natural harmony between the individual and society. True, this harmony might require a certain amount of education and enlightenment to make it effective. What it did not require was governmental "interference," which would always hamper the causes making for its smooth and effectual operation. Government must keep the ring, and leave it for individuals to play out the game. The theory of the natural rights of the individual is thus supplemented by a theory of the mutual harmony of individual and social needs, and, so completed, forms a conception of human society which is prima facie workable, which, in fact, contains important elements of truth, and which was responsive to the needs of a great class, and to many of the requirements of society as a whole, during a considerable period.

On both sides, however, the theory exhibits, under criticism, fundamental weaknesses which have both a historical and a speculative significance. Let us first consider the conception of natural rights. What were these rights, and on what did they rest? On the first point men sought to be explicit. By way of illustration we cannot do better than quote the leading clauses of the Declaration of 1789.[5]

Article I.—Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on common utility.

Article II.—The end of every political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.[6] These rights are liberty, property, security (la surete), and resistance to oppression.

Article III.—The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation....

Article IV.—Liberty consists in the power to do anything that does not injure others; thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has only such limits as assure to other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

Article VI.—The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have a right to take part (concourir), personally or by their representatives, in its formation.

The remainder of this article insists on the impartiality of law and the equal admission of all citizens to office. The Declaration of 1793 is more emphatic about equality, and more rhetorical. Article III reads, "All men are equal by nature and before the law."

It is easy to subject these articles to a niggling form of criticism in which their spirit is altogether missed. I would ask attention only to one or two points of principle.

(a) What are the rights actually claimed? "Security" and "resistance to oppression" are not in principle distinct, and, moreover, may be taken as covered by the definition of liberty. The meaning at bottom is "Security for liberty in respect of his person and property is the right of every man." So expressed, it will be seen that this right postulates the existence of an ordered society, and lays down that it is the duty of such a society to secure the liberty of its members. The right of the individual, then, is not something independent of society, but one of the principles which a good social order must recognize.

(b) Observe that equality is limited by the "common utility," and that the sphere of liberty is ultimately to be defined by "law." In both cases we are referred back from the individual either to the needs or to the decision of society as a whole. There are, moreover, two definitions of liberty. (1) It is the power to do what does not injure others. (2) It is a right limited by the consideration that others must enjoy the same rights. It is important to bear in mind that these two definitions are highly discrepant. If my right to knock a man down is only limited by his equal right to knock me down, the law has no business to interfere when we take to our fists. If, on the other hand, I have no right to injure another, the law should interfere. Very little reflection suffices to show that this is the sounder principle, and that respect for the equal liberty of another is not an adequate definition of liberty. My right to keep my neighbour awake by playing the piano all night is not satisfactorily counterbalanced by his right to keep a dog which howls all the time the piano is being played. The right of a "sweater" to pay starvation wages is not satisfactorily limited by the corresponding right which his employee would enjoy if he were in a position to impose the same terms on some one else. Generally, the right to injure or take advantage of another is not sufficiently limited by the right of that other if he should have the power to retaliate in kind. There is no right to injure another; and if we ask what is injury we are again thrown back on some general principle which will override the individual claim to do what one will.

(c) The doctrine of popular sovereignty rests on two principles. (1) It is said to reside in the nation. Law is the expression of the general will. Here the "nation" is conceived as a collective whole, as a unit. (2) Every citizen has the right to take part in making the law. Here the question is one of individual right. Which is the real ground of democratic representation—the unity of the national life, or the inherent right of the individual to be consulted about that which concerns himself?

Further, and this is a very serious question, which is the ultimate authority—the will of the nation, or the rights of the individual? Suppose the nation deliberately decides on laws which deny the rights of the individual, ought such laws to be obeyed in the name of popular sovereignty, or to be disobeyed in the name of natural rights? It is a real issue, and on these lines it is unfortunately quite insoluble.

These difficulties were among the considerations which led to the formation of the second type of Liberal theory, and what has to be said about the harmony of the natural order may be taken in conjunction with this second theory to which we may now pass, and which is famous as The Greatest Happiness Principle.

Bentham, who spent the greater part of his life in elaborating the greatest happiness principle as a basis of social reconstruction, was fully alive to the difficulties which we have found in the theory of natural rights. The alleged rights of man were for him so many anarchical fallacies. They were founded on no clearly assignable principle, and admitted of no demonstration. "I say I have a right." "I say you have no such right." Between the disputants who or what is to decide? What was the supposed law of nature? When was it written, and by whose authority? On what ground do we maintain that men are free or equal? On what principle and within what limits do we or can we maintain the right of property? There were points on which, by universal admission, all these rights have to give way. What is the right of property worth in times of war or of any overwhelming general need? The Declaration itself recognized the need of appeal to common utility or to the law to define the limits of individual right. Bentham would frankly make all rights dependent on common utility, and therewith he would make it possible to examine all conflicting claims in the light of a general principle. He would measure them all by a common standard. Has a man the right to express his opinion freely? To determine the question on Bentham's lines we must ask whether it is, on the whole, useful to society that the free expression of opinion should be allowed, and this, he would say, is a question which may be decided by general reasoning and by experience of results. Of course, we must take the rough with the smooth. If the free expression of opinion is allowed, false opinion will find utterance and will mislead many. The question would be, does the loss involved in the promulgation of error counterbalance the gain to be derived from unfettered discussion? and Bentham would hold himself free to judge by results. Should the State maintain the rights of private property? Yes, if the admission of those rights is useful to the community as a whole. No, if it is not useful. Some rights of property, again, may be advantageous, others disadvantageous. The community is free to make a selection. If it finds that certain forms of property are working to the exclusive benefit of individuals and the prejudice of the common weal, it has good ground for the suppression of those forms of property, while it may, with equal justice, maintain other forms of property which it holds sound as judged by the effect on the common welfare. It is limited by no "imprescriptible" right of the individual. It may do with the individual what it pleases provided that it has the good of the whole in view. So far as the question of right is concerned the Benthamite principle might be regarded as decidedly socialistic or even authoritarian. It contemplates, at least as a possibility, the complete subordination of individual to social claims.

There is, however, another side to the Benthamite principle, to understand which we must state the heads of the theory itself as a positive doctrine. What is this social utility of which we have spoken? In what does it consist? What is useful to society, and what harmful? The answer has the merit of great clearness and simplicity. An action is good which tends to promote the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number of those affected by it. As with an action, so, of course, with an institution or a social system. That is useful which conforms to this principle. That is harmful which conflicts with it. That is right which conforms to it, that is wrong which conflicts with it. The greatest happiness principle is the one and supreme principle of conduct. Observe that it imposes on us two considerations. One is the greatest happiness. Now happiness is defined as consisting positively in the presence of pleasure, negatively in the absence of pain. A greater pleasure is then preferable to a lesser, a pleasure unaccompanied by pain to one involving pain. Conceiving pain as a minus quantity of pleasure, we may say that the principle requires us always to take quantity and pleasure into account, and nothing else. But, secondly, the number of individuals affected is material. An act might cause pleasure to one and pain to two. Then it is wrong, unless, indeed, the pleasure were very great and the pain in each case small. We must balance the consequences, taking all individuals affected into account, and "everybody must count for one and nobody for more than one." This comment is an integral part of the original formula. As between the happiness of his father, his child, or himself, and the happiness of a stranger, a man must be impartial. He must only consider the quantity of pleasure secured or pain inflicted.

Now, in this conception of measurable quantities of pleasure and pain there is, as many critics have insisted, something unreal and academic. We shall have to return to the point, but let us first endeavour to understand the bearing of Bentham's teaching on the problems of his own time and on the subsequent development of Liberal thought. For this purpose we will keep to what is real in his doctrine, even if it is not always defined with academic precision. The salient points that we note, then, are (1) the subordination of all considerations of right to the considerations of happiness, (2) the importance of number, and (3) as the other side of the same doctrine, the insistence on equality or impartiality between man and man. The common utility which Bentham considers is the happiness experienced by a number of individuals, all of whom are reckoned for this purpose as of equal value. This is the radical individualism of the Benthamite creed, to be set against that socialistic tendency which struck us in our preliminary account.

In this individualism, equality is fundamental. Everybody is to count for one, nobody for more than one, for every one can feel pain and pleasure. Liberty, on the other hand, is not fundamental, it is a means to an end. Popular sovereignty is not fundamental, for all government is a means to an end. Nevertheless, the school of Bentham, upon the whole, stood by both liberty and democracy. Let us consider their attitude.

As to popular government, Bentham and James Mill reasoned after this fashion. Men, if left to themselves, that is to say, if neither trained by an educational discipline nor checked by responsibility, do not consider the good of the greatest number. They consider their own good. A king, if his power is unchecked, will rule in his own interest. A class, if its power is unchecked, will rule in its own interest. The only way to secure fair consideration for the happiness of all is to allow to all an equal share of power. True, if there is a conflict the majority will prevail, but they will be moved each by consideration of his own happiness, and the majority as a whole, therefore, by the happiness of the greater number. There is no inherent right in the individual to take a part in government. There is a claim to be considered in the distribution of the means of happiness, and to share in the work of government as a means to this end. It would follow, among other things, that if one man or one class could be shown to be so much wiser and better than others that his or their rule would, in fact, conduce more to the happiness of the greater number than a popular system, then the business of government ought to be entrusted to that man or that class and no one else ought to interfere with it.

The whole argument, however, implies a crude view of the problem of government. It is, of course, theoretically possible that a question should present itself, detached from other questions, in which a definite measurable interest of each of the seven millions or more of voters is at stake. For example, the great majority of English people drink tea. Comparatively few drink wine. Should a particular sum be raised by a duty on tea or on wine? Here the majority of tea-drinkers have a measurable interest, the same in kind and roughly the same in degree for each; and the vote of the majority, if it could be taken on this question alone and based on self-interest alone, might be conceived without absurdity as representing a sum of individual interests. Even here, however, observe that, though the greatest number is considered, the greatest happiness does not fare so well. For to raise the same sum the tax on wine will, as less is drunk, have to be much larger than the tax on tea, so that a little gain to many tea-drinkers might inflict a heavy loss on the few wine-drinkers, and on the Benthamite principle it is not clear that this would be just. In point of fact it is possible for a majority to act tyrannically, by insisting on a slight convenience to itself at the expense, perhaps, of real suffering to a minority. Now the Utilitarian principle by no means justifies such tyranny, but it does seem to contemplate the weighing of one man's loss against another's gain, and such a method of balancing does not at bottom commend itself to our sense of justice. We may lay down that if there is a rational social order at all it must be one which never rests the essential indispensable condition of the happiness of one man on the unavoidable misery of another, nor the happiness of forty millions of men on the misery of one. It may be temporarily expedient, but it is eternally unjust, that one man should die for the people.

We may go further. The case of the contemplated tax is, as applied to the politics of a modern State, an unreal one. Political questions cannot be thus isolated. Even if we could vote by referendum on a special tax, the question which voters would have to consider would never be the revenue from and the incidence of that tax alone. All the indirect social and economic bearings of the tax would come up for consideration, and in the illustration chosen people would be swayed, and rightly swayed, by their opinion, for example, of the comparative effects of tea-drinking and wine-drinking. No one element of the social life stands separate from the rest, any more than any one element of the animal body stands separate from the rest. In this sense the life of society is rightly held to be organic, and all considered public policy must be conceived in its bearing on the life of society as a whole. But the moment that we apply this view to politics, the Benthamite mode of stating the case for democracy is seen to be insufficient. The interests of every man are no doubt in the end bound up with the welfare of the whole community, but the relation is infinitely subtle and indirect. Moreover, it takes time to work itself out, and the evil that is done in the present day may only bear fruit when the generation that has done it has passed away. Thus, the direct and calculable benefit of the majority may by no means coincide with the ultimate good of society as a whole; and to suppose that the majority must, on grounds of self-interest, govern in the interests of the community as a whole is in reality to attribute to the mass of men full insight into problems which tax the highest efforts of science and of statesmanship. Lastly, to suppose that men are governed entirely by a sense of their interests is a many-sided fallacy. Men are neither so intelligent nor so selfish. They are swayed by emotion and by impulse, and both for good and for evil they will lend enthusiastic support to courses of public policy from which, as individuals, they have nothing to gain. To understand the real value of democratic government, we shall have to probe far deeper into the relations of the individual and society.

I turn lastly to the question of liberty. On Benthamite principles there could be no question here of indefeasible individual right. There were even, as we saw, possibilities of a thorough-going Socialism or of an authoritarian paternalism in the Benthamite principle. But two great considerations told in the opposite direction. One arose from the circumstances of the day. Bentham, originally a man of somewhat conservative temper, was driven into Radicalism comparatively late in life by the indifference or hostility of the governing classes to his schemes of reform. Government, as he saw it, was of the nature of a close corporation with a vested interest hostile to the public weal, and his work is penetrated by distrust of power as such. There was much in the history of the time to justify his attitude. It was difficult at that time to believe in an honest officialdom putting the commonwealth above every personal or corporate interest, and reformers naturally looked to individual initiative as the source of progress. Secondly, and this was a more philosophic argument, the individual was supposed to understand his own interest best, and as the common good was the sum of individual interests, it followed that so far as every man was free to seek his own good, the good of the greatest number would be most effectually realized by general freedom of choice. That there were difficulties in reconciling self-interest with the general good was not denied. But men like James Mill, who especially worked at this side of the problem, held that they could be overcome by moral education. Trained from childhood to associate the good of others with his own, a man would come, he thought, to care for the happiness of others as for the happiness of self. For, in the long run, the two things were coincident. Particularly in a free economic system, as remarked above, each individual, moving along the line of greatest personal profit, would be found to fulfil the function of greatest profit to society. Let this be understood, and we should have true social harmony based on the spontaneous operation of personal interest enlightened by intelligence and chastened by the discipline of unruly instinct.

Thus, though their starting-point was different, the Benthamites arrived at practical results not notably divergent from those of the doctrine of natural liberty; and, on the whole, the two influences worked together in the formation of that school who in the reform period exercised so notable an influence on English Liberalism, and to whose work we must now turn.


[4] Cf. the preamble to the Declaration of the Rights of Man by the French National Assembly in 1789. The Assembly lays down "the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man," in order, among other things, "that the acts of the legislative power and those of the executive power, being capable of being at every instant compared with the end of every political institution, may be more respected accordingly."

[5] The comparison of the Declaration of the Assembly in 1789 with that of the Convention in 1793 is full of interest, both for the points of agreement and difference, but would require a lengthy examination. I note one or two points in passing.

[6] Contrast 1793, Art. I: "The end of society is the common happiness. Government is instituted to guarantee to man the enjoyment of his natural and imprescriptible rights."



The school of Cobden is affiliated in general outlook both to the doctrine of natural liberty and to the discipline of Bentham. It shared with the Benthamites the thoroughly practical attitude dear to the English mind. It has much less to say of natural rights than the French theorists. On the other hand, it is saturated with the conviction that the unfettered action of the individual is the mainspring of all progress.[7] Its starting-point is economic. Trade is still in fetters. The worst of the archaic internal restrictions have, indeed, been thrown off. But even here Cobden is active in the work of finally emancipating Manchester from manorial rights that have no place in the nineteenth century. The main work, however, is the liberation of foreign trade. The Corn Laws, as even the tariff reformers of our own day admit, were conceived in the interest of the governing classes. They frankly imposed a tax on the food of the masses for the benefit of the landlords, and as the result of the agricultural and industrial revolutions which had been in progress since 1760, the masses had been brought to the lowest point of economic misery. Give to every man the right to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market, urged the Cobdenite, and trade would automatically expand. The business career would be open to the talents. The good workman would command the full money's worth of his work, and his money would buy him food and clothing at the lowest rate in the world's market. Only so would he get the full value of his work, paying toll to none. Taxes there must be to carry on government, but if we looked into the cost of government we found that it depended mostly on armaments. Why did we need armaments? First, because of the national antagonisms aroused and maintained by a protective system. Free commercial intercourse between nations would engender mutual knowledge, and knit the severed peoples by countless ties of business interests. Free Trade meant peace, and once taught by the example of Great Britain's prosperity, other nations would follow suit, and Free Trade would be universal. The other root of national danger was the principle of intervention. We took it on ourselves to set other nations right. How could we judge for other nations? Force was no remedy. Let every people be free to work out its own salvation. Things were not so perfect with us that we need go about setting the houses of other people in order. To complete personal freedom, there must be national freedom. There must also be colonial freedom. The colonies could no longer be governed in the interests of the mother country, nor ought they to require standing garrisons maintained by the mother country. They were distant lands, each, if we gave it freedom, with a great future of its own, capable of protecting itself, and developing with freedom into true nationhood. Personal freedom, colonial freedom, international freedom, were parts of one whole. Non-intervention, peace, restriction of armaments, retrenchment of expenditure, reduction of taxation, were the connected series of practical consequences. The money retrenched from wasteful military expenditure need not all be remitted to the taxpayer. A fraction of it devoted to education—free, secular, and universal—would do as much good as when spent on guns and ships it did harm. For education was necessary to raise the standard of intelligence, and provide the substantial equality of opportunity at the start without which the mass of men could not make use of the freedom given by the removal of legislative restrictions. There were here elements of a more constructive view for which Cobden and his friends have not always received sufficient credit.

In the main, however, the teaching of the Manchester school tended both in external and in internal affairs to a restricted view of the function of government. Government had to maintain order, to restrain men from violence and fraud, to hold them secure in person and property against foreign and domestic enemies, to give them redress against injury, that so they may rely on reaping where they have sown, may enjoy the fruits of their industry, may enter unimpeded into what arrangements they will with one another for their mutual benefit. Let us see what criticism was passed on this view by the contemporaries of Cobden and by the loud voice of the facts themselves. The old economic regime had been in decay throughout the eighteenth century. The divorce of the labourer from the land was complete at the time when the Anti-Corn Law League was formed. The mass of the English peasantry were landless labourers working for a weekly wage of about ten or twelve shillings, and often for a good deal less. The rise of machine industry since 1760 had destroyed the old domestic system and reduced the operative in the towns to the position of a factory hand under an employer, who found the road to wealth easy in the monopoly of manufacture enjoyed by this country for two generations after the Napoleonic war. The factory system early brought matters to a head at one point by the systematic employment of women and young children under conditions which outraged the public conscience when they became known. In the case of children it was admitted from an early date, it was urged by Cobden himself, that the principle of free contract could not apply. Admitting, for the sake of argument, that the adult could make a better bargain for himself or herself than any one could do for him or her, no one could contend that the pauper child apprenticed by Poor Law guardians to a manufacturer had any say or could have any judgment as to the work which it was set to do. It had to be protected, and experience showed that it had to be protected by law. Free contract did not solve the question of the helpless child. It left it to be "exploited" by the employer in his own interest, and whatever regard might be shown for its health and well-being by individuals was a matter of individual benevolence, not a right secured by the necessary operation of the system of liberty.

But these arguments admitted of great extension. If the child was helpless, was the grown-up person, man or woman, in a much better position? Here was the owner of a mill employing five hundred hands. Here was an operative possessed of no alternative means of subsistence seeking employment. Suppose them to bargain as to terms. If the bargain failed, the employer lost one man and had four hundred and ninety-nine to keep his mill going. At worst he might for a day or two, until another operative appeared, have a little difficulty in working a single machine. During the same days the operative might have nothing to eat, and might see his children going hungry. Where was the effective liberty in such an arrangement? The operatives themselves speedily found that there was none, and had from an early period in the rise of the machine industry sought to redress the balance by combination. Now, combination was naturally disliked by employers, and it was strongly suspect to believers in liberty because it put constraint upon individuals. Yet trade unions gained the first step in emancipation through the action of Place and the Radicals in 1824, more perhaps because these men conceived trade unions as the response of labour to oppressive laws which true freedom of competition would render superfluous than because they founded any serious hopes of permanent social progress upon Trade Unionism itself. In point of fact, the critical attitude was not without its justification. Trade Unionism can be protective in spirit and oppressive in action. Nevertheless, it was essential to the maintenance of their industrial standard by the artisan classes, because it alone, in the absence of drastic legislative protection, could do something to redress the inequality between employer and employed. It gave, upon the whole, far more freedom to the workman than it took away, and in this we learn an important lesson which has far wider application. In the matter of contract true freedom postulates substantial equality between the parties. In proportion as one party is in a position of vantage, he is able to dictate his terms. In proportion as the other party is in a weak position, he must accept unfavourable terms. Hence the truth of Walker's dictum that economic injuries tend to perpetuate themselves. The more a class is brought low, the greater its difficulty in rising again without assistance. For purposes of legislation the State has been exceedingly slow to accept this view. It began, as we saw, with the child, where the case was overwhelming. It went on to include the "young person" and the woman—not without criticism from those who held by woman's rights, and saw in this extension of tutelage an enlargement of male domination. Be that as it may, public opinion was brought to this point by the belief that it was intervening in an exceptional manner to protect a definite class not strong enough to bargain for itself. It drew the line at the adult male; and it is only within our own time, and as the result of a controversy waged for many years within the trade union world itself, that legislation has avowedly undertaken the task of controlling the conditions of industry, the hours, and at length, through the institution of Wages Boards in "sweated industries," the actual remuneration of working people without limitation of age or sex. To this it has been driven by the manifest teaching of experience that liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result.

In place of the system of unfettered agreements between individual and individual which the school of Cobden contemplated, the industrial system which has actually grown up and is in process of further development rests on conditions prescribed by the State, and within the limits of those conditions is very largely governed by collective arrangements between associations of employers and employed. The law provides for the safety of the worker and the sanitary conditions of employment. It prescribes the length of the working day for women and children in factories and workshops, and for men in mines and on railways.[8] In the future it will probably deal freely with the hours of men. It enables wages boards to establish a legal minimum wage in scheduled industries which will undoubtedly grow in number. It makes employers liable for all injuries suffered by operatives in the course of their employment, and forbids any one to "contract out" of this obligation. Within these limits, it allows freedom of contract. But at this point, in the more highly developed trades, the work is taken up by voluntary associations. Combinations of men have been met by combinations of employers, and wages, hours, and all the details of the industrial bargain are settled by collective agreement through the agency of a joint board with an impartial chairman or referee in case of necessity for an entire locality and even an entire trade. So far have we gone from the free competition of isolated individuals.

This development is sometimes held to have involved the decay and death of the older Liberalism. It is true that in the beginning factory legislation enjoyed a large measure of Conservative support. It was at that stage in accordance with the best traditions of paternal rule, and it commended itself to the religious convictions of men of whom Lord Shaftesbury was the typical example. It is true, also, that it was bitterly opposed by Cobden and Bright. On the other hand, Radicals like J. Cam Hobhouse took a leading part in the earlier legislation, and Whig Governments passed the very important Acts of 1833 and 1847. The cleavage of opinion, in fact, cut across the ordinary divisions of party. What is more to the purpose is that, as experience ripened, the implications of the new legislation became clearer, and men came to see that by industrial control they were not destroying liberty but confirming it. A new and more concrete conception of liberty arose and many old presuppositions were challenged.

Let us look for a moment at these presuppositions. We have seen that the theory of laissez-faire assumed that the State would hold the ring. That is to say, it would suppress force and fraud, keep property safe, and aid men in enforcing contracts. On these conditions, it was maintained, men should be absolutely free to compete with one another, so that their best energies should be called forth, so that each should feel himself responsible for the guidance of his own life, and exert his manhood to the utmost. But why, it might be asked, on these conditions, just these and no others? Why should the State ensure protection of person and property? The time was when the strong man armed kept his goods, and incidentally his neighbour's goods too if he could get hold of them. Why should the State intervene to do for a man that which his ancestor did for himself? Why should a man who has been soundly beaten in physical fight go to a public authority for redress? How much more manly to fight his own battle! Was it not a kind of pauperization to make men secure in person and property through no efforts of their own, by the agency of a state machinery operating over their heads? Would not a really consistent individualism abolish this machinery? "But," the advocate of laissez-faire may reply, "the use of force is criminal, and the State must suppress crime." So men held in the nineteenth century. But there was an earlier time when they did not take this view, but left it to individuals and their kinsfolk to revenge their own injuries by their own might. Was not this a time of more unrestricted individual liberty? Yet the nineteenth century regarded it, and justly, as an age of barbarism. What, we may ask in our turn, is the essence of crime? May we not say that any intentional injury to another may be legitimately punished by a public authority, and may we not say that to impose twelve hours' daily labour on a child was to inflict a greater injury than the theft of a purse for which a century ago a man might be hanged? On what principle, then, is the line drawn, so as to specify certain injuries which the State may prohibit and to mark off others which it must leave untouched? Well, it may be said, volenti non fit injuria. No wrong is done to a man by a bargain to which he is a willing party. That may be, though there are doubtful cases. But in the field that has been in question the contention is that one party is not willing. The bargain is a forced bargain. The weaker man consents as one slipping over a precipice might consent to give all his fortune to one who will throw him a rope on no other terms. This is not true consent. True consent is free consent, and full freedom of consent implies equality on the part of both parties to the bargain. Just as government first secured the elements of freedom for all when it prevented the physically stronger man from slaying, beating, despoiling his neighbours, so it secures a larger measure of freedom for all by every restriction which it imposes with a view to preventing one man from making use of any of his advantages to the disadvantage of others.

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