March 22nd, 1998.
Liberalism had its origins in the 19th century. It stood for liberty, both individual and national, with as little government as possible. It was a reaction to the aristocratic masters of those times when social privilege and authority were thought to be inheritable rights. Historically, what liberals thought is that there should be limits on social authority and believed that there existed a private sphere of beliefs and conduct over which the individual should exercise autonomy. As the 19th century progressed the old aristocratic system was worn down, and while it was hoped that this power would be passed over to the people: it was not, and by and large, has not.
There who those today who flatter themselves by calling themselves "liberals." They are but socialists. The socialist proceeds on the assumption that all concerned will judge rightly and act fairly - will think as they ought to think, and act as they ought to act; and these socialists assume this regardless of the daily experiences which we all have and which show that men do not necessarily act in such a fashion. These socialists, with their complaints that they make against the existing system, show their belief to be, that men have neither the wisdom nor the rectitude required by their plan, at least not under the principals of freedom and democracy. The utterances of socialists, as George Santayana expressed it, is but "the babble of dreamers who walk through one world mentally beholding another." Liking them to flowers, Santayana writes: "Their thoughts ... are all positings and deductions and asseverations of which ought to be, whilst the calm truth is marching unheeded outside."
We need but look at the history of the 20th century and see the damage and injury that has been brought on by those who proceeded to put into practice the theories of socialism. Attempts of establishing governments along socialistic lines, time and time again, have simply demonstrated its unworkability. But, far worse, on every occasion, the outcome has been human misery. But, we hear yet, the Siren Song of Socialism: government action can create the good life for all. To begin with government is not a neutral benevolent institution. But, let us forget and put aside the corrosive effect of Big Government -- just, I hasten to add, for the purposes of this argument. It cannot be calculated what it is that people in society should do; and when, and how, and in what order it should be done. Society works because of the cooperation of people at the roots of society; it cannot be directed from the top by any form of government, one with good intentions or otherwise. Thankfully, for the coming into being of the human race and for its continuing maintenance, no knowing and directive force is required. Things in nature organize themselves by nature not by reason; reason is but a mental process by which human beings sort out choices, a process which necessarily is limited by the number of choices a person can keep in mind -- which, for most of us, is not too many at any one time.
We may achieve in our society, and not at general expense, full production and full distribution, and do so through the voluntary co-operation of most everyone: intrusive and confiscatory government is not needed. There is a natural directive apparatus at work in this world which governs and supplies the needs and wants of human beings. There exists an egocentric mechanism which serves an extended order of collaboration: it is called the "market." Have you not marveled on how food is brought to your table; have you not wondered along the isles of a modern day grocery store and beheld the variety and cheap prices. It all comes to you, spontaneously, through a complex of interacting individuals or groups of individuals, all working consciously to advance themselves, and by so working, albeit unconsciously, advances society as a whole. It all comes about with very little social conflict simply in the desire of each person to gain a living by supplying the needs of his fellows. This marvellous system is fueled and driven by self-interest of the individuals within it.
The simple and timeless fact, as described by Adam Smith in 1776, is: given the diversity of man's knowledge, only the individual, through his or her own industriousness and ingenuity, is capable of advancing his or her own particular interest or interests. It is only the individual person who can properly assess the matter before him or her; and, considering what is at stake, who knows how best to apply the needed industry and capital. It can only be the individual, having the matter at stake, who can best predict the product that might result from the application of his or her preserved industry and capital. It can only be the individual who can take into account his or her local situation; and, being at the level where the action must take place, take the action which is likely required to achieve the desired results. No person can do these things for another even if they be described as a statesman or a lawgiver. If, the inappropriate, or wrong action is taken, or no action is taken where some was called for -- with the result of an undesired impact on the individual; then, that individual has no one to blame but himself or herself; and a lesson becomes available for the learning.
1 This week's commentary has been taken from a larger essay of blupete's, The Siren's Song.
2 Socialism is "a theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all." (OED2.) Or more simply, a state of society in which things are held or used in common. Collectivism, socialism, communism: it's all the same. A communist, incidentally, it has been said, is merely a socialist with the courage to express his views openly and with conviction. And, the theory of communism may be summed up in the single sentence: "Abolition of private property." (Marx, 1848.) Therefore, we see, essentially, socialism is, as H. G. Wells put it, "a repudiation of the idea of ownership in the light of the public good." The question essentially boils down to property rights.
3 Joseph A. Schumpeter, an economist whom the socialists love to claim as their own, stated the principal difficulty: "Any kind of centralist socialism, therefore, can successfully clear the first hurdle - logical definiteness and consistency of socialist planning - and we may as well negotiate the next one at once. It consists of the 'practical impossibility' on which, it seems, most anti-socialist economists are at present inclined to retire after having accepted defeat on the purely logical issue. They hold that our central board would be confronted with a task of unmanageable complication, and some of them add that in order to function the socialist arrangement would presuppose a wholesale reformation of souls or of behavior - whichever way we prefer to style it - which historical experience and common sense prove to be out of the question." (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), Harper & Row, 3rd ed., 1962, pp. 184-5.)
4 "A cardinal trait in all advancing organizations is the development of the regulative apparatus. If the parts of a whole are to act together, there must be appliances by which their actions are directed; and in proportion as the whole is large and complex, and has many requirements to be met by many agencies, the directive apparatus must be extensive, elaborate, and powerful. That it is thus with individual organisms needs no saying; and that it must be thus with social organisms is obvious." (Arthur Seldon, Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), pp. 16-7.)
5 It was James Anthony Froude (1818-94) who said: "The first principle, on which the theory of a science of history can be plausibly argued, is that all actions whatsoever arise from self-interest. It may be enlightened self-interest, it may be unenlightened; but is assumed as an axiom, that every man, in whatever he does, is aiming at something which he considered will promote his happiness. His conduct is not determine by his will; it is determined by the object of his desire. Adam Smith, in laying the foundations of political economy, expressly eliminates every other motive. He does not say that men never act on other motives; still less, that they never ought to act on other motives. He asserts merely that, as far as the arts of production are concerned, and of buying and selling, the action of self-interest may be counted upon as uniform." Then there is Emerson: "On the whole, selfishness plants best, prunes best, makes the best commerce and the best citizen." ("Montaigne," Representative Men.) And finally, if one is truly proceeding in what is in his best interest, he will be kind and considerate to all those around him; a rational person will not normally do things for momentary gain if he thinks the action will cause him grief in the future. "Caution," as Woodrow Wilson said, "is the confidential agent of selfishness."