Eighteenth- and especially nineteenth-century liberalism often is termed “classical liberalism” to distinguish it from the contemporary, social democratic ideology Americans currently known as “liberalism.” It makes sense to distinguish these two bodies of thought because they are so different in their policy goals. Where the first had at its core a conception of the state as a limited set of institutions protecting property (or, following Locke, “life, liberty, and estate”) the second is concerned to use the state to equalize material wealth and minimize distinctions within social and even private institutions in the name of maximizing individual life-choices and rationing individual “recognition.” Moreover, the earlier “classical” liberalism was at best ambivalent about the role of the masses in political life—in large measure out of the rational fear that the inclusion of large numbers of poor and uneducated people among the electorate would open the government to pressures to redistribute land and income.
I have argued elsewhere that the individualism intrinsic to liberalism, even in its classic formulation, naturally leads toward modern, egalitarian liberalism, with its democratic justifications. That said, it is important to note the assumptions and arguments classical liberals offered in defending their vision of the good society from the dangers of democracy. Indeed, it is not too much to say that liberalism, in its classical form, is intrinsically aristocratic. This is why, for example, some people confuse genuine conservatives, such as Alexis de Tocqueville, with classical liberals.
In a book actually titled Aristocratic Liberalism, Alan S. Kahan sums up aristocratic liberalism as a contempt for and fear of the masses and commercial classes. According to Kahan, aristocratic liberals feared all forms of mediocrity and the decline of human personality in the face of a centralized state. Kahan looks at quite different figures (including the eventual socialist John Stuart Mill and Tocqueville) and does find certain important commonalities. But he neglects the vast differences between these two figures. I refer in particular to Tocqueville’s much greater appreciation for intermediary associations, for religion, and for tradition as necessary sources of and bulwarks protecting human virtue. The point, however, is that thinkers such as Mill, as well as Benjamin Constant and later figures like James Bryce, shared a conception of the good society deeply imbued with an aristocratic spirit and a concern that the “proper” classes be left to control the machinery of government in a manner conducive to peace, order, and the protection of commercial and property rights.
My point is not merely that some who called themselves liberals held aristocratic prejudices regarding the limitations they saw in the mass of the people or that they saw their own class as best suited to rule. Rather, it is that there is an intrinsic tension between the values of classical liberalism and the democracy that followed on and fundamentally transformed it. This tension is rooted in the nature of mass democracy, its justification in notions of the popular will, and, especially, in the demand that the state “correct” various injustices rooted in economic scarcity and human nature. Moreover, where a conservative vision makes possible justification for limited government buttressed by intermediary associations, one sees in classical liberalism a suspicion of those associations (rooted as they are in custom rather than reason) that in time helped bring about the very mass politics it feared.
It seems relatively clear what classical liberalism is not: it is not social democracy of the contemporary sort, with its favoritism for mass politics and government control over the bulk of public and economic life. It also is not conservatism, with its emphasis on tradition, religion, and the essential role played by intermediary associations in any good life. What, then, is classical liberalism, and how is it aristocratic? Classical liberalism is and always has been (at least since the time of its philosophical father, John Locke) a body of thought suspicious of political power and history, committed to the rule of reason and good sense, and confident that the right kind of people, brought up to possess the right kinds of virtues, could govern in the interests of everyone, provided they were allowed to do so.
From Mill to Bryce, but frankly including Locke and even Bentham, classical liberals have been aristocratic in the sense that they believed that government belongs in the hands of an elite (usually hereditary but also potentially marked out by “expertise”) trained up in the rational, neutral virtues associated with proper public management. These governing figures would arrange public life in a manner conducive to an ordered economy in which property is safe and commerce is relatively free but constrained by rules of good manners.
It is in regard to free commerce that the aristocratic nature of classical liberalism becomes clear, for, whether we are talking about Mill, Bryce, or any other of the classical liberals, there is a determination to justify economic liberty that is joined by a distrust of those who exercise this freedom and a determination not to allow these people to rule. From Smith’s concern that any group of merchants is liable to denote a conspiracy to Bryce’s concern that “plutocracy” would displace economic order, classical liberals feared the economic powers their own ideas and state-power-limiting institutions had unleashed.
What made fear of the commercial classes all the more relevant for classical liberals was the fact that these commercial classes spurred the lower classes to action. Raising expectations for prosperity at the same time that they failed to gain aristocratic attitudes and manners sufficient to maintain public order and public awe, plutocrats undermined deference. Their profit mongering undermined economic security among the masses and empowered trade unions and other combinations dangerous to class interests and economic freedom itself. It was in part concern that economic conditions would spawn revolution that caused many in the upper classes (in England especially) to abandon economic liberty entirely in an effort to buy off the masses, hoping that increased governmental programs and restrictions on trade might bring quiet without undermining their own positions. In the event, such policies, combined with increased suffrage, set the stage for the social democracy that Americans, at least, see as the essence of “liberalism.”
Perhaps the paradigmatic figure of classical liberalism proves my point. For John Stuart Mill spoke often of the liberty of the individual and the need to limit government. He espoused the so-called “harm principle” according to which one should be allowed to do as one wished provided it caused harm to no one else. But even in his classically liberal On Liberty Mill showed the way to his eventual socialism. For in this book he noted that a man whose habits cause him to fail in his duty to care for his own family is in effect harming that family (and society) through his failures. By thus placing the moral duties of Victorian England at the base of a universal conception of duty, Mill showed his aristocratic prejudice (for he did not justify the moral norms he asserted on any religious or customary grounds). He also showed his attachment, played out in numerous other writings, to a neutral, aristocratic public service that would handle the people’s business for them, ordering their lives in a manner best suited to enlighten them. Here is the path to modern liberalism, already set down by a kind of aristocrat during the first half of the nineteenth century. More important even than liberty would be government by those suited to protect that liberty, properly understood.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.