When at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, I met a Liberal member of the House of Commons and ventured to remark that, in my opinion, the troubles of the world were very largely due to the decline of Liberalism and sanity would not be restored until Liberal principles regained their proper place. He immediately agreed, but introduced the qualification that the Liberalism he wanted was the Liberalism of Lloyd George and not that of Gladstone - constructive Liberalism and not the Liberalism of laissez-faire.
I agree with this distinction and it is important to realise that, though the difference is vital, the objective of Liberalism in the twentieth century is the same as it was in the beginning of the nineteenth, that is, to assert the sanctity of the human personality and to promote the free creative activities of individuals.
The immediate aim of the early movement was to free humanity from feudal privilege and these Liberals believed that, if privilege were cut away, the free spirit of man would assert itself and government, which up to that time had been the agent of privilege, could be reduced to a minimum; a hidden hand would order things on beneficial lines and this would be recognised by enlightened selfishness. This was the philosophy of laissez-faire. But it was not so simple as that.
In the first place, an instrument had to be forged to cut away privilege. This was found in the legislative powers of a centralised State; and it was not recognised that the Austinian doctrine of sovereignty as the omnipotent power of the central authority and of law as the decree of this omnipotent authority was inconsistent with the doctrine of laissez-faire and, while it could cut away privilege, it could also be used to build up socialism and otherwise magnify State power.
The early Liberals assumed that this would be prevented by representatives elected to Parliament who would be enlightened enough to adopt the policy of laissez-faire. Nevertheless, the Liberal movement did lead to an unparalleled release of human energy, which was responsible for the marked material and spiritual progress of the nations which espoused it. On the material side, however, this led to the development of capitalism. Individual initiative, free access to resources with intelligent coordination, led to the erection of a mighty system to which the activities of whole communities were committed. From a material point of view, the system was a magnificent success and human productivity was immensely increased. But as it developed, this success was achieved by a coordinated control exercised by a few people, so that, with all its efficiency, the individual might have less freedom than he had under the far less efficient, pluralistic feudalism. This was soon seen, when the workers were exploited by the capitalistic organisers. The evils were so great that a series of Factory Acts to protect certain classes of workers was passed, which involved a vital departure from the principles of laissez faire, though they expressed what was really an essential principle of Liberalism, the freedom of the individual from exploitation.
Moreover, there were many aspects of capitalistic society which showed the laissez-faire was a dream. The stability of the capitalistic system depended on the enforcement of controls, on the recognition of private property and still more, on central control of the currency. All attempts to secure a medium of exchange which would work automatically were fruitless. Furthermore, freedom of contract meant that various sections could organise themselves and use the system to secure their own interests at the expense of others and, as the legislative instrument was available to them, they could secure these privileges by Act of Parliament.
On the other hand, capitalism required for its success the intelligent cooperation of all grades of workers, from managers to labourers. In its early stages, these classes had not very much to say, but as the system became more complicated their status developed. Capitalism has undoubtedly increased the standard of living of all classes of employees, who have thus acquired a sense of independence and a consciousness of their importance. In this way, all the problems of modern industrialism have arisen. Capitalism, mighty as its structure is and productive as it is, has no assured stability. Its role in the community and its impact on human activity require the community to make many decisions of great importance and the idea of laissez-faire has now as few supporters among capitalists as among workers.
Fortunately, Liberalism developed institutions in which the great issues so raised could be fought out and these can be described under the general term of parliamentary democracy, institutions in which elected representatives can make decisions which bind the people as a whole. The efficacy of parliamentary institutions is shown by the fact that, in a century of change, conditions reasonably satisfactory to all classes of the community have been maintained. Greater social changes have been brought about in Western democracy than in any other part of the world, without any real threat to stability. Though one or two of the democracies of Western Europe have passed through periods of revolution, their experience has been very much the same as that of Anglo-Saxon democracies.
... It will be seen that, in the development of parliamentary democracy as I have sketched it, the citizen has really been given a higher, indeed a creative role, a share in determining the conditions under which he will live and in solving the problems of the common life. The philosophy responsible for laissez-faire had a conception of the community in which the individual was regarded as responsible for fending for himself in all conditions. Only a few of those who were in favourable positions or endowed with exceptional gifts were able to do this. The rest of the community were playthings of circumstance. They had been freed from the control of governments, but had been given no effective say in the control of the institutions of the community and no encouragement to cooperate for the accomplishment of common ends. Such a philosophy does not contemplate positive efforts for social justice or to eliminate poverty or other evils which depress potentialities of the citizens.
The Liberal democracy of the twentieth century recognises that the health and prosperity of the community depends on the free creative activity of the members and that their coordinated effort can establish a better order and it develops the system of parliamentary government, so that it can be an effective instrument of this progress.
...The system of Liberal democracy is limited.by the standards and intelligence of the citizens. It can convert to social work what the members contribute to it but no more. It has so far succeeded only in communities which have passed through a long historical process, in which a sense of common interests has developed. It depends to some extent on the way of life, the ethos, the folkways and norms of community life, which their minds and conduct have worked out. The consciousness of these provides a basis for voluntary cooperation between the members and thus lifts the actions of the individual citizen onto a more effective plane. Success also depends upon a high standard of citizenship, and a community will deteriorate if this fails. Another threat may come from classes of citizens who organise to secure their own interests at the expense of the whole. Liberal democracy, I suggest, maintains and advances the original purpose of Liberalism, for it not only puts a barrier against privilege but it gives the citizen the opportunity for organising cooperative effort and for solving the problems which affect the health of the community. Indeed, it puts the responsibility for doing this upon the citizens and thus gives them a creative role in social progress. The path from laissez-faire to Lloyd George is a transition from a negative policy of destroying feudalism to a positive policy of social reconstruction through which the free creative activities of the citizen will be fully employed.
This, as I see it, the Liberal spirit has expressed itself in two ways in modern times. First, in a Liberal philosophy, based on the assertion of human values, and the supreme importance in social affairs of the human personality. It emphasises toleration, decency in human relations, freedom, individual initiative and personal responsibility. But it realises that man is a social being and that personality can only reach the full ambit of its powers within the organised community, while within that community, freedom has no value unless it is open to all, and the conditions necessary for enjoying the fruits of freedom are universal. The Liberal also believes that the scope of human action can be enlarged by social re-organisation and cooperation, provided that the machinery created does not smother individual initiative and diminish personal responsibility.
The other expression of the Liberal spirit is in the political system of Liberal democracy, in which the task of governing ourselves and of determining the conditions under which we live is devolved on ourselves. We must recognise further that the democratic system depends on complete freedom of action for the organs of democracy, and that the people are, therefore, able to adopt measures which limit freedom and responsibility. But Liberals have the faith that under free institutions this is not very likely, and that if it does occur it will soon be corrected.
...A community is not a collection of independent individuals, it is an association of free persons, who recognise their interdependence. Men are not islands connected with their fellows by bridges and ferries. If we emphasise rights, we must also recognise that rights are meaningless unless duties are performed and services contributed. Rights are the harvest of duties. Liberty without cooperation is as dead as faith without works. We must also recognise that a community would not exist at all, unless there were some controls, and that organisation by which our activities are moulded or channelled is necessary, if the maximum amount of free creativity is to be obtained. With efficient machinery the scope of our community life is enlarged. If our activity is overwhelmed by organisations, the community may lose variety of inspiration and have its initiative smothered. If there is no organisation, the individual is helpless, because isolated. In a Liberal community a delicate balance has to be maintained and where the balance is to be located depends a good deal on the particular community.
From: "Reflection of an Australian Liberal" Cheshire; Melbourne, 1953
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