The political crisis of the democracies on both sides of the Atlantic is also a crisis of public philosophy. In Europe, the US and Canada, older left–right distinctions are fading in importance, while the political value divide between elites and national publics is widening. Western elites tend to be globalist and technocratic in outlook, while Western publics are much more attached to national sovereignty and democratic suspicion of policymakers.
According to the narrative that many members of the North Atlantic elite favour, the difference between their views and those of others in their societies can be easily explained. Those who agree with their agenda – greater trade and financial integration, increased immigration, and the marketisation of much of the public sector and welfare state – are liberal and enlightened. Those who oppose their agenda are illiberal and ignorant.
This elite perspective comes with its own tendentious version of history, according to which the globalisation of governance and the deregulation of markets are the logical and inescapable next steps in a steady history of liberal progress that includes the abolition of slavery and racial segregation and the emancipation of women and, more recently, homosexuals. In this view, heavily shaped by the history of civil rights reforms in the last few generations, any exclusive community such as the nation-state is as illegitimate as a whites-only neighbourhood or a private club that discriminates against Jews.
Policies designed to protect national producers against foreign competition, or national workforces against immigrant competition, are not only inefficient on economic grounds, but also illiberal, according to this perspective. In the prestige press on both sides of the Atlantic, it is not uncommon to find elite progressives as well as elite conservatives arguing that the promotion of national industry, or limits on immigration to maintain wages in a national labour market, cruelly and unethically deprive deserving foreigners of economic opportunity. If it is wrong to discriminate within a nation on the basis of the accident of race, why is it not equally wrong to discriminate in favour of one’s fellow nationals, against other people on the basis of the accident of nationality?
If the nation-state is an illegitimate expression of bigotry, like racism, then the legitimacy of democracy and the welfare state, which today exist only in national forms, is also thrown into doubt. Old-fashioned world federalists have long had one answer to this conundrum: democratic world government. A similar answer is provided by progressive proponents of European federalism, who envision a future Europe as a truly democratic federal state, with pan-European social insurance. But most purveyors of what I call postmodern liberalism show little concern about the implications of their idealism for democratic accountability and solidaristic social programmes. Indeed, for the cosmopolitan liberals of the free market right, the ‘libertarians’, the replacement of democratic voice by market voice and the erosion of public social insurance and safety nets are developments to be encouraged.
Postmodern liberalism inevitably weakens the centre-left and strengthens the economic elites of the right. As a parlour game, academics or bloggers can argue that cross-class redistribution should take place on a global scale, not merely within national welfare states. But there is no significant constituency in any country for such a cosmopolitan policy. By attacking the nation-state, postmodern progressives inadvertently help the globalist libertarians on the right, by undermining the major political institution responsible for regulating corporations, taxing the rich, protecting workers from abuse and exploitation and providing a minimum of economic security for the needy.
Confronted with any consensus among any elite of any kind, it is worth asking whether it provides an apparently principled defence for their power or wealth. In this case, it is clear that many corporations and banks benefit from the elimination of barriers to trade and investment, just as many employers benefit from mass immigration to depress wages and reduce worker bargaining power. For example, US agribusiness always claims that Americans will starve if farmers are deprived of great numbers of low-wage, non-union foreign indentured servants or ‘guest workers’.
But powerful ideologies, while they may promote particular interests, cannot be reduced to mere rationalisations for them. As a worldview, the kind of post-national, post-modern, globalist liberalism I have described is increasingly influential among educated people in general in the Western world. In the rest of this essay, I propose to treat it as a more or less coherent system of ideas, with deep roots in several liberal traditions. And I will argue that much of what is often described as a clash between enlightened liberalism and illiberal populism or nationalism is better understood as a debate among rival schools of liberalism: postmodern liberalism and republican liberalism.
Two Histories of Liberalism
When did liberalism begin: in the 19th century or the 17th? Different answers to that question produce radically different conclusions about what is and is not ‘liberal’ in the 21st century.
One version of the history of liberal thought, more influential in Britain and Europe than in the US, holds that liberalism originated in the early 19th century, with thinkers like Constant, Tocqueville, Humboldt and Mill. The fact that the term ‘liberal’ for a political faction originated in Spain during the Napoleonic occupation is one piece of evidence for this view.
According to this account, from the early 1800s until the late 1800s, liberalism took the form of ‘classical liberalism’, a doctrine which sought to minimize government restrictions on both economic and personal freedom. In the late 19th century, a new, revisionist liberalism arose in Europe and North America, supporting a greater degree of government intervention in the economy to protect children, the working class, the elderly and the environment from harm by the new industrial capitalism. The liberal tradition thus divided by 1900 into a right wing, dedicated to the older ‘classical liberalism’, and a left wing, which favoured a greater degree of statism without, however, crossing the line to democratic socialism.
In his famous 1950 essay, ‘Citizenship and Social Class’, TH Marshall wrote within this tradition when he described the sequential evolution of rights. First came the universal extension of civil rights, which did not initially include the right of universal suffrage. Then came universal political rights. Then came social rights, in the form of entitlements on the part of all citizens to goods like unemployment insurance, public pensions, and in some countries public housing. By this account, the entire evolution of liberalism took about a century – from the classical liberalism of the 1830s and 1840s to the fully-developed welfare-state liberalism of the 1930s and 1940s.
This account of the history of liberalism, widely accepted in Britain and parts of Europe, strikes Americans – and, one suspects, many republican French thinkers – as utterly bizarre. It leaves out the American and French revolutions, the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. JS Mill is included, but not John Locke or Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine or Paine’s adversary Edmund Burke (whom many view as a liberal). In his book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea Edmund Fawcett describes Adam Smith as a ‘pre-liberal’. Smith is in good company, it seems.
It is true, as we have seen, that the term ‘liberal’ in its modern, political sense was first used by the Spanish in the early 19th century. But to exclude earlier thinkers and movements which, by our standards, were liberal, even though they did not use the term, seems pedantic, like evicting Smith, Ricardo and Mill from the economic canon because they thought and wrote before the discipline long known as ‘political economy’ was renamed ‘economics’ late in the 19th century.
Before the adoption of the term ‘liberalism’ in the early 19th century most of the topics discussed under that label today were discussed using the terms ‘republicanism’ or ‘republican liberty’. Among the strains in what more recently has come to be called ‘republican liberalism’, the most influential strain – inspiring both the American and French revolutions and their imitators – was the natural rights-based social contract liberalism whose most famous exponent was John Locke. (In our time this tradition has been excavated and explicated by Philip Pettit, Quentin Skinner and other scholars.)
This is more than an academic quibble. It is essential to understanding ideas about liberalism today. The republican part of republican liberalism was amputated in the 19th century, leaving a ‘liberal’ tradition with ideas about individual freedom that were severed from their original combination with ideas about popular sovereignty for territorially, and culturally, bounded communities like nations. This mutilated version of liberalism has been dominant, at least in elite circles, for a century in the US and nearly two centuries in Britain and much of Europe.
The suspicion on the part of today’s postmodern elite liberalism of democracy and popular sovereignty and national self-determination is nothing new; it dates back to the early 19th century, when the surgical separation of liberalism from natural rights and popular sovereignty took place. It is no coincidence, as the saying goes, that the mainstream account of liberalism holds that it originated following the Napoleonic Wars. A particular kind of liberalism did indeed originate in that era, the kind familiar from Tocqueville, Macaulay, Mill and others. For many 19th century French liberals, the idea of natural rights and democracy had been discredited by the episodes of mob rule during the French Revolution.
Having lost the American colonies, witnessed the French Terror and weathered challenges by Wilkites and Chartists, many of the more liberal members of the British elite naturally were drawn to the project of justifying liberal reforms by arguments that did not involve natural rights and popular constitution-making. In Germany, the suppression of the revolutions of 1848 and then unification in 1871 by Prussia made it possible for some liberal reforms to be imposed from above by an authoritarian state.
Disconnecting ideas of natural rights and popular sovereignty from liberalism was also useful for British and European imperial elites in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is no coincidence – to repeat the cliché – that Macaulay and Mill both worked for the British East India company, and that Humboldt was a civil servant in authoritarian monarchical Prussia. The post-republican liberalism of the 19th century was often autocrat-friendly and empire-friendly because it did not require any effort to identify who belonged to the ‘people’ and who did not.
The ‘people’ might be nothing more than the random inhabitants of a particular territory, administered by a monarchy or a multinational empire, which chose to bestow some rights, but not necessarily others, upon them as a matter of generosity or utility, not entitlement. While American and French republican liberals agonised over constitutions and methods of balancing power to achieve democracy without mob rule, other 19th century liberals in the privacy of their offices could devise enlightened codes, like Macaulay’s penal code for India, and impose them on the governed without their input or assent. In his 1859 essay ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’, Mill, who had spent most of his career in the pay of the British East India Company, wrote that:
‘Barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government, are the universal rules of morality between man and man.’
In their defence, many of these anti-republican liberals would have argued that this kind of autocratic and imperial liberalism-from-above was more humane and enlightened than the policies which colonial subjects or disfranchised masses at home would have supported. In many cases, they would have been correct. The treatment of blacks and Indians in the British empire, including Canada, was generally better than in the US, where the creation of a Herrenvolk republic united white racism with nationalism and populism. They were not incorrect to assert tensions between liberalism and democracy.
But their rejection of natural rights and national self-determination distorted the vision of some liberals of the era. In a famous letter of 1857 to an American acquaintance, Henry Randall, a New Yorker and biographer of Jefferson, Macaulay wrote:
Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor. As I said before, when a society has entered on this downward progress, either civilization or liberty must perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand; or your Republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth; with this difference, that the Huns and Vandals, who ravaged the Roman Empire, came from without, and that your Huns and Vandals will have been engendered within your country by your own institutions.
Another famous British liberal of the time, Acton, regretted that the Union, in the name of both natural rights and nationalism, had defeated the Confederate States of America in the Civil War, at the price of what Acton considered an intolerable centralisation of power in Washington. On 4 November 1866, Acton offered his condolences to the former Confederate military commander, General Robert E Lee:
Without presuming to decide the purely legal question, on which it seems evident to me from Madison’s and Hamilton’s papers that the Fathers of the Constitution were not agreed, I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy… I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
History, then, provides an explanation for why so much British and European liberalism took an anti-democratic, anti-republican turn in the 19th century. The severing of liberalism from democratic popular sovereignty and natural rights reflected a backlash against the horrors of the French Revolution. At the same time, it justified liberal reforms in autocratic states and colonial empires in which ideas of republicanism, natural rights and national self-determination were considered subversive.
But how is it that a similar kind of liberalism came to prevail in the US as well? Contemporary American ‘constitutional conservatives’ argue that German-educated American progressives betrayed the ideals of the American Founding Fathers. Like most caricatures, this has some resemblance to reality. Many New Liberals like Bradley, Bosanquet and Green in Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s and many American Progressives like Woodrow Wilson were influenced by contemporary German thought. A number studied in Imperial Germany, and sought to selectively naturalise elements of German thought and the innovative German welfare state in the UK or US.
Among left-of-centre American thinkers by the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of the social contract and natural rights came to seem old-fashioned, compared to new Hegelian ideas about social evolution. From German Hegelians the New Liberals and Progressives also derived the idea of the meritocratic civil service as ‘the universal class’, a neutral, impartial arbiter among the ‘special interests’ of society. American Progressives tended to be hostile to legislatures and partisan politics. They sought to insulate as much policymaking as possible from politics, by transferring power to administrators, nonpartisan commissions, and referendums.
By World War I or so, the old republican liberalism of natural rights and the social contract was rejected by most American intellectuals, as it had been rejected much earlier by leading British, French and German thinkers. For the last century, in American universities, republican liberals in philosophy departments have been as rare as anti-Darwinian creationists in biology departments. Abandoned by the intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, republican liberalism survived among national populations and the politicians who spoke their political language. The non-Marxist labour left in the US, for example, continued to invoke the Spirit of 1776 in appeals for economic democracy and to argue for labour rights as natural rights well into the 20th century.
The gap between elite and popular conceptions of liberalism was strikingly illustrated during the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to drawing on Christianity, Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders invoked the ideals of the American Revolution and the Union cause in the Civil War. But in its decision to order the integration of racially-segregated public schools, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), relied on social science findings that segregated education injured black students. The canyon that had opened up in the US between popular republican liberalism and technocratic, social-scientific elite progressivism, remains to this day.
Two Conceptions of Liberty
The very nature of liberty, as conceived by today’s dominant elite liberalism, is quite different from that of the older republican liberal tradition and its present-day adherents. The two conceptions of liberty are not Berlin’s negative liberty and positive liberty. They are, rather, what contemporary scholars call republican liberty and perfectionist liberty.
As Pettit, Skinner, and other students of the ‘neo-Roman liberty’ of Renaissance and early modern thinkers have reminded us, republican liberty was more than negative liberty, or permission to act. It also involved the idea of freedom from arbitrary power or ‘non-domination’. This is the difference between Hobbes and Locke. A Hobbesian sovereign can allow subjects to be free, but that grant of freedom can be revoked any time. Only in a Lockean republic (a category which includes constitutional monarchies) can life, liberty and property be truly secure from arbitrary exercises of power. To be truly free, one must be a free citizen of a free state—a state, that is, which is independent both of foreign control and of domestic tyranny.
In republican liberalism, then, the personal is always the political, when it comes to freedom. Those who do not understand the republican liberal ideal of the free citizen in a free state are inclined to assume that adherents of the tradition are simply paranoid when, as they often do, they steer discussions of civil liberty toward political corruption and foreign influence (think of popular newspaper concerns). But this is a core element of the tradition. Anything that impairs the independence of the state from other states, or insulates the government from popular accountability, subjects all citizens at once to the possibility of the exercise of arbitrary power.
The dominant understanding of liberty today among Western elites comes from the quite different tradition of ‘perfectionist’ liberalism, with its origins in German Idealism and Romanticism among thinkers like Kant and Humboldt and Mill. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good summary of perfectionist liberalism:
One is free merely to the degree that one has effectively determined oneself and the shape of one’s life …Such a person is not subject to compulsions, critically reflects on her ideals and so does not unreflectively follow custom, and does not ignore her long-term interests for short-term pleasures. This ideal of freedom as autonomy has its roots not only in Rousseau’s and Kant’s political theory, but also in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. And today it is a dominant strain in liberalism…
As the Encyclopedia notes, ‘republican liberty is not primarily concerned with rational autonomy, realizing one’s true nature, or becoming one’s higher self. When all dominating power has been dispersed, republican theorists are generally silent about these goals.’ Indeed. Once slavery has been abolished, the republican liberal does not necessarily care whether the freed slave ‘critically reflects on her ideals and so does not unreflectively follow custom, and does not ignore her long-term interests for short-term pleasures.’
The goal of republican liberalism is to prevent powerful human beings from preying on weak human beings. The goal of perfectionist liberalism is to help people express their inner selves. Republican liberals band together out of fear to form communities powerful enough to crush crime, defend themselves from invasion—and to depose and if necessary kill the occasional internal tyrant. Perfectionist liberals agree to respect one another’s unique individual life projects. Lockeans worry about being stabbed by criminals, slaughtered by invading armies, forced to toil for an exploitative employer or dragged off to a dungeon without a trial. Perfectionist liberals worry that people might not develop their talents to the fullest. Republican liberalism, like Judith Shklar’s ‘liberalism of fear’, with its hypothetical ‘state of nature’, tends to imagine the world as a version of the Germany of the Thirty Years’ War, as depicted by von Grimmelshausen and Brecht. The world of perfectionist liberalism brings to mind Edwardian Bloomsbury.
Perfectionist liberalism tends to assume that the problems that obsess republican liberals – why is there order rather than disorder? Why aren’t people killing each other? – have already been solved. A functioning, stable, constitutional (if not necessarily democratic) polity and a degree of ‘social glue’ between citizens is presupposed. The political question is therefore limited to the question of the best system of rules that allows individuals to develop their potential as they see fit. Right-perfectionists of a libertarian turn of a mind would emphasise non-interference. Left-perfectionists (John Rawls arguably belongs here) would argue that the state must in some cases supply the minimum means for all individuals to pursue their self-chosen ends. But the assumption that a functioning, non-tyrannical, non-corrupt state already exists and will continue to exist, so that political philosophy can focus on what individuals need in order to achieve autonomy and flourish by pursuing their various life-projects, is the same.
This is the tradition that has achieved great influence on the postmodern liberalism of trans-Atlantic educated elites, following a century characterised by world wars, genocide, wartime slavery and mass wartime rape, totalitarian tyranny and state-sponsored famines. To use a delightful British expression, this kind of liberalism is ‘twee’.
Two Versions of the Welfare State
The differences between postmodern liberalism and the surviving, populist versions of republican liberalism extend to different conceptions of the welfare state.
The conventional account holds that Bismarck’s Germany pioneered welfare-state institutions like unemployment insurance and old-age pensions, which were then copied and modified by Britain in the era of Lloyd George and a few decades later by the US of Franklin Roosevelt. This is true, as far as it goes. But it leaves out an alternate genealogy of the welfare state, championed by many labour activists and agrarian populists, that goes all the way back to John Locke.
Locke’s social contract theory was based on a thought experiment – imagining what arrangements free and rational individuals would come to in a state of nature, in which resources are still wild or common and subject to individual appropriation. But what, if any, rights to resources are possessed by individuals who are born into an advanced society in which all resources are already appropriated by private owners or the state? Locke’s answer, in his proposals to reform the poor law, was that all members of the community had a natural right to subsistence, at the expense of the community – to be provided, in the case of the able-bodied, in the form of public employment (in rather harsh conditions, by the standards of our time, though not his). Later, in Agrarian Justice and elsewhere, Thomas Paine used social contract reasoning to argue for a much more elaborate and strikingly modern system of social insurance and transfer payments as a matter of right, not charity. Similar arguments were made from similar premises for land reform.
The theoretical details are not important. The salient point is that on both sides of the Atlantic the public tends to prefer welfare state programmes which are universal, based on work effort, and rooted in the rights of all citizens: ‘entitlements’. This is a different rationale from that of perfectionist liberals, who would justify redistribution and public goods like public education, not in terms of a natural or civic right to resources shared by members of a particular community, but on grounds of providing unrelated individuals with the ability to realise their innate potential.
This might seem a distinction without a difference, when it comes to the design of the programmes. But the two traditions diverge when it comes to the question of the relationship between the welfare state and the nation-state. For republican liberals, the republic (which could be a city-state or multinational state, as well as a nation-state) is an exclusive club, with voting rights and welfare rights for its members. Other communities can and should form their own exclusive clubs, with similar exclusive privileges for their own members.
Perfectionist liberals, in contrast, have no principled basis for limiting redistribution to the citizens of particular nation-states. If people need resources to achieve their personal life projects, shouldn’t the poorest people in the poorest countries have the greatest claims on the resources of relatively rich countries? This argument is frequently deployed by elite trans-Atlantic liberals to justify not only foreign aid, but also large-scale immigration, public benefits for illegal immigrants and even the offshoring of jobs and industries to developing countries. Sometimes a kind of Benthamite utilitarian calculus is fused with perfectionist liberal reasoning. Surely, it is argued, the harm done to a western worker who loses a job in manufacturing is more than compensated by the gain in the wellbeing of the Third World worker in an offshore factory, according to an impartial hedonic calculus.
Nothing, perhaps, divides publics and elites in the North Atlantic world more than the question of whether trade and immigration policy, as well as welfare policy, should be made in the interest of the dues-paying members of particular national communities, or whether they should be made in the alleged interests of humanity as a whole – alleged interests which frequently happen to align with the economic interests of employers of immigrant labour and investors in multinational corporations with global supply chains.
Taking Populism Seriously
If I am correct, the conventional wisdom that holds that western democracies must choose between the enlightened, postmodern, post-national liberalism increasingly dominant among educated elites and illiberal populism, which is nothing but a front for xenophobes or worse, is profoundly wrong. Yes, western electorates include racists and anti-semites and Muslim-haters and religious fundamentalists. But one must have a great contempt for one’s fellow citizens to assume that the large portions of the electorate that are attracted to immigration restriction, economic nationalism, or, in Europe, anti-EU movements are potential Storm Troopers.
Many of today’s so-called populists in many ways are heirs of yesterday’s republican liberal left, while today’s technocratic and globalist postmodern liberals have much in common with the anti-democratic elite liberals of the 19th century. Jealousy of national sovereignty in international affairs may indeed be xenophobic and paranoid, in some cases – but it may also be a reasonable reflection of the republican liberal commitment to national as well as individual self-determination. There are sound republican liberal reasons for opposing forms of trade and financial liberalisation that undermine the ability of a country to withstand foreign domination and intimidation.
Individualistic, postmodern elite liberals may assume one can be a free person anywhere in an interdependent, globalised world, but populist republican liberals still cling to the centuries-old ideal of the free citizen in a free state. The conviction of many people that there is some vague link between national sovereignty and their own liberty is inherited from the republican liberal tradition, even if most of those who believe this have never heard of Harrington or Locke.
Economic nationalism, like national self-determination, has a sophisticated republican liberal rationale and a distinguished intellectual history that includes Locke (a mercantilist, not a free trader), Alexander Hamilton, and Friedrich List, and should not be dismissed as a failure to understand Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Likewise, there are sound republican liberal reasons for opposing immigration policies that risk converting a nation-state into a multinational state, if an unassimilated immigrant diaspora maintains a separate identity while growing as a share of the population over time.
It is wrong, therefore, to reflexively dismiss the concerns of so-called ‘populists’ in Europe and North America and elsewhere as evidence of bigotry or a failure to understand the benefits of international integration. Because republican liberalism for the past century has lacked an influential intelligentsia of its own, its themes are often expressed by politicians and commentators and ordinary voters in ways that are unsophisticated and crude. But Mazzinis should not be mistaken for Mussolinis.
What would a world order inspired by republican liberalism look like? In general it would resemble the world order favoured by the so-called ‘sovereigntists’ in Beijing, New Delhi, Brasilia and Moscow more than that favored by contemporary Washington and Brussels. Liberal imperialism in the name of spreading rights and democracy by bombs and bullets would be rejected, and legitimate wars would be limited to retaliations against attacks. Republican liberals would encourage constitutional and democratic government everywhere, but by example and teaching. The globalist liberal goal of a single, rule-governed, borderless global economy would be rejected. There would be an eclectic mix of free trade, managed trade, and protectionism, with developing nations allowed to protect their ‘infant industries’ as did Britain, the US, Germany and Japan when they were rising industrial nations. Immigration would be regulated in different ways by different countries in the interest of their working-class majorities.
The European Union might still exist, but it would be a Gaullist Europe des patries. Intergovernmentalism would be its guiding principle not supra-nationalism. Republican liberals would see no point in a directly-elected European Parliament, as there is no European ‘people’, only sovereign nations whose common affairs would be best managed by traditional diplomacy and pursuing projects of mutual interest.
It is not necessary to counter the deficiencies of contemporary postmodern liberalism by developing a novel non-liberal alternative, be it communitarianism or non-liberal republicanism. Republican liberalism takes the nation seriously – but without weakening or abandoning the commitment to individual rights and individual freedom that it shares with postmodern liberalism. Even in a debased and vulgarised form, the popular republican liberalism of western republics, with its emphasis on popular sovereignty and national self-determination as a necessary condition for individual rights, is richer than the thin liberalism of the North Atlantic world’s postmodern, post-national elites.
Unfashionable as it is in seminars and boardrooms and editorial offices, a vernacular version of republican liberalism is a growing force at the polls in western democracies. It deserves to be taken seriously as a public philosophy.