The perennial vilification of ever-sinister capitalism by progressives in the academy and the media, who in turn extol the virtues of utopian socialism, has led to a war not so much of ideas as of expletives. Before the accumulated debris of connotations all but obliterates rational discourse, a conceptual reboot must be performed before the system crashes, the screen turns dark, and the virus of incoherence reduces discourse to babble. This requires revisiting the notion of liberty and its attendant, rights.
Though right in the sense of not wrong predates even Genesis, “rights” is barely five centuries old. In pre-modern times, it had been the duties of men to their superiors that mattered most. Nobles had duties to the king, peasants to their landlords, and so on. It was considerably less clear what “assurances” they could obtain for their correlative rights. In the end, it all came down to power. This had gradually been changing throughout the Middle Ages, culminating in the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704), whose most revolutionary contribution to politics was thought to be a shift of emphasis from natural duties or obligations to natural rights. This idea would come to define the Age of the Enlightenment, later known as the Age of Reason, a label that contributed considerably to its being misunderstood.
Locke declared that individual freedom logically precedes the political state. In a theoretical state of nature, “all men are naturally in… a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” He shared Cicero and the Stoics’ belief in a “common humanity,” and agreed that we are “by nature fitted to form unions, societies, and states.” But unlike the Stoics, who attributed this propensity to “the sense of mutual attraction which unites human beings,” a feeling of benevolence and sympathy, Locke thought it rather “grounded on [man’s] having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will.” In his view, it is common reason, not sentiment, that philosophically justifies equality of natural rights defined as life, liberty, and “estate,” which all fall under the right of personal property. He did not deny that sympathy is important, but reason sufficed to justify consensual rule.
The emphasis on reason held a special appeal to French luminaries of the Enlightenment. But while the latter thought an authoritarian enforcer of the General Will indispensable, Locke would have dismissed such a construct, as did his Scottish brethren in the next century. Unlike the French, it was the virtues of benevolence and sympathy “which, the British believed, naturally, instinctively, habitually bound people to each other,” wrote Gertrude Himmelfarb in her 2007 book, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. “They did not deny reason; they were by no means irrationalists. But they gave reason a secondary, instrumental role.” This was even more true of the Scots. Ultimately the combined Anglo-Saxon contribution to the American experience is definitely greater than the French. Had it been otherwise, writes Himmelfarb, “Americans could have injected into their Revolution a larger utopian mission, rather than the pragmatic, cautious temper conspicuous in The Federalist and the Constitution.”
The Scottish Enlightenment may be said to have been launched by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), an immensely popular philosophy professor at the University of Glasgow. Possibly the first to teach in the vernacular rather than Latin, he encouraged robust student discussions instead of straight lecturing. His students were told that the underlying principles of all human behavior were part of an “immense and connected” moral system governed by the dictates of natural law. That included oeconomicks (in its Aristotelian sense of household management) as well as the laws obtaining in “natural liberty.” For as he notes in his seminal System of Moral Philosophy (1738), “’tis plain each one has a natural right to exert his powers, according to his own judgment and inclination, for purposes [of natural affections] in all such industry, labor, or amusements, as are not hurtful to others in their persons or goods…” ‘Tis plain meaning: it’s common sense.
And being “natural,” liberty is ipso facto universal. As Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Peter Carr in 1787, man “was destined for society…[being] endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling: it is the true foundation of morality.” While indebted to Locke, Jefferson had no trouble positing a “moral sense” as had Hutcheson. Wrote Jefferson:
The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.
Writing to Henry Lee on May 8, 1825, Jefferson explained that by “self-evident” he had meant merely “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.” These truths were deemed self-evident, because it was the common understanding of the subject, certainly in America. That made them also “sacred and undeniable” – which had been the original wording.
But while the Declaration signers substituted “pursuit of Happiness” for “property” in Locke’s original trinity of unalienable rights, they were not disagreeing about the significance of property rights as against happiness. Jefferson was here echoing Hutcheson and other Scots, notably Thomas Reid (1710-1796), who all wrote of “the natural, the unalienable right of judging for ourselves” how to pursue our own happiness, in no way implying that property was up for grabs. Substituting “the pursuit of happiness” for “property” among man’s unalienable rights, far from minimizing the latter’s importance, in reality expands it, for property provides the means to pursue happiness. The importance of defending property rights effectively, grounded in clear titles to property, was most famously defended by Adam Smith (1723-1790), whom the future U.S. President James Madison encountered at Princeton University, where he came under the powerful influence of Hutcheson’s student, Reverend John Witherspoon (1723-1794). It had been no mere stroke of good luck: the only clergyman and only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon had deliberately sought out students from throughout the colonies, and Madison was mercifully among them.
Madison adapted to the political sphere Smith’s belief that competition itself is a system of checks and balances that leads to an optimum state of affairs, both practical and moral. The result is certainly no perfection, either in the market or the public square, but it is better than any alternative: the operative word is “optimum,” in stark contrast to “utopian.” A regime that minimizes the distinction between men had been the ultimate aim of Smith’s philosophy, which he described as “the natural system of perfect liberty and justice,” or more briefly, “the system of natural liberty.” But he did not think himself an innovator, explained political theorist Joseph Cropsey in his 2001 study Polity and Economy: Further Thoughts Principles of Adam Smith. Liberty, writes Cropsey, meant to Smith the same thing that “it had meant to Locke, to Aristotle, and to the long tradition of political philosophy: the condition of men under lawful governors who respect the persons and property of the governed, the latter having to consent to the arrangement in one way or another.”
The result was a superbly calibrated federal system outlined in an elegantly concise federal Constitution, synchronized with state constitutions, based on the immutable principle that all power rests with the people. No wonder that Alexander de Tocqueville (1805-1859), in a speech before the French Constituent Assembly on September 12th, 1848, declared plainly that America was the one nation that both defined and implemented the idea of liberty as nowhere else on earth.
The issue before the Assembly that day concerned the possibility of solving the unemployment problem plaguing the new – second – French republic following the overthrow of King Louis Philippe I, by setting up government work projects, guaranteeing employment at a fixed wage. In this extraordinary speech, Tocqueville confronted his fellow lawmakers bluntly: the real issue at hand was “socialism.” And he wasn’t having it.
Acknowledging that several systems could qualify as socialist, he proposes examining only their common characteristics, which he identifies as follows: First, “an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man;” second, “an attack, either direct or indirect, on the principle of private property;” and third, “a profound opposition to personal liberty and scorn for individual reason, a complete contempt for the individual.” In a word, socialism is quite “simply a new system of serfdom.”
It is noteworthy that “capitalism” was not coined until a year later, in 1849, by the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who declared: “The economic idea of capitalism, the politics of government or of authority, and the theological idea of the Church are three identical ideas, linked in various ways. To attack one of them is equivalent to attacking all of them.” It would not be until Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, published in 1867, that the term “capitalism” began to be widely used to describe an economic system based on private property as the means of production.
Socialism is older. Its roots go at least as far back as the mid-eighteenth century, when the one remedy against avarice, that “universal plague” of “individual interest,” was the abolition of private property. Originally dubbed “communism,” within a century it was absorbed by socialism courtesy of Comte Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), founder of the utopian socialist movement, who championed the cause of the exploited working class. The two concepts diverged once again, after Karl Marx disaggregated them, ultimately settling for “socialism” – the “true” kind, of course – as most practical in the short run. Different meanings notwithstanding, however, these isms had a common enemy: individual property, where the common good was sacrificed to greed, whose unwitting victims had to be benevolently protected. Tocqueville thus charged that even France’s Old Regime, the monarchy, was actually far less distant from socialism than it seemed, as both “held that wisdom lay only in the State and that the citizens were weak and feeble beings who must forever be guided by the hand.” Finding it ludicrous for socialism to “pretend… to be the legitimate continuation of democracy,” he told his audience, “I look for democracy where I have seen it, in the only country on earth where it exists, where it could possibly have been established as something durable in the modern world – in America.”
For as he had explained in Democracy in America (1835-1840) Americans not only derived “from the aristocracy of England the notion of private rights,” they were able to put those ideas into practice. And it works: they “refrain from attacking the rights of others in order that their own may not be violated.” And since “there would be no society without respect for right,” not merely the concept but the behavior should be taught at the earliest age, so a child may grow up “respecting those rights in others which he wishes to have respected in himself.” This simple yet profound common sense lies at the heart of democracy.
Democracy and socialism, Tocqueville contends therefore, are
not only different but opposing philosophies…. Democracy extends the sphere of personal independence, socialism confines it. Democracy values each man an agent, an instrument, a number. Democracy and socialism have but one thing in common – equality. But note well the difference. Democracy aims at equality in liberty. Socialism desires equality in constraint and in servitude.
Were Tocqueville to visit our shores today, he would likely be saddened but not surprised. He had seen worse.
Juliana Geran Pilon, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. This article is partly based on her latest book, The Utopian Conceit and the War on Freedom (Academica Press, 2019).