Spontaneous Order and Liberalism's Complex Relation to Democracy

By diZerega, Gus | Independent Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Spontaneous Order and Liberalism's Complex Relation to Democracy


diZerega, Gus, Independent Review


In this article, I argue that spontaneous orders are natural outgrowths of liberal principles and that a better understanding of them sheds light on a fateful split between nineteenth-century American and European liberal traditions that remains relevant today.

What Is Liberalism?

Liberalism's core insight is that the individual is the fundamental moral and social unit and that in this regard all persons are equal. As Rabbi Hillel said in a different context, "Everything else is commentary."

Liberalism arose in seventeenth-century England, beginning primarily with the work of John Locke (1632-1704), but spreading rapidly among the intellectual elite of the future United States and western Europe. Two other origins are sometimes identified: classical civilization and the work of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Because the reasons why these sources ultimately did not serve as successful foundations of liberalism play an important role in my analysis, I begin by briefly discussing them.

The Greek ideal closest to liberalism was exemplified most memorably in Thucydides's (2007) account of Pericles's funeral oration. Aristotle's defense of free government similarly rested on our powers of speech and capacity for uncoerced rational persuasion (diZerega 2000, 13-56). However, in both cases the focus is on the individual in community, not on the individual as a distinct unit. Thus, their emphasis differs from liberalism's.

Classical societies were rooted in slavery, which depended on the denial that individuals are equal moral units. Most classical conceptions of human equality refer to our common relationship to the cosmos and take slavery largely for granted. We know that Greek critiques of slavery existed because Aristotle refers to them, but no such writings have come down to us (Cambiano 2003).

Thomas Hobbes is also sometimes identified as liberalism's principle founder, especially by its detractors (Strauss 1999; MacPherson 2011). Hobbes was an individualist and modern in his outlook, but he was no liberal. His argument for natural right refers simply to our power to act. The stronger can act with impunity on the weaker. The weak can band together, making even the position of the strongest vulnerable. Therefore, all benefit from the creation of a "Leviathan" able to subdue anyone. The resulting peace enables most to benefit more than they would in its absence. Hobbes never makes the case that individuals have moral standing or that they deserve legal respect.

Today Hobbes's approach provides a powerful alternative to liberalism, substituting self-interest for moral principles and providing only a weak defense against aggression and exploitation. This perspective is in keeping with the Athenian statement to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War: "The right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must" (Thucydides n.d.).

John Locke was the first major liberal thinker. His argument for equal rights and government by the consent of the governed ignited a vision that would transform the world, coming first to major fruition in 1776. The opening arguments of the Declaration of Independence read as if Locke might have written them, which is not surprising because by that time Lockean liberalism had penetrated elite American culture. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) explained years later that the document's Lockeanism "was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion" (1944, 719).

To get a sense of how unusual the liberal insight about individual equality was, we may contrast Locke's vision with that of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who also was closely associated with the rise of the modern world. Bacon (2009) envisioned an elite of scientific experts ruling over everyone else.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Spontaneous Order and Liberalism's Complex Relation to Democracy
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?