Spontaneous Order and Liberalism's Complex Relation to Democracy

Article excerpt

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. …