Individualism and the Social Order: The Social Element in Liberal Thought

Individualism and the Social Order: The Social Element in Liberal Thought

Individualism and the Social Order: The Social Element in Liberal Thought

Individualism and the Social Order: The Social Element in Liberal Thought

Synopsis

This work provides readers with a thorough treatment of liberal doctrine, both in its political theory and economic policy dimensions. It covers coverage of Spencer, Sumner, Mises, Nozick and Rawls as well as Hayek and Mill.

Excerpt

What follows is an extended essay on the social nature of man as represented in the philosophy of liberalism, in the classical sense of the term. This is not a presentation of the historical development of liberalism as a political philosophy. The purpose of this book is not to make some grand statement of the nature of liberalism, nor is it to identify the fundamental principles of that philosophy. The aim here is much more limited: to challenge the familiar characterization of liberalism (especially by those opposed to what they perceive as its central tenets) by addressing within the liberal tradition the place of community and obligation. This is in essence an essay in intellectual history, attempting to explicate through textual exegesis of some prominent exponents of liberalism the principles underlying political society.

It may not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that liberalism is one of the most misunderstood, mischaracterized, and maligned of political philosophies. It has been variously identified by its opponents - including in the list anarchists, conservatives, communitarians, institutionalists, Marxists, and others one may care to identify - as a philosophy of detachment, egoism, greed, individualism, isolation, laissez-faire, self-interest, and selfishness (the latter two to be seen as distinct), as it is denigrated as providing the intellectual foundation of capitalism, fostering a free market mentality within a competitive order and, ipso facto, engendering commodification and exploitation. Liberalism is said to ignore questions of the good in favor of promoting the right, to favor the personal over the social, to favor process over result, as though these were contrasting and competitive virtues and not complementary ones. More often than not, liberalism has been presented as an illustration in caricature, devoid of meaning, the denigration typically gratuitous and in the defense of alternative social philosophies.

The question is whether the perceptions of liberalism are valid and sustainable, and the answer must be ascertained through reference to the works of those who have identified themselves as within the liberal tradition. In the writings of some of its most ardent advocates - John Locke, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, to name but a few of the more prominent - the caricature of liberal thought simply cannot be found, at least in the simplistic form in which it is often presented. Consider first, however, the characterizations of human nature as promulgated by Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, two

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