Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism

Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism. Green’s restatement of liberalism did away with the rigid line between economics and politics by which the older liberals had excluded the state from interfering with the operation of a free market. From Green’s point of view even a free market was a social institution rather than a natural condition, and quite possibly it might require legislation to keep it free.


The political and the economic, instead of being distinct areas, are interlaced institutions which are certainly not independent of one another and which ought ideally both to contribute to the ethical purposes of a liberal society. In political theory this change implied a radical departure from the attitude toward the state and legislation which had been characteristic of liberalism.

Liberalism had always looked with suspicion on the state and had kept its activities within narrow limits, whether by a rigid list of constitutional guaranties or by the assumption that legislation is likely to be an undesirable interference with freedom.

Green’s liberalism, on the contrary, was a frank acceptance of the state as a positive agency to be used at any point where legislation could be shown to contribute to positive freedom, in short, for any purpose that added to the general welfare without creating worse evils than it removed. It is true that Green himself, and indeed the whole generation of liberals to which he belonged, made no sudden shift of attitude to conform with their change of theory.

They remained even nervously fearful of paternalism and the undermining of individual responsibility by social legislation. But from Green’s point of view this issue no longer implied a difference of principle but became one merely of fact and of the probable effects of legislation.

The major purpose of his revision was to force the state into lines of legislation from which it had previously abstained on principles avowedly liberal. Thus Green himself was convinced that the state must go further than it had in financing public education and making it compulsory, though in this area almost no liberal except Spencer had stood on a platform of laissez faire.

He was convinced also of the need for an extension of sanitary regulation in the interest of public health, of standards of housing in the interest of decent living conditions, and of control over labor contracts. And since he argued in general that all rights of private property can be defended only if they contribute to the common good, his theory opened up very wide possibilities of legislative regulation.

To be sure, he believed that no great change in property rights was needed, because he argued, rather vaguely, that the growth of large-scale capitalism does not interfere with a parallel growth of small-scale capitalism. But this too was a question of fact, and if he had been convinced that he was mistaken, he could have altered his belief quite logically.

This quality of Green’s liberalism tended to obscure or to blur any sharp lines of distinction between alternative political theories, as long as they were not incompatible with his ethical conception of a liberal society. Or to put the case a little differently, Green’s liberalism ceased to imply any single and invariable line of political and legislative policy and implied rather a combination of different lines of policy to safeguard a variety of social interests all accepted as contributing to the general welfare.

Thus the differences between liberalism and conservatism, or even between liberalism and a liberal form of socialism, cease to be matters of principle. Green’s social philosophy, like Mill’s, might be described as an enlarged and idealized form of utilitarianism. In one sense this change was not contrary to the general temper and bias of liberalism, but was merely an enlargement of the concept of the greatest happiness. In point of fact, however, Green really appropriated for liberalism a body of social values and policies which in the tradition of English politics had characteristically belonged to conservatism.

It was this which caused some of his contemporaries, Mark Pattison for example, to regard his political philosophy as merely confused. The conservatism of Disraeli, derived substantially from Burke, had publicized itself as the protector of stability and security against too rapid and too drastic change, the principal cause of change being the expansion of trade and industry which was a typical policy of liberalism.

The revision that Green made in liberal theory amounted in part to an insistence that stability and security are themselves important elements of general welfare and are necessary conditions of liberty. Green’s philosophy attempted to state a moral platform so broad that all men of social good will could stand on it, and in a measure he succeeded.

Its purpose was to transform liberalism from the social philosophy of a single set of interests seen from the point of view of a particular class into one which could claim to take account of all important interests seen from the point of view of the general good of the national community.

Obviously, however, this purpose could not be wholly successful. The generality, not to say the vagueness, of Green’s ethical terms, was such that it did not obviate differences in view even among younger men all of whom considered themselves to be in substantial agreement with him.

Idealist political theory was capable of two constructions, the one more authoritarian or possibly more conservative, the other more definitely liberal. To a considerable extent the difference depended upon the closeness with which Green’s philosophy was regarded as following Hegel.

The Hegelian elements in Green’s philosophy were selected and emphasized, in part with the purpose of correcting Green, by his most distinguished student, Bernard Bosanquet, in The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899). Under the stress of the First World War this book was subjected ton a drastic criticism by Leonard Hobhouse, himself strongly under Green’s influence, in his Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918).

In substance what Hobhouse did, under the stimulus of the War, was to throw into relief some of the anti-liberal implications of Hegelianism that English and American Hegelian had considered to be of only passing importance. The issues between Bosanquet and Hobhouse turned chiefly upon two points, both obscure in Green the ethical relationship between the individual and the community and the relation of society to the state.

Green’s assertion that the self is a social self was indeed an important statement as long as anyone was inclined to neglect it, but once it was admitted the question still remained, what exactly did it mean and in particular what did it imply in cases where an individual came into conflict with accepted social beliefs or practices. Bosanquet, like Hegel and unlike Green, attached little value to the social criticism of the moral dissenter but assumed that changes in institutions take place by the inherent logic of social growth.

Accordingly, as Hegel had identified individual inclinations with caprice, so Bosanquet tended to identify them with ordinary trivial moods and the narrow, arbitrary, contradictory will. And as Rousseau sometimes represented the general will as that which gave men’s actions the morality they had formerly lacked, so Bosanquet ascribed to society a real will with which the individual’s will would be identical if he were fully moralized and fully intelligent.

Taken literally this would amount in practice to the assumption that society is always right and the individual is always wrong, or to the practical conclusion that private conscience ought merely to conform and be submissive to authority. Some such view was in fact implied if not asserted when F. H. Bradley said in his chapter on My Station and its Duties.

We should consider whether the encouraging oneself in having opinions of one’s own, in the sense of thinking differently from the world on moral subjects, be not, in any person other than a heaven-born prophet, sheer self-conceit.

A conclusion of this kind is consistent with much of Hegel but certainly not with Green, who always regarded the give and take between private judgment and social institutions as mutual. Social pressure of course, as Bosanquet argued, continually holds individuals up to higher standards of conduct than they would achieve if left to themselves, but it is equally true that personal ideals constantly hold law and government up to standards that they would not achieve without criticism. A political philosophy which denied the second of these two statements would certainly be very defectively liberal, for without it free thought and free speech would largely lose their political significance.

The introduction into English usage of the word state,overtly as a technical term, with connotations drawn from Hegel, was uniformly unfortunate. Before the idealists no English political thinker had used the word in any special sense or indeed had made any common use of it at all. Nor for that matter did the idealists give it any exact meaning; in Green, and still more in Bosanquet, it was a source of constant confusion not only in terminology but also in thought.

Sometimes it meant government, sometimes it meant nation, sometimes it meant society all vague words but certainly not interchangeable and sometimes it meant an ideal entity which, like Rousseau’s general will, is always right but which cannot be identified with anything on earth. This last meaning in particular, when combined with the others, had the effect of investing some institution with a moral dignity and authority to which it need have no claim, and it was this which Hobhouse attacked as a metaphysical use, or misuse, of the word.

He showed that it might be used to justify either political regimentation or long established social stratification, and in either case it would contravene the spirit of liberalism. In another work Hobhouse argued that one mark of a liberal society is that the claim of every man to a morally significant place in the community is admitted to rest on justice and not on charity and that in consequence there is a broad moral distinction between liberalism and philanthropy.

Though Green’s liberalism might thus be bent toward conservatism, it was consistent also with a liberal form of socialism, provided the latter did not depend on a theory of class antagonism. No sharp difference of principle separated Green’s liberalism from the socialism of the group of young men who organized the Fabian Society in 1884.

This does not appear to have been due to a direct influence of Green’s teaching upon the Fabians, or indeed to the influence of abstract philosophical theories of any kind. Both Green and the Fabians reflected, probably independently, an important change in the climate of British political opinion, namely, a loss of confidence in the alleged social efficiency of private enterprise and an increased willingness to use the state’s legislative and administrative power to correct its abuses and to humanize it.

Like Green the Fabians defended their program as an extension of liberalism. In the Fabian Essays (1889) Sidney Webb asserted that, The economic side of the democratic ideal is, in fact, socialism itself, and Sydney Olivier said that Socialism is merely individualism rationalized; its morality is only the expression of the eternal passion of life seeking its satisfaction through the striving of each individual for the freest and fullest activity.

Socialism is not the suppression but the realization of personality and individuality. Indeed, it would not be difficult to represent Fabian socialism as an effort to implement Green’s positive freedom on the basis of a much wider knowledge of economics and of industrial and political administration than Green possessed.

And while the Fabians proposed to go much farther than Green in the direction of nationalizing basic industries and controlling production and distribution, they based their plans, as Green did, on the observed bad effects of leaving the economy uncontrolled, and not like Marx on the dialectic of economic development and the inevitability of the class struggle.

Fabian economics was for the most part not Marxian but an extension of the theory of economic rent to the accumulation of capital, on lines already suggested by Henry George. Fabian policy was based on the justice and the desirability of recapturing unearned increment for social purposes, These purposes depended on the conviction, essentially similar to Green’s, that liberty is impossible without a reasonable degree of security and that in consequence social security and stability are as much an object of political policy as liberty.

Accordingly, the socialist principles for the reorganized British Labor Party, stated in Sidney Webb’s Labor and the New Social Order (1918), took the form of national minima of leisure, health, education, and subsistence below which it was contrary to public policy that any large proportion of the population should fall. This purpose has continued to be defended as an extension of liberty.

In 1942 the Party Executive reaffirmed its confidence that a planned society can be a far more free society than a competitive one, because it can offer those who work in it the sense, on the one hand, of continuous opportunity for the expression of capacity, and the power, on the other, to share fully in the making of the rules under which they work.
Read More Related Topics :

    1. Modernized Liberalism
    2. John Stuart Mill Liberty
    3. The Principles of Social Study
    4. Herbert Spencer
    5. The Idealist Revision of Liberalism
    6. Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism
    7. The Present Meaning of Liberalism

Leave a Comment