Modernized Liberalism. The greatest legislative success of Philosophical Radicalism was coeval with the beginning of its recession. The high water mark of its influence was reached in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws and the establishment of free trade as British national policy.
But even before that date the social effects of unregulated industrialism began to excite grave misgivings in the minds even of liberals, and they produced a reaction in classes whose vested interests or traditional ways of living were threatened.
In 1841 the report of a Royal Commission, appointed to investigate the coal-mining industry, shocked all England with its revelation of the brutality that existed in the mines the employment of women and children, barbarously long hours of work, de absence of safety devices, and the prevalence of revolting conditions both sanitary and moral.
The discussion of this report and cf similar revelations in other industries was reflected almost at once in English literature, in novels of industrialism such as Mrs. Gaskell’s Miry Barton, Disraeli’s Sybil, and Kingsley’s Alton Locke, all published in the 1840’s.
Throughout the remainder of the century a steady stream of criticism, partly on moral and partly on esthetic grounds, continued to be leveled at industrialism by Carlyle, Ruskin, and William Morris. Even as early as the 1830’s Parliament had begun hesitatingly to pass factory acts regulating hours and conditions of work, though all such legislation limited freedom of contract and was therefore contrary not only to the trend of earlier liberal legislation but also to the commonly held theory of what liberal policy should be.
As the nineteenth century advanced the volume of social legislation steadily increased until, in the opinion of competent observers, by the end of the third quarter of the century Parliament had in effect discarded individualism as its guiding principle and had accepted collectivism. Liberalism as it had been understood was on the defensive, and by a curious anomaly legislation passed in the interest of social welfare, and therefore of the greatest happiness, ran counter to accepted liberal ideas.
This reaction against economic liberalism did not proceed from any antithetical social philosophy nor did it imply any philosophical agreement among those affected by it. What Dicey called collectivism was certainly not a philosophy. It might be more accurately described as a spontaneous defense against the social destructiveness of the industrial revolution and the recklessness of a policy that encouraged industrialization without safeguards against the wreckage that it entailed.
The controlling motive was a sense, not very clearly formulated, that unregulated industrialism and commercialism carried a threat to social security and stability, a threat which was not much mitigated even if it were true, as the economists argued, that there had been on the whole an increase of prosperity and a rise in real wages, As a matter of fact restrictions upon Laissez faire were enacted in all countries and by political parties that professed widely different social philosophies.
This reaction can be attributed partly to humanitarianism aroused by the inhumane conditions imposed on industrial workers, Liberalism as a political movement could ill afford to part company with humanitarianism, for this had always been a powerful motive among liberals even though it got little overt recognition from the Philosophical Radicals.
Over and above this general reaction, however, the very success with which liberalism had pleaded the cause of the industrialists stimulated the political self-consciousness of two other economic interests whose position liberalism threatened. In the first place the adoption of free trade reversed a long-standing policy of tariff protection for British agriculture and therefore on its face amounted to sacrificing the interests of farmers to the expansion of commerce and industry.
The agricultural interest had always been mainly conservative, and in so far as conservatism had a political philosophy it was derived from Burke. By conviction it stressed the values of social stability and the historical continuity of the community, and this made it the natural critic and opponent of industrialism. The result was anomalous, at least from the point of view of a liberal like James Mill, who had imagined that workers would always follow the lead of the wisest part of the community, namely, the industrial middle class.
A workingman whose trade, was threatened by a new technology might very easily feel that his interests were safer with a party controlled by landlords than with one that was the spokesman of his employers. Disraeli’s Tory democracy became a real, if only a temporary, political force. In the second place the political self-consciousness of industrial employers inevitably bred a like consciousness on the part of labor.
The enfranchisement by a Conservative government of a considerable portion of English workingmen, which occurred in 1867, marked the beginning of a political change of permanent importance. It meant the appearance of a group of voters who were, more concerned to protect wages, hours of labor, and conditions of employment than to extend business enterprise, and who were well aware that their strength lay not in freedom of contract but in collective bargaining. One of two things must happen either liberalism would meet these requirements or the working lass would not be liberal.
As was Said in the last chapter, the distinctive characteristic of English liberalism was that it developed into a national political movement and did not remain, as it began, the spokesman of middle-class industrial interests. England was indeed the most highly industrialized country in the world, and its industrialists had gained a degree of political power not enjoyed by any similar class elsewhere.
But they were also part of a society that was profoundly convinced of its national solidarity and of the community of its national interests. This public had learned by long experience with representative government that, as Halifax had said at the time of the Revolution, There is a natural reason of state which still preserver its original right of saving a nation, when the letter of the law would perhaps destroy it.
Consequently liberalism, if it was not to lose its public, had to revise the letter of its law, and this in fact was what it did. As a party it had to revise its policy but in order to maintain its position as a factor in social thought it had also to revise its theory of the two the first was the easier, depending as it did upon political expedience.
It was necessary only to discard the dogma, never very convincing except to those already convinced, that society always progresses from status to contract, and that, as Dicey said, had been done by 1870. But the dogma had behind it not only an immense weight of sentiment but the impressive system of Bentham’s jurisprudence and the claim of the classical economists that their own policy was based upon well established laws of human behavior.
A thoroughgoing revision of liberal theory, therefore, required a re-examination of the nature and functions of the state, the nature of liberty, and the relationship between liberty and legal coercion. And such a re-examination opened up the prior question of the relationship between individual human nature and its social milieu. To deal with this last question the old ready explanations, in terms of self-interest, pleasure, and utility, proved steadily less convincing.
Both in ethics and in social science the current was away from individualism and toward exploring some king of collectivist concept. In short, a modernizing of liberal theory depended upon breaking down the intellectual isolation of Philosophical Radicalism, which was largely responsible for its dogmatism, and bringing it into touch with the outlook of other social classes, with Continental strains of thought, and with new fields of scientific investigation. Only so could liberalism claim to be a social philosophy and not merely the ideology of a special interest.
The revision occurred in two waves, so to speak. The first was chiefly the related but contrasting philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer; the second was the philosophy of the Oxford idealists, especially that of Thomas Hill Green.
The work of the first two men is the clearest proof of the urgency, not to say the inevitability of the revision. Both were bred in the native philosophical tradition and in important respects each in his own way remained faithful to it. Yer the most obvious characteristic of each was his reaching out toward intellectual! influences that the tradition lacked.
In the case of Spencer this was the effort to bring his social philosophy into the context of organic evolution and the whole body of the natural sciences. In the case of Mill it was the effort both to revise utilitarianism and the conception of personal liberty and also to take account of the social philosophy of Comte.
It was Oxford idealism, however, that finally broke by its criticism the hold of the empirical tradition on Anglo American philosophical thought and based itself avowedly on post Kantian German philosophy. Yet in respect to its political philosophy idealism maintained its continuity with liberalism.
Green submitted to drastic criticism the sensationalism and hedonism upon which the older liberalism professed to be based, but he was more clearly and more coherently liberal in his political theory than John Stuart Mill And while idealism called itself neo-Hegelian, it contained no more than a trace, and not that in Green, of the political authoritarianism that Hegelianism connoted in Germany.
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