Is Classical Liberalism Pernicious?

In a recent Law & Liberty podcast, Richard Reinsch presses Patrick Deneen on one of the theses from his highly regarded Why Liberalism Failed (Yale, 2018). Deneen argues there is no difference in kind between today’s liberal progressive humanitarianism and classical liberalism. Pushing back, Reinsch cites Adam Smith as an example of classical liberalism and queries his credentials as a progressive. Deneen counters that both new and old liberalism break with Greek and medieval ideas of nature: the old ideal of nature was as a support of virtue, a test of character, certainly, but happiness required continuity with nature, not hostility. Liberalism of all stripes, he contends, thinks of human freedom in terms of innovations in rationality and technology detached from the organic demands of township, nation, or geography. Smith is no different.

Deneen thus argues that seventeenth and eighteenth-century liberalism was the seed bed for contemporary liberalism’s intolerance of any restraint on the autonomy of individual choice, including nature itself. He points to liberal criticisms of fertility and family, as well as support for gay marriage and transgenderism. Whilst it is true that progressivism is wed to environmentalism, it is certainly not the case that nature has any internal control on human willfulness. To the liberal, so far as nature is concerned, human freedom is akin to that of angels.

Deneen might offer the fashion industry as an example. Many in fashion proudly declare themselves to be progressive liberal humanitarians. Nonetheless, by some measures, fashion is the most polluting industry on the planet. Aware of this, fashion pages are full of stories about environmental stewardship and sustainability. However, fashion also champions the idea of self-creation and writing your own story. For this reason, fashion magazines of late have aggressively endorsed transgenderism.

There is a problem here.

If nature has no hold upon us when it is most intimate to us, in our bodies and human nature, we are bound to be cavalier about nature when it is more remote. All varieties of natural order are incompatible with the absolute self. Contemporary liberalism, and its advocates in the fashion industry, subvert nature and sustainability.

However, is Deneen right when he argues that classical liberalism is as equally divorced from natural order? There are many tributaries to classical liberalism and significant differences between them: some favour Deneen’s position more than others.

For evidence, Deneen might point to John Locke and his idea that nature is stingy and plays shy with her resources. This idea comes to fruition in popular ideas of capitalist competition. Thomas Hobbes combines social atomism with political willfulness because each is entailed by his narrowing of human nature to elementary appetitive powers. This idea comes to fruition in contemporary liberalism with selves free to reimagine their being and harness the power of the state to ensure private re-imaginings are ratified publicly.

These lean accounts of nature do not exhaust the ideals of nature in modern treatments of liberty. Leading economists of the eighteenth century, like Smith and Turgot, continue the medieval tradition of the plenitude of nature. As I recently argued on this site, this conception is evident in Smith’s mentors, Lords Kames and Shaftesbury as well. Kames argued that the sing-song quality of human speech grew from our mimicking the sounds of streams and bird song. Shaftesbury points out that myths all think of political founders as songsters. Interestingly, this is a tradition of thinking that continues with psychanalyst Carl Jung, who argues that early religious rituals relied on priestly mimicry of the sound of frogs and rain.

The aristocratic Anne Robert Jacques Turgot was a finance minister of Louis XVI. His suggested reforms of the French economy were stymied but Turgot (1727-1781) was lucky enough to die before the terror of the French Revolution. He published his great work on economics, Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth, in 1766, the same year as Smith’s Wealth of Nations. A particular strength of Reflections is its treatment of lending and money where the fecundity of nature is prominent.

In a magnificent image of the consequences of lending, Turgot imagines the quantity of money available for loans as like a carpenter’s spirit level. Lending is like the woodworker applying numbers and quantities to craft wood into ornaments. As when the sea recedes leaving well-nourished fertile slopes for nature to work upon, so lending opens land to cultivation and human art, springing from capital, furnishes territories with houses, roads, and cultivated fields.

[The rate of interest] is like a sea expanded over a vast country; the tops of the mountains rise above the surface of the water, and form fertile and cultivated islands. If this sea happens to give way, in proportion as it descends, sloping ground, then plains and valleys appear, which cover themselves with productions of every kind. It wants no more than a foot of elevation, or falling, to inundate or to restore culture to unmeasurable tracts of land. It is the abundance of capitals that animates enterprize; and a low interest of money is at the same time the effect and a proof of the abundance of capitals (para. 90).

Cunningly, Turgot uses the fertility of nature to weaken a long standing distaste in Christian Europe for loaning money at interest: Turgot arguing that that distaste is a rejection of God’s providential creation. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Lord Shaftesbury had identified a symmetry between the divine, nature, and human innovation, a transcendental geometry linking natural order and liberty:

There is a power in numbers, harmony, proportion and beauty of every kind, which naturally captivates the heart and raises the imagination to an opinion or conceit of something majestic and divine (Characteristicks, Vol. 3, p. 31).

The geometry of Turgot’s sprit level expresses this idea, as does Smith’s invisible hand. The invisible hand is a complex symmetry that precedes and shapes individual actions and arranges them into patterns of labour and distribution:

It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life; which have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forest into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence, and the great high road of communication to the different nations of the earth. The earth by these labours of mankind has been obliged to redouble her natural fertility (Theory of Moral Sentiments, pp. 183-84).

Innovation lays a geometry upon the land – whether stemming from the numbers of a rate of interest, a railway timetable, or a compost’s chemical formula fostering an average yield – and the land redoubles its fertility: this is because, as Shaftesbury puts it, the imagination defers to numbers and proportion.

Deneen could do worse than being allied with Smith and Turgot. Their balancing of geometry and geography, liberty and nature, is illustrated by Turgot’s ontology of money. He interestingly argues that money is a “symbol of unity” and something can function as “a common measure, in proportion as it is more or less in general use, of a more similar quality, and more easy to be divided into aliquot parts.” To these three attributes, he adds a fourth: something can function as money when it “is more or less applicable for the purpose of a general pledge of exchange, in proportion as it is less susceptible of decay or alteration in quantity or quality” (paragraph 39). On account of rates of decay, linen makes for better money then wine, reasons Turgot. He gives varied examples of money: sheep, apricot stones, cowrie shells, and Dutch “bank florins.” In the American colonies, he tells us, slaves are money, known as an Indian piece.

Nature and imagination have the same inner structure, argue Shaftesbury, Turgot, and Smith. The fixity and partibility of natural objects make them suitable vehicles for exchanges the human mind desires. Wealth is a function of the wealth nature herself offers. The cunning of innovation refers back to the fertile partibility of geography and resources. Nature and imagination are twins, argued the great economists of classical liberalism. This inner proportion does not hamper liberty and wealth creation but it does avoid the internal contradiction of modern progressive liberalism.