Liberal Thinking: Popular Errors

Recently I’ve noticed some well established errors or one sided views of major liberal thinkers repeated around the Blogosphere and online news sources.

1. John Stuart Mill is the prophet of current Capitalist Libertarianism
Mill is condemned by at least two of the heroes of current Capitalist Libertarianism: Ludwig von Mises condemned him for allowing Utilitarian considerations to override Libertarian rights; Friedrich Hayek condemned him for referring to ‘social justice’.
A popular minor error is to refer to Hayek as Von Hayek. Hayek himself dropped the aristocratic ‘Von‘. The Austiran government withdrew recognition for all aristocratic governments after WWII.

This reflects a widespread failure to realise that Libertarianism, certainly that of Hayek and Mises, rests on Natural Right theory which is totally rejected by Utilitarianism since Bentham and by Bentham’s antecedent David Hume. Natural Right/Natural Law theory assumes that we have rights before, and independently, of the rights established by any system of laws. Natural Right theory presumes that the natural rights of individuals cannot be denied or weakened for any reason. Utilitarianism rejects Natural Rights and therefore much Libertarian thought, because it is based on the principle of maximising the happiness of the greatest number, not on ant conception of inalienable natural individual rights.

2. Alexis de Tocqueville was the Cheer Leader of American Democracy.
In his classic commentary on Mid-Nineteenth Century Democracy in America, Tocqueville saw much to welcome in democracy. His view of American democracy in particular, and of democracy in general, also contained many anxieties and criticisms. One thing that needs to be understood is that for Tocqueville, democracy does not primarily refer to representative institutions, it refers to equality. Tocqueville put liberty at the foundation of his own thought, he regarded the old European aristocracies and monarchies as having at least an equal claim with the American democracy to be base don liberty. The threats to liberty that Tocqueville saw in democracy include mediocrity of culture, in which everyone has some culture but exceptional cultural achievements disappear; the tyranny of the majority (a phrase Mill borrowed from Tocqueville) in which the power of public opinion, particularly in small towns, has an oppressive moral force greater than the physical repressions employed by an absolute monarchy. This shows that the view of Tocqueville as celebrator of small town America to be mistaken. It also shows that he cannot be associated with Libertarian views of liberty as purely negative. Negative liberty is freedom from physical constraint as opposed to positive liberty, which the right to something: social welfare, culture, citizenship are examples. Tocqueville certainly took the last two very seriously. This clearly shows that the ‘Classical Liberal’ tradition cannot be equated with a purely negative view of liberty.