THE MOVEMENT OF THEORY

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THE MOVEMENT OF THEORY
Great changes are not caused by ideas alone; but they are not effected without ideas. The passions of men must be aroused if the frost of custom is to be broken or the chains of authority burst; but passion of itself is blind and its world is chaotic. To be effective men must act together, and to act together they must have a common understanding and a common object. When it comes to be a question of any far-reaching change, they must not merely conceive their own immediate end with clearness. They must convert others, they must communicate sympathy and win over the unconvinced. Upon the whole, they must show that their object is possible, that it is compatible with existing institutions, or at any rate with some workable form of social life. They are, in fact, driven on by the requirements of their position to the elaboration of ideas, and in the end to some sort of social philosophy; and the philosophies that have driving force behind them are those which arise after this fashion out of the practical demands of human feeling. The philosophies that remain ineffectual and academic are those that are formed by abstract reflection without relation to the thirsty souls of human kind.
In England, it is true, where men are apt to be shy and unhandy in the region of theory, the Liberal movement has often sought to dispense with general principles. In its early days and in its more moderate forms, it sought its ends under the guise of constitutionalism. As against the claims of the Stuart monarchy, there was a historic case as well as a philosophic argument, and the earlier leaders of the Parliament relied more on precedent than on principle. This method was embodied in the Whig tradition, and runs on to our own time, as one of the elements that go to make up the working constitution of the Liberal mind. It is, so to say, the Conservative element in Liberalism, valuable in resistance to encroachments, valuable in securing continuity of  development, for purposes of re-construction insufficient. To maintain the old order under changed circumstances may be, in fact, to initiate a revolution. It was so in the seventeenth century. Pym and his followers could find justification for their contentions in our constitutional history, but to do so they had to go behind both the Stuarts and the Tudors; and to apply the principles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in 1640 was, in effect, to institute a revolution. In our own time, to maintain the right of the Commons against the Lords is, on the face of it, to adhere to old constitutional right, but to do so under the new circumstances which have made the Commons representative of the nation as a whole is, in reality, to establish democracy for the first time on a firm footing, and this, again, is to accomplish a revolution.
Now, those who effect a revolution ought to know whither they are leading the world. They have need of a social theory—and in point of fact the more thorough-going apostles of movement always have such a theory; and though, as we have remarked, the theory emerges from the practical needs which they feel, and is therefore apt to invest ideas of merely temporary value with the character of eternal truths, it is not on this account to be dismissed as of secondary importance. Once formed, it reacts upon the minds of its adherents, and gives direction and unity to their efforts. It becomes, in its turn, a real historic force, and the degree of its coherence and adequacy is matter, not merely of academic interest, but of practical moment. Moreover, the onward course of a movement is more clearly understood by appreciating the successive points of view which its thinkers and statesmen have occupied than by following the devious turnings of political events and the tangle of party controversy. The point of view naturally affects the whole method of handling problems, whether speculative or practical, and to the historian it serves as a centre around which ideas and policies that perhaps differ, and even conflict with one another, may be so grouped as to show their underlying affinities. Let us then seek to determine the principal points of view which the Liberal movement has occupied, and distinguish the main types of theory in which the passion for freedom has sought to express itself.

The first of these types I will call the theory of the Natural Order.
The earlier Liberalism had to deal with authoritarian government in church and state. It had to vindicate the elements of personal, civil, and economic freedom; and in so doing it took its stand on the rights of man, and, in proportion as it was forced to be constructive, on the supposed harmony of the natural order. Government claimed supernatural sanction and divine ordinance. Liberal theory replied in effect that the rights of man rested on the law of Nature, and those of government on human institution. The oldest “institution” in this view was the individual, and the primordial society the natural grouping of human beings under the influence of family affection, and for the sake of mutual aid. Political society was a more artificial arrangement, a convention arrived at for the specific purpose of securing a better order and maintaining the common safety. It was, perhaps, as Locke held, founded on a contract between king and people, a contract which was brought to an end if either party violated its terms. Or, as in Rousseau’s view, it was essentially a contract of the people with one another, an arrangement by means of which, out of many conflicting individual wills, a common or general will could be formed. A government might be instituted as the organ of this will, but it would, from the nature of the case, be subordinate to the people from whom it derived authority. The people were sovereign. The government was their delegate.
Whatever the differences of outlook that divide these theories, those who from Locke to Rousseau and Paine worked with this order of ideas agreed in conceiving political society as a restraint to which men voluntarily submitted themselves for specific purposes. Political institutions were the source of subjection and inequality. Before and behind them stood the assemblage of free and equal individuals. But the isolated individual was powerless. He had rights which were limited only by the corresponding rights of others, but he could not, unless chance gave him the upper hand, enforce them. Accordingly, he found it best to enter into an arrangement with others for the mutual respect of rights; and for this purpose he instituted a government to maintain his rights within the community and to guard the community from assault from without. It followed that the function of government was limited and definable. It was to maintain the natural rights of man as accurately as the conditions of society allowed, and to do naught beside. Any further action employing the compulsory power of the State was of the nature of an infringement of the understanding on which government rested. In entering into the compact, the individual gave up so much of his rights as was necessitated by the condition of submitting to a common rule—so much, and no more. He gave up his natural rights and received in return civil rights, something less complete, perhaps, but more effective as resting on the guarantee of the collective power. If you would discover, then, what the civil rights of man in society should be, you must inquire what are the natural rights of man,[4] and how far they are unavoidably modified in accommodating the conflicting claims of men with one another. Any interference that goes beyond this necessary accommodation is oppression. Civil rights should agree as nearly as possible with natural rights, or, as Paine says, a civil right is a natural right exchanged.
This conception of the relations of the State and the individual long outlived the theory on which it rested. It underlies the entire teaching of the Manchester school. Its spirit was absorbed, as we shall see, by many of the Utilitarians. It operated, though in diminishing force, throughout the nineteenth century; and it is strongly held by contemporary Liberals like M. Faguet, who frankly abrogate its speculative foundations and rest their case on social utility. Its strength is, in effect, not in its logical principles, but in the compactness and consistency which it gives to a view of the functions of the State which responds to certain needs of modern society. As long as those needs were uppermost, the theory was of living value. In proportion as they have been satisfied and other needs have emerged, the requirement has arisen for a fuller and sounder principle.
But there was another side to the theory of nature which we must not ignore. If in this theory government is the marplot and authority the source of oppression and stagnation, where are the springs of progress and civilization? Clearly, in the action of individuals. The more the individual receives free scope for the play of his faculties, the more rapidly will society as a whole advance. There are here the elements of an important truth, but what is the implication? If the individual is free, any two individuals, each pursuing his own ends, may find themselves in conflict. It was, in fact, the possibility of such conflict which was recognized by our theory as the origin and foundation of society. Men had to agree to some measure of mutual restraint in order that their liberty might be effective. But in the course of the eighteenth century, and particularly in the economic sphere, there arose a view that the conflict of wills is based on misunderstanding and ignorance, and that its mischiefs are accentuated by governmental repression. At bottom there is a natural harmony of interests. Maintain external order, suppress violence, assure men in the possession of their property, and enforce the fulfilment of contracts, and the rest will go of itself. Each man will be guided by self-interest, but interest will lead him along the lines of greatest productivity. If all artificial barriers are removed, he will find the occupation which best suits his capacities, and this will be the occupation in which he will be most productive, and therefore, socially, most valuable. He will have to sell his goods to a willing purchaser, therefore he must devote himself to the production of things which others need, things, therefore, of social value. He will, by preference, make that for which he can obtain the highest price, and this will be that for which, at the particular time and place and in relation to his particular capacities, there is the greatest need. He will, again, find the employer who will pay him best, and that will be the employer to whom he can do the best service. Self-interest, if enlightened and unfettered, will, in short, lead him to conduct coincident with public interest. There is, in this sense, a natural harmony between the individual and society. True, this harmony might require a certain amount of education and enlightenment to make it effective. What it did not require was governmental “interference,” which would always hamper the causes making for its smooth and effectual operation. Government must keep the ring, and leave it for individuals to play out the game. The theory of the natural rights of the individual is thus supplemented by a theory of the mutual harmony of individual and social needs, and, so completed, forms a conception of human society which is primâ facie workable, which, in fact, contains important elements of truth, and which was responsive to the needs of a great class, and to many of the requirements of society as a whole, during a considerable period.
On both sides, however, the theory exhibits, under criticism, fundamental weaknesses which have both a historical and a speculative significance. Let us first consider the conception of natural rights. What were these rights, and on what did they rest? On the first point men sought to be explicit. By way of illustration we cannot do better than quote the leading clauses of the Declaration of 1789.

Article I.—Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can only be founded on common utility.
Article II.—The end of every political association is the conservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.[6] These rights are liberty, property, security (la sûreté), and resistance to oppression.
Article III.—The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation….
Article IV.—Liberty consists in the power to do anything that does not injure others; thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man has only such limits as assure to other members of society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
Article VI.—The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have a right to take part (concourir), personally or by their representatives, in its formation.
The remainder of this article insists on the impartiality of law and the equal admission of all citizens to office. The Declaration of 1793 is more emphatic about equality, and more rhetorical. Article III reads, “All men are equal by nature and before the law.”
It is easy to subject these articles to a niggling form of criticism in which their spirit is altogether missed. I would ask attention only to one or two points of principle.
(a) What are the rights actually claimed? “Security” and “resistance to oppression” are not in principle distinct, and, moreover, may be taken as covered by the definition of liberty. The meaning at bottom is “Security for liberty in respect of his person and property is the right of every man.” So expressed, it will be seen that this right postulates the existence of an ordered society, and lays down that it is the duty of such a society to secure the liberty of its members. The right of the individual, then, is not something independent of society, but one of the principles which a good social order must recognize.
(b) Observe that equality is limited by the “common utility,” and that the sphere of liberty is ultimately to be defined by “law.” In both cases we are referred back from the individual either to the needs or to the decision of society as a whole. There are, moreover, two definitions of liberty. (1) It is the power to do what does not injure others. (2) It is a right limited by the consideration that others must enjoy the same rights. It is important to bear in mind that these two definitions are highly discrepant. If my right to knock a man down is only limited by his equal right to knock me down, the law has no business to interfere when we take to our fists. If, on the other hand, I have no right to injure another, the law should interfere. Very little reflection suffices to show that this is the sounder principle, and that respect for the equal liberty of another is not an adequate definition of liberty. My right to keep my neighbour awake by playing the piano all night is not satisfactorily counterbalanced by his right to keep a dog which howls all the time the piano is being played. The right of a “sweater” to pay starvation wages is not satisfactorily limited by the corresponding right which his employee would enjoy if he were in a position to impose the same terms on some one else. Generally, the right to injure or take advantage of another is not sufficiently limited by the right of that other if he should have the power to retaliate in kind. There is no right to injure another; and if we ask what is injury we are again thrown back on some general principle which will override the individual claim to do what one will.
(c) The doctrine of popular sovereignty rests on two principles. (1) It is said to reside in the nation. Law is the expression of the general will. Here the “nation” is conceived as a collective whole, as a unit. (2) Every citizen has the right to take part in making the law. Here the question is one of individual right. Which is the real ground of democratic representation—the unity of the national life, or the inherent right of the individual to be consulted about that which concerns himself?
Further, and this is a very serious question, which is the ultimate authority—the will of the nation, or the rights of the individual? Suppose the nation deliberately decides on laws which deny the rights of the individual, ought such laws to be obeyed in the name of popular sovereignty, or to be disobeyed in the name of natural rights? It is a real issue, and on these lines it is unfortunately quite insoluble.
These difficulties were among the  considerations which led to the formation of the second type of Liberal theory, and what has to be said about the harmony of the natural order may be taken in conjunction with this second theory to which we may now pass, and which is famous as The Greatest Happiness Principle.
Bentham, who spent the greater part of his life in elaborating the greatest happiness principle as a basis of social reconstruction, was fully alive to the difficulties which we have found in the theory of natural rights. The alleged rights of man were for him so many anarchical fallacies. They were founded on no clearly assignable principle, and admitted of no demonstration. “I say I have a right.” “I say you have no such right.” Between the disputants who or what is to decide? What was the supposed law of nature? When was it written, and by whose authority? On what ground do we maintain that men are free or equal? On what principle and within what limits do we or can we maintain the right of property? There were points on which, by universal admission, all these rights have to give way. What is the right of property worth in times of war or of any overwhelming general need? The Declaration itself recognized the need of appeal to common utility or to the law to define the limits of individual right. Bentham would frankly make all rights dependent on common utility, and therewith he would make it possible to examine all conflicting claims in the light of a general principle. He would measure them all by a common standard. Has a man the right to express his opinion freely? To determine the question on Bentham’s lines we must ask whether it is, on the whole, useful to society that the free expression of opinion should be allowed, and this, he would say, is a question which may be decided by general reasoning and by experience of results. Of course, we must take the rough with the smooth. If the free expression of opinion is allowed, false opinion will find utterance and will mislead many. The question would be, does the loss involved in the promulgation of error counterbalance the gain to be derived from unfettered discussion? and Bentham would hold himself free to judge by results. Should the State maintain the rights of private property? Yes, if the admission of those rights is useful to the community as a whole.

No, if it is not useful. Some rights of property, again, may be advantageous, others disadvantageous. The community is free to make a selection. If it finds that certain forms of property are working to the exclusive benefit of individuals and the prejudice of the common weal, it has good ground for the suppression of those forms of property, while it may, with equal justice, maintain other forms of property which it holds sound as judged by the effect on the common welfare. It is limited by no “imprescriptible” right of the individual. It may do with the individual what it pleases provided that it has the good of the whole in view. So far as the question of right is concerned the Benthamite principle might be regarded as decidedly socialistic or even authoritarian. It contemplates, at least as a possibility, the complete subordination of individual to social claims.
There is, however, another side to the Benthamite principle, to understand which we must state the heads of the theory itself as a positive doctrine. What is this social utility of which we have spoken? In what does it consist? What is useful to society, and what harmful? The answer has the merit of great clearness and simplicity. An action is good which tends to promote the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number of those affected by it. As with an action, so, of course, with an institution or a social system. That is useful which conforms to this principle. That is harmful which conflicts with it. That is right which conforms to it, that is wrong which conflicts with it. The greatest happiness principle is the one and supreme principle of conduct. Observe that it imposes on us two considerations. One is the greatest happiness. Now happiness is defined as consisting positively in the presence of pleasure, negatively in the absence of pain. A greater pleasure is then preferable to a lesser, a pleasure unaccompanied by pain to one involving pain. Conceiving pain as a minus quantity of pleasure, we may say that the principle requires us always to take quantity and pleasure into account, and nothing else. But, secondly, the number of individuals affected is material. An act might cause pleasure to one and pain to two. Then it is wrong, unless, indeed, the pleasure were very great and the pain in each case small. We must balance the consequences, taking all individuals affected into account, and “everybody must count for one and nobody for more than one.” This comment is an integral part of the original formula. As between the happiness of his father, his child, or himself, and the happiness of a stranger, a man must be impartial. He must only consider the quantity of pleasure secured or pain inflicted.
Now, in this conception of measurable quantities of pleasure and pain there is, as many critics have insisted, something unreal and academic. We shall have to return to the point, but let us first endeavour to understand the bearing of Bentham’s teaching on the problems of his own time and on the subsequent development of Liberal thought. For this purpose we will keep to what is real in his doctrine, even if it is not always defined with academic precision. The salient points that we note, then, are (1) the subordination of all considerations of right to the considerations of happiness, (2) the importance of number, and (3) as the other side of the same doctrine, the insistence on equality or impartiality between man and man. The common utility which Bentham considers is the happiness experienced by a number of individuals, all of whom are reckoned for this purpose as of equal value. This is the radical individualism of the Benthamite creed, to be set against that socialistic tendency which struck us in our preliminary account.
In this individualism, equality is fundamental. Everybody is to count for one, nobody for more than one, for every one can feel pain and pleasure. Liberty, on the other hand, is not fundamental, it is a means to an end. Popular sovereignty is not fundamental, for all government is a means to an end. Nevertheless, the school of Bentham, upon the whole, stood by both liberty and democracy. Let us consider their attitude.
As to popular government, Bentham and James Mill reasoned after this fashion. Men, if left to themselves, that is to say, if neither trained by an educational discipline nor checked by responsibility, do not consider the good of the greatest number. They consider their own good. A king, if his power is unchecked, will rule in his own interest. A class, if its power is unchecked, will rule in its own interest. The only way to secure fair consideration for the happiness of all is to allow to all an equal share of power. True, if there is a conflict the majority will prevail, but they will be moved each by consideration of his own happiness, and the majority as a whole, therefore, by the happiness of the greater number. There is no inherent right in the individual to take a part in government. There is a claim to be considered in the distribution of the means of happiness, and to share in the work of government as a means to this end. It would follow, among other things, that if one man or one class could be shown to be so much wiser and better than others that his or their rule would, in fact, conduce more to the happiness of the greater number than a popular system, then the business of government ought to be entrusted to that man or that class and no one else ought to interfere with it.
The whole argument, however, implies a crude view of the problem of government. It is, of course, theoretically possible that a question should present itself, detached from other questions, in which a definite measurable interest of each of the seven millions or more of voters is at stake. For example, the great majority of English people drink tea. Comparatively few drink wine. Should a particular sum be raised by a duty on tea or on wine? Here the majority of tea-drinkers have a measurable interest, the same in kind and roughly the same in degree for each; and the vote of the majority, if it could be taken on this question alone and based on self-interest alone, might be conceived without absurdity as representing a sum of individual interests. Even here, however, observe that, though the greatest number is considered, the greatest happiness does not fare so well. For to raise the same sum the tax on wine will, as less is drunk, have to be much larger than the tax on tea, so that a little gain to many tea-drinkers might inflict a heavy loss on the few wine-drinkers, and on the Benthamite principle it is not clear that this would be just. In point of fact it is possible for a majority to act tyrannically, by insisting on a slight convenience to itself at the expense, perhaps, of real suffering to a minority. Now the Utilitarian principle by no means justifies such tyranny, but it does seem to contemplate the weighing of one man’s loss against another’s gain, and such a method of balancing does not at bottom commend itself to our sense of justice. We may lay down that if there is a rational social order at all it must be one which never rests the essential indispensable condition of the happiness of one man on the unavoidable misery of another, nor the happiness of forty millions of men on the misery of one. It may be temporarily expedient, but it is eternally unjust, that one man should die for the people.
We may go further. The case of the contemplated tax is, as applied to the politics of a modern State, an unreal one. Political questions cannot be thus isolated. Even if we could vote by referendum on a special tax, the question which voters would have to consider would never be the revenue from and the incidence of that tax alone. All the indirect social and economic bearings of the tax would come up for consideration, and in the illustration chosen people would be swayed, and rightly swayed, by their opinion, for example, of the comparative effects of tea-drinking and wine-drinking. No one element of the social life stands separate from the rest, any more than any one element of the animal body stands separate from the rest. In this sense the life of society is rightly held to be organic, and all considered public policy must be conceived in its bearing on the life of society as a whole. But the moment that we apply this view to politics, the Benthamite mode of stating the case for democracy is seen to be insufficient. The interests of every man are no doubt in the end bound up with the welfare of the whole community, but the relation is infinitely subtle and indirect. Moreover, it takes time to work itself out, and the evil that is done in the present day may only bear fruit when the generation that has done it has passed away. Thus, the direct and calculable benefit of the majority may by no means coincide with the ultimate good of society as a whole; and to suppose that the majority must, on grounds of self-interest, govern in the interests of the community as a whole is in reality to attribute to the mass of men full insight into problems which tax the highest efforts of science and of statesmanship. Lastly, to suppose that men are governed entirely by a sense of their interests is a many-sided fallacy. Men are neither so intelligent nor so selfish. They are swayed by emotion and by impulse, and both for good and for evil they will lend enthusiastic support to courses of public policy from which, as individuals, they have nothing to gain. To understand the real value of democratic government, we shall have to probe far deeper into the relations of the individual and society.
I turn lastly to the question of liberty. On Benthamite principles there could be no question here of indefeasible individual right. There were even, as we saw, possibilities of a thorough-going Socialism or of an authoritarian paternalism in the Benthamite principle. But two great considerations told in the opposite direction. One arose from the circumstances of the day. Bentham, originally a man of somewhat conservative temper, was driven into Radicalism comparatively late in life by the indifference or hostility of the governing classes to his schemes of reform. Government, as he saw it, was of the nature of a close corporation with a vested interest hostile to the public weal, and his work is penetrated by distrust of power as such. There was much in the history of the time to justify his attitude. It was difficult at that time to believe in an honest officialdom putting the commonwealth above every personal or corporate interest, and reformers naturally looked to individual initiative as the source of progress.

Secondly, and this was a more philosophic argument, the individual was supposed to understand his own interest best, and as the common good was the sum of individual interests, it followed that so far as every man was free to seek his own good, the good of the greatest number would be most effectually realized by general freedom of choice. That there were difficulties in reconciling self-interest with the general good was not denied. But men like James Mill, who especially worked at this side of the problem, held that they could be overcome by moral education. Trained from childhood to associate the good of others with his own, a man would come, he thought, to care for the happiness of others as for the happiness of self. For, in the long run, the two things were coincident. Particularly in a free economic system, as remarked above, each individual, moving along the line of greatest personal profit, would be found to fulfil the function of greatest profit to society. Let this be understood, and we should have true social harmony based on the spontaneous operation of personal interest enlightened by intelligence and chastened by the discipline of unruly instinct.

Thus, though their starting-point was different, the Benthamites arrived at practical results not notably divergent from those of the doctrine of natural liberty; and, on the whole, the two influences worked together in the formation of that school who in the reform period exercised so notable an influence on English Liberalism, and to whose work we must now turn.

 

By L. T. HOBHOUSE

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