What’s Wrong with Liberalism?

‘The greatest good for the greatest number’ flounders when society cannot agree on what is ‘good’ – or ‘bad’. 

Caricature of John Stuart Mill, by ‘Spy’, Leslie Matthew Ward, in Vanity Fair, March 1873.In 1826 the 20-year-old John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown. He had been raised by his father, James, as a utilitarian. Consequently, he had believed that all that mattered in life was pleasure and pain. Suddenly, nothing gave him pleasure anymore. Having been taught that his purpose in life was to spread happiness, he now realised, as he later reported in his Autobiography, that making other people happy would not bring about his own happiness. He emerged from this crisis when he realised that happiness is peculiar: it is a byproduct of doing something you care about, something you believe in. Paradoxically, he was now free to devote himself once more to making other people happy. His recovery began when he read the historian Jean-François Marmontel’s account of the death of his father and wept. Mill, having imagined the death of his own father, had begun to think and feel for himself.

This story has something important to tell us about what John Maynard Keynes called modern civilisation’s moral decay. For what Mill discovered is that utilitarianism alone cannot enable us to make sense of our lives or give us a purpose for living. Mill had been educated in an intellectual tradition which made no distinction between pleasure and happiness (though we know that plenty of people are happy in the face of adversity, while others are miserable when indulging every pleasure money can buy). It maintained that all pleasures are equally good. Good and evil, Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Bentham had all taught, are simply pleasure and pain. From the Huguenot refugee Pierre Bayle onwards, people wrote about pleasure and pain as if they were entries in an account book; reason, it was claimed, was simply a process of calculating how to maximise pleasure. Hobbes had pointed out that the word ‘reason’ derives from the Latin for ‘calculate’, while Bentham invented the word ‘maximise’. Hobbes was the first to insist that all pleasures are equally good, which implied they could be quantified; Locke’s psychology explained how we pursue happiness; Hume argued that moral judgements are simply judgements regarding pleasure and utility; and Adam Smith explained how a hidden hand ensures that individuals, pursuing their own selfish interests, benefit those around them.

This is the tradition out of which Bentham constructed utilitarianism: radically individualist and ahistorical. Although it acknowledged that not all human behaviour is rational, it insisted that, if people would only learn how to think straight, they would become both rational and happy. Looking back from 1938 to the days of 1914, Keynes diagnosed the contradiction. ‘Bertie [Bertrand Russell] in particular sustained simultaneously a pair of opinions ludicrously incompatible. He held that in fact human affairs were carried on after a most irrational fashion, but that the remedy was quite simple and easy, since all we had to do was carry them on rationally.’

In the complaints of those who seek to defend liberalism against populism we hear over and over again this same incompatible pair of opinions: those who vote for Brexit, or Trump, or Alternative for Germany are irrational, ignorant, uneducated; if only they had a proper grasp of their own interests, they would vote for Remain, or Clinton, or Merkel. But where the two sides disagree is precisely on what it means to be rational and, more fundamentally, on whether human beings can or should approach life as a series of profit and loss calculations, as if there might be some calculus that enables us to choose happiness.

Almost wherever one looks in the pre-1989 democracies we see signs of crisis. There are varied descriptions of what is going wrong: Patrick J. Deneen has written Why Liberalism Failed, Michiko Kakutani The Death of Truth. Neither focuses on an obvious question: what is the connection between the present crisis and immigration? From a Benthamite perspective, immigration is irrelevant: all economists agree that it is economically beneficial and unemployment is, by historical standards, low in all the countries where populism has taken hold. But opposition to immigration is strongest, not where immigrants are most numerous, but where people believe it will increase in the future. There is a tendency to think that hostility to immigration is about race: sometimes it is; often it isn’t. Hostility to white, middle-class incomers and gentrifiers mirrors hostility to immigrants. The issues raised by immigration are not just about income or race, but identity. Populism marks a new phase in identity politics for the simple reason that people fear not only poverty, but also identity deprivation.

What people fear is change and with good reason, for change is difficult and unsettling. Even where there are benefits, there are usually unfortunate, often unintended, consequences. Hence the division between people from ‘somewhere’, who feel threatened by the pace and direction of change, and the people from ‘anywhere’, who welcome change, or rather (for, in the absence of significant incentives, most people dislike change) who have already lived the change that others fear. The divide between Brexiters and Remainers, for example, is a divide between two different understandings of how best to keep things more or less as they already are.

Beyond reason

For utilitarians, aversion to change, in and of it itself, is simply irrational: they can make no sense of nostalgia, of the affection for the familiar, or of the complex ways in which people construct a sense of identity. A utilitarian, who assumes that one pleasure can as easily be exchanged for another, as a pound can be exchanged for a euro, must mock the idea that a certain sort of pleasure, or a certain sort of identity, has some special added value attached to it, just because it conjures up memories, or fits like an old shoe. Yet people resist change and they are much more prone to mourn losses than to celebrate gains.

The Benthamite understanding of human nature and human behaviour, which drew on intellectual developments over the previous three centuries, from Machiavelli to Mill, always was, as the latter recognised, a profoundly unsatisfactory account of who we are. The errors are obvious: the conviction that human beings are, or can easily become, good and rational; that there is no arguing with someone who says ‘this is what gives me pleasure’, whether this (in Bentham’s example) is push-pin or poetry; and the presumption that we are all, as it were, in business as individuals, that the ties which bind us to family, friends, community, nation are purely instrumental arrangements of convenience. No one in this tradition was aware, to quote Keynes again (who was writing in September 1938, under the shadow of the coming war), ‘that civilisation was a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved. We had, he wrote of his younger self and his circle, ‘no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom’.

Who now respects traditional wisdom and the restraints of custom? The pace, the depth and breadth of change in the years since the Second World War have made appeals to tradition and custom seem ridiculous, at least to intellectuals; even the British Conservative Party has abandoned them. But many people still live customary lives – indeed everyone constructs their own private customs – and, where people face the prospect of their traditions being endlessly eroded and dissolved, their response is one of opposition. They look for someone to speak for them. This, liberals consistently fail to do.

Who now declares themselves to be a Utilitarian? Almost no one, yet much of what has happened over the last 50 years can be understood as a working out of Benthamite principles. When I started out in academia, more than 40 years ago, universities took the value of their enterprise for granted. Each discipline represented a craft, with its own traditions, customs and values. Hardly anyone worried about whether History, or Philosophy, or Literature was really worth studying; and no one claimed that three years at university represented much of a preparation for life outside. Now courses have learning objectives and transferable skills. We tell students, for example, that they are learning time-management skills. Our arguments for the study of any arts subject have become fundamentally utilitarian. In many ways universities have improved; but departments are now cost centres, students are consumers. Every step forward has also been a step – sometimes two steps – backwards. Our gains have been gains in efficiency, transparency and utility; the gains that Bentham hoped to see by the construction of his Panopticon, in which a single guard would be able to look straight into every prison cell. Our losses have been losses in purpose and meaning.

Here it is worth going back to the birth of liberalism in order to understand why this has always been, and always will be, the case. The whole point of liberalism, as it was invented by Locke and defended by the Enlightenment, was to provide an alternative to religious bigotry. As wars between Protestants and Catholics had destroyed much of Europe in the century and a half before 1688, weakening people’s ties to religious fundamentalism, of whatever sort, was a noble cause; but what it required was precisely that people should abandon many of the customs and traditions, the purposes and the meanings, they held dear.

No place like home

The Enlightenment was from the beginning a cosmopolitan movement; its leading authors travelled abroad and read foreign books; they belonged to the ‘republic of letters’, not to any country. Rousseau, in order to demonstrate his hostility to the Enlightenment, kept insisting (for as long as he could get away with it) that he was a citizen of Geneva. Voltaire, in so many ways Rousseau’s antithesis, named himself ‘de Voltaire’ after a place that simply didn’t exist. He found happiness perched on the border between France and Geneva, where he could evade both Catholic and Protestant intolerance. He liked to describe himself as ‘English’. These were the original men and women from anywhere.

True to their tradition, the great modern liberal theorist, John Rawls, asks us to imagine that we know nothing about who we are, for only then can we make decisions about what sort of society we want to live in. Am I black or white, rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, old or young, healthy or sick, Christian or atheist? Forget who you are, says Rawls, place yourself behind a veil of ignorance and only then can you make rational choices about the good life. You must not think of yourself as a person from somewhere, as someone with attachments, loyalties, customs and traditions, purposes and meanings. Liberalism requires you to put aside the very things that make you who you are, different from others.

Here lies the central paradox of liberal praise of diversity: as our cities become more ‘diverse’, they become more alike: there are McDonald’s restaurants in more than 100 countries. Increasing diversity goes hand in hand with increasing homogenisation. Liberalism is full of such paradoxes: affirmative action, for example, requires treating people according to categories (race, sex, gender, social background) which at the same time it insists it wants to erode, even eliminate. The EU aspires to ever closer union; but every step towards it reawakens the spirit of nationalism. Every effort to create a more liberal society seems to create problems as fast as it solves them: unintended consequences are an inescapable feature of planned social change. But there is a consistent pattern that appears as soon as you adopt the Benthamite logic of ‘maximisation’: every effort at social improvement substitutes meaningless quantities (‘value-added’, ‘impact’, ‘relative poverty’) for authentic qualities (competence, excellence, tradition, community).

I am a liberal. So was Mill; but his response to his moral crisis was to insist on the superiority of poetry to push-pin. So was Keynes; but his response to the rise of Nazism was to acknowledge the intellectual and moral failure of the liberal tradition. A similar response is called for now. At such moments historians have a particular responsibility. Keynes, in order to think about what was going wrong in 1938, felt obliged to think about the history of philosophy from Bentham to ‘Bertie’, just as I have felt obliged to think about the history of moral, political and economic thought from Machiavelli to Bentham, the eventual outcome of which has been what Weber called the ‘iron cage’ of modern economic and bureaucratic rationality. Only when we are prepared to acknowledge, as Keynes was in 1938, that our inherited presuppositions have become obstacles not assets can we hope to refashion our cage. If we fail to engage with those who disagree with us, if we fail to understand what matters to them, then our failings are both intellectual and moral. For humanity’s mental and moral incapacities there are, alas, no permanent cures, but we can aim to do better than we are doing right now.

After the Second World War liberalism acquired a new lease of life; only recently some were celebrating ‘the end of history’ as a result of the universal triumph of liberal values. Well, history is back and the historians need to play their part in raising the quality of the resulting debate. Since liberalism is by its nature individualist and ahistorical, it is a fundamental obligation on historians to explore and expose the weaknesses of its traditions. History is always about a particular time, a particular place; it is always about groups more than it is about individuals; it is always the history of somewhere. The Enlightenment was much better at conjectural history than at real history; and the task of the historian is to show that even the most enlightened thinkers were the products of local circumstances. History is, in short, the best antidote to the intellectual failings of liberalism; the historian’s job is to tear down the veil of ignorance and capture the inescapable embeddedness of human experience. This, though, is not how some view the historian’s enterprise, writing, often unconsciously, in praise of liberal values and postmodern assumptions. They can’t speak to the crisis because their books are symptoms of it, not solutions to it.

Who are we?

Take, for example, an essay about Brexit by Linda Colley entitled Can History Help?, published in March 2018 in the London Review of Books. If one were to summarise the essay in two words they would be ‘embrace change’. Colley looks forward to a more multilingual, more global Britain. She attacks populism without even mentioning immigration. The problem with the UK, she maintains, is that old structures still persist. ‘Parochialism’ is always a bad thing. That the persistence of old structures might be a source of strength and resilience, that rootedness in a local community might be a source of security and confidence has apparently not occurred to her. Colley’s Britons (1992) brilliantly evoked the construction in the 18th and early-19th centuries of a distinct British identity – anti-French, anti-Catholic, indeed anti-European. The unspoken assumption of the book, written when Britain was a member of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, was that this identity was one that we could now finally outgrow; and yet, it seems, many British citizens were and remain attached to it. ‘Can History Help?’ Yes it can; but not if it speaks for only one side of the argument for and against liberalism.

David Wootton is the author of Power, Pleasure, and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison (Harvard, 2018).