Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

More Liberal Than Thou

Spring 1998

Stephen Holmes
University of Chicago Press, 1995, xiii + 337 pgs.

Classical liberals of today think that true liberalism was highjacked sometime around the end of the nineteenth century. The liberals of the old school favored individual rights, a free market, and a strictly limited state. But, as Herbert Spencer presciently foretold in The Man Versus the State (1884), a new version of liberalism reversed the faith handed down from of old. Now statism was the order of the day; far from being a dangerous force to be kept under strict scrutiny, the state was held an essential means to promote welfare.

On this interpretation, which should be old hat to all readers of Mises and Rothbard, the welfare liberals of today's Democratic Party are at the opposite extreme from true liberalism. And libertarianism, to go further, is classical liberalism come into its own. Mises, not Franklin Roosevelt or John Dewey, is the true liberal.

From this verdict, Stephen Holmes vigorously dissents. Modern social democrats have not, in Carl Becker's phrase, exchanged "new liberties for old." On the contrary, today's welfare liberalism fulfills classical liberalism. But how can Holmes hope to make good his surprising thesis? From a strictly limited government, we have arrived at the Leviathan state of contemporary welfarism. How can anyone rationally deny that the two "liberalisms" differ radically?

Holmes acknowledges that classical liberalism supported limited government: but, he asks, what is the reason liberals wanted to replace absolutism with a limited constitutional order? In answer, he turns to an unexpected source: Jean Bodin, whose Six Books of the Commonwealth (1576) is usually taken as a key work in the development of absolutism.

Now we have deepened the problem. Holmes claims continuity between old and new liberalism. In support, he appeals to a sixteenth-century work defending absolute monarchy. Has Holmes lost his marbles?

I do not think that he has, although his thesis is radically mistaken. His point is that Bodin recognized that government must be limited in order to be efficient. If the king tried to do too much, he would weaken his power. By observing fixed constitutional rules, the monarch would strengthen, not weaken, his authority.

"However attractive les grands coups d'autorité may seem in the short run, they prove totally contrary to the king's long-term interest. It would be a fatal error to put to sleep the old representative assemblies. . . . The sovereign should retain these traditional bodies not because he is 'just,' and not because of the sanctity of tradition, but for purely calculating and self-interested motives, because they are the indispensable tools of royal government" (p. 119).

Well, you may inquire, so what? Even if Bodin favored constitutional restraint to promote royal power, how does this lend support to Holmes's continuity of liberalism thesis? Before addressing this issue let us digress to consider on its own merits Holmes's interpretation of Bodin.

Holmes underrates the extent to which Bodin thought that limits to sovereign power are mandated by logic, rather than suggested by strategy. Just as God cannot do what is logically impossible, so in Bodin's view the sovereign cannot violate the necessary conditions of his office. He cannot, for example, abolish the monarchy.

In the book's best passage, Holmes himself in part recognizes this point: "Bodin's political theology . . . is explicitly based on a loose analogy between God's self-binding and the self-binding of the political sovereign: constitutional restrictions are less limits on, than expressions of, sovereign freedom and power. Illicit when it involves diminution of the crown's authority, monarchical self-binding is possible, permissible, and even obligatory when it maintains and increases royal power" (pp. 151-52).

Very good: but Holmes fails to see that to the extent Bodin has in mind logical constraints on royal power, this is an alternative theory to the one Holmes presents. It isn't that the king would be ill-advised to attempt certain things: if Bodin is right the king cannot--logically cannot--do them. Further, Holmes underestimates the extent to which Bodin valued tradition for its own sake. A full treatment would require comparison of the Six Books with the earlier Methodus (1566), and this Holmes does not undertake. And his analysis of Bodin on tolerance (pp. 123-25) leaves out of account altogether Bodin's book on witchcraft. Bodin was much more traditionalist, and rather less a supporter of efficient monarchy, than Holmes allows.

There is also a logical problem in Holmes's statement of his thesis. He says that Bodin wanted the king to limit his power in order to strengthen it. But he never asks, what is the common goal that a constitutional monarchy accomplishes more efficiently than an unlimited one? No doubt a limited state can do some things better than an unlimited one, but the lists of actions the two states attempt will differ in many particulars. In what sense, then, is the constitutional state more efficient? Efficient at what?

Incidentally, imprecision in the use of terms weakens Holmes's discussion of passion and self-interest, a theme of the book that space limits compel me to neglect. Holmes has interesting things to say about the emotions in Hobbes and Hume, but he fails adequately to characterize rational self-interest. I am at a loss to state exactly why Holmes thinks that his points about the emotions contradict the theory that people are exclusively governed by self-interest. But this is by the way.

I suspect that some readers--I hope only a few--will think that I have gone on about Bodin for too long. All right, I admit it: they are no doubt right. So let us return from Bodin to the far less interesting Holmes.

Suppose that Holmes is right (he may well be) that a group of writers, perhaps including Bodin and Spinoza, favored constitutional limits on power in order to strengthen the state. How does this show that the classical liberals favored constitutional limits for the same reason? Certainly a large number of writers supported a limited state not to strengthen the state, but because they feared its power.

Let us consider, for example, Frédéric Bastiat's classic The Law. Bastiat contends that the state cannot do anything that individuals themselves lack the right to do. Individuals cannot cede to the state powers they do not have. Holmes never mentions Bastiat, or such other great classical liberals as de Molinari, Auberon Herbert, and Herbert Spencer. Surely they are entitled to some discussion in an account of classical liberalism. Perhaps they merit almost as much attention as Bodin and Hobbes, not liberals at all. [I am grateful to Ralph Raico for very helpful discussion on this point--ED.]

We have so far examined one part of Holmes's alchemy: the limited state of classical liberalism is not at odds with the all-powerful state of today, since a purpose of constitutional limits is to make the state more efficient. But even if we were to accept this wild and woolly "reasoning," Holmes would not have achieved his purpose. A strong efficient state need not be a welfare state. Holmes must show that the classical liberals supported welfarist measures, if his continuity thesis is to be maintained. But how can he do this? Were the classical liberals not strong supporters of the free market? If some of them allowed governmental provision of welfare on a limited basis, was this not under terms that contemporary leftists would find onerous? What about the English Poor Laws?

Once again, our author has a response. True, classical liberals supported property rights. But they did so because in their judgment these rights promote individual security. If this is the purpose of individual rights, we can ask: What best promotes individual security today?

The answer--surprise--is the welfare state. Holmes cites with apparent approval the view of the legal theorist Frank Michelman that welfare benefits "foster the inclusion of all citizens into the system of private and public rights guaranteed by the Constitution" (p. 263). Although he acknowledges that "the idea that implicit educational and economic rights are necessary preconditions for the proper utilization of explicit (political and legal) rights is vulnerable to some serious criticisms," he nevertheless finds it in accord with eighteenth-century liberalism.

What has gone wrong? Holmes has fallen into exactly the same fallacy that ruined his account of constitutional government. When faced with a classical liberal measure, he asks: what is its purpose? This question he answers in a one-sided way. He then claims that the same purpose may today be accomplished by the tactics of modern welfarism. Hence old and new liberalism form parts of the same tradition.

Thus, just as Holmes thinks the purpose of limiting government is to strengthen the state, so he argues that the purpose of property rights is to promote social security. At least on this occasion Holmes can cite a few liberals, such as John Stuart Mill, who did emphasize security. But he ignores the many classical liberals who did not subordinate libertarian rights to other considerations. Had he read a wider sampling of classical liberals than the few he considers, Holmes would have found it more difficult to mutate the classical doctrine into its opposite.

Professor Holmes is, on the whole, impressively erudite. But his discussion of Bodin makes no reference to the Universal Theory of Nature; and he does not recognize that his quotation from Jefferson, "truth is great and will prevail" is a familiar passage from the Apocrypha (p. 170).


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