Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: The Paradox of Economic and Political Freedom - Economic Liberalism, vol. 2 The Classical View
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
2: The Paradox of Economic and Political Freedom - William Dyer Grampp, Economic Liberalism, vol. 2 The Classical View 
Economic Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1965). vol. 2 The Classical View.
Part of: Economic Liberalism, 2 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This book is published online with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the author William Grampp.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Paradox of Economic and Political Freedom
The classical economists were not prepared to carry their political liberalism to its implied conclusion, namely, universal enfranchisement and popular control of all branches of the government. On the other hand, the economists did not expressly place any limits on freedom when they said that a free market was the ideal method of organizing the economy. Instead, they implied or stated that economic freedom was a natural right. Does this opposition of economic and political doctrine—of believing in complete economic freedom but limited political freedom—denote a contradiction in their liberalism? A common view is that the classical economists were spokesmen for the emergent capitalism of their time and were devoted only to the liberty of their special charge, the middle class. In this view their conception of economic freedom was in fact as limited as their conception of political freedom. I do not accept this view. I believe there really was a paradox in their economic and political ideas.
THE ECONOMISTS AND THE MIDDLE CLASS
The classicists believed in economic freedom for everyone and not just for the middle class. They argued most persuasively for the freedom of the latter, but there is no evidence that it was their exclusive concern. Their sympathy for the lower classes was demonstrated in many ways. Hume declared that an equal distribution of income was most consistent with human nature, that it best promoted the national welfare, and was most conducive to the extension of liberty, even though under certain conditions it might create conflict.10 Smith gave the workingman the most important function in the economy, upbraided employers for combining to drive down wages, heaped scorn on the manners and morals of businessmen, and in so many ways evinced his hostility to the middle class, even though he defended its right to trade freely, that he hardly can be called its champion.11 The desire of Malthus to see the poor and propertyless sheltered from as much distress as possible led him to be skeptical of a policy of laisser faire. Ricardo in many ways disclosed his humanitarian feelings, despite his reputation as an impersonal and remorseless logician. He made his productivity ethics the justification for raising wages; he was opposed to any sudden repeal of the laws providing relief to the poor, favoring instead their gradual elimination in order to prevent “overwhelming distress.”12 He was receptive to measures that might improve the condition of the poor, advocating in his Principles that the legislature make some effort to discourage large families and that society at large persuade the lower classes that prudence and forethought were both necessary and “profitable” virtues.13 In 1819, he agreed to serve as a member of a committee to examine the proposal of Robert Owen, the utopian socialist. Although he disagreed with Owen on most points he gave the proposal a thorough and fair hearing.14 That the object of the classicists was the welfare of all society, and not that of the middle class only, was stated most explicitly by M’Culloch. He said of the work of the political economist:
He is not to frame systems, and devise schemes, for increasing the wealth and enjoyments of particular classes; but to apply himself to discover the sources of national wealth and universal prosperity, and the means by which they may be rendered most productive.15
When, however, the economists considered the proper extent of political freedom, their views were not as comprehensive. They did not believe the people in their entirety should have as much opportunity to make political decisions as to make economic decisions. That some liberty should be allowed to everyone they did believe—but that all should have the same liberty they did not believe.
Not all of the classical economists wrote about the structure of government and the extent of the suffrage. Those who did proposed various limitations on the suffrage and on the number of public officials who should be chosen by election. Hume favored a hereditary monarch. He was opposed to the election of the chief officer of government and was opposed also to any tampering with the right of succession. This is made quite plain in his essay “On the Protestant Succession.” After considering the legitimacy of the claims of the Stuarts and of the Hanovers who displaced them, Hume acknowledged that by reason of antiquity and heredity the Stuarts clearly belonged on the throne and the Hanovers did not. But, he continued, the Hanovers happened to be there and the Stuarts were in exile. To try to depose the Hanovers would be so disruptive that no man in his right mind would suggest it. Such reasoning seems guided by the maxim, Whatever is, is right, and to make Hume’s politics follow the rule of laisser être as his economics followed laisser faire. That impression, however, is erroneous, because Hume in his political works gave greatest emphasis to the need for authority, to peace and order, as the conditions of liberty—as opposed to legitimacy or obedience—and he valued a government in the measure to which it met these needs. What Hume did in this essay was in fact to reduce the conventional doctrine of monarchy to an absurdity. He stated that it did not matter who was king as long as he performed his function tolerably well, that the king ruled not by divine right or by the authority of succession but simply to provide the stability which government needed. One may imagine how the Jacobites and the partisans of the Hanovers reacted to this tract. One feels one knows how Hume reacted to them—no doubt in the same way that he viewed the hairsplitting of the Molenists and Jansenists, with their “thousand unintelligible disputes, which are not worthy the reflection of a man of sense.”
Smith too was opposed to a government in which all officers were elected. In his Lectures, he listed three forms of government: “monarchical,” in which power is vested in one person “who can do what he pleases”; “aristocratical,” in which power is held by a small group that achieves status because of family or wealth; and “democratical,” in which the “management of affairs belongs to the whole body of the people together.” The second and the third were, he said, “republican,” the term being used to denote a government without an hereditary, single magistrate.16 Smith did not wholly approve of any of the three, but favored a form of the third combined with a monarch, holding that a king was necessary for preserving order among contending economic interests and political factions.17
Neither Hume nor Smith wrote specifically about the extent of the franchise. They probably approved of the property qualification which was commonly attached to the vote in the eighteenth century (and later). The limitation is consistent with their doctrine and they nowhere opposed it, expressly or by implication. Among the economists James Mill was the first who explicitly formulated the details of a proper franchise. In his extraordinary Essay on Government (so deductive that it made Macaulay think of the propositions of geometry), Mill stated that the privilege of voting should be restricted to those persons whose private interests were identical with the interests of the community. He deduced that they came mainly from the middle and working classes, who fortunately comprise the majority of the community. Not everyone in the majority is, however, capable of making political decisions and hence of voting. The right to vote was to be limited to those of proven ability. Mill tried to prove that political ability is revealed in certain outward signs, principally of age and the possession of property, and he made them the conditions of the suffrage. The age qualification is placed quite high but the property qualification is made very low in order to include in the electorate more than are excluded from it. He dismissed the inclusion of women in the suffrage. His language was curt and contemptuous. So too was the language used fifty years later by John Stuart Mill to ridicule those who would exclude them.18
The universal franchise was viewed skeptically, though briefly, by Senior in his Outline of the Science of Political Economy. He later wrote of it at length in his review of Lord Brougham’s Political Philosophy and elaborated a point he made earlier that not only is politics “the most difficult of all sciences” but its difficulty is scarcely recognized, with the consequence that ability is most scarce where it is most needed. Until the mass of the people give more evidence of understanding the point, popular government—in which the suffrage is universal and all offices elective—was not feasible, he said.19 To support his point Senior adduced the behavior of the American people of the generation preceding the Civil War.
M’Culloch in writing of the relation between economic and political liberty did not see any great necessity for individuals to have political freedom along with economic freedom, although he acknowledged that free governments were more likely than absolute governments to promote economic progress.20
 “Of Commerce,” op. cit., III, 298.
The Wealth of Nations, pp. 79, 66-67, 391.
 David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (London, 1911), p. 61.
Ibid., pp. 61-62.
 Edwin Cannan, “Ricardo in Parliament,” Economic Journal IV (1894), 415-417.
 J. R. M’Culloch, Principles of Political Economy (Edinburgh, 1843), p. 16.
Lectures, p. 14.
 See below, pp. 66-67.
 James Mill, An Essay on Government (Cambridge, 1937) ch. viii.
John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (London, 1861), p. 175.
 The review appeared originally in the Edinburgh Review in 1845 and was reprinted in Senior’s Historical and Philosophical Essays (London, 1865), I.
 M’Culloch, op. cit., p. 57.