Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: Human Nature, History, and Government - Economic Liberalism, vol. 2 The Classical View
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3: Human Nature, History, and Government - 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.
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Human Nature, History, and Government
In the foregoing description of the economists’ ideas of economic and political freedom there is a clear paradox. Its source is in the utilitarian basis of their politics. To understand the source one must recall the circumstances of the last half of the eighteenth and of the early nineteenth centuries and relate them to what the economists said about the structure of government. Their ideas about representation seem to have been formed by two considerations. One was a distrust of the ability of the people for self-government, and the other an opposition to strong government. The economists’ statements on the extent of political liberty suggest they sought to avoid both a condition in which the people possessed full power and one in which power was concentrated in a small group. Of the two, it was probably the latter they most feared. This interpretation is based on the frequent assertions in the works of the economists (and of others of the same period) that a government founded upon a universal franchise is necessarily unstable and disorderly, that it must terminate in a despotism exercised by a small minority at the expense of all other groups in the community, including the originally enfranchised majority. (Many eighteenth-century writers distinguished between an absolute government, which was one based on law and administered by a minority and an arbitrary government which was one in which the minority recognized no law and acknowledged no limit to its power. The economists, however, were not among the writers who made this distinction, because they believed that any ruling minority would necessarily become willful, arbitrary, and dictatorial. Therefore I have used the words “absolute,” “arbitrary,” and “authoritarian” synonymously.)
THE CONCEPTION OF HUMAN NATURE
The distrust of popular government appears to have come partly from the economists’ conception of human nature and partly from historical circumstances. In the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and of the classical economists one of the leading ideas was (as noted above) that property is the major cause of social disorder. Men are naturally covetous and restrain themselves only for reasons of a larger self-interest and never out of benevolence or justice. Hence there are only two means open to a government for maintaining social peace. It either must suppress all acquisitive behavior, thereby removing the cause of disorder, or it must devise a way to make the self-interest of each individual consistent with that of all others in order that the liberty of all of them be increased.
The first alternative was rejected by the liberals—in the seventeenth century because it was a violation of man’s natural right to increase his wealth as long as he injured no one else, and in the eighteenth because suppression was futile as well as wrong. The other alternative—that of reconciling the self-interest of individuals—was the basis of representative government in those two centuries. In order that the behavior of each person would promote the welfare of others as well as of himself, political representation (the economists believed) should be given to those who had a private interest in keeping the peace and withheld from those who did not. Those with property had an interest in supporting government, as a law-enforcing agency, and so they were included in the suffrage; but the propertyless did not have this interest and hence were excluded. This limitation was not imposed because the economists believed the poor were covetous and other people were not. Everyone was thought to be covetous. But men of property could be more depended upon to restrain themselves: first, because having a private interest to be protected they were more aware of the general interest served by government; and second, because they wished to protect this private interest even though by so doing they sacrificed the possibility of a larger gain (the implication being that they favored a certain smaller sum to an uncertain larger one). The propertyless, however, had nothing to lose. They conceivably would gamble on a political upheaval on the chance of acquiring some fortune. In a less extreme case they might seek to improve their position by legislation that discriminated against wealth (which, in the economists’ view, invariably reacted to the disadvantage of the poor as well as of the rich). In summary, the psychology of the classical economists dictated the exclusion of the poor from the franchise, because their covetousness would bring social disorder if permitted to express itself politically.
Why should the poor be given any opportunity to express themselves, politically or otherwise, if their natural inclinations lead them to disorder and violence? If men will abuse their political liberty, they will, a fortiori, abuse their economic liberty. This difficulty can be removed by recalling (from the preceding chapter) that the classical economists did not think much damage could come from individual economic activity, as long as it remained individual, that is, as long as it was competitive. Each individual in seeking to increase his wealth was restrained from doing serious injury to others by law and custom and more compellingly by the competitive activity of others. The economic damage from unrestrained acquisitiveness took the form of a reduction in the aggregate quantity of goods and services and of a redistribution of income—both of which would be disclosed in changes in prices. In a competitive economy no individual could have any effect on the prices of the things he bought or sold. However much he may have wished to influence prices, he was prevented from doing so by the competing activity of others. This I take to be the meaning of Smith’s statement that once competition is established, although it cannot prevent individuals from wishing to do injury to others, it will prevent “the mean rapacity, the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers . . . from disturbing the tranquillity of anybody but themselves.”21
Political activity by its nature cannot be competitive—so one infers. If the members of a class have common interests, if it was given full freedom of action, and if it was the most numerous, there would be nothing to prevent it from imposing its will on everyone else. To give such a class complete political liberty would surely result, the economists reasoned, in the destruction of the liberty of everyone. The poor were regarded as just such a class. As the economists believed that economic freedom should be denied to all who would use it to injure others (monopolists, for example), so they also believed that political freedom should not be given to those who would destroy the freedom of others.
THE RECORD OF BEHAVIOR
The economists’ conception of human behavior was supported by the social conditions of their age and by the lessons which they saw in history. Nearly all of the classical school were historically minded, and none more so than Hume. He was also the most skeptical of popular government. The history of the efforts at self-government seemed to them to be a record of failure on which there was engrossed a warning against giving the people power enough to choose their own rulers.
When they turned from history to their own society, they saw some improvement in the condition of the people but not enough to disallow the lesson of the past. Many lived in distress, and the great majority still were preoccupied with the mechanics of existence. The mass of men had little time, energy, or interest for the cultivating of political talents. Crime was frequent and brutal. The enforcement of the law was lax and at times negligible; usually it was left to night watchmen who often were criminals themselves. On the country roads, robbery and assault were common and a part of the expected hazards of travel. Once the roads did become safe, Britons were several generations in becoming accustomed to safety as a normal condition. “Can you not walk from one end of England to another in perfect security? I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like that? Nothing.” So spoke one of the early figures of the Manchester School of economics, J. A. Roebuck, a Philosophic Radical and friend of John Mill. Matthew Arnold quoted this to illustrate his description of a Philistine22 —the same Arnold, the reader will recall, who found Marcus Aurelius so completely admirable. And yet Roebuck was one of the end products of what the Stoics began, however outrageous the connection will seem to those of Arnold’s view. Freedom does require personal safety.
Drunkenness was common and a major problem. It was a problem to the military, which could not find enough physically fit recruits; to the parish authorities, because of extensive indigence and neglect of families; and to the state, because of the high mortality rate from diseases having their origin in alcoholism. When for a time the common people left off these habits and interested themselves in politics, they turned, in the most celebrated liberal cause of the eighteenth century, to the support of John Wilkes who had been deprived unlawfully of his seat in Parliament. Wilkes, as it happened, was not meant for the role of people’s champion; in fact, his defense of representative government was almost inadvertent. If he had been a different sort of person and if there had been more order in his private affairs, this phase of the political education of the people would have presented its issues more clearly and its achievement (for Wilkes was reseated) more lastingly. In all, the condition of the common people, their manners and morals, offered little to suggest a capacity for self-government.
What they knew of psychology, history, and from observation led the economists to oppose popular government and led them to oppose also those forms of government that concentrated power in a small group or in one person. As stated above, their ideas of representation were conditioned by the fear of centralized authority as well as by a distrust of self-government. They believed both extremes must be avoided if the liberty of the individual was to be advanced. A centralized government exercising large powers, such as an absolute monarchy or an oligarchy, presented a danger that although exactly the opposite was just as real as the danger of a state based on universal enfranchisement. A popularly elected government could not serve freedom because it could not establish the prior condition of social peace. An authoritarian government never would advance beyond the establishment of peace to the granting of freedom to its subjects.
In their view of human nature, the economists (as stated before) gave a large place to self-interest and believed it usually was stronger than any altruism or benevolence the individual might feel. This view made them as skeptical of an authoritarian government as of a popular one. That every man will, if he can, subject others to himself was a belief which they put among the first of their first principles of politics. This belief was expressed in many ways: by Hume when he declared that man’s sense of justice was feeble before the sense of his own interest; by Smith when he declared that the violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind were an ancient evil dictated by “the nature of human affairs”; and most plainly by James Mill when he said:
That one human being will desire to render the person and property of another subservient to his pleasures, not withstanding the pain or loss of pleasure it may occasion to that other individual, is the foundation of Government.23
Even John Stuart Mill, who lived at a more amiable time, said a natural disposition of mankind was to wish to tyrannize over one another.24 Against this background, Lord Acton’s famous remark about power is an epigrammatic summary of the wisdom of two centuries. (Like most epigrams it is an annoying, even mischievous, half-truth, the other half of which is, according to Allen N. Herzog, that an inadequate amount of power is corrupting and no power at all is absolutely corrupting.)
It was not only their psychology that led the classical economists to oppose authoritarian government. Historical observation and the experience of government in their own age also influenced them. Still fresh in meaning, although they had happened a century before, were the English revolutions that overthrew the despotism of the Stuarts and of the Puritans and established the supremacy of constitutional government. Even nearer in time and significance were the political conditions on the Continent. Such facts could only strengthen the view that liberty was impossible in an absolute state. The view was so consistent with the tradition of classical liberalism, with which the eighteenth century began, that it hardly needs explaining. One may note, however, that there was a great difference between the British classicists and the French physiocrats over the issue of absolute government. The physiocrats, while believing that each man should have the liberty to pursue his economic interests in his own way, were also defenders of absolute monarchy. When The Wealth of Nations was published, the physiocrats found much in it of interest, but certainly nothing could have seemed more curious than the author’s strictures on statesmen, rulers, and politicians, from whom he expected nothing enlightened either in the form of despotic rule or any other kind.
The Wealth of Nations, p. 460.
 Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Essays in Criticism [First Series], (London, 1865).
 James Mill, op. cit., p. 17.
 John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, etc. (London, 1891), p. 608.