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M. STANTON EVANS, Raico on Liberalism and Religion - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Raico on Liberalism and Religion
IN A RECENT issue,1New Individualist Review carried an article by Ralph Raico which was among other things an extended attack upon a contribution of mine to What Is Conservatism?2 I had intended a reply before this, but the pressure of journalistic duties, followed by a rather hectic session of the Indiana legislature, has intervened. I trust, however, that the nature of the subject will make this belated continuation of it of some interest to New Individualist Review’s readers.
The article which ignited Raico’s displeasure argues that the imperatives of freedom and religious authority were not, as sometimes asserted, incompatible, but complementary. In so alleging, I briefly sketched the outlines of what I call “classical liberal” philosophy and traditional conservatism, trying to show that the alleged contradictions were more a matter of mortal confusion than of philosophical necessity. In rebuttal, Raico contended my discussion of classical liberalism was mistaken, both in the round and in its several particulars; that I had along with other conservatives and divers spokesmen for modernity, erred in calling this school of thought “superficial, unrealistic, and obsolete.”
My first observation on this charge is that my views on “classical liberalism,” however broadly or narrowly the term may be defined, do not coincide with the usual modernist critique of it. I am in general agreement with the economic views of the classical liberals. I happen to think that, in discussing the secular modulations of freedom and the secular conditions most agreeable to its continuance, Herbert Spencer is hard to surpass. It is precisely in this respect, of course, that the views of the classical liberals are nowadays most disparaged.
Where I depart from classical liberalism’s most famous spokesmen is the point at which modern collectivists tend to agree with them—in their mechanical, materialist, and relativist view of human nature and ethical principles. As I tried to argue in my previous article, the classical liberals all too clearly foreshadowed modern-liberalism in this respect, and helped lay the ethical foundation for the rise of the total state they wanted to avoid.
In lumping together the critics of classical liberalism, therefore, Raico is liable to give the reader a wrong impression of my differences with nineteenth century spokesmen for laissez faire. My position is not one of blanket condemnation, but rather one of arguing that, while the secular views of the classical liberals are by and large correct, their ethical views in the long run undermine the freedoms they thought they were protecting.
My argument is so insistent on this point that Raico, despite his tendencies toward amalgam, perforce devotes most of his comment to battling against it. Once more, however, he neglects to keep the categories of the discourse in order. My purpose in What Is Conservatism? was, in part, to examine the philosophical strain in Western society which, as most characteristically put forward in England and America during the past century, I identify with the terms “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” I explicity note that some people who put themselves in this category do not fit my definition, since they do profess religious sentiments. “To the extent they do,” I say in an explanatory note which appears with the article and which in fact appeared with it in its original incarnation as far back as 1960, “I trust my terminology will not obscure the fact that the argument of this essay is not an attack on such ‘libertarians,’ but a vindication of them.”
Raico chooses to ignore the meaning of this statement, feigning to believe my critique includes everyone in the nineteenth century, religious or otherwise, who embraced the principles of freedom. He then cites certain examples of religious devotees of liberty as disproof of my argument. The deficiencies of this tactic are so grave as to be, in themselves, fatal to his position. He in effect ignores the definition I explicitly set forward, as the central condition and point of my article; bootlegs another definition of his own without making it explicit; glosses over the transposition in terms by suggesting I have employed his categories despite my direct statement to the contrary; and then taxes me for violation of his unstated taste in noun substantives. If I had used the categories he appears to favor, there would have been no point to the article in the first place. The purpose of my essay was to examine that class of people who do believe irreligion and liberty to go hand in hand, and to argue that they are mistaken. Of course there have been libertarian spokesmen who also believed in a profoundly religious view of the universe; I acknowledge the existence of such people in my article. More, I cite them as examples of the correct view of things, in opposition to those who believe irreligion the handmaiden of freedom. Burke, Smith, Acton, and Tocqueville are some I mention explicitly. To bring these people up as a rebuttal to my assertions about irreligious classical liberals is comparable to citing Barry Goldwater as proof that Lyndon Johnson is not a Democrat.
Thus launched into obscurity, Raico proceeds to divide his argument unevenly among a number of points. In some places, he seems to object to the argument that there are people who believe liberty can be protected by tearing down religious authority. Secondly, and in this modulation he consumes most of the space in his criticism, he argues that, whatever the general case with people of this description, classical liberalism is not the correct label for them. Like Pascal, I am not much inclined to argue about names so long as I know what is meant by them. If Raico wants to call such people by another name, well and good; let us have the name; we can then go on, using Raico’s terminology, to explore the real issues involved. While he quarrels with my use of the term, Raico ignores the specific content I give it and neglects to say what terminology he would himself apply to the irreligious-libertarian point of view so that it might in some way be discussed. His approach suggests he either does not grasp the import of my article, or else does not want to talk about it. In either event, he has not answered it.
Finally, and this may be the reason Raico neither acknowledges the real nature of my argument nor reformulates it in his own terms, he goes on to suggest that, although there are irreligious classical liberals, their views are a matter of indifference, since the maintenance of freedom is a purely secular business. On this score, he begs the question to which my article is addressed. My view is exactly that the maintenance of freedom is not, and cannot be, purely secular, and that the profession of irreligious, relativist ethics is in the long run harmful to liberty. At no point does Raico close with my views on this score, as he would have to do if he paraphrased them correctly rather than presenting them in caricature.
To sustain his criticism while omitting substantive argument, Raico undertakes a laborious analysis of my statement that the classical liberal “characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order, to which man should subordinate his will and reason,” alleges human freedom, “as the single moral imperative,” and otherwise is a “thoroughgoing relativist, pragmatist, and materialist.” His comment is that the classical liberal is not in fact like this, and that the characterizations are in several instances meaningless anyway.
As to the irreligious nature of “classical liberals,” I have already noted Raico’s principal tactic. At different points in his article, he directly or indirectly accuses me of ignoring or “dismissing” certain religious classical liberals. In point of fact, I “dismiss” no religious classical liberals; they are the very type of correct reasoning suggested by my article, men who combine both ethical affirmation and concern for human freedom. They are the heroes of the piece. This is the most frivolous of his arguments, and I have no doubt belabored it sufficiently already.
MORE TO THE POINT is a second version of Raico’s position—that although irreligious classical liberals do exist, they are no more numerous than the religious sort, and that their irreligion has no necessary connection with their libertarian views. This argument from statistical insignificance is patently incorrect. Whatever the numerical incidence of such people, the issues raised by them are still there, and still distressing. It is their position, not that of an Acton or Tocqueville, which has given rise to philosophical contention within the ranks of conservatives; it is their position which clashes directly with what is understood to be conservative ethical theory; it is their position which is emphasized nowadays in public discourse, in part by critics of conservatism, but also by sectarians within the conservative camp. The whole purpose of the article was to discuss these deep-going differences—to take the “libertarian” and “authoritarian” positions in their most antinomian terms, in order to explore the philosophical tensions between them. To reconcile Acton with Burke, while no doubt a problem to test the mettle of political philosophers, would be nothing to the purpose, since both occupy, comparatively speaking, middle ground. But to explore the possibility of uniting Spencer’s economics with de Maistre’s ethical theory, although clearly too ambitious a project for my talents, is very much to the purpose indeed. The latter effort speaks to the philosophical stress within the conservative camp today, and which was recognized by de Tocqueville more than a century ago. Raico faults me with not taking the solution to the problem as the statement of it.
As to whether the agnostic strain in libertarian philosophy is important enough to merit this kind of treatment, and to justify using “classical liberalism” as an eponym for such belief, the names of Mill and Spencer should be sufficient answer. Raico passes over these giants of classical liberal thought as though they were but random faces in the crowd, preferring the example of John Bright. But to adduce the atypical Quakerism of Bright as proof of the religious character of classical liberalism is no more convincing than to cite the formal devoirs of the National Council of Churches as proof of the religious character of modern-liberalism. The Bright example fails on at least three counts. First, while Bright was sincerely theistic, the emphasis of his public advocacy (and private contention within the Society of Friends) was on the secular aspects of reform, and it was in this secular business that the entire impact of his public career was made. Ficino and Erasmus were, in their way, equally pious; yet it was the pagan secularism they mixed with Christianity which left its mark on Renaissance scholarship, and it was in its thrust toward secularism that the Renaissance helped shape the modern consciousness. Second, Bright occupies little or no place in the theoretical development of classical liberalism, any more than a LaFollette or Borah occupies a place in the theoretical development of modern-liberalism. Bright was all free trade and extend-the-franchise, and while a consistent libertarian and a man of probity, he was a politician and not a philosopher. Third, precisely because Bright was not a philosopher, he was not called upon to square his private theism with the implications of classical liberal chiliasm and environmentalist notions about man. When such a confrontation of thought was made by nineteenth century liberals, it is noteworthy that they either repudiated liberal assumptions (as did Acton), or else repudiated Christian ethics (as did Spencer).
If we would understand the philosophical tendencies of classical liberalism, we must turn to its explicit theorists, as represented in the clear line of development from Hume to Sumner. In this history, Mill and Spencer have a pre-eminent claim upon our attention. It is from them that classical liberal philosophy received its most powerful impulses and most characteristic form. It is from them that the notion of irreligion united with secular liberalism continues to draw sustenance. Mill is still considered the great aboriginal spokesman for civil liberties. Spencer, above all other men, put the impress of his thought on the rationalization of the free enterprise system, ably assisted in America by the complementary efforts of Sumner. To suggest classical liberal thought was religious, with the exception of Mill and Spencer, is very much like suggesting late Victorian culture, with the exception of Darwin and Huxley, affirmed special creation. To argue that we should hold the immense force of the ideas generated and formalized by these two powerful intellects—ideas which long dominated English and American thought and which in their ethical tendencies are all too unhappily attuned to modern disintegration—at parity with the opinions of Madame de Stael is equivalent to saying we cannot identify Communism with Marx and Engels because Proudhon also has his claims in the matter. Mill and Spencer alone would, I think, justify appropriating “classical liberalism” to describe anti-clerical libertarianism, and for making it the object of considerable examination. But they do not, of course, stand alone. To their names might be joined those of Diderot, Condorcet, Faguet, Hume, Godwin, Paine, Bentham, Sumner, Nock, Mencken, and Miss Ayn Rand, to mention only a few.
If any of these deserves to be mentioned along with Mill and Spencer, it is Sumner, whose formulation of classical liberalism looms enormously in any conspectus of American thought. It was Sumner who preached to Americans the evolutionary ethics of which Spencer was the acknowledged master, and taught that all values are relative to the needs of time and place; whose views became embodied in American thought and practice and translated into law through the labors of Mr. Justice Field and others on the Supreme Court; who preached the radical disjunction of liberal sentiment from religious profession, and whose inconsistencies foretold the unhappy results of that separation. Himself a Puritan by temperament and upbringing, Sumner believed the Protestant Ethic could stand on its own secular merits even after society, like himself, had put its religious beliefs in the drawer never to retrieve them. He believed it possible to construct a purely materialist and relativist system while maintaining the strict moral outlook indicated by his Puritan ancestry. The experiment has not worked Once the religious underpinning was removed, the subtle comprehension of material forces desired by Sumner could not be counted on to sustain human motives toward liberty and self-reliance, as our own era has all too conclusively demonstrated. Sumner helped demolish the moral foundations which alone can support a regime of freedom.
So much for classical liberals’ not believing in a “God-centered moral order.” On the secondary point that classical liberals do not believe man should subordinate his will and reason to this order, Raico generously refrains from annihilating me because he considers it of small importance. He then goes on, in a footnote, to say even Christians do not necessarily believe man should subordinate his will and reason to the divine order, citing a commentary in paraphrase of St. Thomas. His construction of this point is in error. St. Thomas believed a portion of the divine order, revealed in the Natural Law, apprehensible by reason; he did not, however, believe it was validated by reason. The ultimate sanction for all truth, natural and divine, is in the Christian view of the will of God. Raico has got Christian orthodoxy hopelessly turned around, as he will readily discover if he opens the Summa to Question XCI, Articles 2, 3, and 4.
On the issue of a causal connection between irreligion and libertarian attachment, enough has been said, I think, to show that Raico has twisted my position inside-out. “Even if a majority of liberals had been atheists and agnostics,” he says in supposed rebuttal to my position, “the connection is so far accidental and historically-conditioned, and not logical.” The burden of my argument, of course, is precisely that there is no logical relationship between the anti-religious views of Mill, Spencer, et al., and the establishment of the free society they desired. On the contrary, I argue that lack of religious grounding leads to slippage from freedom. Mill’s intellectual career is a perfect example of this.
The connection between libertarian views and anti-religious tendencies is, therefore, not causal, but adventitious. That the dominant spokesmen for classical liberalism gravitated to anti-religious thought is a matter not of integral connection but of historical fact. The relation, to use Hume’s terminology, was not causal, but conditional—apparently founded in the assumption which has vitiated modern thought from the Renaissance forward, that supernatural authority is the enemy of freedom. This assumption, far from being my own, is the chief target of my article.
RAICO NEXT objects to my statement that classical liberals elevated human freedom as “the single moral imperative.” Other values, he says, were also cherished by them. The reader of Spencer’s Principles of Ethics and Social Statics will be constrained to disagree with Raico’s interpretation of this author. The necessity of a regime of freedom is Spencer’s “first principle”; all other principles he deduces from the irrefragable rightness of liberty. Raico incorrectly alludes to Spencer in his effort to prove otherwise. Spencer’s summum bonum is the existence of mutually sacrosanct zones of freedom for all men—the ability of each to do as he pleases so long as he respects the equal ability of everybody else. He states and restates this as the first law of moral philosophy, recommended by science, logic, and the intuition of fitness which is the final authority for every value system. “Positive” and “negative” beneficence are not moral values, but utilitarian functions of the human mind which enable it to comprehend and enjoy the balance of freedoms that is the end and justification of all other principles. Negative beneficence consists in refraining from encroachment upon other men’s satisfaction; positive beneficence is the ability to derive part of one’s own satisfaction from the fact that the general system of freedom has displaced the reign of license in which one man’s desires are satisfied at the expense of another’s. In the second category, Spencer’s disquisition greatly resembles Hume’s treatment of “sympathy” in the Treatise, in which benevolent tendencies are ultimately derived from the self-regarding faculties. Spencer’s view is even more mechanical than Hume’s (subsequently modified in the Inquiry Concerning The Principles of Morals), because it clearly views this tendency as a means toward achievement of universal freedom. “Positive” and “negative” beneficence, in Spencer’s system, are props to his first principle of mutual liberty, and derive their sanction from it. Freedom is, for Spencer, quite obviously the “single moral imperative.” Spencer’s inconsistency in bringing “intuition” into play at this juncture is characteristic of the classical liberal position as a whole, even when the matter is not made as explicit as Spencer makes it. My point is that, given the relativist-utilitarian ethics of the Mill-Spencer school, there is no logical reason to exempt human freedom from the potencies of the system. If morality is the function of secular arithmetic or the adjustment of secular means to secular ends, or a coefficient of the evolutionary struggle, then it is altogether possible that, somewhere along the line, freedom must give way to the calculus, the adjustment, or the evolution. This was a conclusion Mill and Spencer were loath to draw, in effect excepting liberty from their mechanical systems. This is, to be sure, an inconsistency; but again, it is not my position, but the position of the classical liberal spokesmen whom I am criticizing.
Finally, Raico questions my use of the terms “materialist,” “pragmatist,” and “relativist,” alternately claiming them to be untrue or professing himself baffled by my meaning. Each of them refers to the classical liberal tendency of deriving value from the conjunction of secular phenomena and subjective apprehension. Spencer is an aboriginal “materialist” in the philosophical sense; value for him arises from the evolutionary progress of history toward its “higher” forms; good and bad are the terms we give to the adjustment of means to ends in the battle for biological and cultural survival. As for “pragmatism,” both Mill and Spencer were pragmatists a half-century before James and Dewey; both test values by their practical consequences. Spencer’s language in Social Statics is pragmatic at every turn. If the reader will peruse Mill and James consecutively on the subject of religion, he will find the first values it because it provides rules for moral life, suggesting a secular substitute would do as well or better, and the second favors it because it evokes a release of vital energies. It should be obvious to the rudest intelligence that both men take a “pragmatic” view of religion—judging it solely by its “practical” effects in the secular world.
Both Mill and Spencer, finally, are clearly relativists in the sense that they deduce value criteria from secular and largely subjective phenomena. Both begin with the pleasure-pain calculus, making right and wrong a function of human comfort; Spencer superadds the asserted “laws” of evolutionary development. To assert this utilitarian view is a form of “absolutism,” as does Raico, taxes credibility even in an Orwellian generation. Presumably, all criteria of value are “absolute” in a sense if one is prepared to act upon them; to a dope addict, securing the next fix is the most compelling of absolutes; but we would be justified in launching further inquiry before anointing him as a moral absolutist. According to received notions of intelligible discourse, “absolutism” holds values to exist independent of subjective apprehension. Mill-Spencer utilitarianism makes values consist exclusively in such apprehension. “The facts are what they are,” Raico says of the pleasure-pain calculus; but “happiness,” as Spencer himself noted, is not a fact, it is a state of mind; the greatest good for the greatest number” is not a fact, it is a matter of opinion. To make these things the measure of value is to throw all fixed and objective values out the window, to make right and wrong a function of secular stress and contention; it is relativism par excellence.
ALMOST ALL of the foregoing, however, is oblique from the main point, and I have gone into it only because failure to respond to Raico’s charges might give some readers the impression that I conceded their correctness. The fact of the matter, however, is that even if I could settle all of these differences to Raico’s satisfaction, or he to mine, the outstanding issues of freedom and authority would be no closer to resolution than before. While clarity in the use of terms is desirable, it is chiefly important as it helps us to advance in substantive understanding. I am therefore reluctant to leave the present discussion with a pro forma defense of my previous article, which I fear would create an unhappy emphasis on lesser issues at the expense of greater ones. Let me, then, repeat what I consider to be the chief topic before us, namely: Can a regime of political freedom long exist without the underpinning of religion and moral sentiment derived from Judaeo-Christion revelation? There is a considerable history of modern Western thought, ranging from Diderot to Mencken, which says it can, and which has worked great influence in contemporary America and elsewhere. The important point about this school is not whether we call it or some subdivision of it “classical liberalism,” but whether its major premises are true or false. A certain number of “libertarians” today appear to think they are true. I for one think they are dangerously false. That is the issue, and the terminology of the thing—while I happen to believe my own usage is justified—is of little or no importance compared to the substance of it.
[* ] M. Stanton Evans is the editor of the Indianapolis News and author of Revolt on the Campus, The Liberal Establishment, and co-author of The Fringe on Top.
[1 ] Vol. III, No. 3, Autumn 1964.
[2 ] (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964.)