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RALPH RAICO, Reply to Mr. Evans - 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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Reply to Mr. Evans:*
BEFORE I DEFEND my critique against Mr. Evans’ rebuttal, I should like to explain briefly why I took time to attack Evans’ article in the first place.
In their attempt to carve for themselves a position of relevance in discussions of contemporary social problems, conservative writers sometimes present a sketchy philosophical outline of the historical development of classical liberalism, attempting to show deeper reasons for its decline than those readily admitted by classical liberals themselves. The attempt has been supported by writers such as Russell Kirk, Frank S. Meyer, and Eric Voegelin. Dr. Kirk, for instance, sees the original flaw in the liberals’ excessive commitment to individualism, especially in the form of economic liberty:
. . . central direction endeavors to compensate for the follies of reckless moral and economic atomism. . . . [The liberals’] sentimental liberalism soon became shocked at its own practical consequences; the economic competition and spiritual isolation which resulted from the triumph of their ideas provoked among them a reaction in favor of powerful benevolent governments exercising compulsions.1
Mr. Meyer, an advocate of economic liberty, identifies the seed of corruption in liberalism rather as its supposed utilitarian ethic:
This transformation [from individualistic to collectivistic liberalism] was the result of a fatal flaw in the philosophical underpinnings of 19th-century liberalism. It stood for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being.2
Eric Voegelin imagines he can see a close connection between classical liberalism and Bolshevism: both, he thinks, imply the “permanent revolution,” in that they attempt the impossible—changing the nature of man.3 And so on, with other conservative authors.
It appeared to me that for once someone ought to call a conservative to account for his flamboyant and unsubstantiated claims regarding classical liberalism; for once, the canons of precise definition and relevant evidence, which serious scholars in all disciplines apply, ought to be applied here, too. It seemed to me, furthermore, that Evans had presented us in his article with a startling example of these conservative defects, and that the article could profitably be examined from this point of view.
NOW TO DEAL WITH Evans’ rebuttal. Is it true that I have confusedly interpreted his claims, besides being wrong on a number of factual points?
First comes the terminological question, less interesting than the others, but unavoidable, since here is where I am supposed to have decisively confused the issues.
What does Evans mean by “classical liberalism”? Does he mean what everyone else does—that is, in one description, the social philosophy whose best representatives were Tocqueville and Acton?4 Does he mean that great intellectual and political movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so vast and various that no particular philosophical pre-suppositions bind all of its adherents, but only their commitment to individual liberty—to private property, civil liberties, and parliamentary and constitutional government? If the reader considers classical treatments of the subject, say Ruggiero’s History of European Liberalism or (on a more analytical level) Von Mises’ The Free and Prosperous Commonwealth, he will see what is meant by classical liberalism when the world at large discusses the history of ideas.
Evans claims, on the contrary, however, that he was clearly and consistently using “classical liberalism” in an odd sense: he was using it to designate only the atheistic and agnostic classical liberals (what he wants to call the theistic classical liberals is not made clear—possibly he wants to refer to Bastiat and Adam Smith as “conservatives”). It seemed to me otherwise. In my article, I point out that Evans has a footnote to the effect that in his usage “libertarianism . . . signifies the chemically pure form of classical liberalism, with all of its metaphysical implications.” Now, in the first place, it ought to be clear that this passage implies that libertarianism is one subspecies of classical liberalism (its “chemically pure form”), other subspecies of which, less chemically pure, do not share libertarianism’s anti-religious position. This indicated to me that Evans, at least at this point, was using “classical liberal” in more or less its received meaning, and simply wanted to define “libertarian” in an unconventional way.
Then, in the text, Evans equates libertarian and classical liberal, stating: “The libertarian, or classical liberal, characteristically denies the existence of a God-centered moral order. . . .” Now this certainly sounds like a description; that is, it sounds as if Evans is accepting the usual definition of classical liberal, and saying that, while there may have been a few liberals who were religious, characteristically and as a rule they were not religious. If he were keeping to the definition in the footnote, the passage wouldn’t make sense: it would then have to read, “libertarians necessarily and by definition deny the existence . . . ,” etc.
If the reader still thinks it was unreasonable of me to suppose that Evans was using classical liberalism in its usual sense (or, at least, that its usual sense was one of those in which Evans was using the term), let him consider the following, from Evans’ original article:
While labelling someone a classical liberal is not necessarily an insult, it must be pointed out that today’s conservatives, although opponents of statism, are generally not Manchesterians.
Doesn’t this imply that Evans was taking the Manchesterians to be one school (the only school?) of classical liberalism? But how could this be, if he was exclusively using classical liberal to mean agnostic or atheistic classical liberals? Both leaders of the Manchester School, Cobden and Bright, were Christians.
Evans tries to trivialize this terminological point by speaking of varying “tastes” in noun substantives. But there is very good reason for preserving a modicum of consensus on the way terms are to be used. Imagine what trouble would be caused if each time anyone wrote on the history of ideas, he used terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” “socialist,” “utopian,” etc., in odd and unconventional ways. For one thing, intellectual history as an on-going enterprise would become impossible. It is at least equally important to keep to the same definitions of key terms in one and the same article.
LET US ASSUME, though, that Evans had made it clear in his article that in levelling his series of charges he had in mind only the non-religious classical liberals of the past and present: men like John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, and, in our own day, most of the free enterprise economists whose names would come most readily to mind. Is it true that these men “allege human freedom as the single moral imperative”? Evans really does hold that they do, evidentally: An irritating premise of his, which comes out also in his rebuttal, is that a person who is not religious can have no ethical beliefs or concerns. Thus he refers to the religious classical liberals, “men who combine both ethical affirmation and concern for human freedom,” as if an agnostic liberal never affirmed any ethical principles. Evans’ position is that non-religious liberals did not and do not believe that anyone has a moral obligation to tell the truth, or to avoid malice, or to save another person’s life even at no risk to oneself. Can this really be the case?
Well, I quoted in my critique a well-known passage from J. S. Mill’s essay, Utilitarianism, part of which tells us that:
In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.5
Evans prefers in his rebuttal not to take cognizance of this point. Instead, declining to withdraw his claim, he attempts to show that it is true of Herbert Spencer. Even if this were true, it would prove nothing, since innumerable agnostic and atheistic liberals could be cited who do, indeed, believe that there are ethical imperatives beyond simple respect for the liberty of others. Yet far from being “quite obvious” that freedom for Spencer is the single moral imperative, it is quite obviously false. This is not the place to go into a detailed examination of Spencer’s ethical system (I find Evans’ exposition confusing); but this is what Spencer says:
[There are] many actions which from hour to hour are gone through, now with an accompaniment of some pain to the actor and now bringing results that are partially painful to others, but which nevertheless are imperative. . . . Though the pains which the care of many children entail on a mother form a considerable set-off from the pleasures secured by them to her children and herself, yet the miseries immediate and remote which neglect would entail, so far exceed them that submission to such pains up to the limit of ability to bear them becomes morally imperative as being the least wrong.6
The point about natural law and Roman Catholicism is trivial and quickly disposed of. One of the things wrong with classical liberals, in Evans’ view, is that they deny that there is any divine “moral order to which man should subordinate his will and reason.” Of course, the existence of any moral law means that one should subordinate one’s will to it: this isn’t in question. What is at issue is just what Evans meant by the liberals’ denial that reason ought to be subordinated to the moral law. If, as seemed likely, this meant that they denied that the moral law was unknowable by reason and had to be accepted purely on faith, then I don’t see why this should be considered especially atheistic; for the denial of the arbitrariness and irrationality of the moral law is precisely the position of the Catholic Church. Again, I don’t understand Evans’ exposition in his rebuttal on this point: neither his distinction between (in St. Thomas’ view) the moral law being apprehensible by reason, but not validated by it, nor how Evans is using “sanction.” The important point is that if one believes with St. Thomas and the Catholic Church7 that the moral law can be discovered by reason, then there is nothing sinister or atheistic about the liberals’ position. Furthermore, it is then possible for an agnostic to come to an appreciation of morality, without any personal religious faith. On this problem of the connection between morality and reason, Evans blinks the distinction among Christian churches, and seems to want to have Calvin legislating for Christendom.
I do not find that Evans’ rebuttal illuminates to any great extent what he might have had in mind when he charged classical liberals with being “materialists,” “pragmatists,” and “relativists.” We are given no definition of materialism, no evidence that classical liberals were and are “characteristically” materialists. Spencer doesn’t appear to have been a materialist, pace Evans,8 but what if he had been? Mill was a phenomenalist; that is, he thought that matter was nothing but the possibility of certain mental states9 —rather the opposite of a materialist. What do these two examples prove about the characteristic position of classical liberalism?
Evans doesn’t really meet my objection to his use of “pragmatism,” either. He states that Bentham, the Mills, etc., were pragmatists long before Charles Peirce and William James (the founders of the school), because they believed in an instrumentalist theory of value. But the essence of pragmatism lies in its theories of meaning and truth, and the one sentence definition Evans is seeking is not that pragmatism holds value to be determined by “what works,” but that it holds truth to be so determined,10 i.e., the difference between: “this action is good,” and “this statement about the properties of copper is true.”
FINALLY, WE COME TO the modern-day conservative bugaboo, “relativism.” Here, too, Evans, like other conservatives who write on the subject, still owes us a definition. I don’t think the one he gives in his rebuttal—deducing “value criteria from secular and largely subjective phenomena”—is really adequate. For one thing, it is uncertain, on the basis of this, whether someone who holds a fiat justicia, pereat mundus natural law position, but with no supernatural elements, would fall into the category of “relativist”; if he would, it would be a fairly unserviceable definition. For another thing, the definition doesn’t make “relativism” the opposite of Evans’ “absolutism,” which “holds values to exist independent of subjective apprehension.” J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, for instance, would be both relativist and absolutist in Evans’ definitions: relativist, because its criterion of good is whatever promotes human happiness, and thus it may be said to deduce its criterion from a secular phenomenon—human happiness; it would be absolutist, though, because it insists, for example, that although all the people of a country might think it good to undertake aggressive war, this would not make it a good thing: its goodness is “independent of the subjective apprehension” of the actors, and is to be tested by whether the action actually does promote human happiness and welfare.
There is nothing “Orwellian” in my suggestion that utilitarianism can be considered an “absolutist” ethic; by one definition commonly accepted among philosophers, it is so considered.11 If Evans wants to deny that utilitarianism may be judged to be absolutist, if he wants to continue to maintain that liberals and libertarians were and are characteristically “relativists,” let him provide acceptable definitions and then cite some evidence.
Incidentally, it seems interesting that conservatives typically don’t spend just a bit more time explaining in a clear manner what they have in mind by terms such as “relativism” and “absolute values,” considering that these make up such a large part of their stock-in-trade.
I think I have given good reason to believe that I was justified in my original critique of Evans’ article. The question remains, however, why didn’t I deal with the substantive issues, with Evans’ thesis—why did I limit myself to discussing just his attack on classical liberalism?
FIRST OF ALL, WE MUST ask: Exactly what is Evans’ thesis? Exactly what is the thing in the absence of which a free society cannot be maintained? Is it belief in the “Judeo-Christion” revelation, or a belief in a particular variety of Protestantism? In his rebuttal, Evans traces many of our troubles to the decline of the Protestant Ethic—this decline is supposed to make self-reliance less popular and the welfare state more tempting, and the liberals were, he alleges, foolish to suppose they could undermine the Protestant Ethic and not expect people to gravitate towards dependence on the state. But Max Weber’s point was precisely that the Protestant Ethic was not characteristic of Roman Catholicism, or even of Lutheranism, but primarily of Calvinism and related sects.12 Here the role of the doctrine of predestination was crucial, in Weber’s statement. If it is the Protestant Ethic which is a necessary condition for the preservation of a free society, are we then committed to saying that a free society cannot be preserved without a general belief in predestination?
Let us assume that Evans’ thesis is the one he explicitly states: “A regime of political freedom cannot long exist without the underpinning of religious and moral sentiment derived from Judaeo-Christian revelation.” Why didn’t I go on to discuss this? The answer is that, although I consider this an interesting and important question, Evans purely and simply presents not the slightest evidence for “his thesis.”13 We cannot consider vague references to the moral crisis of our time, plus the example of John Stuart Mill—overworked as these both are—to be evidence in any scientific sense. If someone wanted seriously to maintain that a free society cannot be preserved in the absence of a commitment on the part of the great majority of the people to Christian revelation, a number of questions would immediately arise. Here are a few:
(1) What were the real causes of the decline of liberalism, beginning around 1870? To what extent did Christianity itself contribute to this, in the form of the numerous Christian Socialist and Christian Social movements in Europe and America? To what extent was the decline of liberalism due to the decline of the authority of the science of economics, and to what degree was this, in turn, caused by the view, often supported by Christian moral sentiment, that economics was “inhuman” and “selfish” in its view of human nature?
(2) Assuming that a free society is only possible if people believe that it is called for by the Christian holy scriptures, how can such a belief be long sustained if, in fact, these writings do not call for a free society? Assume that at any given time everyone believes in capitalism because he thinks that it is entailed by revealed Christian doctrine; unless it really is so entailed, then this supposed iron-clad support for capitalism must be expected to crumble as people realize that the entailment does not exist. Now, why does Evans, and why do so many conservatives, suppose that free enterprise and limited government are called for by Christian doctrine? Most of the Christians who have lived, and most Christians today, would disagree with this interpretation. Examples are really superfluous: The whole history of intolerance and persecution, the opposition of most Christian churches to capitalism down to, in our own day, John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra—all this indicates that most Christians have found their faith perfectly compatible with all kinds of infringements on liberty. If Evans could demonstrate that Christian doctrine calls for capitalism, it would represent a real landmark in the history of thought.
(3) Another difficulty that arises for anyone who wants to maintain that Christian revelation provides a much firmer basis for ethics (and thus for a free society) than any secular philosophy is able to propose, is the fact that very few people would be prepared to accept certain clear Biblical statements in this field. Who now agrees with Exodus 18:22—“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” How many friends of freedom are completely comfortable with Romans 13:1-2—“The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” How many people find that, on reflection, there is a great deal of practical good sense in: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink. . . . Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matthew 6:25, 34) On what basis do we choose among the various ethical imperatives contained in the Bible, which we will take seriously and which not; which we shall interpret literally and which we shall reinterpret in some more convenient manner?
(4) Evans states, in his rebuttal: “If morality is the function of secular arithmetic or the adjustment of secular means to secular ends . . . then it is altogether possible that, somewhere along the line, freedom must give way to the calculus. . . .” Here we have another hidden assumption—that unlike non-supernatural ethical systems, Christianity presents us with an air-tight body of moral rules: it consists of the orders given by God to man, which are clearly expounded in various revelations and backed up by the very powerful sanctions available to the Divinity. This is, however, a very naive view, I think, and anyone holding it is obliged to acknowledge the existence of the following argument and attempt to answer it: Exactly what is it that God tells us in an unambiguous way concerning our ethical obligations? Are there any rules which we are commanded to follow, telling us what to do under given conditions in a manner much more precise than some ethic such as utilitarianism? If we turn to the Bible, we find a number of such rules given, such as: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal (sometimes taken as a divine rule governing the proper social attitude towards private property), etc. Now, if the religionist conservative claimed that “Thou shalt not kill” is an unconditional rule (at least in reference to human beings), I think I could understand in what sense Christian ethics is more absolutist than, say, utilitarianism; in what sense Christianity presents what Evans calls “fixed and objective values” which utilitarianism does not present. Utilitarianism, as far as I can see, proposes no such unconditional, absolute rules. Yet surely there are no conservative religionists who favor an absolute, unconditional acceptance of this rule, for that would make impermissable both American military action in Viet Nam and capital punishment. So in just what sense is the Biblical injunction against killing more absolutist than the utilitarian one?
I am not aware that any religionist conservative has really dealt with any of these questions, and certainly Evans has not. It is much easier to flog non-supernatural ethical systems for being vague and indeterminate, and consequently responsible for all kinds of catastrophes, always with the implication that one has himself a really solid ethic in reserve.
FINALLY, I SHOULD like to make the chief point implied in my attack on Evans’ original article somewhat more explicit: the fact is that much too much passes muster in conservative writings that is nothing more than uninformed rhetoric. That almost all conservative publicists are guilty of this, at least sometimes, is scarcely the best kept secret on the Right. I for one am finally getting bored with the sophomoric misuse of technical philosophical terms; with sketchy outlines of the “course” of modern history; with constant attacks on the French Enlightenment, on human reason, and on the hubris of modern man; and with worldly-wise references to Original Sin and the absurdity of progress. Let conservative writers follow the example of present-day classical liberal economists, who adhere to the accepted rules of scholarly discussion in their confrontation with their leftist counterparts. The typical approach of the conservative cultural critics, on the other hand, since it is rhetorical and unanalytical, does not allow for progress being made towards the solution of the issues under discussion. If conservative publicists find the scholarly approach too tedious, they ought to recall that no one is compelled to write on intellectual history or philosophy.
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[* ] Ralph Raico, Editor-in-Chief of New Individualist Review, is an instructor of history at Wabash College and a member of the Mt. Pelerin Society.
[1 ]The Conservative Mind (Chicago: Regnery, 1953), pp. 89-90.
[2 ]In Defense of Freedom (Chicago: Regnery, 1962), pp. 1-2.
[3 ] “Der Liberalismus und seine Geschichte.” in Christentum und Liberalismus (Munich: K. Zink, 1960), pp. 23-25.
[4 ] H. J. Laski, as quoted in F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 530.
[5 ]Utilitarianism, On Liberty and Representative Government (New York: Dutton, 1950), p. 16.
[6 ] H. Spencer, The Data of Ethics (New York: Burt, n. d.), p. 311. Spencer elsewhere in the same work (p. 28) states: “Lastly, we inferred that establishment of an associated state, both makes possible and requires a form of conduct such that life may be completed in each and in his offspring, not only without preventing completion of, it in others, but with furtherance of it in others. . . .” Italics supplied.
[7 ] “For Aquinas . . . the human being does not receive the moral law simply as an imposition from above: he recognizes or can recognize its inherent rationality and binding force, and he promulgates it to himself.” F. C. Copleston, Aquinas (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), p. 214. On the position of the Catholic Church, see T. Corbishley, S. J., Roman Catholicism (London: Hutchin’s University Library, 1950), p. 57.
[8 ] F. A. Lange, The History of Materialism (London: Routeledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), Vol. III, p. 190.
[9 ] L. Wood, “Recent Epistemological Schools,” in V. Ferm, ed., A History of Philosophical Systems (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 531.
[10 ] B. Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), pp. 815-18.
[11 ] R. B. Brandt, Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1959), p. 154.
[12 ] M. Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York Scribner’s, 1958), pp. 73-74, 84-85, 110-17.
[13 ] Just as he presents no evidence—nor any reference to evidence elsewhere—for the statement in his rebuttal that the classical liberals “helped lay the ethical foundation for the rise of the total state they wanted to avoid.”