Liberty Matters

Material Conditions and Ideas as Factors in the Growth of Liberty


In his initial response to David Hart, Jeff Tucker makes a very important point. This is that liberty in the sense of chosen action and autonomy has increased enormously in the last hundred years, due primarily to technological innovation and enterprise.  An exclusive focus on legislation and economic regulation can make us overlook the fact that in their everyday life ordinary people have far more freedom than was the case a hundred years ago. In particular real liberty has clearly increased for certain groups such as women and sexual or ethnic minorities and rhetoric that portrays the last hundred and fifty years as being a period of sustained decline in liberty is going to strike many people from those groups, not to mention others, as being both wrong headed and bizarre. This point was made very effectively recently by David Boaz of the Cato Institute, in a post that sparked off a considerable debate.[99]
To expand Jeff’s point, what we should not forget is the way that material changes such as the development of new technologies and the alterations in the material conditions of life that they bring about, lead to both an increase in personal choice and autonomy and a consequent alteration in thinking, perceptions and understanding of the world.  Significantly it is not simply technology that has or can have these kinds of effects. Changes in the way activities are organized and the way that social interactions are structured can also have major effects even in the absence of material changes.  The changes can be liberty enhancing in the way that Jeff describes. In addition they can make organization and cooperation easier and make the transmission and spread of ideas easier, with possible benefits for the spread of liberal ideas, as Jim Powell and David Hart both point out.
This sounds rather like Marx’s way of thinking but there were of course two problems with that. The practical one was that assuming that it was material changes and changes in the structure of production that led to intellectual, social, and political change could lead to a kind of fatalism in which there was no point in activism, as you might as well just let material historical evolution take its course. This was the view, effectively, of orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky, and Edouard Bernstein and Lenin both pointed out the problems with this in both theory and reality (from very different perspectives of course).[100]
The more serious problem of course is that this makes ideas an epiphenomenon and denies them autonomy. Historical research shows that this is simply untrue. What ideas, produced autonomously by scholars and disseminated by the second hand dealers in ideas, do is this. They provide the intellectual tool kit by which people make sense of and understand the changes going on around them, decide which aspects of this they like and which they do not and also then produce agendas to change the world in one direction or another.  This means that there is actually a two-way causal relationship in which ideas are articulated in response to physical change but then shape how that change is understood and then in turn lead to purposive action that leads to further changes or directs the spontaneous changes in one direction rather than another.
Sometimes this works in favour of liberty but on other occasions it works in the other direction. In addition of course what frequently happens is that there is a clash of views over how to understand and evaluate what is happening and then over the direction in which people should consciously seek to change institutions and rules or forms of governance. It is at that point that we may speak of a ‘battle of ideas’. For example, in the last third of the nineteenth century something happened that was entirely unexpected and unforeseen, by either classical liberals or socialists (particularly the Marxist variety). This was the appearance of the modern multi-divisional business corporation and alongside that of mass production in large plants and mass marketing. (Contrary to popular belief small workshop production was still dominant as late as the 1860s on both sides of the Atlantic – textiles were exceptional).[101]
Unfortunately there was a major failure on the part of classical liberals in explaining what was going on and responding effectively. What won the day was the idea that these changes showed that it was possible to organize large scale social activity in a conscious and directed way through the practice of scientific management by an elite of experts. The state and economy that the Bolsheviks constructed after the mid-1920s was essentially an attempt to run Soviet life as a singe monopoly corporation. Today professional managerialism and the idea that really smart people can run the world smoothly if only they are left in charge is still the dominant idea. At the same time the new experience of working in large plants, in a collective activity, and of mass consumption, created a new kind of popular consciousness and culture and often undermined older ideas of personal autonomy and independence. [102]
So the question raised by Jeff Tucker and also by George Smith in his discussion of Leslie Stephen is that of the relation between innovation and material change, popular consciousness and the zeitgeist that Stephen was talking about. This is where we should think of the role of people who are not simply intellectuals but cultural and intellectual entrepreneurs who create narratives and analyses that make sense of what is happening, fit it into a more general understanding, and generate ideas about how the world and human life might be changed for the better. People such as Malcolm Gladwell, Jane Jacobs, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb would be examples.[103] What Jeff argues in many of his writings, and I have also argued is that there are many changes going on now that are clearly liberty enhancing, in the way that the changes at the end of the nineteenth century proved not to be. The development for example of peer to peer networking and distribution is a case in point. The challenge is to make sense of these phenomena and to suggest ways in which they can be used in practical ways and in addition to put forward ideas of how these can lead to a positive vision of the future and of ways to realize this.
[99.] David Boaz, "Up from Slavery: There's no such thing as a golden age of lost liberty", Reason, April 6, 2010 <> and the 618 responses it provoked. See also the rejoinder by Jacob Hornberger, "Up from Serfdom: How to restore lost liberties while building on the positive strides America has made since 1776", Reason, April 9, 2010 <>.
[100.] For this see Sheri Berman, The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe’s Twentieth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[101.] The definitive account of this is of course the trilogy of works by Alfred D. Chandler: The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business  (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1993); Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2013 [1962]); and Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1994).
[102.] The major response by late-19th-century libertarians was to suggest various forms of profit-sharing as an alternative to wage employment and to advocate the dissolution or replacement of employment relations in industrial enterprise. This did not catch on, partly because professional economists did not take it seriously. See Edward Bristow, Individualism versus Socialism in Britain, 1880-1914. (New York: Garland Press, 1987), particularly pp. 229-306. See also Jihang Park, Profit Sharing and Industrial Co-Partnership in British Industry, 1880-1920: Class Conflict or Class Collaboration? (New York: Garland Press, 1987).
[103.] Taleb in particular is putting forward a way of understanding the world and current developments that leads to skepticism about power and government, as well as radical libertarian ideas about how to change the world, such as suggesting that city-states and confederations of them are preferable to territorial nation-states. See Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York: Random House,2014).