Liberty Matters

Why Did So Many People Turn Away from Classical-Liberal Ideas during the 19th Century?

For multitudes of ordinary people, the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War I were the best years ever. This was the most peaceful period since the Roman Peace almost 2,000 years earlier. There were no general wars. Chattel slavery was abolished in the Western Hemisphere. Many countries adopted constitutions, and more people gained the right to vote. The movement to achieve equal rights for women, including property rights as well as the right to vote, got underway and scored big victories in the next century. Living standards in the western world took off after some 2,000 years without sustained economic progress. In most places, taxes were probably not more than 10 percent. The development of science began to conquer dreaded diseases, and increasingly the practice of medicine did more good than harm.
Yet during the mid-19th century more and more people turned away from ideologies responsible for these as well as other breakthroughs for liberty that were truly astounding.
Here are three factors that might help to explain why people turned away from liberty:
1.  People abandoned the natural-rights philosophy.
That philosophy had established that rights don't come from government and that therefore there are strict limits on what government could legitimately do. The natural-rights philosophy also infused the freedom philosophy with a crucial moral dimension that had a great deal to do with its appeal.
As it fell out of fashion during the 19th century, a number of people rediscovered it when they found they could not make a legal or constitutional argument for liberty.
William Lloyd Garrison, who found he couldn't make a constitutional argument for abolishing American slavery, frequently quoted  from the summary of the natural rights philosophy in the Declaration of Independence, even though Garrison despised Jefferson for owning slaves.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton paraphrased this summary in her Declaration of  Rights and Sentiments when she launched the movement to achieve equal rights for women in 1848.
After Jefferson, perhaps the most influential defender of natural rights was Henry David Thoreau; “Civil Disobedience” (1849) influenced people as far afield as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. King couldn't make a legal argument against compulsory racial segregation, since it was supported by southern state laws, so he too often quoted from the Declaration of Independence.
What happened to the natural-rights philosophy? Perhaps the biggest blows came from the Utilitarians, especially Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. My sense is they played a crucial role promoting a couple of corrosive ideas.
First, if legal institutions and accumulations of laws are reformed, they can become the most logical sources of rights – in other words, positive law.  Why look anywhere else to find out what our rights are?
Second, if everybody gets the vote, then the government is us, so it becomes our friend.  It's no longer a threat to liberty as it was when there were kings almost everywhere.  Extending the franchise is the single most effective policy for protecting liberty.  Who needs a constitution?
2.  Multitudes embraced nationalism.
Nationalism encouraged people to believe that their nationality -- language, culture, religion, and so on -- was better than other people's nationalities.  There was an urgency to have one's nationality promoted and defended by a charismatic leader in a powerful state everybody could be proud of.
Many times the cause of classical liberalism became mixed up with nationalism, especially when there was a common adversary like an autocratic king.
Nationalism came to sanction the use of force against minorities, because throughout history  people became widely scattered.  They settled wherever they could find a sanctuary.  Consequently, there were few places occupied 100 percent by people of a particular nationality.  Just about every "national" state had a percentage of alien nationalities whose members could be at risk.
Probably the most serious clash between classical liberalism and nationalism occurred in Germany during the 19th century, and the result was that the liberals failed in their bid to impose limits on the power of the Prussian king.
Perhaps what today's classical liberals might learn from nationalism is the importance of emotional appeals, especially emotional appeals about liberty, as well as rational appeals about the unintended consequences of government intervention and inspiring stories about extraordinary things that can be accomplished by free people.
3.   Times were so good, especially in America, that people lost their fear of arbitrary government power.
This situation is easy to understand among Americans, since the United States hasn't been invaded. The two most memorable attacks -- Pearl Harbor and 9/11 -- didn't threaten the existence of the United States as other countries have been threatened when foreign invaders took over, executed opponents, and installed totalitarian regimes.
The American Progressive movement was born amidst demands for an “energetic” government that some bright people thought was a good idea at the time.
The situation in the rest of the world is puzzling. How can large numbers of people not appreciate the case for limiting arbitrary government power, after having suffered through two world wars and many totalitarian regimes?
How is it possible for so many people to be socialists without recognizing that when government gains control of an economy, it can throttle political opponents?
Maybe the struggle for liberty is only for those who really must struggle or face terrible consequences. This struggle might be comparable to the struggle of poor people who achieve career success, make a lot of money, want to spare their children from the worst risks and privations -- and then wonder why their children aren't driven like they were.
We can try to instill our values in our children, including our passion for liberty, and yet in many cases children don't care, or they don't care as much as they do for other things. It would be difficult and expensive to arrange a world tour providing memorable glimpses of totalitarian terror, so that some of these became more tangible for kids.
The best thing I can think of is to do whatever can be done to inject libertarian ideas into popular culture by facilitating the development of young-adult books, commercial fiction, fantasies, graphic novels, TV shows, comedy routines, documentaries, movies, websites, songs, videos, and media.
I'm not sure how much can be done, because it appears that few libertarians want to do these things.  There are sure to be many false starts and failures before there's a hint of financial success that would make it possible for such work to be self-sustaining.  
Providing  funding might not help much.  It's hard to predict the future performance of talent among creative minds as well as professional athletes.  Some authors produce only one memorable book and are never able to do anything as good again.  Many authors who get a generous fellowship stipend seem to shut down -- they don't have a primordial urge to write.  Some keep producing, but they aren't able to surpass their peak work.  A few wonders turn out to be marvelously prolific.  It seems hard for most people to be sufficiently focused to develop an idea and see it through to completion.
Although it's easy to be pessimistic, just consider how much influence libertarians have gained because of a tiny number of pathbreakers like Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman -- in just two fields, fiction and economics.  These days, we can count a few comrades in several other fields, and for the most part everything else is wide open.
One of the greatest wonders about liberty is that while it has been crushed everywhere, there have been remarkable comebacks in some of the most unlikely places.  That is sure to happen again and again, wherever the dream can be kept alive.