Liberty Matters

Some Possible Answers to Jim Powell’s Question


Jim Powell asked the question "Why Did So Many People Turn Away from Classical-Liberal Ideas during the 19th Century?" I addressed this problem in the Epilogue to my book The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 213-14) (see the Liberty Matters discussion of Smith's book), and I shall take the liberty of quoting part of that discussion here.Then I will add one more possible factor that contributed to the decline of classical liberalism. I wrote:
By the end of the nineteenth century, classical liberalism had been eclipsed by a “new” liberalism that justified state interference in social relationships to a far greater extent than most old liberals, such as Herbert Spencer, were willing to sanction. Various explanations have been offered for the decline and fall of classical liberalism, including one by Spencer himself, who suggested that the public at large did not understand the true nature of the beneficial reforms for which old liberalism was responsible. According to Spencer, the old liberals abolished or mitigated grievances suffered by large segments of the population, and these reforms had been brought about by relaxing the scope of governmental interference and thereby expanding the range of individual liberty. But most people, seeing that these beneficial results had something to do with government, failed to differentiate between the repeal of onerous laws and the passing of new laws. Quoting Spencer:
For what, in the popular apprehension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past? They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people, or by portions of them: this was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men’s minds. They were mitigations of evils which had directly or indirectly been felt by large classes of citizens, as causes to misery or as hindrances to happiness. And since, in the minds of most, a rectified evil is equivalent to an achieved good, these measures came to be thought of as so many positive benefits; and the welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Liberalism. Hence the confusion. The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained. And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.[113]
Explanations for the decline of classical liberalism were also offered by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, who were largely responsible for carrying the torch of liberalism during its dark years in the first half of the 20th century. Mises wrote that Enlightenment liberals “blithely assumed that what is reasonable will carry on merely on account of its reasonableness. They never gave a thought to the possibility that public opinion could favor spurious ideologies whose realization would harm welfare and well-being and disintegrate social cooperation.”[114]Hayek, in contrast, focused on a deficiency in liberal principles themselves as a major factor in the decline of liberalism:
It is thus a misunderstanding to blame classical liberalism for having been too doctrinaire. Its defect was not that it adhered too stubbornly to principles, but rather that it lacked principles sufficiently definite to provide clear guidance…. Consistency is possible only if definite principles are accepted. But the concept of liberty with which the liberals of the nineteenth century operated was in many respects so vague that it did not provide clear guidance.[115]
I now wish to mention one other factor that has rarely if ever been noted by historians of classical liberalism. After the Corn Laws had been repealed in 1846, what happened to the Anti-Corn Law League? — an impressive grassroots organization that might have been used to achieve other liberal causes. Well, the obsession of one of its most brilliant leaders, Richard Cobden, for state education made that virtually impossible. Cobden greatly admired the American common-school system of Horace Mann, and he wanted to direct the manpower and resources of the former Anti-Corn Law League to establish a similar system in England. As his biographer John Morley observed, “Popular education had been the most important of all social objects in [Cobden’s] mind from the first.” But middle-class dissenters had composed a large portion of the League, and a substantial portion of those activists were dissenters who, calling themselves “voluntaryists,” were vehemently opposed to any state involvement in education.[116] Unlike John Bright, a Quaker who sympathized with the voluntaryists, the Anglican Cobden viewed the voluntaryists as reactionaries, in effect, who were fixated on a lost cause for the sake of a principle, and he grew increasingly frustrated with the actions of Edward Baines, Jr., the leader of the voluntaryists and editor of the Leeds Mercury, the most influential provincial paper in England. Cobden wanted to incorporate national education as a liberal plank to make extension of the suffrage more appealing, but Baines and other voluntaryists resolutely opposed this idea. As Cobden wrote to George Combe on May 13, 1848:
You know how cordially I agree with you upon the subject of Education. But I confess I see no chance of incorporating it in any new movement for an extension of the suffrage. The main strength of any such movement must be in the Liberal ranks of the middle class, and they are almost exclusively filled by Dissenters. To attempt to raise the question of National Education amongst them at the present moment, would be to throw a bombshell into their ranks to disperse them.[117]
Soon afterwards ( Dec. 28, 1848) Cobden chided Baines for making such a fuss over state education. The principle of state education had become widely accepted, so it seemed pointless to cause a major rift among liberals over a controversy that the voluntaryists could not possibly win. Cobden wrote to Baines:
I doubt the utility of your recurring to the Education question. My views have undergone no change for twenty years on the subject, excepting that they are infinitely strengthened, and I am convinced that I am as little likely to convert you as you me. Practically no good could come out of the controversy; for we must both admit that the principle of State Education is virtually settled, both here and in all civilized countries. It is not an infallible test, I admit, but I don’t think there are two men in the House of Commons who are opposed to the principle of National Education.[118]
After Baines had declared that dissenters should vote for any candidate who supported their advocacy of voluntary education, without regard for party affiliation, Cobden declared his intention eventually to forge ahead with his campaign for national education. On Jan. 5, 1849, Cobden wrote to Combe:
I hope you will not think there is any inconsistency in the strong declaration I made at the meeting, of the paramount importance of the question of Education, and my apparent present inactivity in the matter. Owing to the split in the Liberal party, caused by Baines, it would be impossible for me to make it the leading political subject at this moment. Time is absolutely necessary to ripen it, but in the interim there are other topics which will take the lead in spite of any efforts to prevent it, reduction of expenditure being the foremost; and all I can promise myself is that any influence I may derive now from my connexion with the latter or any other movement, shall at the fitting opportunity be all brought to bear in favour of National Education.[119]
After nearly two years later, Cobden had lost his patience with Baines and the voluntaryist dissenters. On Nov. 9, 1850, he wrote once again to Combe:
At present the Liberal party, the soul of which is Dissent, are torn to pieces by the question [of state education]…. I thought I had given time to Mr. Baines and his dissenting friends to get cool upon the subject. But they appear to be as hot as ever. However, I shall now go straight at the mark, and shall neither give nor take quarter. I have made up my mind to go for the Massachusetts system as nearly as we can get it.[120]
Cobden’s decision to campaign for state education was a nail in the coffin of an organized liberal movement. By focusing on a cause that deeply offended many dissenting liberals, he virtually guaranteed that English liberalism would never again have the collective clout that it had enjoyed during the halcyon days of the Anti-Corn Law League.
[113.] Herbert Spencer, “The New Toryism,” in The Man Versus the State, ed. Eric Mack  (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), 14-15.
[114.] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, third revised edition (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company), 864.
[115.] F.A. Hayek, Law Legislation, and Liberty  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973) I:61.
[116.] See my three essays on the British voluntaryists, beginning here: <>.
[117.] John Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1906), 485.
[118.] Ibid., 494.
[119.] Ibid., 505.
[120.] Ibid., 548.