Liberty Matters

A Comment on David Hart’s “Classical Liberalism and the Problem of Class”

David Hart has given us a concise and very useful overview of the classical-liberal and libertarian approach to class analysis as it has existed for several centuries. Included in his discussion are differences among classical liberals themselves in how they framed their class analyses in terms of the rulers and the ruled. I will discuss another difference in this comment.
Although “classical liberal” and “libertarian” are frequently used as interchangeable labels in modern literature, there is a significant difference between these two camps in their approach to class analysis. Among classical liberals, criticisms of the ruling class were almost always directed at governments as they existed at a particular point in time. We see this in Jeremy Bentham’s assault on the “sinister interests” in Britain, by which Bentham meant the landed aristocracy that passed legislation to promote its own interests (mainly economic interests) at the expense of the common good. But Bentham proposed a solution to this rule by a special class, namely, universal suffrage, which would bring about a harmony of interests between the rulers and the ruled. Bentham believed that people would never (or almost never) vote against their own interests, so a democratic system would largely solve the problem of exploitation by government.
In contrast to Bentham, classical liberals in the Lockean tradition appealed to some version of social-contract theory to legitimize government. The “consent” involved here, as we find in Locke himself, was typically tacit consent, not express consent. To appeal to express consent would be to render all government illegitimate, because no government could possibly meet this requirement. This is what the liberal clergyman Josiah Tucker had in mind when he claimed that “the Lockian System is an universal Demolisher of all Civil Governments, but not the Builder of any.”[46] If Locke’s principles “were to be executed according to the Letter, they would necessarily unhinge, and destroy every Government upon Earth.”[47] This had been a basic theme among critics of social-contract theory for many years, and it would later be incorporated into Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).
The point here is that most classical liberals did not view government per se as an exploitative ruling class; only certain forms of government, such as absolute monarchies, qualified for this epithet. A limited government based on consent, which was commonly envisioned as existing in a “republican” form, would be vulnerable (like all governments) to the abuse of power, but the institution itself was not regarded by classical liberals as inherently exploitative. Indeed, the social-contract model was frequently used to justify a minimal amount of taxation. In exchange for the protection afforded by a just government, citizens had tacitly agreed to surrender a certain amount of their alienable property in exchange for that service.
Only among the radical liberals, or libertarians—those who rejected the social-contract model--do we find the argument that government is inherently invasive and predatory. This was the position, for example, of the important libertarian theorist Thomas Hodgskin, who worked as the senior editor of The Economist for a number of years during the 1840s and 1850s.
Hodgskin categorically rejected the Benthamite formula of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” as a meaningless guide to legislation, owing to the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparisons. Thus: “If the greatest happiness principle, be the only one that justifies lawmaking, and if that principle be suitable only to Omniscience—man, having no means of measuring it, there can be no justification of all Mr. Bentham’s nicely adapted contrivances, which he calls civil and penal laws.”[48]
Hodgskin’s analysis of legislation anticipates the modern economic school known as “public choice theory,” which seeks to understand political behavior as stemming from the pursuit of self-interest by those in government. As he put it: “Let us look closer at who is the legislator, and what is his object in making laws.” Just as Adam Smith had posited self-interest as an explanatory principle in economics, so Hodgskin extended this method to the realm of politics. The impulse of self-interest, in politics as in economics, is everywhere operative. It is naïve to suppose that lawmakers do not act from the same motives as other men. Although the law is often defended as necessary to maintain property rights, in fact it is designed to enable those in government to maintain their power:
When we inquire, casting aside all theories and suppositions, into the end kept in view by legislators, or examine any existing laws, we find that the first and chief object proposed is to preserve the unconstrained dominion of law over the minds and bodies of mankind. It may be simplicity in me, but I protest that I see no anxiety to preserve the natural right of property but a great deal to enforce obedience to the legislator. No misery indeed is deemed too high a price to pay for his supremacy, and for the quiet submission of the people. To attain this end many individuals, and even nations, have been extirpated. Perish the people, but let the law live, has ever been the maxim of the masters of mankind. Cost what it may, we are continually told, the dominion of the law, not the natural right of property, must be upheld.[49]
Government, in Hodgskin’s view, is essentially an exploitative institution; and law is the mechanism by which those in government, who produce nothing, expropriate the property of others. “Our leaders invent nothing but new taxes, and conquer nothing but the pockets of their subjects.”
Actually and in fact [laws] are intended to appropriate to the law-makers the produce of those who cultivate the soil, prepare clothing, or distribute what is produced among the different classes, and among different communities. Such is law.[50]
According to Hodgskin, laws are made not by those who labor to produce wealth but by those who live off the labor of others and who expropriate what they have produced. This is essentially the same view later expressed by the anarchist Murray Rothbard. As David Hart notes, Rothbard was influenced by the writings of Franz Oppenheimer and Albert J. Nock, but we should be aware of an important difference. Both Oppenheimer and Nock distinguished between a state and a government in a manner that Rothbard did not. Only states are inherently predatory, according to Oppenheimer and Nock. Governments, in contrast, may serve a legitimate purpose, such as protecting individual rights.
I may have more to say about the distinction between state and government in a later comment. For the present I wish to suggest that a true class analysis of the state is not found in the writings of most classical liberals, who typically justified government by appealing to a social contract and consent (per Locke) or by appealing to social utility (per Bentham). In these schemes government is morally neutral; it can be used for good or bad purposes, depending on who controls the reins of power, their authorization for such control, and their intentions.  Only among the more radical libertarian philosophers do we find a consistent approach to class analysis in which the state (or government) plays a central role. 
[46.] A Treatise Concerning Civil Government (1781), in Josiah Tucker: A Selection from His Economic and Political Writings, ed. Robert Schuyler (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931), 459. Online </titles/1674>.
[47.] Tucker, A Letter to Edmund Burke, 2d ed. (1775) in ibid., 378.
[48.] Thomas Hodgskin, The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832; rpt. Clifton, NJ: Augustus Kelley, 1969), ii. Online </titles/323>.
[49.] Ibid., 44-45.
[50.] Ibid., 47.