Liberty Matters

Forgotten But Not Superfluous

The class theory of classical liberalism was a central but now almost forgotten part of the body of historical liberal thought. It was central to much of the analysis and argument of a whole range of thinkers, activists, and politicians, and also figured prominently in literature and overtly nonpolitical writings. Its disappearance as a central element of liberal thought is a historical puzzle, the answer to which casts light on other questions about the trajectory and fate of liberal thought and politics since the later 19th century. As David Hart indicates, its recovery and refurbishment should be a major intellectual project for classical-liberal scholars from a number of disciplines, including economics, political science, sociology, and history.
David Hart’s masterful survey brings out the main features of classical-liberal class analysis (hereafter CLCA) and shows how it came to be formulated in a number of places, notably Restoration France and Regency England, and how it was closely connected to a number of other important elements of classical-liberal thinking, such as the stadial model of history. His account lists both key ideas and the various groups of thinkers who contributed to the ideas. His points however bear extending in a number of ways.
The first is that the list of thinkers he gives is, of course, nowhere near exhaustive. However, what is even more significant is the way that the concepts of CLCA were used by all kinds of people in addition to economists and other theorists. In particular it was hugely important in popular liberal politics from the middle of the 19th century onwards, in Britain and elsewhere. This was not a matter of a fringe idea or one that was popular with the unenfranchised masses but with little effect on elite politics. As Eugenio Biagini points out in his magisterial survey of popular liberalism in Britain, mainstream liberalism was a mass movement which had a set of radical ideas on many topics, including such matters as land ownership, access to credit, taxation and the national debt, and the nature of social classes. CLCA was central to this, and for many working-class liberals in particular was central to the way they thought about the world and understood society and their place in it.[51]
Nor was it simply a matter of politics. The idea that society was marked by a division between the productive classes and exploitative classes, who used the political process to enrich themselves, pervaded popular culture and can be found in literature of all kinds, but most notably self-help writings and popular didactic literature. It is found for example in the work of Samuel Smiles and Harriet Martineau.[52] It was also a prominent feature of popular fiction and journalism, as for example in the writings of George W. M. Reynolds. Very often the ideas of CLCA were not spelt out or elaborated at length but simply alluded to, normally through the use of key expressions or terms. There are constant references for example to “the industrious classes” in the central part of the century with a marked peak in the 1840s, as the Google Ngram shows.
The Ngram for the corresponding term “the idle classes” is even more striking, with a series of peaks that correspond to upsurges in popular radical liberalism.
The crucial point here is that the people who used the vocabulary of CLCA and embedded its arguments and analysis into their writings did so without elaborating it. What this shows is that the ideas were so widespread and generally known that they could be alluded to with confidence that the reader would understand the argument simply from the reference. In other words, CLCA was a pervasive and widely understood idea that was an important part of both political culture and language and popular culture more generally.
The ideas and analysis, however, were not hegemonic, in either England or France, for example, because they were also strongly contested by authors who mounted robust defenses of traditional hierarchies and divisions. The was particularly marked in the United States with the propagation in the years before and after the Civil War of what came to be known as the “mudsill” theory of society and manual labour, by authors such as Robert Lewis Dabney, James Henry Hammond, and William Harper.[53] According to this theory, it was both inevitable and good that societies were divided between a set of ruling elites and a lower class of laborers. Civilization and high culture depended on the existence of a leisured elite who rested upon the “mudsill” of uneducated workers. The relations and use of power denounced by CLCA were seen as being both necessary for a functioning society and beneficent because they made civilized living possible and maintained appropriate social relations.
What this highlights in turn is the close association between class analysis and a number of other ideas in classical-liberal thought on both sides of the Atlantic. One of these was that of the inherent dignity and worth of all kinds of work and trade (as opposed to the traditional aristocratic view that manual work was ignoble and degrading, and trade or commerce morally suspect). This went along with a critical view of those who did not do anything productive but lived from rents and transfers (a category that included aristocrats and clergy on the one hand and paupers, people dependent on poor relief, on the other). Another was the idea of the “democratic intellect,” the belief that culture and ideas should be available to anyone interested in them regardless of their occupation, with corresponding skepticism about any kind of special class of the educated (a clergy or clerisy in other words).[54]
What this means is that we cannot properly understand classical-liberal thought, politics, and culture unless we understand both the main ideas and arguments of classical-liberal class analysis and its centrality to classical liberalism. In particular it makes historical liberal thought and politics appear much less radical and subversive than it seemed to contemporaries, and indeed actually was. It also leads to an excessive focus upon economics as the core of classical-liberal thought when in fact it was only one part of it and arguably not the most significant.
This in turn leads to another area where David Hart’s account can be strengthened. Looking at the survey of groups he gives and the key ideas associated with them, we can make more sense of the development of these ideas as a process if we combine these into an analytical narrative. In the first place we have ideas that have been around for a very long time, such as the notion of a divide or conflict between rulers and ruled or St. Augustine’s well known remark in City of God that all governments were in their origins simply bands of robbers.[55] There were also thinkers such as La Boetie and the Levellers who looked at the way rulers persuaded and convinced people to obey them even when it was not in their interests to do so or at the way in which certain interests were enriched by favors and privileges at the expense of the general population. These ideas were not integrated into a general or thought-out theory, however, not least because they were typically cast in the formulae and language of moral argument rather than being connected to an empirical and theoretical account of what privilege was and how different social classes came into being and were distinguished from each other.
The second phase, which David Hart focuses on, saw the explicit creation of a theory of class conflict and the working out of its implications. This began in the later 18th century with people such as John Millar and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, but as Hart describes, really happened in the 1820s and 1830s in both Great Britain and France. There are several aspects of that process that should be highlighted. The first of these is the way that many of the formulators, such as James Mill and the Philosophical Radicals or Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer, were actively involved in politics. In fact the worked-out theory of CLCA was developed in and through politics, and it was in its origins a political critique or analysis. It was aimed at the monarchical and aristocratic forms of government, which had been predominant for most of human history in most parts of the world, and the whole of CLCA was essentially a project to analyze, understand, and ultimately unmask this kind of government and rule, both in the abstract and in the concrete or actual (as in the work of John Wade, for example). More specifically it was a critique of the actual form that monarchical and aristocratic government had taken in Europe during the Baroque era. In some cases, such as that of the Philosophical Radicals and before them the Physiocrats, the political program that the analysis was associated with was one of radically reforming government to put it on a different basis, while in other cases the program was one of minimal statism or even anarchism – at least in the future. Its combination of the concrete and the general, or theoretical, meant that this was an attack upon and critique of not only specific people and policies but of the entire system of politics and government (the Thing, in William Cobbett’s memorable terminology).[56]
Another thing to notice was the key role played by campaigning journalists and publications, such as Reynolds, Cobbett, and Wade in Britain and Comte and Dunoyer in France. This shows how the roles of intellectual and journalist were still very close and not as distinct as they have now become; some people such as Tom Paine combined the three roles of journalist, thinker, and politician. In other words the intellectual world that produced CLCA (and other equally forgotten ideas of classical liberalism such as the “voluntary theory”) was open and pluralistic and not dominated by the academy in the way that the contemporary world has become. However, although many of the formulators were indeed polemicists as well as scholars, they did not fall into the trap of producing pure and simple polemic. The intellectual content remained central.
Perhaps the most striking feature, however, is the relatively small role played by economists. The place of philosophers, historians, and early sociologists was much more important. David Hart mentions the important part played by Augustin Thierry, but we could also emphasize the contribution of early British economic historians such as James Thorold Rogers.[57] The work of people like Millar in developing a sociological as well as historical account of the origins and development of classes and ranks was also hugely important. What this means is that CLCA, as it came to be in the early to middle 19th century, was not simply an economic theory or an application of economic thinking to politics and governance. Rather it was a multidisciplinary approach that used a range of perspectives to think about the question of social divisions and their connection to power and the activity of government.
The third phase that we can identify in David Hart’s account might be called the reevaluation and further-development one. This took place in the later 19th and very early 20th century, and the key figures here were definitely sociologists and political scientists, such as Vilfredo Pareto, William Graham Sumner, Gaetano Mosca, and Franz Oppenheimer. One of the major changes that can be seen in their work was the abandoning of the idea that society was evolving in the direction of less government, and therefore of reduced class divisions, and the gradual disappearance of the ruling classes (given that they owed their existence to their use of a state to capture and engross wealth and income from the productive classes). Instead there was a much more cautious or even pessimistic view in which the continued existence of government was assumed and in which the main question now became one of the nature of the ruling class and the degree to which it was open or closed, united or divided, and subject to replacement or semipermanent. This was particularly marked in the work of Pareto and Mosca but can be seen in other writers as well. The main contributions of these later theorists to the theory itself were firstly a much more sophisticated understanding of both the types of ruling class and the institutional structures that they relied on in the modern world (such as political parties), and secondly a kind of speculative historical account of the origins of government and hence of the division between ruling classes and productive classes. This last was initially articulated by Oppenheimer and can be thought of as a way to put St. Augustine’s insight mentioned above onto a firmer basis. Although initially speculative rather than empirical, subsequent research has confirmed much of the argument, as in the work of Charles Tilly for example.[58]
The final stage is the one that David Hart looks at first, which is the reaffirmation of this analysis by Rothbard. In his case and that of subsequent authors, such as Leonard Liggio, Walter Grinder, and John Hagel, this was a matter of intellectual archaeology, of rediscovering and reformulating a body of ideas and analysis that had almost been forgotten. At the same time people such as the Virginia School of Gordon Tullock and James M. Buchanan independently developed arguments that can be seen as making the same kind of points as much CLCA, even though they do not derive directly from it. For most contemporary libertarians and classical liberals the revived and reinterpreted CLCA articulated by Rothbard is the one that they know about. This is actually problematic for several reasons. One is that Rothbard’s theory lacks the richness and variety of the older tradition. It is much more of a theory driven by economics and lacks the dense sociological and historiographical support that the older theory had (although Rothbard himself was interested in and supportive of such work by others). It has a tendency to a conspiracy-theory view of politics, which may reflect the difficulty alluded to in David Hart’s essay of reconciling a sociological account with strict methodological individualism. Above all it is, like the original CLCA, associated with and driven by a specific kind of politics, and the project in question is somewhat dubious. Essentially, Rothbard’s political project was one of mounting a populist revolt against the established American state. The problem is that in reality it is very hard to have a politics of that kind that does not also involve a strong element of cultural conservatism and ethnic-identity politics along with a simplistic contrast between the corrupt elite and the honest populace. All of this makes the overall package that includes Rothbard’s revived CLCA very troubling for many people of a classical-liberal bent and serves to discredit the class theory by association. Moreover it does not generate a useful or productive research program (as opposed to one that is purely polemical).
The obvious major question, which David Hart’s essay raises, is simply this: what happened? Why did such an elaborate body of theory and ideas, so widely known and understood and drawing upon so many disciplines, suddenly disappear? Why is it that today the great majority of classical liberals do not know of the main arguments and insights of CLCA in the way that they know arguments from economics or philosophy, never mind the general public or people who espouse other political perspectives? Reflection suggests that this vanishing act can be explained in three ways and that all of these explanations have credibility.
In the first place there are intellectual explanations that have to do with the general climate of educated opinion. These of course then raise the question of why that climate changed in the way that it did, but that is a different and wider issue. One crucial thing was the sudden decline in explicitly liberal thinking and approaches in disciplines such as history, sociology, and political science. Eventually it was only economics where a kind of liberal approach survived. This was particularly significant for CLCA because, as has been noted, it was the other disciplines that had contributed to the working out and substantiating of the theory. When sociologists in particular lost interest in the kinds of questions that inspired CLCA and focused more on the social relations of a capitalist society while (scandalously) ignoring the role of the state or (more understandably) seeing the state and political power as an epiphenomenon of economic relations rather than as an autonomous or even determinative area of social relations, it is unsurprising that CLCA was simply discarded. As David Hart notes there were exceptions, notably Stanislaw Andreski, but he was exceptional and had little impact on the wider discipline.[59] Elite theory did have a revival in the work of people such as C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff, both of whom had significant insights and contributions. But that tradition (which derived ultimately from the work of people like Pareto) had succumbed to the idea that it was economic relations that ultimately drove other kinds of social structure.[60]
At the same time, there was a significant shift in the way intellectuals in general and broadly liberal intellectuals in particular thought about politics and government. This was in many ways a working-out of the division among liberal thinkers alluded to earlier. While CLCA was partly a critique and analysis of the Baroque state and its associated class relations that became generalized as an account of power and class, there was an important division among the intellectuals and activists who formulated it. For many, such as the Philosophical Radicals, the idea was that if you had a different kind of state and political power, you could have a society that did not have the kind of exploitative ruling class that CLCA posited. In particular the idea was that a democratic political system would lead to a state that was not controlled by and would not generate “sinister interests.” It would rather be simply the administrative organ for the will of the people as a whole, at least as regards their shared or common interests. For others, such as many of the French liberals, it was the existence of government as such that led to the division between productive and idle classes, hence the idea that progressive social evolution meant the fading away of government. Another way to think of this disagreement is that for some, CLCA was essentially a historical analysis of how power and class relations functioned in historical societies but would no longer apply once the state itself had been modernized, while the other view held that this was a picture of social relations that would continue to be accurate for as long as government existed. Undoubtedly for most intellectuals of the 20th century it was the first view that was predominant. There was still disagreement over how large and extensive government should be, but the class analysis was no longer thought to be relevant. Radical sociologists such as Mills also shared this view and held that the persistence of a power elite simply showed that the system was not democratic enough, in particular that formal political democracy needed to be supplemented by “economic democracy” (i.e., socialism).
In the second place are what we may call political explanations that look at the political context within which liberal intellectuals and activists were situated. One aspect of this was the increasingly close alliance between classical liberals and moderate conservatives or Christian democrats in a world of mass democracy and the challenge of socialism and communism. This led to several of the more radical aspect of classical-liberal thought being downplayed or abandoned, including CLCA. Moreover, after roughly the 1890s and particularly after 1917 the idea of class conflict became firmly associated with Marxism and, given that most classical liberals came to see Marxism and communism as their main opponents, they became reluctant to use language or arguments that were apparently similar (and as a matter of intellectual genealogy were related).
The third was changes in modern capitalist societies that revealed weaknesses and obscurities within the original theory and made it increasingly difficult to use it without a radical rearticulation. Although this process began with the work of the early elite theorists such as Mosca and Pareto, it was not continued for the other reasons given above. The main difficulty was the one that David Hart refers to in his essay: that the clear-cut divisions one could identify in the 18th and early 19th century between taxpayers and tax eaters, or productive classes and idle classes, were much less easy to make in the world of the later 19th and 20th centuries. The two crucial changes were the massive expansion of government with the rise of the welfare state and the emergence of the modern large-scale business corporation along with the regulatory state. Whereas it was easy to identify state pensioners and (most) aristocrats and clergy as a class that lived off state transfers, things were not so clear when it came to the owners and managers of large firms. To the extent they owed their income to political favors or regulations, they could be categorized as part of the ruling class. But you could no longer draw a sharp and clear division since they also created wealth and paid taxes.
So what can we conclude from all this? Should we regard the recovery of this set of arguments as simply a piece of intellectual archaeology, important for understanding the past of classical liberalism but of limited use now or going forward? The answer must be very much to the contrary. This kind of analysis is still applicable and hugely important  because it helps us to understand a great deal of contemporary society and politics and what is going on in the world. It supplements other kinds of liberal thinking in areas such as economics and philosophy and makes argument and analysis more robust. The use of political power to extract wealth from the productive has not ceased, to put it mildly. All kinds of features of politics and society make much more sense when viewed through this prism. Above all it makes it clearer who the enemy is, where it comes from, and what the source and nature of its position is.
There are obviously challenges, which David Hart identifies. The first is that of how to identify the classes that are primarily productive and primarily exploitative. The second is to explore and understand and theorize the organization and mechanism of the process of the “political means.” It may well be that this is ad hoc and unstructured, in which case the language of class is not appropriate. But it is a relatively simple matter to identify and trace the kinds of connections and collaborations that actually exist and make this kind of language useful and accurate. One task is to distinguish between a power elite and a ruling class. Basically if you have a specific and identifiable group of people who have access to political power and can use it to benefit themselves, then you have a power elite. If the people who compose that elite are, over time, largely drawn from the same families (obviously allowing for some degree of circulation), then you have a ruling class. It seems clear to me that the United States at present does have a ruling class.
One of the things to do here is to use but amend the work of radical sociologists such as Domhoff and Mills. Another author whose work is very useful empirically is Thomas Ferguson whose “investment theory” of political competition offers real insight into the way class and power relations play out today.[61] The things to strip out from these works are the assumption that democracy and even more politics are the cure for the syndrome they diagnose and analyze, and the idea that politics is not autonomous as a human activity but ultimately determined by economics. Another thing to draw on are accounts or studies of specific examples of the political class and its machinations. Kevin Phillips’s masterful account of the Bush clan is one recent example, while the older work of Ferdinand Lundberg is still useful.[62]
The third challenge is how to reconcile class analysis with methodological individualism. For me this is a classic “economists only” problem. Other disciplines such as history, political science, and most notably sociology have no problem recognizing that while it is individuals who act and actually do things, they do so in patterned and often predictable ways and within a context that they themselves do not determine but which shapes and limits the kinds of choice they make and leads to what is often purposive and coordinated action by groups of people. The “sociological imagination” described by Mills is what is needed, in other words, but this is not incompatible with methodological individualism.
There is one other major challenge that is not raised, which we might call Pareto’s Question. If the existence of political power means there will inevitably be a ruling class of one kind or other that will use that power for its benefit and come to be defined by its relation to it, then unless you think that anarchism is both possible and desirable, there will always be a ruling class. In that case you will have to ask what kind of ruling class you want or prefer (maybe fear least) and how do you contain it? It also raises the very old question of how to educate and train the rulers so that they are at least decent chaps. In all of these cases, though, what is really needed is scholarly research and argument. Fortunately CLCA generates an astonishingly rich and unexplored research agenda, so there are ample opportunities out there for young scholars.
[51.] Eugenio F. Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment, and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860-1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), and Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid, eds., Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
[52.] Adrian Jarvis, Samuel Smiles and the Construction of Victorian Values (Cheltenham: Sutton Publishing, 1997); Tim Travers, Samuel Smiles and the Victorian Work Ethic (London: Routledge, 2016); and R. K. Webb, Harriet Martineau, A Radical Victorian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960). See also, Samuel Smiles, Self Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863). </titles/297>.
[53.] See for example Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions Volume IV: Secular (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1994 [1897]).
[54.] George Elder Davie, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and Her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999).
[55.] See St. Augustine, City of God in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. II St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, LL.D. (Buffalo: The Christian Literature Co., 1887). Quotation </titles/2053#lf1330-02_label_289>.
[56.] On "the Thing" see William Cobbett, “The Royal Family of England”, Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, Feb. 10, 1816, vol. XXX, no. 6, pp. 161-75. Quote on p. 174-5.
After this view of the situation of this family how we must laugh at De Lolmes' pretty account of the English Constitution. After seeing that about three or four hundred Boroughmongers actually possess all the legislative power, divide the ecclesiastical, judicial, military, and naval departments amongst their own dependants, what a fine picture we find of that wise system of checks and balances, of which so much has been said by so many great writers! What name to give such a government it is difficult to say. It is like nothing that ever was heard of before. It is neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor a democracy; it is a band of great nobles, who, by sham elections, and by the means of all sorts of bribery and corruption, have obtained an absolute sway in the country, having under them, for the purposes of show and of execution, a thing they call a king, sharp and unprincipled fellows whom they call Ministers, a mummery which they call a Church, experienced and well-tried and steel-hearted men whom they call Judges, a company of false money makers, whom they call a Bank, numerous bands of brave and needy persons whom they call soldiers and sailors; and a talking, corrupt, and impudent set, whom they call a House of Commons. Such is the government of England; such is the thing, which has been able to bribe one half of Europe to oppress the other half; such is the famous "Bulwark of religion and social order,” which is now about, as will be soon seen to surround itself with a permanent standing army of, at least, a hundred thousand men, and very wisely, for, without such an army, the Bulwark would not exist a month.
[57.] James Thorold Rogers, The Economic Interpretation of History (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909).
[58.] Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993).
[59.] Stanislav Andreski, Parasitism and Subversion: The Case of Latin America (New York: Schocken, 1969), and Military Organisation and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).
[60.] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965) and G. William Domhoff, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy: Corporate Dominance from the Great Depression to the Great Recession (London: Routledge, 2015) and State Autonomy or Class Dominance? (London: Aldine, 1996).
[61.] Thomas Ferguson, Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money Driven Political Systems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
[62.] Kevin Phillips, American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (Hammondsworth: Penguin, 2004), and Ferdinand Lundberg, America’s Sixty Families (New York: Vanguard Press, 1937).