The Rodda Project: A definition of liberalism
Senator Rodda's files contain many different kinds of documents. One of the more curious works is a letter that he labeled a “semi-finished draft.” He was probably less than completely satisfied with it and intended to keep tinkering with it. The copy I have is dated February 7, 1973. The text itself indicates that Sen. Rodda wrote the letter in response to a query from a friend, whom he addresses as “John.” (Perhaps someone can enlighten me on John's identity.) The Senator presumably retained extra copies in his files for purposes of sharing with other people who had the same question as John: Just what is liberalism?
The Senator hoped, but doubted—despite his own success as a liberal legislator, that liberalism could present itself as a robust philosophy for governance. As we read Albert Rodda's words today, in the context of conservatism's crumbling grip on our federal government, we might consider whether liberalism is ready to wake up and take a stand.
February 7, 1973
You asked me for a definition of liberalism.
A number of years ago I wrote that liberalism “was a social philosophy which emerged from the intellectual, economic and social revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. As a system of thought reflecting a concept for social organization, it was closely related to the rise of modern industrialization and was in opposition to the ideas and institutions of the ancient regime, many of which continued into the 19th century.”
“Liberalism was essentially an expression of economic and political individualism; in a sense, it was a rebellion against a class society, arbitrary government, religious intolerance, thought control by church and state, economic monopoly, and the doctrine of mercantilism. During the first half of the 19th century, therefore, it was essentially a rebellion against the dominating institutions of European society; by the middle of the 19th century, however, liberalism had become the dominant intellectual and social force in Europe.”
One can generalize by saying that supporters of liberalism possessed the following characteristics: (1) enthusiasm for scientific investigation and confidence in the rational powers of man and the scientific method; (2) the conviction that a better social order could be created by an intelligent application of the socio-scientific thought to the basic problems of social organization; (3) an enthusiasm for individual freedom in political, religious and economic matters, which was expressed in the demand for free political institutions, protection of personal rights, constitutional government, extension of the principles and the practice of democracy; (4) a laissez faire economic policy; (5) hostility to organized labor; (6) religious freedom, separation of church and state; (7) free public education; (8) the advocation of international peace and the development of international laws as a basis for the conduct of international relations, which usually involved opposition to militarism, military conscription and the domination of civil government by the military class; (9) emphasis on the idea that the state was a servant of the people and that it was the function of the state to encourage the development of individuality of its citizens; and finally, (10) the advocation of and support for the national state, structured upon a citizenship of individuals who possessed a common cultural and ethnic background as the basis for political organization in Western Europe.
It was a quality of thought which was significantly affected, molded or shaped by the intellectual, social and political forces which were generated by the French Revolution.
In a general way essential elements of liberal thought were the ideas which shaped the thinking of many of the educated individuals living during the last part of the 19th century.
There were different degrees of liberalism, of course, and the ideas associated with the philosophy changed with the passage of time. Furthermore, many individuals were liberal in one sense, but extremely conservative in another. This is, however, a fairly accurate description of the general principles of 19th century liberalism. It was a mode of thought which was in conflict with dominant ones of the time; between it and the values and ideals of the ancien regime there was constant war.
Toward the end of the century the basic assumption of liberalism, which was that man was rational and reasonable, began to be questioned by thoughtful writers who pointed to the influence of emotion, instincts and conditioned behavior as factors influencing the lives of people and directing it toward non-rational behavior. At the opening of the 20th century, those who advocated liberalism and the political and economic institutions which reflected the basic assumptions of liberalism modified their views, and became known as “chastened liberals.” The assumptions that man was rational, intelligent, knowledgeable and reasonable were no longer quite as confidently accepted. Liberals, nevertheless, continued to express the political view that the best interests of men were served through the institutions and practices of constitutional government—the guarantee of the rights of the individual, preservation of due process of law and insistence upon the rights of dissent and freedom of speech and the press. Liberals were, however, less confident that the liberal philosophy could succeed.
Gradually another modification in the concept of liberalism came about as a consequence of the failure of laissez faire economics to produce social justice. The failure of competition in the market place to provide distributive justice and, subsequently, the failure of the system to avert major economic depressions, cyclical in character and productive of massive unemployment, caused other questions to rise in the minds of liberals. While continuing to urge the basic political principles of liberalism, many liberals began to advocate state intervention in the economic system in order to achieve a greater degree of distributive justice through the use of power of the state to restrict business monopoly. This modification in thought began to distinguish the conservative from the liberal. The conservative, men like Robert Taft, for example, argued that it was important to maintain constitutional government, that government observe due process of law and that there be freedom for dissent and freedom of the press, but the conservative was less willing to accept the idea that the state should intervene in the economic system.
The Depression had an even more massive impact on liberalism, in my view. It demonstrated that economic policies which were designed exclusively to achieve distributive justice were inadequate to cope with the socio-economic problems of the American politico-economic system. John Maynard Keynes contributed significantly to post-Depression economic thinking when he pointed out that the capitalistic system could very easily operate at a level of equilibrium below full employment. Adam Smith, the founder of laissez faire economics, had consistently argued that the forces of the market place would produce an equilibrium at the level of full employment. Keynes in developing his analysis of the forces which determine the level of the National Product, concluded that unless government were effective through the control of the interest rate, the money supply the use of the taxing power and the regulation of public expenditures, the economy might operate at levels of equilibrium which would produce massive unemployment. This condition he feared could lead to the destruction of the capitalistic system. He outlined those policies which he deemed necessary to establish and maintain an equilibrium level at or near full employment.
Liberals became interested in his thought and in the implementation of a public policy which would assure economic growth, increased productivity, high levels of employment, and the avoidance of the disruptive influences of major economic depressions. They became less concerned with distributive justice, reasoning that if the economy could achieve economic growth, increases in productivity and the avoidance of depressions and unemployment, the economic well being of all individuals would be enhanced. This has not proven a realistic assumption or conclusion; the distribution of income and wealth is becoming more unequal. Liberals are again chastened. Not only do they recognize that the assumptions that they made with respect to the political institutions, which were that man was rational, are of dubious validity, but they are beginning to recognize that the assumption with regard to the functional relationship between sheer economic growth and economic inequality may also be of dubious validity. In fact, sheer growth may lead to a widening of the gap between the poor and the rich.
Liberals are also more and more aware of the impact of increases in productivity which are a consequence of technological innovation upon the natural environment. The adverse effects of pollution, exhaustion of resources and the energy crisis, the diseconomies of economic progress is causing greater and greater concern. Related to this concern, of course, is the threat of over-population.
Liberals find themselves in a very uncomfortable ideological position. Today, they are less confident that they know the way—that technological innovation which enhances productivity also promotes social justice and enhances the quality of life. Frankly, I share the liberal concern.
The conservative, continues, however, to believe that he knows the way. Conservative politicians remain dogmatic and psychologically secure, since they are convinced that if we move toward laissez faire economic policies, or non-intervention by the state, technology will provide adequately for the nation's economic welfare. They seem to have no doubts since it appears that the outcome of such an arrangement would conform to their socio-economic goals.
The problem of the liberals is that they are uncertain about how to proceed—how to use the powers of the state in order to give that direction to the socio-economic system which will promote not only economic growth but also the protection of the environment and the achievement of distributive justice.
Frankly, I am convinced that the conservative view, if persisted in, can only promote the destruction of the environment and greater economic inequity and social injustice. The outcome of persistent implementation of the conservative view will assuredly be a society in which there will no longer remain a dedication to the economic and political principles of this country. When this occurs, a rejection of the basic principles and institutions of American society will follow.
I have always been inclined to sympathize and identify with the liberal and yet, as I became more and more aware of the dilemma of contemporary man, I wonder whether the liberal, given his basic assumptions about man, has the capability of responding to the challenge.
I do not know what the creative thinkers in this country, especially those of a liberal persuasion, will conclude, if they examine critically the validity of the basic assumptions of contemporary liberalism and the viability of representative government to achieve the historic liberal goals of individual freedom, economic well being, and social justice.