A new book on liberalism by David Wootton misses the pointby Deirdre McCloskey / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
In England between 1658 and 1832 the theory about what motivated people changed. Was this a good thing? The intellectual historian David Wootton shows that the theory did change. But he very much doubts it was a good thing.
Historically speaking, “Pleasure and profit were often coupled together,” Wootton notes in his astonishingly learned book, but never until 1658 and the publication of William Percey’s The Compleat Swimmer “were they claimed to be the only motivations, to the exclusion of all others, such as honour, virtue, and piety. [It was] a new account of what it is to be a human being.”
Wootton’s main subjects, among hundreds of minor ones marshalled over three centuries by this most brilliant and pugnacious of historians, are Machiavelli for power, Hobbes for pleasure and Adam Smith for profit. Then for “utility” Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the deviser of a crude version of pleasure and profit, sans honour. The principal target of Wootton’s story is Bentham the Bad, who declared that the only way he could distinguish poetry from prose was by noting that poetry did not fill the line to the right margin, and that justice was “nonsense on stilts,” and many other declarations shocking to an age that took honour, virtue and piety, not to speak of poetry and justice, most seriously indeed.
Bentham’s heirs among modern economists and calculators leap with gusto into such voluntary idiocy. I am one of the economist tribe, yet agree with Wootton that the maximising of utility under constraints, as the so-called Samuelsonian economists put it, does not in fact yield a plan of life. “The presumption that we are all, as it were, in business as individuals,” Wootton writes in an essay in History Today summarising the book, supposes “that the ties which bind us to family, friends, community, nation are purely instrumental arrangements of convenience.” His lament sounds Toryish in a person who sometimes calls himself a liberal. He is a Burkean, it would seem, lamenting that the glory of Europe has been extinguished forever.
The more extreme of the economists in Bentham’s train, such as the late Nobel laureate of Chicago, Gary Becker, justify the lament. In 1973, Becker wrote a pioneering paper on the economics of marriage in which male and female humans, which he insisted on calling “M and F,” meet in the forest and agree to exchange skill in cookery with skill in car repair. In the few places in the paper where Becker mentions love he puts the word in scare quotes. One can see why a liberal-tending Tory might find such economists and similar barbarians hideous.
Yet what Wootton damns as “instrumental reasoning” goes also, he uneasily admits, by the name of a glorious liberalism, fully theorised around the European revolutions of 1848, on the very eve of its demise as the dominant theory of government. Liberalism “cuts through traditional assumptions about status, rank, and honour… Those who were most prominent in attacking the old moral codes were also, almost without exception, egalitarians.”
He observes that Hobbes’s suggestion that “people… are all fundamentally alike,” may be said to mark the beginning of the Enlightenment. The merger of an “Enlightenment paradigm” with liberalism fuels his assault on possessive individualism, which is to say, as he does many times, and in chapter four entirely, “selfishness.”
It’s elegant research, but perhaps misses the point. The book is intellectual history, and intellectual history alone, with no attention to the actual consequences of liberalism. This leads to muddled thinking: he reduces liberalism, the watch-spring of a modern world, to a vulgar utilitarianism. The trouble is that Wootton, as suits his Early Modern specialism and his education in Classics, stops the story with Bentham the Bad, the better to slam the modern economists he detests, and the bourgeoisie he detests even more. Wootton joins the left and the right in following the conventional anti-bourgeois line, following Flaubert’s letter to George Sand in 1867: “Axiom: hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of virtue.”
Ah, yes, the hated bourgeoisie. Wootton attacks the notion that they could have anything positive to do with the modern world, even though it was bourgeois Europe that created and benefited from a liberalism he reluctantly admires—the liberalism, for example, of the emancipation of slaves, and then a succession of emancipations down to the present, of ordinary people allowed for the first time to have a go.
Bentham 1.0 is a bad thing as a life plan, no doubt, if—arguably—useful for designing motorway off-ramps and other projects of cost and benefit. (See John Kay, The Price of Everything, April.) But stopping at Bentham and then rushing on to the most vulgar of the economists is an error. A liberalism under attack even in 1848 from theorists like Marx and Carlyle bore its social and economic fruit a long time afterwards. What fruit? Post industrial revolution, a rise of the goods and services available to the poor by a factor of 30, which is to say (recalling your school arithmetic) about 3,000 per cent in a world in which 100 per cent improvements were rare and temporary. Modern medicine. Modern travel. Modern education. A Great Enrichment occurred, unprecedented and still occurring. Consult Hans Rosling’s posthumous book, Factfulness (2018).
Wootton’s axiom is that Bentham is really all there is behind liberalism. Yet he himself cites John Stuart Mill after his conversion to liberalism 2.0. If Wootton had made Mill his stopping point instead of Bentham, it would have been much harder to reduce liberalism to a desiccated 1.0 calculus of pleasure and profit. Mill is the very essence of mature 2.0. As he wrote in a memorial essay on his teacher Bentham, “He was a boy to the last,” a suitable ancestor to boyish economists. “No one who… ever attempted to give a rule to all human conduct, set out with a more limited conception either of the agencies by which human conduct is, or of those by which it should be, influenced.” Which is Wootton’s theme precisely.
Wootton holds up the ancients, and in less detail the medievals, as espousing and exemplifying “honour, self- respect, dignity, reputation, and a clear conscience.” It’s conventional leftish stuff, exemplified by the brilliant philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, a communist who turned Catholic without a sojourn in the sweet civility of the bourgeois agora. Taking up the title of MacIntyre’s great book, Wootton announces that “one purpose of this book is to explore the question of what it means to live ‘after virtue.’”
After what? Whose virtue? In fact, liberalism 2.0 characterised the first generation of liberals, such as the blessed Adam Smith whose understanding of humans was richer than the much younger Bentham, but whose liberalism Wootton treats most unkindly; or the second generation, Mill in England and, surprisingly, Henry David Thoreau in New England. Yet the Benthamite version of liberalism remains the conventional target of Catholic conservatives like Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame (see his recent Why Liberalism Failed) or left Democrats like Michael Sandel of Harvard. Deneen, Sandel and Wootton make their tiresome attack on liberalism dead easy by reducing liberalism to Bentham 1.0 and the portions of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Smith that fit selfishness.
Wootton is surely correct that in our times happiness has replaced salvation in the academic theory of individual motivations, and that among liberals, the nation’s happiness has replaced the glory of the monarch, or even making America great again. It happened in the 18th century, at any rate among the elite thinkers whom Wootton studies. He is announcing, and denouncing, the elevation in theorising of self-interest as the sole motivation of humans, as of rats and pigeons, the business-school ethic of all the ethics that profit can buy.
But wait. “Theory” about how people behave is never how they actually always do behave in every situation, not in ancient Greece, not in modern Britain or America. In his rush to denounce the Philistinism of the post-Industrial age, Wootton sometimes implies that the way people actually behave is instead dictated by the theories of the clerisy. As he points out, though, rejecting such a lemma was David Hume’s point. The reasoning of philosophers is not regularly what motivates people to good or evil. As Smith said in his assault on Bernard Mandeville, an Anglo-Dutch philosopher from the dawn of the 18th century and one of Wootton’s theorists of selfishness: “such is the system of Mandeville, which once made so much noise in the world, and which, though, perhaps, it never gave occasion to more vice than would have been without it, at least taught that vice, which arose from other causes, to appear with more effrontery, and to avow the corruption of its motives with a profligate audaciousness which had never been heard of before.”
In reality, people act often enough for reasons irreducible to a business plan of happiness, either in the Benthamite sense of peasantly pleasure or the Woottonite sense of aristocratic honour. People pursue the transcendent regularly: the Pals Brigade going over the top at the Somme; the mother rising daily to care for her handicapped son; the Brexit voter attending not to his self-interest.
Humans need the transcendent, whatever theory about them the clerisy might devise. Richard Hooker wrote in 1593: “Man doth seek a triple perfection: first a sensual… then an intellectual… but doth further covet… somewhat beyond and above all this… earnestly thirsted for.” It is true now as it was then. People satisfy it by declaring that the scum begin at Calais, or by loving Manchester United, or by worshipping an Anglican God, or indeed by toiling over splendid books of intellectual history. The liberal thought—both crude and sophisticated—that Wootton canters over can still inspire good politics, but like its doppelganger the modern novel, it doesn’t acknowledge our full and contradictory selves.
Wootton is committing the characteristic error of political philosophers of supposing that ideology equals behaviour. Of course I agree that ideology matters, and that madmen in authority who hear voices in the air are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler a few years back. Yet one can better use intellectual history as a register of opinions and even passing fashions, in which case imaginative literature, diaries, newspapers are also to the point. The ideology of influentials mattered concretely to, say, economic policy and entrepreneurs. Yet Wootton does not want to describe what actual businesspeople or actual policymakers are like in their own noble “restraint, moderation, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice.” He’d rather sneer from the coffee house and the library.
Like many of the clerisy, including the economists, Wootton depends too much on introspection and philosophical analysis, too little on looking at people. Ordinary people have much to teach him.
His is a drearily conventional attack on the modern world of “consumerism” and Homo economicus, of the sort that issue by the thousands each year from the presses. That they do, from Carlyle to Veblen to Galbraith to Susan Sontag, is not evidence that they are true. His dissection late in the book of Smith’s reluctance to allow governments to intervene in famines is persuasive. But it is a poor argument against Smith’s liberalism, in view of liberalism’s enormous payoff in alleviating hunger permanently.
A commercially-tested betterment influenced by Smith does not yield perfect justice in distribution. But neither does actually existing socialism influenced by Marx, or the welfare state influenced by Bismarck, or the lovely traditional society of free men and closeted women and slaves in the mines of Laurion influenced by Aristotle. What liberalism accomplished was something unanticipated by the early economists, including Smith, though anticipated by the engineers and by Marx in his optimistic moods—enormously enriching the poorest among us in matter and spirit.
Yes, we have theories of selfishness. No, we do not follow them. Yes, Bentham was silly. No, liberalism is not.