Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Liberalism and Idealism

According to conventional histories, nineteenth century liberalism in America was based on Locke's self-interest-based individualism and on laissez-faire economics, with its vision of gratifying as many desires as possible through endless economic growth.  But there was another idealistic side of nineteenth century liberalism that was more idealistic and more skeptical about progress and growth.
Idealism entered America through the writing of Emerson and the transcendentalists, who were liberals. In Emerson’s view, political reforms – from the Protestant reformation to the American revolution to the anti-slavery movement of his own day – were based on idealism, not on self interest: “The history of reform is always identical, it is the comparison of the idea with the fact. Our modes of living are not agreeable to our imagination. We suspect they are unworthy.” Reforms sharpen our consciences by exposing us to higher ideals.
Emerson believed that freedom was important because of its moral value: "Wild liberty develops iron conscience. Want of liberty, by strengthening law and decorum, stupefies conscience."  Emerson was an individualist - he wrote that “the nation exists for the individual” - but he believed in moral individualism rather than self-interested individualism.
 The transcendentalist Thoreau invented the idea of Civil Disobedience, which looks back to Thomas Aquinas’ idea that we have an obligation to disobey unjust laws, and looks forward toward Ghandi and Martin Luther King, who turned it into the most powerful political tactic of the twentieth century. Civil disobedience is based on the idea that we must disobey unjust laws because we have an obligation to a higher law: there is no basis for it in the theory that bases liberalism on self-interest. It derives from the natural law tradition of classical liberalism.
 Transcendentalism does not fit into the conventional history of liberalism. For one thing, this important strain of American liberal thinking was explicitly anti-Lockean. Emerson wrote:
... the idealism of the present day acquired the name of Transcendental from the use of that term by Immanuel Kant, of Konigsberg, who replied to the skeptical philosophy of Locke, which insisted that there was nothing in the intellect which was not previously in the experience of the senses ....
 For another thing, this strain of liberalism questioned technological progress and the market economy. Emerson wrote:
Machinery is aggressive. The weaver becomes a web, the machinist a machine. If you do not use the tools, they use you. ... What have these arts done for the character, for the worth of mankind? Are men better? ‘Tis sometimes questioned whether morals have not declined as the arts have ascended. Here are great arts and little men.....
These transcendentalist ideas do not fit into the conventional history of American liberalism, which traces it to Locke’s self-interested individualism and ties it to commercial values and economic growth. 
When Emerson speaks of an economy that would produce fewer goods but would produce freer and better men, he is in the tradition of Jefferson, but limiting modernization was no longer a live political issue in the 1840s, as it had been in Jefferson’s day. Emerson had an economic ideal but no practical policies to go with it. Likewise, Thoreau criticized the new technologies of his time – he wrote “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us” – but he dropped out of the economy to live at Walden Pond, rather than trying to change the economy.
In practice, laissez-faire liberals dominated thinking about economics during the Victorian age, while idealist liberals worked on social issues, such as abolition and women’s suffrage. The idealists worked to extend freedom to groups that had been excluded, but they could not stop industrialization from eroding freedom, as the market economy did more and more things that people used to do for themselves.