T.H. Green’s Criticism of Utilitarian Laissez-Faire Individualism

T.H. Green was a 19th century British philosopher, who with others provided the philosophical justification for the change in Liberal politics away from complete laissez-faire economics to active state intervention. A week or so ago I put up another passage from D.G. Ritchie, another Liberal philosopher, who similarly argued for greater state intervention. Ritchie considered that the state was entitled to purchase and manage private enterprises on behalf of society, which Green totally rejected. However, Green was in favour of passing legislation to improve conditions for working people, and attacked the Utilitarians for their stance that Liberals such try to repeal laws in order to expand individual freedom. He believed the real reasons to objecting for laws affecting religious observances were that they interfered with the basis of morality in religion, and similarly believed that the real objection to the erection of the workhouses was that they took away the need for parental foresight, children’s respect for their parents and neighbourly kindness. He criticized the Utilitarians for demanding the removal of this laws on the grounds of pure individualism. Green wrote

Laws of this kind have often been objected to on the strength of a one-sided view of the function of laws; the view, viz. that their only business is to prevent interference with the liberty of the individual. And this view has gained undue favour on account of the real reforms to which it has led. The laws which it has helped to get rid of were really mischievous, but mischievous for further reasons than those conceived of by the supporters of this theory. Having done its work, the theory now tends to beco0me obstructive, because in fact advancing civilization brings with it more and more interference with the liberty of the individual to do as he likes, and this theory affords a reason for resisting all positive reforms, all reforms which involve an action of the state in the way of promoting conditions favourable to moral life. It is one thing to say that the state in promoting these conditions must take care not to defeat its true end by narrowing the region within which the spontaneity and disinterestness of true morality can have play; another thing to say that it has no moral end to serve at all, and that it goes beyond its province when it seeks to do more than save the individual from violent interference from other individuals. The true ground of objection to ‘paternal government’ is not that it violates the ‘laissez-faire’ principle and conceives that its office is to make people good, to promote morality, but that it rests on a misconception of morality. The real function of government being to maintain conditions of life in which morality shall be possible, and ‘paternal government’ does its best to make it impossible by narrowing the room for the self-imposition of duties and the play of disinterested motives.

T.H.Green, Political Obligations, cited in Lane W. Lancaster, Masters of Political Thought vol. 3, Hegel to Dewey (London: George Harrap & Co. Ltd 1959) 212.

Lancaster comments on this passage on the following page, stating

Green here approves the central idea of laissez-faire since he believes that the individual should be allowed to make his own choices, and he concedes that early liberal legislation had been on the whole directed to that end. He does not believe, however, that the general good of society could be served in the altered conditions of English life by leaving people alone. This is the case, he thinks, because real freedom implies a choice of actions, and actual choices may not exist when, for example, the alternative to terms set by landlord or employer is destitution or dispossession. His criticism amounts to the charge that laissez-faire is only the defence of class interests, and as such ignores the general welfare. (p. 213).

It’s a good point. Clearly Green is far from promoting that the state should run the economy, but, like the passage I put up by Ritchie, it’s an effective demolition of some of the arguments behind Libertarianism. This is sometimes defined as ‘Classical Liberalism’, and is the doctrine that the state should interfere as little as possible. But as Green and Ritchie pointed out, that was no longer possible due to the changed circumstances of the 19th century. Green is also right when he makes the point the choice between that offered by a landlord or employer and being thrown out of work or on the street is absolutely no choice at all, and that in this instance laissez-faire individualism is simply a defence of class interests. This is very much the case. Libertarianism and later anarcho-capitalism was formulated by a group of big businessmen, who objected to F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The members of this group include the Koch brothers, the multi-millionaire heads of the American oil industry. It became one of the ideological strands in the Republican party after Reagan’s victory in 1980, and also in Thatcherism, such as the Tories idea that instead of using the state police, householders could instead employ private security firms.

Green and Ritchie together show that the Classical Liberalism to which Libertarianism harks back was refuted long ago, and that Libertarianism itself is similarly a philosophy that has been utterly demolished both in theory and in practice.

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