Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Meaning of Liberalism (Part 1): The Old Liberalism

Note: This is the first part in a three-part series on liberalism and its meaning. At the end of the series, I will explore the intersection of biblical Christianity and liberalism and whether they are compatible. 

"Liberal" is one of the most misinterpreted, maligned, abused, and downright overused term. Both the detractors of the term and the people who claim to be liberals misunderstand the real meaning of that term. In the United States, it now means someone who votes Democrat, who supports gun control, who supports libertine values, who supports "coddling criminals," who supports public schooling, who supports redistribution of wealth, who supports anti-discrimination and hate speech legislation, who supports universal healthcare, who supports state intervention (both federal and local) in the economy, and a host of other things. However, when the term was originally used, it meant something radically different from what it means now. As libertarian historian Ralph Raico notes, liberalism (otherwise known as classical liberalism or "old liberalism") is the term designating "the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism. The qualifying "classical" is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France), because liberalism has come to be associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals. This version of liberalism — if such it can still be called — is sometimes designated as "social," or (erroneously) "modern" or the "new," liberalism." The classical liberal viewpoint stands in stark contrast to modern-day liberalism.

Liberalism (in the classical tradition) had its origins in John Locke, (though there were prototypes of liberal/libertarian thought in traditions like the Bible, the Middle Ages, natural law, the School of Salamanca and the Scholastics) who is known as the "Father of Classical Liberalism." He wove such traditions as Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and the Thomists, the Scholastics, the natural law tradition, radicalism, the Whigs, the English Revolution, and Christianity to form this brilliant philosophy that has given us such principles as inalienable rights, the homesteading principle, the triad of life, liberty, and private property (the last being changed by Jefferson as the "pursuit of happiness"). How does Christianity factor into this? Amy Sturgis at the LockeSmith Institute argues that "Christianity offered a religion less collectivist than the pagan pantheons or Hebraic law." She argues that as the Alexandrian Church Fathers rediscovered the classics, notions of self-cultivation gained wider acceptance. Also, the Reformation left a great schism in Christendom, "leaving individualism to the Protestants via the "priesthood of the believer" doctrine and natural-law theory to the Catholics." Eventually, the rise of absolutism and the decline of liberty led to the birth of the Levellers, which were led by such liberals as Richard Overton and John Liliburne. As Ralph Raico notes, "this movement of middle-class radicals demanded freedom of trade and an end to state monopolies, separation of church and state, popular representation, and strict limits even to parliamentary authority. Their emphasis on property, beginning with the individual's ownership of himself, and their hostility to state power show that the amalgamation of the Levellers to the presocialist Diggers was mere enemy propaganda. Although failures in their time, the Levellers furnished the prototype of a middle-class radical liberalism that has been a feature of the politics of English-speaking peoples ever since." Then came John Locke, who "framed the doctrine of the natural rights to life, liberty, and estate — which he collectively termed 'property' — in the form that would be passed down, through the Real Whigs of the 18th century, to the generation of the American Revolution." With all this rich heritage, the Founders of this country led a mighty libertarian revolution against the British Empire. After this, unprecedented restrictions on power came into place, first in the form of the Articles of Confederation and then in the form of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Raico notes that "through much of the 19th century it was in many respects a society in which the state could hardly be said to exist, as European observers noted with awe. Radical liberal ideas were manifested and applied by groups such as the Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, abolitionists, and late-19th-century anti-imperialists." Not only that, we had such people as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker,  and the individualist anarchists who, in the words of Rothbard, "were basically laissez-faire individualists who carried on the age-old battle for liberty and against all forms of State privilege." 

Now, there were inconsistencies in these liberals that definitely should be noticed. Thomas Paine and Marquis de Condorcet supported some form or another of the welfare state. Thomas Jefferson sold out when he was in power. Also, as Raico notes, "they turned to the state to promote their own values. In France, for instance, liberals used state-funded schools and institutes to promote secularism under the Directory, and they supported anticlerical legislation during the Third Republic, while in Bismarck's Germany they spearheaded the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church. These efforts, however, can be seen as betrayals of liberal principles and in fact were eschewed by those acknowledged to be the most consistent and doctrinaire in their liberalism." Also, as Murray Rothbard recognized, "the chief defects of Enlightenment liberalism, I believe, are these: an inordinate passion for democracy, and an inordinate hatred for institutional religion, particularly for the Roman Catholic Church." However, as the libertarian scholar and author Lew Rockwell noted in his speech "The Misesian Vision," they were united in their undying belief that "society contains within itself the capacity for self-management, and there is nothing that government can do to improve on the results of the voluntary association, exchange, creativity, and choices of every member of the human family." They have left us with a wonderful heritage to build upon and to develop. They built the United States, gave us the Industrial Revolution, gave us the principles and values of liberty, justice, human rights, private property rights, limited government, and peace that we now commonly associate with Western civilization, and laid the foundations for modern libertarianism.

UPDATE (8/02/2013): This piece was published at The Reformed Libertarian. For more information on my job at The Reformed Libertarian, see here.


Gabriel Over the White House (1933)

Synopsis: U. S. President Judson C. "Judd" Hammond (Walter Huston) starts off as a do-nothing partisan hack. However, he suffers a near-fatal automobile accident, which motivates him to become a sort of "Gabriel over the White House." His first actions are to dissolve Congress and the cabinet of "big-business lackeys." His presidency eventually becomes a celestial dictatorship.

Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Year: 1933

Rated: NR

Run Time: 86 min.

Budget: $232,400


Walter Huston: President Judson Hammond
Karen Morley: Pendola Molloy
Franchot Tone: Hartley Beekman-Secretary to the President
Arthur Byron: Jasper Brooks
Dickie Moore: Jimmy Vetter
C. Henry Gordon: Nick Diamond
David Landau: John Bronson
Samuel S. Hinds: Dr. Eastman (billed as Samuel Hinds)
William Pawley: Borell
Jean Parker: Alice Bronson
Clare Du Brey: Nurse (billed as Claire DuBrey)


Director: Gregory La Cava
Producer(s): William Randolph Hearst and Walter Wagner
Writers: T. F. Tweed (story), Carey Wilson and Bertram Bloch (screenplay)
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Music: William Axt
Editing: Basil Wrangell

Rating: 2/4

REVIEW (Warning: Spoilers):

The plot is simple: president enters office, president is party hack, president has accident, president is enlightened, president becomes activist, president becomes dictator, president spreads his values by bombing other countries, president dies and is remembered as a hero. How simple can it get. Yet, deep down, within this simplistic plot lies a darker and more satanic message than even the darkest of horror cinema. It is a fascistic, socialistic, activist, and statist film of the first order. This is significant particularly because it inspired that totalitarian and overrated FDR. It was indeed the movie made for his inauguration. What makes this movie more disturbing is the initial popularity of this movie among Depression-era Americans. People actually thought this could be a possibility in America, especially during that tragic era known as the Great Depression. The message of the film can be explained just within the poster.

Let's start with the story of the movie. The film begins with the inauguration of Judson C. "Judd" Hammond (Walter Huston) into the presidency. He turns out to be a political hack and a puppet in the hands of his party. He shows more interest in playing with Jim and having sex with Pendola Molloy (Karen Morley) than with actually doing stuff, dismissing unemployment and bootlegging as "local problems." However, when he suffers a near-fatal car accident, he is almost dead; however, something supernatural happens to him. He is revived (by Gabriel the Archangel), and promises his doctor, "Judd Hammond isn't going to die." Unable to cope with this resurrection, the doctor keeps it a secret for several weeks. Finally, when Pendola is allowed to see him, she finds out about this transformation; Judd is careless about her and he is now distant. Soon, the president reveals his activist views before Congress in these words: "I believe in democracy as Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln believed in democracy. And if what I plan to do in the name of the people makes me a dictator, then it is a dictatorship based on Jefferson's definition of democracy." He soon begins to use Jefferson's belief in democracy to justify his dictatorship and his imposing of martial law. After all, isn't it "the greatest good for the greatest number?" His actions include: calling for the resignation of the vice president and the Cabinet, demanding that Congress vote him extraordinary executive powers, outlawing foreclosures, issuing a federal bank insurance to protect depositors, and grant subsidies to farmers. He starts an "Army of Construction," which will give every working American a job until the economy recovers. After all this, Hammond turns his eye on crime, particularly on the immigrant bootlegger Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon); he repeals the 18th Amendment, starts the creation of government liquor stores, and gives Diamond the choice to return voluntarily to his immigrant country. However, Diamond refuses, and he bombs the first government liquor store and attempts to assassinate the president in a drive-way shootout, which wounds Pendola. As revenge, Hammond sends his army to ambush Nick Diamond and capture him and his gang. The army succeeds and "technicalities of the law" are circumvented in a brief military tribunal led by Hartley Beekman (Franchot Tone) in the name of "first principles." After that, Diamond and his gang are executed by gun. Yet that is not enough to show Hammond's greatness. His last and most important test is foreign policy. He moves to collect unpaid war debts from WWI, inviting all the world leaders on a yacht and broadcasting on radio his demand for payment. When the representatives protest their inability to pay, Hammond bombs their ships and refuses to abide any longer by the naval limitations treaty. He threatens carnage and destruction to the human race unless the other countries balance their budgets and pay their debts. Desperate, the leaders agree on a peace covenant, and all sign. However, as Hammond is signing, he collapses and is taken to his office. Before he dies, Pendola sees the return of the old Hammond, who sought her approval. She assures him that he is one of the greatest men of all time before he dies. Finally, the spirit of Gabriel leaves him, and it is there that the movie ends.

This film is animated by Walter Huston's good performance, followed by Karen Morley's passable depiction of Pendola Molloy. It shows the desperation of the people during this hard time, the activism that transform Hammond from political hack to political dictator. Gregory La Cava's direction is also passable, though it gets interesting after the transformation of Hammond. One thing I would like to note is how Hammond is transformed. Instead of showing Gabriel in all his glory, the movie shows him appearing through the light movement of the curtains. It happens during Hammond's resurrection and death. That's all you need to know. However, from what the spirit motivates him to do, this is anything but Gabriel. This spirit is somewhat like the spirit that inhabits the Antichrist; the president is killed in an accident, then dies, then comes back to life and imposes dictatorship and fascism, then dies again. See the similarity?

Anyways, if you want to see something bizarre and strange, and if you want to watch a movie about politics, then this is the film for you. It contains political propaganda akin to Triumph of the Will and all the other Nazi propaganda films made during the Third Reich.

Watch it just for the historical value; other than that, this movie's politics are dump.

For a good libertarian analysis on this movie, watch this.