Liberty and Liberalism
By Bruce Smith
Biographical Remarks on Arthur Bruce Smith (1851-1937)
by David M. HartBruce Smith was an Australian Barrister (a lawyer who is qualified to argue before a judge) and a Member of the Parliament of New South Wales when it was still a self-governing colony before it became one of the states in the federal Commonwealth of Australia (1901). He also went on to have a parliamentary career after Federation. I first came across Smith’s name while doing research on 19th century French free trade thought in the Mitchell Library (the State Library of NSW). One of the issues that had made the debates over Federalism so bitter in Australia was the fact that the state of New South Wales (capital of Sydney) was very pro-free trade, while the state of Victoria (capital city Melbourne) was very protectionist. Unfortunately for Australian economic history, the new Federal government adopted Victorian-style protectionism and free-trading NSW had to abandon its position if it wished to join the Federation. Thus for nearly 75 years, until deregulation became government policy again in the 1970s, Australia was a strongly protectionist nation. However, as a result of NSW’s strong 19th century free trade tradition the State Library had a very impressive collection of free trade writings in both the English and French languages, hence my interest in their holdings. It was while doing research on
Gustave de Molinari and other French classical liberals that I came across Smith’s book “Liberty and Liberalism”. Upon closer examination I realised that Smith was one of the very few (perhaps the only one) Spencerite liberals in the Australian colonies. As he says in his introduction, while doing research for this book he came across the writings of the English “Liberty and Property Defence League” which was a group of radical individualists and free traders who had among their members
Thomas Mackay and Auberon Herbert (whose books we have online at Econlib). Although he was not a member of the League, their guiding spirit was
Herbert Spencer. Smith came to share many of their ideas as the book will show. We present it online as part of our ongoing series of critiques of socialist thought.
David M. Hart
May 3, 2004
First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
THE following pages have been written for the purpose of tracing the gradual but sure growth of our civil liberty, from historic times, downward to our own day, and of investigating the great principles which inspired our ancestors, in their efforts to secure that great inheritance to us, their posterity. A further object that I have had in view—and perhaps this latter may be regarded as the more important—is to show the symptoms, which are gathering fast and thick around us, of a new order of things—of, in fact, a distinct surrender of the traditional safeguards of that civil liberty—the “cornerstone” of our great and deservedly enviable constitution.
I have endeavoured to prove that the invaluable principle of individual freedom—which, from the Norman Conquest downward, fired the most noble-minded of our ancestors to rebel against the tyranny of those who won, or inherited, the rights of that conquest—is in imminent danger of being lost to us, at the very hour of its consummation. And I have, I think, further demonstrated that so sure as we depart from those traditional lines, in the endeavour to realise a condition of society, which can only exist in the imagination—viz., a community of people, enjoying
equal social conditions,—we shall, when it is too late, find that we have lost the substance, in grasping at the shadow.
In order to realise the above perhaps somewhat ambitious purposes, I have enumerated instances to show that the term “Liberalism,” which in its original and true interpretation was
synonymous with “freedom,” has, in our own day, lost that genuine meaning, and is, instead, carrying with it, to the minds of most men, other and quite erroneous significations; and further, that political party-titles, generally, have now ceased to carry with them any clear conception of political principles: having become so inextricably mixed and confused in the meanings which they convey, that it is impossible to deduce, from the fact of their being professed by any individual, any distinct conclusion as to that individual’s political creed.
I have then shown that, from the earliest times in the regular history of England, the principle of individual freedom was the one which, paramount to all others, characterised the greatest of England’s reforms; but that, in the present day, that time-honoured principle appears to have lost its charm, and the political title “Liberalism,” which previously served as its synonym, is being gradually perverted to the service of a cause, which must, sooner or later, be wholly destructive of that very liberty, from which it derived its existence as a political term.
I have also, I believe, been able to demonstrate that this tendency (though the fact is not generally recognised) is clearly in the direction of those conditions or forms of society, known as “Socialism” and “Communism;” and, finally, I have, I think, given sufficient proof, from unexceptionable authorities, of the fact that all practical attempts at such conditions of society, have, whenever and wherever tried, hopelessly failed in their results; and, instead of lifting the lowest stratum of society to the level of the highest, (as was anticipated), or even approximating to it, dragged the whole fabric down to the dead level of a primitive and uncultured existence, sapped the enterprise and independence, as well as stifled the higher faculties of all who have helped to constitute such communities, and ended in placing such as conformed to their principles at the mercy of nature, with
all its uncertainties of season, and disappointments of production.
I venture to think that there is no part of the civilised world, in which the term “Liberalism” has been more constantly, or with more confidence, misused than in the English colonies, and more especially in the colony of Victoria. Political thought has there been developed and sharpened to an extent, which has scarcely been equalled, certainly not surpassed, in any part of the world—even in the United States; so that, in fact, it affords to the political students of other and older countries, who may consider it worthy of their attention, an invaluable political laboratory for the purpose of judging the merits of many “advanced” legislative experiments. This identical view I expressed at some length in
The Times, as far back as 1877.
Bearing the foregoing facts in view, I have drawn a great number and variety of my illustrations from the legislative and other public proceedings of the particular colony mentioned.
Side by side with this unusual development of political activity and intelligence, which is specially noticeable in that colony, there has unfortunately grown up a most serious misconception or misrepresentation, as to the true meaning of the political term, concerning which I have more particularly treated; and there is distinctly apparent—there, as in Great Britain—all the symptoms of a return to “class” legislation of the most despotic character; not, as of old, in favour of the wealthy and aristocratic orders, but in the opposite direction, of conferring
positive benefits upon the working classes—that is to say, the
manual working classes—at the expense of the remainder of the community. Indeed the extreme Radical party of Great Britain have already acknowledged that “there is scarcely an organic change which has found a place in the programme of
advanced Liberalism, that has not been accepted, and voluntarily introduced…at the Antipodes.”
One of the most unfortunate circumstances in connection with colonial politics is the disinclination on the part of the wealthier and better educated classes to enter into competition with the
omnipromising political hack, for the honour of a seat in parliament. That most constituencies are at the mercy of those candidates who promise most of what does not belong to them, is indeed too true; but there are, one is happy to be able to say, many constituencies in which political morality has not sunk so low as to necessitate a candidate substituting flattery and transparent bribes, for home truths and sound political doctrine. Those constituencies are, however, comparatively few in number. That fact, coupled with the thoroughly unscientific tone of current politics, has, in most of the colonies, left the field open to a class of men, by no means representative of the average education, or of the average political knowledge. It is to be regretted, however, that the wealthier and better-educated classes do not make a greater sacrifice, on patriotic grounds, and thus assist to raise the tone of an institution which they are always too ready to condemn.
Since commencing my investigations, which have extended over many months, and have been carried on during the leisure hours left to me out of an otherwise extremely busy life, I have been brought into contact with a mass of material, evidencing the patriotic “footprints” of a body of men, now doing good work in England, under the title of “The Liberty and Property Defence League.” This League has been formed for the purpose of “resisting over-legislation, for maintaining Individualism as opposed to Socialism—entirely irrespective of party politics.”
I find that, during the last two years, the League printed 54,250 pamphlets and 39,300 leaflets, “pointing out, in general and particular, the growing tendency to substitute Government regulation, in place of individual management and enterprise, in all branches of industry; and demonstrating the paralysing effect of this kind of legislation upon national development.”
I find, further, that “these publications have been distributed among over 500 of the chief London and provincial papers, and among members of both Houses of Parliament and the general public;” and that “400 lectures and addresses have been delivered by representatives of the League, before working-class audiences, in London and elsewhere.” The annual report for 1884 states that, “reckoning together those who have thus joined through their respective societies or companies” with which the League is associated, in addition to “those who have joined individually, it comprises over 300,000 members.”
The council of the League embraces the names of many eminent men, including those of Lord Justice Bramwell, the Earl of Wemyss, Lord Penzance, and the Earl of Pembroke; and it would seem that scarcely any single parliamentary measure is allowed to put in an appearance, in either branch of the British legislature, without being subjected to the most searching examination and dissection, at the hands of that council.
Such legislation as is considered contrary to the principles of the League—which are non-party—is opposed in every possible way; and no money or other means appear to be spared, to prevent such legislation being placed upon the statute-book. The efforts of the League seem, too, so far as they have gone, to have been extraordinarily successful.
I may add that my own investigations were commenced with the simple object of delivering a short lecture; but the materials, which I found necessary to collect, soon grew to
the proportions of a volume, which I have now completed, in the hope that others, who are sufficiently interested to peruse it, may be saved the same research and classification of principles, which are necessary to a complete understanding and grasp of the subject. As far as originality is concerned, I claim no merit, except in the mere arrangement of my work; but the labour has, notwithstanding, been great, and not always encouraging. Indeed, in almost every position which I have taken up in the investigation of my subject, I have, as will be seen, fortified myself with the opinions of the greatest among those who have sounded the depths of political philosophy. Any exception, therefore, which may be taken to the doctrines which I have merely reproduced, will involve a joining of issue with many of the most profound political thinkers of ancient and modern times.
I owe an explanation—perhaps an apology—to many of the authors from whose writings I have thus drawn my numerous quotations, for the constant rendering of their words in italics. In almost every case throughout the work the italicising is my own. I am fully aware of the danger of detracting from the force of language, by the too frequent resort to that aid to emphasis. My only excuse is the unusual necessity for clear distinctions, in the terms and phrases employed.
No apology is, I think, needed for my venturing to draw public attention to the subject itself, with which I have thus dealt. That it is sufficiently important, there can be no possible doubt; and that it is not a settled question, has been fully admitted by no less an authority than Mill, who says: “One of the
most disputed questions, both in
political science and in
practical statesmanship, at this particular period, relates to the proper limits of the functions and agency of governments.” And he adds that it is, as a discussion, “more likely to increase than diminish in interest.” Indeed, it has at various
times been a matter of considerable surprise to me, how little the whole subject seems to have been investigated, or even considered, not merely by the ordinary political delegate (popularly known as a
politician), but by men, educated in history, and professing to feel an interest in the philosophy which underlies it.
If, in the compilation of the thoughts of others, I should succeed in directing the attention of some of my fellow-men to the great political and social danger which is now impending, and thus bring about a clearer and more correct recognition of the traditional principles which I have ventured to champion, I shall be quite satisfied with the result of my labours.
I am quite conscious of the unpopularity which much of what I have written is calculated to draw upon me from the working-classes, as also from mere work-a-day politicians, concerning whose knowledge of the political science I have certainly not spoken in flattering terms. To have so written has, however, required the more courage, inasmuch as I am desirous, and even sanguine, of yet taking a further and more prominent part in practical politics. But I have ventured to say what I have said, because
I believe it to be true; and I have sufficient faith in the spirit of manliness and fair play, which, at least, has always characterised our race, to hope that the unpalatableness of my remarks may be forgiven, on the score of their sincerity and good intent.