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The Blissful Decade, 1991–2001

The End of History, Not Yet

The Convoy arriving in England with Princess Mary, now Queen, on 12 February 1689, and John Locke on one of the ships. Painting by Willem van der Velde.

What was being assaulted on 11 September 2001? We should pause to reflect on this...

The decade from the dissolution of the Soviet Empire on 25 December 1991 to the terrorist attack on the United States on 11 September 2001 was in the West a period of unbridled optimism. Many believed Francis Fukuyama’s suggestion that we were seeing the ‘end of history’ and that liberal democracy was conquering the world. Tomorrow I shall be writing about the 2001 terrorist attack and its significance, but today I want to say a few words about the ideas which we were celebrating in this blissful decade, perhaps prematurely. They were first presented systematically by English philosopher John Locke in late seventeenth century and can be summed up in three phrases: limited government, private property, and free trade. They are the key ideas in what I have identified in a recent book as the conservative-liberal political tradition of the West, while I would certainly add that they could be adopted by the rest of the world: there is no logical or empirical reason why non-Western nations could not, or should not, enjoy individual freedom.

A Revolution to Preserve and Extend Liberties

What Locke did was to combine the idea of government by consent, practised for example in the German tribes north of the Roman Empire and eloquently described by the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson, and the concept of natural law, developed by ancient thinkers and articulated most ably by the Italian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, and combine them into a political theory: if government violated the individual rights enjoyed by the citizens under natural law, then they could replace it. It was best to do it peacefully, but if need be, by force. While Locke presented a general and somewhat abstract theory, he had obviously in mind the political situation in England in late seventeenth century where the Stuarts sought to introduce the same absolutism as could be observed in France and to deprive British citizens of their traditional liberties. Locke spent a few years in exile in the Netherlands, but he provided the intellectual justification for the 1688 Glorious Revolution, and immediately after it he returned to England in triumph and published his major political work, the Two Treatises of Government. The painting above is of the convoy bringing the new Queen, Mary, to England in February 1689, with Locke on one of the ships.

It is often said, not implausibly, that the two most influential political theorists of all time are John Locke and Karl Marx because the most powerful countries of the world in modern times were at least partly inspired by their ideas, the British Empire and the United States by Locke and the Soviet Empire and China by Marx. But there was such a great difference between the British and the American revolutions on the one hand and the Russian Revolution (and partly the French Revolution) on the other hand that they hardly have anything in common but the name. The two Anglo-Saxon revolutions were made to preserve and extend traditional liberties, whereas the Russian Revolution was made in order to destroy the existing order and to construct a completely new society on its ruins. In the British and American cases, practice preceded theory, but in the Russian case it was the other way around: a small group of fanatics, reminiscent of the medieval sects analysed by Norman Cohn, tried to impose their theory on a largely peasant society and to mould a new man, even if this required human sacrifices, in the case of Marxism the lives of at least one hundred million people.

A Social Contract Written and Signed by History

To me, Locke’s social contract theory is only acceptable if the social contract is interpreted in a wide sense, as the rules and principles which have come to be accepted over generations. It is therefore a contract written and signed by history, as Edmund Burke observed:

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts, for objects of mere occasional interest, may be dissolved at pleasure; but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

I should note, also, that the most plausible model of democracy, that it is first and foremost a peaceful way of replacing our rulers if we are not satisfied with them and therefore yet another means of limiting their power, is a logical consequence of Locke’s idea of government by consent. The point is not to relocate power (for example from the King to the People), but to restrain it.

Modern Marxists, such as one of my teachers at Oxford, the very clever Jerry Cohen, interpreted Locke’s defence of private property as the defence of privilege and class hierarchy. It was according to them ‘possessive individualism’. But they overlooked or ignored the fact that it is as much, or even more so, in the interest of the poor as of the rich to restrain power. It is true that sometimes the rich (or the merely well off) are vulnerable: the Jews in fifteenth century Spain and in twentieth century Germany, the French-speaking minority in post-colonial Algeria, the Chinese in Malaysia, the Whites in South Africa and Zimbabwe, the Indians in Uganda and the owners of profitable fishing firms in Iceland. Extremists and demagogues would love to seize their wealth, and sometimes they succeed. Men of property are preys for the hunters. But in normal circumstances the rich can look after themselves, whereas the poor always lack the resources to do so and are therefore often almost helpless in the hands of bureaucrats and brigands. Moreover, as Locke recognised, property breeds progress, and progress provides opportunities to escape poverty. This has indeed been the history of the West for the last two centuries, as Matt Ridley and Niall Ferguson have amply demonstrated. The best way to tackle poverty is to get out of it.

Nobody Worse Off Under Competitive Capitalism

Unlike left-wing intellectuals, I find Locke’s theory of private property persuasive. It is basically that we are adults and free citizens, not children beholden to a father or slaves owned by others. Thus, we are ourselves entitled to the abilities with which we are born and to the wealth we create with our abilities. Even if it may be true that we were given the resources of the earth in common, we must be able to utilise these resources, and this we cannot do if we have always to seek the consent of everybody else for any utilisation of these resources. Instead, Locke prescribes a proviso for initial appropriation from the commons. It is that we leave ‘enough, and as good’ in common for others. This should be interpreted as leaving as many opportunities for others as there existed before, making up for the opportunities removed from the commons by our initial appropriation of particular natural resources. The proviso is in other words the requirement that others are not made worse off by our appropriation. It justifies the move from self-ownership to world-ownership (as Cohen called it).

It is easy to see that competitive capitalism, based on private property and free trade, meets the Lockean proviso, for the simple reason that a garden which is fenced off will produce much more than an open field, utilised by all. This will create wealth which will be transformed into opportunities for others, in the form of cheaper goods and more jobs on the market, making up for the exclusion of others from this particular plot of land. (It can even be looked upon as the replacement of direct access to the land through extraction by indirect access to it through market transactions.) As Locke puts it: ‘I have here rated the improved land very low, in making its product but as ten to one, when it is much nearer an hundred to one: for I ask, whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated?’ At Oxford, I once had a discussion with one of my teachers, David Miller, who defined himself as a market socialist, accepting free trade, but rejecting private property. ‘My worry,’ he explained, ‘is about the latecomers, the people who arrive in a country where everything has been appropriated.’ I replied: ‘But surely, people who arrived in North America in 1950 could expect to be better off even if all the natural resources had been appropriated and all the capital goods were privately owned, than people who arrived in 1550 when they could more or less appropriate at will.’

History Not Over Yet

To be free originally meant to be not a slave. A man who had been freed was appropriately called a freeman. It is still the core of the concept of freedom, I submit, and today to be free should therefore mean both that nobody else owns you and your abilities and that you are recognised as a citizen, with the same full and equal rights as other citizens. It should mean a combination of self-ownership and citizenship. Yet another way of looking at freedom is to regard it as a skill in the mutual adjustments necessary for a free society where individuals can pursue their own aims and objectives and where government does not stand in their way, but instead tries to protect their rights, not their spurious claims to the products of others. Admittedly, in history this skill has been exercised most successfully  in the Anglo-Saxon countries, in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but also in some of the small countries of Europe, such as the five Nordic countries and the three Benelux countries, not to forget Switzerland. But it is a skill which can be learned by others, as the old British colony Hong Kong, before its occupation by the Chinese communists, demonstrated. Moreover, while Locke and three other political thinkers from the British Isles, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, provided a profound defence of the free society, in the nineteenth century three brilliant Frenchmen also made important contributions to the conservative-liberal tradition, Benjamin Constant, Frédéric Bastiat, and Alexis de Tocqueville, possibly because the French Revolution had deepened their understanding of what it meant to enjoy liberty under the law. It is this tradition which was assaulted by terrorists on 11 September 2001. History in the Hegelian sense as the extension of freedom to the whole of mankind is not over. The World Spirit, Weltgeist, has still some work to do.

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