Today (16 June) marks the first observance of ‘Liberalism Day,’ an occasion in which people are encouraged to discuss the true meaning of the age‑old word ‘liberalism.’ So, happy Liberalism Day, everyone!
For those on Twitter, the hashtag to discuss these issues is #LiberalismDay. There are also two websites associated with this occasion: the main Liberalism Day website, and an accompanying Liberalism Unrelinquished website. By all means, join in the social media conversation and have a read of the good material on both sites (including an excellent short interview conducted by Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute).
This welcome initiative has been organised by Kevin Frei and Daniel Klein, and many around the world (including yours truly and, in fact, numerous Australian classical liberal identities) have strongly supported this initiative.
To mark this occasion in some small way, I want to briefly discuss the thought of late colonial and early Federation era businessman, politician, barrister, and classical liberal, Bruce Smith.
Smith was a free‑trade New South Wales parliamentarian for the seat of Gundagai from 1882 to 1884, moved to Victoria establishing the Victorian Employers’ Union, returned to represent the NSW state seat of Glebe from 1889 to 1894, and later became a federal parliamentarian from 1901 to 1919. It is my understanding that Bruce Smith played a hand in financing the publication of Edward William Foxall’s book Colorphobia, an early critique of the ‘White Australia Policy.’
Bruce Smith’s tireless advocacy for the liberal cause, as classically understood, had largely become unrecognised, especially after the cessation of his political career, as the twentieth century wore on. This lack of recognition came, in no small part, as a result of the wholesale embrace of socialistic policy causes throughout much of the last century, for instance Keynesianism, the war economy, the governmental welfare state, policy paternalism, the Green movement and so on, which, accordingly, suppressed the coverage of truly liberal perspectives within intellectual circles and the general media.
Smith’s most prominent work, Liberty & Liberalism, was originally published in 1887 and, thankfully, republished in 2005 by the Centre for Independent Studies (with an insightful introduction by Greg Melleuish). Reference to this book appears on the Liberalism Unrelinquished website, and for very good reason.
In Chapter 5, Smith engages in a philosophical meditation regarding the meaning of the term ‘liberty,’ not only drawing from a wide range of most important intellectual contributors (including Edmund Burke, John Locke, and Herbert Spencer), but with having regard to various states of economic and social development.
With respect to the latter, he describes ‘the condition of primitive man’ as synonymous with a liberty defined as the ‘freedom to do as one wishes; freedom from restraint’ (p. 147 in revised edition). However, on account of the need to ensure security of private property rights in advanced societies, and influenced by a Benthamite emphasis upon the need to secure happiness, Smith offers the following definition as the ‘true principle of liberalism:’
‘in order to obtain for a community the largest aggregate amount of happiness, each member of it should have secured to him the most absolute freedom or liberty; subject only to such limitations as are necessary in order to secure equal freedom or liberty to all other members’ (p. 148).
The long sub‑title of the book, A Protest against the Growing Tendency toward Undue Interference by the State with Individual Liberty, Private Enterprise and the Rights of Property, encapsulates very starkly the concerns Smith harboured with regard to the decline of acceptability within Australia of the original meaning of the term liberalism, which concerns the freedom for individuals from unwarranted coercion and restraint exerted by others.
In many instances throughout the book Smith identified, with obvious concern, the outgrowth of socialistic policy inhibitions upon the exercise of individual liberties, most, if not all, of which were erroneously, and often deceitfully, justified as ‘liberal’ policies. The misappropriation of true, classical liberalism was referred to by Smith as the application of a ‘spurious liberalism.’
In Chapter 8 of Liberty & Liberalism, Smith goes through painstaking details several instances of spurious liberalism, reflected in industrial relations regulations, the ‘false philanthropy’ of forced transfers from one class of people to another, and some other policies emergent during the late nineteenth century. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this discussion is the timeless applicability of Smith’s original arguments, rendered over a century ago, to contemporary debates.
Smith reminds his readers that ‘the more one knows of legislation, the less it will be believed capable of actually producing happiness for the people, that is to say, happiness of a positive nature. It can prevent aggression and abuse by one citizen over another. It can guarantee to every citizen the freedom to do his very best for himself. But parliament possesses no mysterious power. It is nothing more than the whole people, concentrated, for purposes of practical debate. It can no more make wealth, or the comforts of life, than any other body of mere debaters. It cannot bestow comforts or luxuries on any one class, without taking them from some other class. Directly it commences such a process, it strikes a blow at the very tap‑root of our social system; at the peace and goodwill which is even now maintained in the face of all the inevitable pains and anxieties of life; at that confidence in the security of property which constitutes the main incentive to work and accumulation. And, if it goes further, and inaugurates a permanent system of state interference with individual rights and liberties, upon which our civilisation has been reared, that too will inevitably fall, and with it will disappear all the motives of self‑interest and self‑help’ (p. 280).
As Australian proponents take today to celebrate the rich inheritance of true, classical liberalism – a philosophy which, in practical terms, has enabled human beings to become richer, safer, healthier, smarter, happier, and more socially accepting, everywhere it has been applied to its fullest extent – let us remind ourselves of the key lessons outlined in the ‘extended present’ of the past by Bruce Smith, truly a great Australian liberal.
Update: For those interested in reading more about Smith, the Liberty Fund has maintained an online version of Liberty & Liberalism, as well as selected quotations. The relevant website link is here.