MMODERN or WELFARE LIBERALISM
The three utopian socialists we met show that there is great diversity
among socialists and therefore socialism, so much so that we might
say there are really socialism s .
But in order to achieve social equality, all socialists thought that the
means of production must be owned collectively, though they debated
whether that ownership should be decentralized or centrally
Whatever their perspective, socialists thought society should be
rationally organized and controlled. Thus they picked up from
liberalism an emphasis on reason . Because we have in our
possession "science," the rational, ordered knowledge of the laws of
nature, we can apply that science to human society.
Liberals were now using the same argument and method to modify
their own ideology. Some of their changes come about as a direct
result of the writings and experiments of the utopian socialists.
So there are two reactions to utopian socialism: One is Marx and his
move away from utopian blueprints to an understanding of class
warfare [We shall take up Marx in the next unit.] The other reaction is
that of liberals and their movements toward reform.
Many writers have seen in 19th century England a golden age of
liberalism, in theory and practice. It begins with reforms in the spirit
of classical liberalism—mostly involved in keeping government out of
the market, but also involving social improvements: the Catholic
Emancipation Act of 1829, the Reform Act of 1832, and repeal of the
Corn Laws in 1846.
By the 1850's onwards there is a piecemeal expansion of government
into many areas of social life. Whereas classical liberals had argued
that citizens must be protected against the government, these
modern or welfare liberals—these reformist liberals—now saw, thanks
partly to socialists, that capitalism itself was a new threat to a citizen's
privacy, life, and wellbeing . Capitalism was an unelected form of raw
power that could intrude and control people's lives. To be effective
against such power, liberalism would have to change. A major change
1 was that now government could be seen not as the citizen's enemy,
but as his ally.
As an ally, government should be used to aid individuals against
the unfairness and inequalities found in capitalism and social life . Now
government would be an agent for change.
How could such changes be justified in liberal ideological theory? The
principal architects of these changes and their justifications—that is,
using government to improve social standards and conditions—are
Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and his son John Stuart Mill.
They all concluded that government could smooth off the rough
edges of capitalism . We shall examine how and why they thought
government could do that.
As with all liberals, of this era (1748 1832) and before, Bentham
believed that people could use their reason to improve themselves.
He thought that right conduct would be guided by right reason.
But he rejected the liberal idea that there was any one kind of right
conduct, that there was a single source of right and wrong in nature.
In short, he rejected the idea of natural law and natural rights. In its
place he put the philosophy of utilitarianism , which says that an act
is good only if it brings happiness to the greatest number of people.
For Bentham the individual was everything and society nothing. The
community, he said, "is a fictitious body, composed of individual
persons who are. . . its members." The interests of the community are
nothing, therefore, but the sum of the interests of the individuals who
Bentham held that all men were guided by two powers pleasure and
pain. Human happiness occurred when there was a minimum of pain
and a maximum of pleasure. [This should sound familiar.]
The value or utility of anything was determined by the amount
of pleasure or pain it brought to an individual or to society as a whole.
Therefore happiness of a society is maximized when any policy
increases "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."
Bentham assumed that one person's happiness was equal to any other
person's happiness—easy enough to do if you are an egalitarian.
Anything you found pleasure in was as good as anything anyone else
found pleasure in. So if pleasure for you is twisting paperclips into
odd shapes, then that is equal to someone's pleasure derived from
2 listening to, or writing, opera. This led to Bentham's famous phrase:
"Pushpin (an early form of bowling in 19th century England) is as
good as poetry ."
The purpose of government, as the purpose of individual life, is to
maximize pleasure and minimize pain. NOTICE: The purpose of
government now is not simply to protect individual rights, as the
classical liberals had argued. It is also to be more active in helping
people to live pleasurable or good lives .
To pass policies that bring the greatest happiness to society, all the
legislature needs to do is add up the individual pleasure of its citizens.
The greatest pleasures should result in new legislation, assuming that
the legislation benefited society as a whole .
The principle of utility would be the legislature's guide to analyzing
and making policy. So to determine what actions and behaviors were
most pleasurable, Bentham devised a standard the felicific calculus
(also called the hedonic calculus) to measure utility, that is, to
measure intensity of pleasures. All pleasures are equal, but not all are
held or pursued equally strongly.
Bentham thought that pleasures and pains were quantifiable or
His calculus consisted of 14 categories of human pleasure,
12 of pain, and
7 standards of intensity.
With this calculus any legislature should be able to pass utilitarian
So according to Bentham it was the business of government to
legislate to make people happy, to maximize the happiness of the
society. Law was therefore not absolute and unchanging; it was a tool
by which society could modify its social conditions in order to increase
peoples' happiness. All social institutions and social policies could be
rationally designed to do this, to increase peoples' happiness.
A good society was one in which the many were happy; right action
was that which enhanced the pleasure of the people or of the most
people. Actions are wrong or bad when they bring pain (unhappiness).
So the common good is that which brings pleasure happiness to
the most citizens. And the common good is simply the sum of the
interests of the most citizens. To determine that, give each person
one vote to express his likes and dislikes. Thus Bentham advocates
3 "one man, one vote" and argues for the extension of suffrage, though
not to women.
Bentham was fundamentally an egalitarian. Like other liberal reforms
or "revisionist" liberals of this era, he was sincerely publicminded and
publicspirited, searching for ways to bridge the individualism of
classical liberalism with the need for and value of social and
community interests. He wanted to try to bring greater happiness to
more and more people, and thus to society, and he wanted to reform
the laws so that both benefits and burdens would be more equitably
But Bentham is also described as a "democratized Hobbes."
1) Both believed in an individualistic notion of politics;
2) both saw life as motivated by pleasures and pain;
3) both are vulnerable to the charge that their theories
lead to tyranny.
It is obvious how Leviathan can lead to tyranny: Provided Leviathan
does not threaten your life, he can pass any law he wants—say, tax
the people at 80 per cent, or require certain people to hold certain
kinds of jobs, or try to send all blue eyed people to live in West
Bentham, however, is arguing for the greatest good of the greatest
number. While that may be splendid for those in the majority, it could
be catastrophic for those in the minority. Since all pleasures are
equal, what if the majority (being brown or green eyed) gains
pleasure by sending the blue eyed minority to West Virginia?
Bentham is different from Hobbes, of course, because he argues for
democracy one man, one vote and not for Leviathan (although if rule
by Leviathan brought pleasure to a majority, what would Bentham
say?). So his form is "democratized tyranny," tyranny of the majority .
Another difference is that while both Hobbes and Bentham had the
intention of widening the private space in which men could seek their
own fulfillment, Bentham totally rejected the idea of a state of nature
and a social contract. The idea of natural rights, he said, is "nonsense
on stilts." That is so because rights can only be based upon utility.
Rights exist because they bring the greatest good to the greatest
number in society.
How, then, do political societies form?
4 Not through a social contract, says Bentham. That is a complete
fiction. Both Hobbes and Locke build social contracts on promises: For
Hobbes, Leviathan promises to protect your life, and you promise to
surrender your rights. For Locke, government promises to secure your
rights, and you promise not to judge or enforce trespasses against
BUT WHY SHOULD WE KEEP PROMISES, asked Bentham?
Not because of reason even if we reason that we should keep
promises, we may not;
Not because of natural lawnatural rights don't exist, so what
tells us to keep promises?
We keep promises because of the principle of utility : We have a
greater chance of being happy, because society will help us attain
what gives us pleasure and helps us avoid pain. In other words, it is
useful to keep promises. It is also useful to have rights.
Government is the agency for increasing pleasure and
decreasing pain. Notice how far we have come from classical
liberalism. This new liberal attitude—the active use of government,
and thus the expansion of government, rather than seeing
government only as the guarantor of our rights—is the foundation of
modern or welfare liberalism.
Bentham was a liberal. He argued on behalf of free and periodic
elections; of representative government; of freedom of the press, of
assembly, and of speech; and of the responsibility of the government
to the governed. Bentham wanted to end inherited privilege and
wealth; he opposed Burke on the importance of social hierarchy and
tradition. "The greatest good for the greatest number would wipe the
slate clean and take care of inequalities."
With such ideas Bentham set liberalism on a new course, designed to
use government to make people's lives better. Government was not
the enemy but the aid of the people . Where laissez faire did not work
to assure the best possible outcomes, Bentham argued that
government intervention was justified to reorder social relations and
Indeed in England many of the reforms between 1830 and 1850 were
motivated by Bentham: civil service, secret ballot, equal
5 representation in Parliament, humane treatment of animals,
expansion of educational opportunity.
Bentham had strong liberal proclivities—that is, he was firmly in favor
of trying to improve the lives of individuals and therefore supported a
minimum wage, free education, and sickness benefits for workers.
But , as we've seen, there was nothing in his theory to prevent
illiberal interventionist policies. Certainly socialists could use the
felicific calculus as a justification for their policies of equality,
community, collective ownership, and central control—if enough
people wanted that. So liberalism and even democracy could be
Also, what kind of people was Bentham concerned about? Men with
property . There was little chance that the impoverished workers
would be able to vote their interests since they were excluded from
participation, as, of course, were women.
This problem was to be addressed by John Stuart Mill, whose emphasis
on the liberal individualism offset some of the possible unfortunate
effects of utilitarian social reform.
And it was not until John Stuart Mill that the new liberalism could be
established on a firm philosophical basis.
JOHN STUART MILL
In the 17th and 18th centuries the most likely oppressor of the people
was the government. Few other institutions were strong or large
enough to oppress the masses. Those that were, such as the Church
and the land owning aristocracy, used the government for their own
In the 19th century democracy spread and governments became more
responsive to the people. Some were even said to be governed by
But also in the 19th century, with industrialism, came a
new force capitalists. Capitalism, which had long been supported by
liberals because it tended through the market to increase individual
freedom and equality, now became suspect as it divided people into
rich and poor and exploited those who had only their labor power to
sell. Capitalists had become a force whose power had to be offset and
6 Among those early liberals who saw threats to the people arising in
areas other than government was John Stuart Mill. Mill was the first
liberal to attack the "enslaving capacity of capitalism." Before Mill
capitalism and laissez faire economics had been attacked only by
Marx and other socialists and radicals. Now liberals were moving to
the left as well.
WHO WAS J. S. MILL? (1806 1873)
He was the first of nine children born to the Scottish utilitarian
economist James Mill. He was a child prodigy, a genius, taught
entirely at home by his father, who believing in the "blank slate"
theory of the mind, decided to instruct his son in an unbelievably
Mill studied all the time. His father believed in no playtime.
Consequently Mill had no friends, knew how to play none of the games
children in England then played. His only break from study was to
hear his father read from famous English authors.
How well did the instruction work? By 3 Mill could read Greek and by
the age of 7 he had read most of the dialogues of Plato in Greek. The
next year he started Latin. Between 8 and 12 he finished the entire
works of Virgil, Horace, Livy, Ovid, Terence, Lucretius, Aristotle, and
Aristophanes; and had mastered geometry, algebra, and differential
Also between 8 and 12 he wrote a History of Rome, an
Abridgment of the Ancient Universal History, a History of Holland, and
a few verses; by 12 he was fluent in several languages and had
written published papers on mathematics. Also at 12 he took up logic
and the work of Hobbes; and by thirteen he had completed a survey of
everything written in the field of political economy.
His only other education came from one year spent in France
when he was 14. There he studied the language 9 hours per day.
From this year he learned to love all things French.
In his Autobiography Mill claims that his father's curriculum
demonstrates what an ordinary mind can achieve under proper
instruction. But all of these accomplishments can be attributed to
Mill's ability, not to his father's curriculum or his teaching. [It is said
that Mill has the highest IQ ever recorded.]
7 He went to work as a clerk in the examiner's office of the East India
Company (You may recall from Unit 3 that the East India Company
was a trading company left over from mercantilism and responsible
for political control in India), where he worked for his father. The job
gave him ample time to read and write, and he took up the task of
applying Bentham's utilitarian ideas to political economy. He
published his first paper in economics when he was 17.
While in his late teens, he was jailed for distributing leaflets on birth
control as a means of stopping infanticide. Mill also joined a
discussion group from which developed the "Philosophical Radicals," a
group of political reformers among them Bentham who were
instrumental in passing the Reform Bill of 1832. These "radicals"
stood for such issues as 1) repeal of the grain tariff, 2) free education,
3) extension of suffrage, 4) prison reform, 5) religious freedom, 6)
freedom to organize in labor unions, and 7) improved working
conditions in factories.
At the time, Mill did not endorse all of these
issues, for he had inherited from his father the idea that the
government should stay out of the economy.
Because of his intense upbringing, Mill was wound tight. He was
socially awkward and filtered all of life through his prodigious intellect.
As one commentator phrased it, "the miracle is not that Mill
subsequently produced great works, but that he managed to avoid a
complete destruction of his personality."
He almost didn't.
At the age of 21 Mill suffered a "spiritual crisis," a nervous breakdown.
He thought it had been caused by his education, by the lack of
emotional development. So he intentionally sought mental attitudes
and stimulants that were different from what his father had offered.
He spent his recuperative time studying art, poetry, music, all of
which had been omitted from his father's curriculum. Gradually he
recovered. But his studies, especially of the Romantic poets
Wordsworth and Coleridge led to other changes. He broke from
Bentham's utilitarianism. He sought to humanize and soften
utilitarianism. In Paris in 1830 he met Saint Simon and became
interested in some of his radical ideas.
Also in 1830 he met Harriet Taylor, who was the one great love of his