Liberty, Equality, and Brexit

June 15, 2016

Author Articles

locke-rousseauIn just ten days time, voters in Britain will decide on whether to remain in the EU. This event is clearly a momentous issue in political economy that will impact the rest the world as well. The question we raise is what does this have to do with liberty and equality? Our answer is everything.
Nicholas Capaldi and Gordon Lloyd explore the issues at stake.

Staying in Europe is accepting the Rousseau premise of equality. Brexit is an example of the Lockean right to revolution in the name of liberty.

Some remember fondly when an Englishman would refer to ‘the Continent’ as if it were a place a million miles away from his home – because, in terms of outlook, it was a million miles away. Like James C. Bennett, he believes that there is a peculiarly Anglospheric worldview. It manifests itself institutionally in the common law legal tradition and the market order. It is fundamentally at odds with the continental European (civil law, technocratic/bureaucratic) worldview. (Capaldi and Lloyd would say that the Anglosphere is Lockean, rather than Rousseauean.) Brexit holds out the prospect of recovering the ‘great’ in Great Britain – not through an inward-looking nationalism, but through a recovery of the global outlook it birthed. The Anglosphere isn’t a racial or national concept. It includes the English-speaking peoples and those who, through extended contact with the Commonwealth, share its basic outlook. Thus, the Anglosphere includes the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

On the surface, the issue seems to be primarily economic and political. On the stay-in side, there are dire warnings that Britain will lose access to European markets and fears that the City of London financial centre will suffer serious losses. On the get-out side, there are rival claims that the EU (the Euro especially) is economically dysfunctional and inhibits alternative and more imaginative forms of economic growth. On the stay-in side, there are concerns that political stability and perhaps world order will disintegrate. On the get-out side, there are fears that Britain will be overwhelmed by dysfunctional individuals and subcultures which want economic prosperity and political freedom but do not understand the institutional and cultural sources of those benefits.

On closer inspection, this is precisely a debate that reflects the tension between
the Lockean and Rousseauean narratives.

The Lockean liberty narrative endorses:

  • The Technological Project (TP) – the transformation of nature for human benefit;
  • advocates a free-market system wherein property rights are fundamental; the right to private property is a democratic right based in effort rather than the aristocratic right of the few based on the accident of inheritance. Private property is not theft, and a government dedicated to the preservation of property is not an antidemocratic regime.
  • Limited Government (liberty is the limitation of government power on behalf of individual liberty); the purpose of government is to minimize conflict not achieve social harmony or universal personal fulfillment. In a British murder mystery, the culprit is a surprise discovered through induction as opposed to a French murder story in which we know everything in advance need only construct the proof. World government, as Kant maintained, is unnecessary and dangerous.
  • Rule of Law: Government turns out to be a representative form in which the neutral rule of law replaces the biased rule of men. The rule of law is manifested in the teaching of self imposed limits (queuing as opposed to a national strike) on both the people and their chosen rulers as expressed in a doctrine of natural rights. In its Lockean formulation, these rights (eg, life, liberty, property, etc.) are absolute, do not conflict, and are possessed only by individual human beings. Such rights impose only duties of non-interference. The purpose of these rights is to limit government; the responsibility of government is to refrain from violating your rights and stop others from violating your rights. This is only possible in a culture which prioritizes personal autonomy (Oakeshott’s civil association); historically, this has evolved only out of Anglo-American common law. Thus, it is no accident that most of the advocates of the Locke narrative are either British (Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, Oakeshott), American (US Founders, Friedman), or anglophiles (Montesquieu, Constant, Tocqueville) like Hayek.
  • A culture of personal autonomy: The best way of life is one in which the individual pursues happiness. There is a rejection of the ancient view that one achieves happiness by belonging or being with others. Consider Alan Macfarlane’s thesis in The Origins of [a distinctive] English Individualism (1978).
  • The identification of an immutable dysfunctional element in human society (those who by circumstance or by temperament are unable or unwilling to accept personal responsibility or impose order on themselves; Hegel’s rabble; Oakeshott’s anti-individual).
  • Equality is equality of opportunity not of result; inequalities are not problematic in a growth economy.

The Rousseauean Equality narrative:

  • Rejects the Technological Project because it degrades the environment and threatens human survival. Instead of satisfying genuine human needs, it expresses pride (promoting invidious self-comparison), leading to luxury as well as the loss of human liberty. This development is also the origin of inequality. Rather than a Lockean economy in which the TP allows for infinite growth and wherein a rising tide raises all boats, we are offered a “sustainable” economy in which all are equal. “Rising tide” is really “trickle down” economics.
  • Rejects the free market economy because it is responsible for economic inequality.   The Lockean social contract is one in which the rich and powerful coerced the less fortunate into institutionalizing inequality. The inequality that emerges as a result of the TP is a product of that original theft where the few rich bamboozle the many, who are poor, into agreeing to a social contract that benefits only the few rich (Piketty). The liberty narrative in Rousseau’s estimation is no more than a fraud. Traditional national boundaries and sovereignty, as well as different levels of public benefits, are ways of excluding and exploiting the many. The few who were rich and powerful coerced- or forced – the less fortunate many into institutionalizing inequality. Rousseaueans are not fooled by the support of staying-in by The City and some Tory politicians – the latter are just jockeying to maintain present perceived personal advantages in the face of inevitability, and besides crony capitalism and crony socialism are indistinguishable.
  • Rejects Limited government. From a Rousseauean point of view, politics trumps economics and law: growth and market share are less important than economic stability and fairness; economic stability and fairness require a general will expressed in a greater concentration and centralization of power (ie, in contemporary terms, democratic socialism) to achieve social harmony and personal fulfillment. It requires greater cohesion between the market and the government. It eschews the notion of negotiated exceptions as special privileges; Anticipating John Rawls, everyone should enter civil society not knowing what is in store for them ahead of time. The notion that certain privileged folks have constructed a false narrative in order to put one huge something over on the innocent and victimized many is central to the equality narrative. Everyone gives up everything- especially private property – when leaving the state of nature in order to enter Rousseau’s social contract. As a result, the atomistic individual is transformed into a communal citizen.
  • Rejects the Rule of law: But what are we do if human beings having been born free are everywhere in chains? Can something be done to transform this condition?   At the heart of Rousseau’s narrative is the claim that the so-called Lockean liberty narrative is actually a narrative of contractual slavery for the vast bulk of the population. The only way to have a just society is for everyone upon entering civil society to give up everything and retain nothing. They enter naked and innocent without the clothing of calculation and property. Thus the Rousseau “correction” of Locke destroys the notion of unalienable rights because everyone alienates everything when leaving the state of nature. In its Rousseauean version rights are not ends in themselves; rights are means to the achievement of the ends. Rights are merely prima facie, may be overridden, and may be possessed by any entity, not just individual human beings. Such rights become welfare rights, ie, they may be such that others have a positive obligation to provide such goods, benefits or means. Right and wrong for Rousseau are no longer to be found in an individual choosing to dissent against the actions of a tyrannical prince or overbearing majority. Instead, right and wrong are decided by the generalizing of the wills of individuals as they become citizens of a collective project. Moreover, the general will never errs. The general will for Rousseau is the foundation for political economy. Market conditions do not dictate government policy; government policy dictates economic policy.
  • Rejects personal autonomy: The individual is transformed into a willing citizen rather than into a Lockean calculating individual. The transformation is reinforced by quasi-religious festivals on behalf of the secular good.   The general economic and political will is reinforced and uplifted by a civil religion that favors communal orthodoxy (political correctness) over individual dissent. This has been lost in the Judeo-Christian world, but it is still present in Islam. Islamophobia on the part of Lockeans is a veiled assertion of exploitative personal autonomy over communal solidarity. Sincere members of the Labour Party understand this.
  • Social dysfunction: The origin of all social dysfunction (including terrorism) is inequality, primarily economic and political inequality. Remove the inequality and the social dysfunction will disappear.


Liberty and Equality in Political Economy
From Locke versus Rousseau to the Present
Nicholas Capaldi, Loyola University, New Orleans and Gordon Lloyd, Ashbrook Center, and Pepperdine University, US

Chapter one John Locke and the Three Pillars of Liberty is available to read free on Elgaronline

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