Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

A review of the changes 1880-1940 to the central semantics of liberal civilization.

Rights  Rejoinders


Noah Porter, Jr. (1811 – 1892) was an American academic, philosopher, author, lexicographer and President of Yale College (1871–1886).

Noah Porter, Jr. (1811 – 1892) was an American academic, philosopher, author, lexicographer and President of Yale College (1871–1886).

Porter, Noah. 1885. Elements of Moral Science. Charles Scribners and Sons: New York.

[411] Property may be gained and held in the spirit of robbery; but property in itself is not robbery, but an arrangement to which man has a natural right which is sanctioned by the nature of man and the will of God.


Hubert, Auberon. 1885. The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State. Williams and Norgate: London.

[12-13] Under this plea of the needs of the moment you are sanctioning not only the right of some men to coerce others, but their right to decide how and when and for what purposes they shall coerce others. It is the power holders, freed from any general principle that controls and directs them, who have to decide as to the limits and application of their own power. For who else can do so? You have given this right of using power into their hands because they are the majority. You must also give this other right of determining and defining the application of power into their hands, for there is nobody else to whom you can give it. Nor is it reasonable to say that we may trust to the general good sense that exists amongst all men not to abuse the power that is thus placed in their hands and not to stretch its limits to a dangerous and unjust extent. When power is once given it becomes impossible, in the absence of any general principle or fixed standard, to say what is dangerous or unjust; because the danger and injustice are involved in the very idea and the very fact of some men—be they the many or the few— possessing undefined power over others. I would urge upon all those persons who hold this careless language,—that power may be justly used by the majority for some purposes and not for others,—that they have no right to sit down and take their bodily and mental ease, until they have distinctly and definitely settled in their own selves what are the purposes for which they are prepared to allow force to be used and what are the purposes for which they are not. Until they have done this, until they have found some law by which they can distinguish the right from the wrong use of power, by which they can justly satisfy not only their own minds but the minds of others, they are simply leaving in suspension the greatest matter that affects human beings; they are like men who start to make their passage over the wide seas, without chart or compass and hopefully remark that the look of the waters the face of the sky, and the direction of the wind will at any special moment tell them what course they ought to steer.
[18-19] You say a majority has a right to decide all questions. … They are queer rights these, which appear and disappear, after the fashion of the supple articles which a conjurer orders into and out of existence.
You deny the rights of the individual to regulate and direct himself. But you suddenly acknowledge and exaggerate these rights as soon as you have thrown the individual into that mass which you call the majority. Then you suddenly discover that men have not only rights to own themselves, but also to their fellow-men. But where have these rights come from? By what hocus-pocus, by what magic have they been brought into existence?
[20] You think it convenient that all the old rights…shall be enjoyed at the discretion of those who to-day or to-morrow may climb to power.
[21] There cannot possibly be two supreme laws. Either the will of the majority or the rights of the individual are the highest law of our existence…. You may try to merge the two opposite poles into one…. They can now see that they were only deceiving themselves by words.
[33] It is idle to say in one breath that each man has the right to the free use of his own faculties, and in the next breath to propose to deal by the power of the State with what he acquires by means of those faculties, as if both the faculties and what they produced belonged to the State and not to himself


Smith, George Hugh. 1887. Elements of Right and of Law. Callaghan and Co.: Chicago.

[46-47] The term ‘right,’ in one sense, denotes that which is imperatively required by the rule of right, whatever it may be; and it is in this sense we use the term in our definition of jural liberty, as being the liberty which it is right one should have; meaning thereby that it is imperatively required by the will of God, or by universal order, or by utility, or by such other principle of right as we may adopt, that men should have such liberty. As applied to the moral character of human acts or conduct, however, the term ‘rightdoes not in general denote a positive, but a mere negative, quality; i.e., the absence of wrong, or violation of duty. For, according to the ordinary use of the term, every act is said to be right that is not contrary to some duty. Thus where the question is as to how one shall enjoy a holiday—whether, for instance, he shall go a-hunting, or a-fishing, or shall otherwise amuse himself— though he should adopt the course least calculated to afford him amusement his act would nevertheless be morally right.


Arthur Bruce Smith  (1851 –  1937) was a long serving Australian politician and leading political opponent of the White Australia policy.

Arthur Bruce Smith  (1851 –  1937) was a long serving Australian politician and leading political opponent of the White Australia policy.

Smith, Bruce. 1887. Liberty and Liberalism. Longmans, Green, and Co.: London.

[678] The future is indeed a matter for speculation. Everything seems to point to great social changes, especially in the Old World. It is to be feared, however, that the drift is only in the direction of destroying existing institutions, and that there is nowhere yet conceived any substitute by which the inevitable ‘ills which flesh is heir to’ can be avoided or even mitigated. We have, as Lord Derby lately said, ‘got new masters. We don't know exactly what they wish, or what they intend, possibly for the excellent reason that they do not quite know themselves. It is important for us (he adds) if many of us begin parting with more capital than we can easily spare, to wish to see how the new governing class is going to treat property in the thousand ways in which property is affected by legislation.We have, every day, dinned into our ears such phrases as the ‘rights of labour.There seem to exist, too, some strangely exaggerated notions as to the nature and extent of those rights.”


Albert Venn "A. V." Dicey (1835 – 1922) was a British jurist and constitutional theorist, and was the younger brother of Edward Dicey. He is most widely known as the author of An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885). Dicey popularised the phrase "rule of law", although its use goes back to the 17th century.

Albert Venn "A. V." Dicey (1835 – 1922) was a British jurist and constitutional theorist, and was the younger brother of Edward Dicey. He is most widely known as the author of An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885). Dicey popularised the phrase "rule of law", although its use goes back to the 17th century.

Dicey, Albert Venn. 1888. “New Jacobism and Old Morality,” The Contemporary Review 53(3): 475-502.

[484-485] The theory hitherto acknowledged by every civilized community is, that the State exists for the protection of the legal rights of all its members. Rich and poor, employers and artisans, landowners and tenants, may (it has been supposed) exercise in freedom every legal right, subject only to the check imposed by opinion or by conscience. Whoever violates these rights has been deemed a criminal. This is not the creed of the new school. The State exists, on their view, for the enforcement of obedience not to the law but to the moral sentiment of the hour. To exercise legal rights which offend popular ideas of morality is to commit a moral crime, which must not be aided or tolerated by law. Put this doctrine at its best and it means that the State must enforce not justice but benevolence; put this view in its less favourable aspect and it means that the sensationalism of newspaper editors, and the fluctuating passions of a mob, may fix the measure of a citizens legal rights. From this policy of benevolence, or of passion, flow, by a moral necessity, consequences which may well astound philanthropists and democrats. Departure from the severe and fixed rule of impersonal law, enthrones the capricious reign of popular favouritism; the old evil of privileged and of disfranchised classes which it was the best work of democracy to destroy, revives under a new form. … So strong is the force of emotion that democrats forget the first principles of democracy, and rhetorically foam with rage because a criminal who is a gentleman is treated with the same severity as a criminal who is a half-starved pauper. A rough, again, who maims a policeman is always an asserter of freedom. A farmer who refuses to pay his rent is always a village Hampden; an eviction is invariably an act of injustice; ruffians and tenants are always in the right, constables or landlords are always in the wrong. … Not so much can be said for the moral proscription of the wealthy, and of every man engaged in protecting the legal rights of the rich. Here we see, in its worst form, that contempt for the rights of individuals to freedom, to character, and to property, which is the essential vice of revolutionary ethics.


Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era.

Herbert Spencer (1820 – 1903) was an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era.

Spencer, Herbert. 1892. “From Freedom to Bondage” in A Plea for Liberty edited by Thomas Mackay. John Murray: London.

[20-1] While [Trades Union] members insist on their own freedom to combine and fix the rates at which they will work…the freedom of those who disagree with them is not only denied but the assertion is treated as a crime. … So complete is the inversion of ideas and sentiments that maintenance of these rights is regarded as vicious and trespass upon them as virtuous.


Flint, Robert. 1894. Socialism. Isbister and Co.: London.

[404-405] The defectiveness of the socialistic idea of justice makes itself apparent in the socialistic Claim of Rights. The rights which Socialists maintain should be added to those already generally and justly recognised are imaginary rights and inconsistent not only with those which have been gained, but with one another. They are reducible to three—the right to live; the right to labour; and the right of each one to receive the entire produce of his labour.
There is the right to live, the right to existence. By this right is meant the right to be provided with a living, the right to be guaranteed a subsistence. It assumes that society owes to each of its members as much as he needs for his support, and that those of them who have not been able to procure this for themselves are entitled to claim it as their due, and to take it. …  A real right, however, it is not. And the State which acknowledges it to be such is unlikely to be able to fulfil what it undertakes.
[408-409] The right to labour…should be distinguished from ‘the right to existence,although it has often been confounded with it. The right to labour can belong only to those who are capable of labour, and implicitly denies to them the right to existence, the right to be supported, merely because of destitution. Were the right to existence affirmed without condition or limit few would be likely to claim a right to labour for such means of existence as they already had an acknowledged right to simply in virtue of needing them. … By the ‘right of labourwas meant the right of every man to feel freedom as a labourer; the right of every man to be uninterfered with by Monarchs or Parliaments, by Corporations or Combinations, in his search for labour, in the exercise of his faculties of labour, and in the disposal or enjoyment of the products of his labour. The ‘right to labourmeans a right on the part of the labourer to have labour supplied to him, and necessarily implies that labour must be so organised and regulated that all labourers can be supplied with labour. The one right—that affirmed by physiocratists, economists, free-traders, and liberals of all classes— signifies a right to such liberty as cannot be withheld without manifest injustice. The other right— that demanded by Socialists—signifies a right to such protection as can only be secured through the withdrawal of liberty. What is claimed by the spurious right is virtually the abolition of the genuine one.
[410] “The basis of right is not charity but justice. Hence a right may not be withheld from any one; whoever is refused his right is defrauded. Any State which recognises the right to labour breaks faith with the citizens, deceives and mocks them, if it fail to supply them with the labour of which they are in need.”


Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831 – 1902) was an Irish-born American journalist and newspaper editor. He founded The Nation, and was editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post 1883-1899.  

Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831 – 1902) was an Irish-born American journalist and newspaper editor. He founded The Nation, and was editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post 1883-1899.

 

Godkin, Edwin Lawrence. 1900. “The Eclipse of Liberalism,” The Nation 71(April 9): 105-106.

[105[2] ] As the nineteenth century draws to its close it is impossible not to contrast the political ideas now dominant with the preceding era. It was the rights of man which engage the attention of the political thinkers of the eighteenth century… Government, it was plainly seen, had become the vehicle of oppression; and the method by which it could be subordinated to the needs of individual development, and be made to foster liberty than suppress it, were the favorite study of the most enlightened philosophers. In opposition to the theory of divine right…the doctrine of natural rights was set up.


Maximilian (Max) Hirsch (1852 – 1909) was a German-born businessman and economist. He became the recognized intellectual leader of the Australian Georgist movement and, briefly, a member of the Victorian Parliament.

Maximilian (Max) Hirsch (1852 – 1909) was a German-born businessman and economist. He became the recognized intellectual leader of the Australian Georgist movement and, briefly, a member of the Victorian Parliament.

Hirsch, Max. 1901. Democracy verses Socialism. Macmillan and Co.: London.

[244] Any action by the State or by individuals in this direction is an infringement of the right of equal freedom. ‘The right to labour,therefore, is a natural right, not in the sense in which Socialism uses the term, that the State shall provide work for all its members, but in the sense that it is the duty of the State to prevent an equal opportunity for work being denied to any one, and to abstain from interference with the amount, kind, and manner of work which any one elects to do. Socialism, by entrusting the conduct of industries to the State, proposes to abolish this natural right, and thereby, depriving all or nearly all of freedom, would establish a virtual condition of slavery.


Scherger, George Lawrence. 1904. The Evolution of Modern Liberty.  Longmans, Green and Co.: New York.

[11] The theory of Natural Rights, which was such a potent factor in bringing about modern liberty, lost its hold upon the minds of men just at the time it had won its greatest triumphs. We are living in an age of democracy, but we are experiencing that democracy and liberty are not synonymous terms and that Demos may become a greater despot than any individual ruler. Demos seems to be rapidly becoming the Leviathan which is swallowing up all power. The liberty of the individual is being more and more restrained. Governmental interference is on the increase. The frequency with which injunctions are issued is becoming a most dangerous menace to individual liberty.


Fell, E. F. B. 1908. The Foundation of Liberty. Methuen and Co.: London.

[59] Seeing then that the Person cannot be merged in the ‘Whole’ or controlled in the alleged interests of its alleged ‘highest good,it will now be well to examine at greater length that thing in the interests of which he can be controlled. Unless we are to do violence to the sanctity and integrity of Personality, the Person can only be forcibly controlled in the interests of his Freedom, that is to say—in the interests of his natural ‘Rights.It is this moral or personal ‘Rightthat inspires the State with a moral aim or ideal, and indicates the kind of means to be adopted for the attainment of that aim.
Those who hold that the individuals Rights and claims are wholly relative and subordinate to the alleged ‘goodof the Whole, are compelled also to maintain that the ‘rightis that which is (i.e. appears to be) ‘usefulfor society, and that the justification of any human relation or activity is to be sought in its demonstrable utility to the Whole. … This is the Socialist view… The only alternative standard of right and wrong must be sought in the independent moral nature, i.e. the a priori Rights of the individual.
[62] It is extremely common to hear the attitude of the Socialist described and extolled as being necessarily unselfish or altruistic, while that of their opponents is assumed to be essentially the reverse. … We are selfish if we seek our own interests or political ideals, or the interests or ideals of our class or party without due regard to the Rights of others. But the Socialist, who is so widely regarded as altruistic, for his part does not even allow of the existence of the rights of others.
[64] The existence of ‘natural’ or ‘a priori rights is of course strongly objected to by the Socialists. Socialists in general urge that the so-called ‘natural rightsare only abilities and immunities conferred on the individual at the will of the State, and that the State can augment or diminish them at its pleasure. In support of this doctrine of the State authorship of right, it is argued, first: That since much of what we call natural Rights to-day was not so regarded in the past, it follows that these rights are relative to the will of the citizens in general, or of some sufficient part of them, and so have no absolute character and cannot be arrived at a priori.


Pattee, William Sullivan. 1909. The Essential Nature of Law. Callaghan and Company: Chicago.

[115] These natural rights then are grounded in man’s constitution; they are inherent in the very frame-work of his personal being. They are not rights created by any civil enactment, but they exist prior to civil enactment and but for their existence civil enactments would have no significance.
[118-119] My right to life, liberty and property is a law to all other persons in that it commands them to respect that right. The rights of each are laws to all others in the sense that those others ought not to violate or disregard those rights. These natural rights are fixed and established facts in the realm of personal existence, and as such they are regulative of human conduct, in that they determine what man ought and what he ought not to do. With these we might include the right to reputation, the right of free speech, the right to contract, the rights growing out of domestic relations, and many others, but they are all laws, some in the primary and others in the secondary sense of the term, in that they are regulative factors, declaring what man ought or ought not to choose or to actually do.


Abbot, Everett Vergnies. 1913. Justice and The Modern Law. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston.

[24-25] Property, ownership, title, — these are merely synonyms in our law expressing the legal perception of a man’s natural right to be untrammeled in the physical control which he establishes over inanimate things and the lower animals. We are accustomed to regard these terms as denoting a bundle of rights. Accurately understood, however, they indicate merely a single right, and that the right of freedom.


Rev. David Jayne Hill (1850 – 1932) was an American academic, diplomat and author.

Rev. David Jayne Hill (1850 – 1932) was an American academic, diplomat and author.

Will, David Jayne. 1915. The Peoples Government. D. Appleton Company: New York.

[143-144] It is here, perhaps, that we may most conveniently explain the meaning of a right as ‘natural’ and ‘inherent.It cannot be contended, even by the most strenuous opponent of the idea of so-called ‘naturalrights, that the right to live is acquired through the enactment of some positive law by which this privilege is accorded. If it be not inherent, if it be not natural, then it is no right at all. It is true that a natural right may be forfeited; because, resting upon mutual obligation as its ground principle, where that is repudiated the right can no longer be said to exist. It is evident, however, that such a right cannot be forfeited except by the person himself. Not having been accorded by the community, the community cannot arbitrarily take it away; for, arising from the principle of mutual obligation, the right of the individual is as incontestable as the right of existence on the part of the community itself.


Neilson, Francis. 1919. The Old Freedom. B. W. Huebsch: New York.

[122] In considering the proposals and conceptions of Socialism it is first necessary to ascertain what is the conception which Socialism has formed with regard to the relations existing between individuals and the social entity to which they belong. Sidney Webb, in Socialism in England, says, ‘the first step must be to rid our minds of the idea that there are any such things in social matters as abstract rights.Laurence Gronlund in The Co-operative Commonwealth lays down the conception for thorough-going State Socialism. He says: ‘… It is Society, organized Society, the State, that gives us all the rights we have.
But the State is not Society. … Organized Society is not the State. Society has not yet under a highly organized State shown any desire to be organized for an economic purpose. As to the State giving us all the rights we have, it may be safely asserted that the State abrogated rights and instituted privileges. Anyway, Socialism denies natural rights and maintains that the only rights we possess are granted by the State. Thus we are driven back to the days of the Tudors and Louis XIV.


Brett, Oliver. 1921. A Defense of Liberty. G. P. Putnams Sons: New York.

[141] Instinctively we feel that these finite and terrible conclusions are false, since they are as Static as Socialism itself, and since they deny the existence of those natural rights on which all individual liberty is based. The denial of natural rights and the substitution for them of nothing but legal rights based on utility or security leaves, not only property as the Socialists imagine, but liberty itself at the mercy of the majority.


Albert Jay Nock (1870 – 1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic of the early and middle 20th century.

Albert Jay Nock (1870 – 1945) was an influential American libertarian author, educational theorist, and social critic of the early and middle 20th century.

Nock, Albert Jay. [1924] 1991. “On Doing the Right Thing” in The State of the Union edited by Charles H. Hamilton. Liberty Press: Indianapolis.

[319] The theory of freedom rests on the doctrine of natural rights, and I have always held with the Declaration of Independence that this doctrine is a sound one, that mankind is endowed by its Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that one of them is liberty . But the world is fast going away from old-fahioned people of my kind, and I am told that this doctrine is debatable and now quite out of style; that nowadays almost no one believes that mankind has any natural rights at all, but that all the rights it enjoys are legal and conventional, and therefore properly subject to abridgement or suppression by the authority that confers them. Aside from theory and principle, however, this matter of freedom has a practical side which is undebatable, and about which, for some reason, very little is said.

 

Geiger, George Raymond. 1930. “The Place of Values in Economics,” Journal of Philosophy 27(13): 350-361.

[353-354] It has been mentioned above that the slighting of values in economics and the other social sciences has been, in part, are cautionary shift away from the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century ethical approach. That ethical approach may perhaps be typified by the concept of natural rights. It is realized full well that even a mention of natural rights is always dangerous. Any discussion of the topic, even the briefest—as this will necessarily be—must labor under a genuine embarrassment, the difficulty of examining a cadaver without being suspected of the mutilation or, on the other hand, of the resurrection of the dead. … The arguments that have been employed against natural rights are now almost commonplace: for example, that the ‘individual,upon whose metaphysical status as a discrete and autonomous entity the whole problem of rights depends, is a concept quite questionable when tested by an organismic standard of social progress.

4L is authored by Daniel B. Klein, Professor of Economics, JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute; email: dklein@gmu.edu

Quotations compiled by Ryan Daza & Daniel B. Klein