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Hobhouse and the New Liberalism for Society

By Alexander Gray
PSCI 305, Prof. Casey
TAMU-T, Summer 1, 2015
During the 19th Century and continuing into the 20th Century Liberalism, as an ideology,
took a progressive turn as philosophers sought to define liberal principles in terms that could be
used to better society. Originally, Liberalism started out as an idea to set individuals free of
oppressive actions taken by the governments of the time. Liberal philosophers of this time
appealed not only for the individual rights, but also the economic freedom to pursue the goals
that an individual has. However, as individuals gained economic freedom and the economic
system of capitalism began to prosper, some philosophers saw what would become a negative
side effect of such unregulated economic structures.
With the rise of industry and the revolution that it produced, some philosophers and
legislators saw the rising income inequality that came about much like Marx and others had
claimed would happen. In attempting to repair these problems, some Liberal philosophers
asserted that more state intervention in society to prevent the kinds of inequality that were taking
place. Their argument was that without a decent level of equality, the liberty to pursue ones own
goals and happiness was next to impossible.
In his short book, Liberalism, L.T. Hobhouse bases his ideas on a progressive, but
pragmatic approach to the evolving needs and problems that Liberalism faces to remain a
relevant philosophy for the governing of society. This review looks at some of the arguments
that Hobhouse, as well as others, made to find a Liberal ideology that balanced individual
freedom with societal equality.
Classical Liberalism

Originally, Hobhouse lays out that Liberalism was trying to make people freer by
destroying the oppressive, existing order. He asks if this destructive type of liberalism is all there
is to the idea and, if so, how long it will last, (1911, 10). Also, one of the early ideas of
Liberalism was the universal rule of law. Early Liberal scholars like John Stuart Mill maintain
that the rule of law mitigates the ability for arbitrary punishment. In doing so, the individual is
free to carry on his life as he chooses. Hobhouse, however, recognizes that the law applied in this
manner will also restrict an individual at a given point, but in doing so the law also keeps others
from harming that individual, (1911, 12). Another area of the individuals life that Classical
Liberalism opens up is that of religious liberty. Hobhouse articulates that religious liberty allows
for the free expression and practice of the individual, so long as it does not harm another, (1911,
14-15). For Liberalism, the need to express ones religious belief freely is tantamount to the
ideas of Liberalism. Though, for Hobhouse, religious liberty is not the only thing, but that no
person should be excluded from public service or getting an education based on their religion
and remarks that full liberty implies full equality, (1911, 14).
Another Social Liberal philosopher of the 20th Century, John Maynerd Keynes, whose
work as an economist is not only influential, but whose ideas have influenced national policy in
many Western nations. In his pamphlet, The End of Laissez-faire, Keynes states, [t]he
purpose of promoting the individual was to depose the monarch and the church, (1926, np).
Keynes attributes much of early liberal thought to philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John
Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and how each brought their unique ideas to Liberal
philosophy. However, he indicates that each philosopher had to try to deal with the balance
between society and the individual, and each came up with different answers that are still
defended today.

One of the major differences in Liberal thought, however, is the idea of state intervention
into societal matters. For Classical Liberalism, state intervention was not only unwanted, but
could become oppressive. Hobhouse and others, however, present that state intervention is not
only necessary, but desired to achieve equality for the individuals of a society to have a true
liberty to pursue their own personal ambitions. For example, T.H. Green, in the arguments of
social liberalism, is one of the more ardent advocates of state intervention in to certain parts of
society. He argues against an unfettered ideology of individualism. Taking one of classical
liberalisms biggest arguments; property rights, he disputes the idea of an individual having a
natural right to his property, instead, he thinks that he has a right to property solely because
society allows it, (2010, 106-107). Hobhouse carries this argument as well when he says in his
book that the individual is controlled by principle and rules which all society must obey, for the
community is the true master of the free man, (1911, 13). Green advances, much like Hobhouse,
that state intervention for the common, or public, good was essential for true liberty to come to
fruition. He notes state intervention into labor-industrial relations, education, and health are
necessary because without such intervention a free exercise of the human faculties is
impossible, (2010, 107).
Liberalism of economics
Keynes comments that many wanted to equate laissez-faire economics with the ideas of
Darwinian evolution, and allowing competition would be best for men to progress economically,
(1926, np). He describes that many felt that if laissez-faire was not followed it would be the end
of the economic structure. He contends that laissez-faire was meant to be a positive movement
within liberalism to allow individuals to pursue their own economic interests. However, Keynes
discusses how this devolved into a negative ideology where the government should not be

allowed to do much of anything, (1926, np). Hobhouse also agrees that the point of classical
liberalism was to set industry free from protectionist regulation of pre-capitalist economics. In
this approach it was a negative liberalism, and was based on freedom of contract. However,
Hobhouse points out that liberals realized that individuals were being taken advantage of by the
power of industry, and that the government should step in to protect these people from industrial
abuse and provide for universal education and a social safety net, (1911, 17).
For Keynes, laissez-faire is not a perfect economic system, but is more logical that
protectionismand Marxian socialism, (1926, np). In fact, he aims for a middle ground
between these ideologies to find a more perfect medium, (1926, np) One of the ways he argues
for more power for the state without it becoming too powerful to become oppressive is to
separate it into different government autonomies. This allows them to be like private
corporations, but with the distinction that the public will be the shareholder and the public
interest will be that to which the autonomous government agency attends. For Keynes, much
like Hobhouse, there are some areas of society of which only the government should be in
One of Hobhouses main critiques of laissez-faire economics is that unregulated
capitalism will in turn lead to monopolies. Hobhouse attacks monopolies because it protects
industry and companies from becoming more efficient at the cost of the consumers, and reveals
that it leads to inequality because the monopoly can then set terms in an unequal societal bargain,
(1911, 16). This is couched within an ideology that free trade will necessarily lead to more
competition, thus overcoming the Protective principle, (1911, 16). He looks at monopolies of
land, industry, and state. He is against the first two types, but is in favor of the third. While this
may seem contradictory, he elaborates that the first two are private monopolies which give an

individual or a group of individuals an inflated amount of power over others. A state monopoly,
however, is a public good which is meant to serve individuals of the society equally, (1911, 4143).
From this point, Hobhouse offers that unless the state intervenes, the only other outcome
for working people is to unionize. Hobhouse points out that some of the effects of classical
liberalism gave rise to criticism from socialist philosophers, like Karl Marx, for some of the
exploitation that took place. One of these critiques is the idea of freedom of contract. Hobhouse
recognizes that socialist philosophy has a point that freedom of contract is highly unfair and
imbalanced when an individual, on his own, is left to bargain a fair deal with a powerful
company or industry. The company can always find someone else willing to do the work for less
pay or benefits, so the individual is left powerless against the demands of such industrial power.
Hobhouse depicts how much of this criticism originates in the way children were exploited by
the employer and continues that an adult is in no better situation when it comes to being
exploited, (1911, 36). For Hobhouse, freedom of contract is[c]losely connected with
freedom of association, (1911, 17). Essentially arguing that the whole idea of freedom of
contract, which is central to economic liberalism, can be turned around to affirm labor unionism,
for both can be seen as the individual trying to better his earning power.
Nevertheless, Hobhouse does recognize that unions can themselves become powerful
entities that can oppress others. So, even though he understands that unions can be a good thing,
he takes a pragmatic and cautious approach toward them, (1911, 18). He realizes that they can
be protective because it allows individuals to pool their power into a much stronger unit. He
discloses that some believers in liberty had a problem with unions because it put constraint
upon individuals, (1911, 37). For such people, unions could be oppressive of the individual, but

without government legislation to ensure equality and protection for individual workers there
was no other option available. Without government action, an exploited individual, or group,
cannot ascend against another because the other group is naturally self-interested. So, as far as
Hobhouse is concerned, the manifest teaching of experience [instructs] that liberty without
equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result, (38). In this, he explains that state
intervention, not control, obliges the leaders of industry to be responsible for the care and
wellbeing of their labor workforce, (38).
From this point, Hobhouse believes that experience gives this newer social liberalism
supremacy over the older liberalisms claim of true liberty. This older liberalism assigned the
state the role of protecting property and contract, but not much else. However, Hobhouse points
out that drawing the limit of state intervention at this point is arbitrary and that, indeed, it may
very well be necessary for the state to intervene in other way to protect equality and liberty of
individuals, (1911, 39). For example, he talks about a central role for the state which is to
provide justice for criminal actions. He opines that if the government can keep the strong from
killing the weak, then why can government not keep the strong from taking advantage of the
weak in other cases? To his mind, this exactly what the state is for. For Hobhouse, [t]he liberty
which is good is not the liberty of one gained at the expense of others, (1911, 41). He
explicates that all social liberty rests upon restraint of the individual as opposed to another,
(1911, 41). As one can see, there is an interplay between the liberty of an individual and the
society in which that individual lives.
Thusly, Hobhouse realizes that state monopolies, as well as state intervention for the
protection of weaker members of society, is thoroughly consistentwith socialism, (1911, 43).
Indeed, he understands that to some point, individualism, when it grapples with the facts, is

driven no small distance along Socialist lines, (1911, 43). Hobhouse sees that some social
control, which is inherent in Socialism, may even be necessary to maintain individual equality.
With this line of reasoning, Hobhouse, contends that practicality would necessitate taking the
best of both Liberalism and Socialism and implementing it while trying to mitigate the problems
inherent in both philosophies. The main struggle, however, is trying to find the right balance
between the two; where Liberalism ends and Socialism begins. Though he does not agree with
Socialism in its entirety, he does recognize that there are some very good ideas in Socialism and
recognizes that there are some areas where both ideologies not only agree, but are the same when
it comes to public, common goods, (1911, 19).
This leads Hobhouse to look at some of the problems he sees with Socialism and its more
revolutionary ideas. One of the main critiques that he lays against Socialism is the assumption of
class war, resting on a clear-cut distinction of classes which does not exist, (1911, 72). He
does not agree with the black and white view of a proletariat versus a bourgeoisie that Socialism
maintains. Nor does he agree that a utopian end is achievable as the very idea of worldwide
Socialism is impossible, in his view. Any many ways, Hobhouse sees what he calls Official
Socialism as trying to control mankind in general with no recognition for mans need to be free,
(1911, 72-73). For him, Socialism must adopt a more pragmatic, and democratic, political
scheme if it is to become a viable philosophy, (1911, 72). This does not mean, however, that
Hobhouse disagrees with the way Socialism sees the history of capitalism. Indeed, throughout
his book, and specifically in his chapter of Economic Liberalism, he recognizes that socialist
arguments has validity when it comes to the problem of inequality that is inherent in unregulated
capitalist societies. In fact, he makes similar arguments for the need of the state to intervene in
helping the weaker classes of society to achieve a fairer balance of equality, (1911, 74-80). The

major difference, though, is that Hobhouse pushes for a more pragmatic, evolutionary change
than the revolutionary one proposed by Marx and his supporters. For Hobhouse then, it appears
that classical liberalism can be unjust, while socialism can be unproductive, (1911, 82). His
main argument for state intervention is not control of society, but to make sure that individuals
can support themselves, (1911, 89).
Liberal Theory
For Hobhouse, theory is important. Any ideological theory must be based in practical
terms, not just abstraction, (1911, 23). It is what helps to show the cause and effect of
ideological action. One theory of Liberalism that he looks at is the law of nature as proposed by
many early liberal minds (1911, 24). Within this natural order, philosophers debated about the
origin of the rights of man. Locke took an individualist approach when arguing where mans
rights come from, whereas Rousseau took a more collectivist approach arguing a more societal
view to the origin of natural rights, (1911, 25). Either way, in Hobhouses view, both Locke and
Rousseau suggested that rights and sovereignty lied with the people, not government (1911, 25).
In conceiving the need for government, mankind recognized that only collectively could they
protect and enforce the rights of individuals. In this, Hobhouse recognizes that man gave up his
natural rights and received in return civil rights, (1911, 25). However, the argument that stems
from this is that the government should do no more than is necessary to protect the rights of the
individual. Thus many classical liberals called for a very limited government.
Hobhouse, though, recognizes a problem with the definition of rights. Who gets to
decide what is a right, society or the individual? For Hobhouse, there are two definitions of
liberty, (1911, 28). Firstly, that an individuals rights do not extend to where he can harm
another individual. Secondly, that any right enjoyed by an individual must available to any other

individual within that society, (1911, 28). He equates the human body as a whole, and the
working of its individual parts, with society as a whole, and its individual persons. One cannot
function without the other, (1911, 54). He explains that when an individuals claims are counterbalanced by those of another, there is need for an impersonal arbiter who must base his
judgement on the common good. He continues that [a]n individual right, then, cannot
conflict with the common good, nor could any right exist apart from the common good, (1911,
55). Again one can see Hobhouse trying to balance what is good for the individual with what is
good for the society.
Another theoretical outlook that Hobhouse points to is the The Greatest Happiness
Principle which was developed by Jeremy Bentham. For Bentham, as Hobhouse shows, the
idea of natural rights is fallacious, (1911, 29). Bentham observes the problem that when
individuals claimed an infringement of rights against one another, an adjudicator is necessary to
decide who has claim. In this regard Bentham took a legalist approach to answer from where
rights come. And in doing so, argues that whatever achieved the greatest happiness of the
majority is how definitions of right and wrong should be defined. However, Hobhouse does note
that even Bentham recognized that the greatest happiness had to be weighed against the greatest
common good. To ignore this, would mean an authoritarian rule by the majority. So, as regards
Benthams view of liberal principle, Hobhouse remarks that any right of man inherently carry
with it a measure of happiness to pursue it. Within this part of the book, it is beyond this paper
to identify every argument and critique that Hobhouse discusses at in any length. Suffice it to
say that Hobhouse sees the different theoretical threads of liberalism as running deep.
Hobhouses explains liberalism as being ready to fight for what is just. If there is a
conflict, then Liberalism should be ready to test is presuppostions. If the liberal theory is right

then it will enhance the community. If it is wrong, then it is incumbent that the error be found
and corrected. Any many ways, this follows on from much of the positivist philosophy of the
time. Hobhouse believes that applying liberal principles may be difficult because society should
not discipline someone in error solely for the sake of discipline. Society should endeavor to
teach the individual how to discipline himself. In this vain, society should not seek to enforce
harmony, but to teach it, (1911, 53). For Hobhouse, the collective action of societal equality can
be just as liberating and empowering as person freedom, (1911, 53).
For Hobhouse and others, the major point of social liberalism is that there are areas where
the state should intervene in society, and even hold exclusivity for the betterment of society. He
argues that ones individual liberty cannot be allowed subjugate the will of a multitude. He
realizes that individuals do have rights, but for him they are acquired from society, not nature.
So, for him, there needs to be a balance between individual liberty and what is in the best interest
of the common good. This goes back to his idea of a pragmatic liberalism that changes with the
time and the needs of society. Hobhouse shows that if Liberalism is to continue being a relevant
idea in the future, it must not just look out for individual freedoms, but for the good of society.
For it is in the equality of society that mankind is able to truly pursue his goals and find his

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Keynes, J. (1926). The End of Laissez-faire. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from


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