Romanticism, Economic Liberalism and Political Liberalism

The French Revolution, including the Napoleonic conquests of Europe, and the Industrial Revolution had tremendous ramifications in Europe.  Some, like Karl Marx, tried to make sense of both by seeing them as the result of class struggles.  Some others, who reacted negatively toward the French Revolution and to the French export of Enlightenment philosophies even before that, tried to figure out what was "wrong" with it by tracing its origin to the Enlightenment and its "rigid" application of scientific rules to human society. Three modern schools of thought were developed based on the negative reactions toward the Enlightenment and the French Revolution: Romanticism, political Liberalism, and modern Conservatism. The Romantic movement, first starting in central Europe as a negative reaction to the French export of Enlightenment theories as universal scientific rules governing all humans, emphasized the uniqueness of the human being and the mysterious nature of the human mind.  The Romantic movement received greater momentum after Napoleon's invasion of central Europe, and gave rise to modern nationalism: the uniqueness of a people.  The Romantic movement became a European wide movement especially after the Industrial Revolution started, when many revolted against the mechanization of labor and society in their writings. Political liberalism was championed by social reformers in 19th century England.  These reformers, however, tried to avoid repeating the "mistakes" of the French Revolutionaries by applying abstract scientific rules to the understanding of society.  They decided successful social reform would come from the application of tangible, practical rules to society, therefore their adoption of the term "utility" in judging government performance, and their initial adoption of the term "happiness" as a measure to evaluate the success or failure of administration.  Economic liberalism, although similar to political liberalism in its emphasis on restricting the role of the state in society, had a different origin.  It developed during the Enlightenment and bore the Enlightenment imprint of searching for scientific rules governing the realm of economic activities.  One of its founders, Adam Smith, started to formulate his theories on the verge of the British Industrial Revolution.  

1. Romanticism

It arose as a reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Instead of searching for rules governing nature and human beings, the romantics searched for a direct communication with nature and treated humans as unique individuals not subject to scientific rules. Napoleon’s invasion of central Europe also helped start a movement that emphasized the authentic national culture such as the vernacular and folklore instead of the language and customs imposed by the foreign ruler.

The romantic movement received new momentum after the Industrial Revolution, which to the Romantics destroyed nature. 

Wolfgang von Goethe (German, in reaction to French export of the Enlightenment): 

William Blake (British, in reaction against the Industrial Revolution): disdain for the French philosophers; mystery of the human mind. 

William Wordsworth (British, in reaction against the Industrial Revolution): value of immediate contact with nature.

(These three figures are commonly covered in an English class.)

2. Economic liberalism

What today is called economic liberalism was developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain, most notably by Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo. Economic liberalism was a product of the Enlightenment in its emphasis on universal laws governing economy and affirmation of self-interest.

Like the Enlightenment, the formulation of “scientific rules” governing economy was against the absolute control of government over economy. These champions of economic rules believed that individual freedom was best safeguarded by the reduction of government powers to a minimum. They wanted to impose constitutional limits on government, to establish the rule of law, and to sweep away restrictions on individual enterprises, specifically, the state regulation of economy.

A. English economy before Adam Smith:

Historically, from the 15th-16th century to the 18th century, the English economy was run under the theory of mercantilism: wealth comes from gold and silver, and the state could acquire wealth through encouragement of trade, or rather export, by private companies.  Their success would contribute to state revenue.  And the state would guarantee their mercantile success.  The best example was the British East India Company, which, established to trade with the East Indies, almost became a monopoly of British overseas trade every where, and served as the British government's representative to govern India from the 1770s to 1858.  

B. Economic liberalism as a revolt against mercantilism and government support of monopolies

The liberals wanted to ensure a voice in government for men of property and education, and an "equal opportunity" in trade and commerce.  It was also influenced by romanticism in its emphasis on individual freedom and the imperative of the human personality to develop to its full potential. Basically, however, economic liberalism was a theory for the middle class.

C. Adam Smith (1723-90)

His liberalism was developed in the middle of the British Industrial Revolution, when many British factories were in the process of being mechanized and wanted opportunities to sell their products in overseas markets, which were so far dominated by the British East India Company. 

Smith emphasized the importance of free market and free trade. 

To him, there was a convergence of individual and social interests through a free market economy. 

Premises of free trade: 

E. Ricardo and Malthus:

David Ricardo (1772-1823) and Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) continued Adam Smith's use of scientific rules in the study of economy and opposition to government intervention in economic activities.  Their writings, especially the writings of Ricardo, done at a time when the British Industrial Revolution was well under way, served a different social purpose as Smith's.  While Smith championed the cause of the small and medium sized merchants and traders, and in that sense was "progressive" by today's standards, Malthus and Ricardo discouraged any government legislation to salvage the working class poor by saying that working class poverty was determined by the scientific rules governing society, and not something government policy could alter.

In "An Essay on the Principle of Population" (1798, rev. ed. 1803), Thomas Malthus contended that poverty and distress are unavoidable, since population increases by geometrical ratio and the means of subsistence by arithmetic ratio.

Ricardo's “iron law of wages” supplemented Malthus's pessimistic thesis by asserting that wages tend to stabilize at the subsistence level.  

Labour, like all other things which are purchased and sold, and which may be increased or diminished in quantity, has its natural and its market price. The natural price of labour is that price which is necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race, without either increase or diminution.

The natural price of labour, therefore, depends on the price of the food, necessaries, and conveniences required for the support of the labourer and his family.

The market price of labour is the price which is really paid for it, from the natural operation of the proportion of the supply to the demand; labour is dear when it is scarce, and cheap when it is plentiful. However much the market price of labour may deviate from its natural price, it has, like commodities, a tendency to conform to it.

It is when the market price of labour exceeds its natural price, that the condition of the labourer is flourishing and happy, that he has it in his power to command a greater proportion of the necessaries and enjoyments of life, and therefore to rear a healthy and numerous family. When, however, by the encouragement which high wages give to the increase of population, the number of labourers is increased, wages again fall to their natural price, and indeed from a reaction sometimes fall below it.

When the market price of labour is below its natural price, the condition of the labourers is most wretched: then poverty deprives them of those comforts which custom renders absolute necessaries. It is only after their privations have reduced their number, or the demand for labour has increased, that the market price of labour will rise to its natural price, and that the labourer will have the moderate comforts which the natural rate of wages will afford.

3. Utilitarianism: philosophy guiding 19th century English social reform

Utilitarianism was a reaction against the Enlightenment principles and the French Revolution. It sought to be concrete rather than abstract. The word utility meant anything that was not abstract; something tangible and mundane. It came in the wake of the English industrial Revolution. Its founder, Jremy Bentham, decided it meant quantifiable pleasure and that government should promote the greatest pleasure of the greatest number of people.

John.Stuart.Mill (1806-73)

Born into the family of a leading member of the British Utilitarian school, James Mill, John Stuart Mill championed the utilitarian theory but modified it to include not just quantitative but also qualitative happiness/pleasure.  Like the other Utilitarians, he was hoping to replace traditional mores and values with this concept of happiness, a happiness one pursued not just for oneself, but also for others because of the natural human sentiment of sympathy.  Indeed, sympathy was central to Mill's argument for a less politically restrictive society, because humans were by nature altruistic as a result of the natural sentiment of sympathy.  And only when political restrictions and social conventions were relaxed could humans do good things for the sake of goodness, instead of just avoiding legal punishment and social condemnation.

Mill is usually regarded as the champion of political liberalism, marked especially by his treatise On Liberty (1859).  There he gave the most systematic treatment of why, even a democratic representative government had to restrict its power.  Reasons he included were the bias of the voters and that not every one was equally politically active, therefore decisions were often made on behalf of those who were most politically active.  Unlike the Enlightenment philosophers who championed rights such as liberty and equality but did not extend them to women, and not always to the poor, Mill had a greater respect to the sanctity of individual freedom, and treated women as equals.