Minogue on States, Institutions, and the Enemies of Liberty

Kenneth Minogue’s On Liberty and Its Enemies, published last year, is part of a recent deluge of books on the decline of modern liberalism. Editor Timothy Fuller has gathered 20 essays by the late political theorist written over the course of half a century. It’s a collection that leans toward the pessimism of Minogue’s The Servile Mind (2010) rather than the more positive mood of his very successful The Liberal Mind (1963).

As president of the prestigious Mont Pelerin Society at his death in 2013, Minogue must be part of any reevaluation. But although he was very knowledgeable about the United States, he was born in New Zealand and spent 40 productive years teaching at the London School of Economics, and so comes to the subject from a more European perspective.

Since the essays each represent Minogue’s depth of thought and traverse such a long period, the reviewer must follow what the editor undertook to do, which is, simplify. Fuller properly points to the 1984 essay entitled “The Conditions of Freedom and the Condition of Freedom” as the place to begin. That piece starts with John Locke but immediately adopts the 1980s bias against Locke as “a tricky customer” with a supposed “general evasiveness” when it came to stating his true views, almost mimicking Leo Strauss and the academics of the era (as I described to Law and Liberty’s readers here).

Minogue sets the subject of his investigation as “liberalism,” although he admits this term was not used as an identification until a century after Locke (1632-1704), when the latter’s heritage had “passed” to conservatives. The term “liberal” was then adopted by “the party of a centrally fostered community” led by philosophers T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, with their more “positive” ends-defined ideal of freedom. But they developed a liberalism so positive that it “confused aims and purposes,” the reaction to which by lovers of freedom culminated in Isaiah Berlin’s ideal of “negative freedom” as its competitor, which Minogue proceeds to criticize as inadequate.

Warrior Courage as the Beginning of Freedom

He begins his criticism of Berlin (and Green and Hobhouse) by insisting that freedom is empirical rather than abstract. This freedom “appears first and preeminently as the condition enjoyed by warriors who had become free by not being subdued.” Freedom was a “legacy of courage.” The Greeks were the first to take the fact that it was difficult to intimidate free warriors to the conclusion that a warrior society must create a “negotiating group” of cooperation among equals. As late as Aristotle, government by public discussion among equals was the best. Paradoxically, each individual’s freedom was limited by the self-discipline, negotiation, and reasoning required by cooperation that produced ancient Greece’s great military and social successes. The same factors fashioned Rome and European martial feudalism.

Europe followed Greece into recognizing that “Freedom is only Freedom when it is given up” in commitments to group, work, and marriage, and in living under laws based upon a “morality of integrity” dependent upon warrior courage. As martial courage evolved into a more open and calculating commercial society in which thinking independently of the group was encouraged, this “condition of freedom” declined “in a steady if irregular drift in a permissive direction” into what Minogue calls an “oppositionality” against  restraints. Freedom changed to what would previously have been thought to be socially disruptive—a list of liberating rights, culminating in today’s modern ideal of “total oppositionality” to any social, moral, or political restrictions on individuals whatsoever.

Berlin promoted a negative definition of liberty (free from positive government control beyond protection from violence) as a warning against defining freedom as its opposite in the brave new world of 20th century totalitarianism. But even Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized the absolute necessity of some “properly considered” positive freedom. Berlin’s negative freedom did illuminate the evils of Nazism and communism, but Minogue claimed that negative freedom was also the doctrine of the 1960s radicals who aimed at “the total dissolution of all authority and order.” This leads to “absurdity” since freedom requires “a capacity to be exercised” through at least some restraints on the individual, including governmental restraints.

So Minogue concludes the essay by finding “our best guide” to freedom is not Berlin’s too limited and abstract negative-freedom, but the positive, practical, and concrete liberty advocated by Thomas Hobbes, especially in Chapter 21 of Leviathan. But after accepting the sovereign, Hobbes’s freedom thereafter is restricted merely to opposing commands to maim or indict oneself and “as for other liberties, they depend upon the silence of the law.” Thus Fuller’s “picture of the themes running through all” of Minogue’s writings on liberty ends with the dour Hobbes.

Almost a decade later, Minogue would return to his concern about “severe intellectualism” as opposed to practical, empirical thinking concerning liberty and social life in “Can Scholarship Survive the Scholars?” As a student and colleague of Michael Oakeshott, he quotes the master on the “importance of manners and dispositions” favoring “taste, discrimination, mental courage and mental soberness” and self-knowledge over abstract reason. Minogue’s mid-20th century generation of university students was taught to “wonder about the tradition one is entering” grasped “by way of stories, formulae, concepts and symbols,” and to hold up as “cultural heroes” figures like Socrates and Galileo, seekers after  disinterested truth.

That view of scholarship was shaken for him by the “exhilarating version” of it that undermined the universities in the 1960s, making it apparent to Minogue that the academic melodrama of “taking sides in long-gone quarrels” involving even heroes such as Socrates was too simplistic. He came to understand that the “way to kill a tradition is to believe any particular theory of what the story means is true.” But this skepticism by itself would make all knowledge frivolous, so it must be balanced by “an imaginative sympathy with the deeds and customs of times past,” even a “piety” for them. Modern education claims to emancipate students to lead critical, disinterested rational lives so they may “construct a properly just society.” But that requires participating in politics and succumbing to outside interests rather than following disinterested scholarship, which can only be found if the university scholars retreat back into their formerly ivory towers.

Minogue later goes even further by finding that “all totalitarian experiences” emerge from “idealists thirsting for virtue,” beginning with Plato’s Laws extinguishing individuality before it was actualized and followed by Karl Marx and his progeny into modern times. Even Western democracies suffered a “soft” version of totalitarianism. They emerged with elections in the 19th century but under traditional elites, and only evolved into majority-seeking political parties demanding more egalitarian outcomes in the following century.

But even these were displaced in the 21st century by educated, skilled, merit-based, and centralized elites able to manipulate relatively uninformed masses through media and culture, “enforced by professional discipline, compulsory indoctrination and in some cases criminal prosecution.” The result has been an intellectually-devised and media-distributed “political correctness” (two decades before Donald Trump) for the masses.

Advent of the Statist Virtuecrats

Institutions—the family, localities, associations, private charities, and orthodox churches—that attempted to limit state power were displaced by centralized power. Beginning in Europe with Bismarck’s Germany, government became the expert and “all-purpose provider of services.” It was clear that traditional values such as chastity, loyalty, courage, responsibility, and thrift were attenuated, but “human beings are irredeemably moral creatures,” so these were replaced by secular benevolence, philanthropy, and welfare. Morality was released from narrow concerns about things like sex to take up serious matters, such as the perfecting of society, with central governments using other people’s money and the only modern moral evil that of intolerance.

The resulting paradox was that “Britain is an improving society with very high levels of virtue and Britain is in a condition of near social collapse” without commitment, responsibility, or loyalty, with the results being school disorder, bullying, firemen abused while trying to suppress fires, the intimidation of courtroom witnesses, gangs, debt, drugs, and single-parent households. “Most of us have now become devout and pious utilitarians” devoted to the avoidance of pain, addicted to demanding an impossible perfection that frustrates all, with even the churches “abandoning other-worldliness in order to become the public relations branch” of a caring central government.

The result by the 21st century is everyone supporting democracy but most people “disenchanted with the way it works.”  “Our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly.” Leaders try to make “us accountable to them” anyway to protect ourselves from our own smoking, eating the wrong food, not reading to our children, borrowing too much with our credit cards, and having unsound views of other races and cultures. But “the rulers we elect are losing patience with us.” To achieve perfection, moral choice must be transferred to authorities and we must be more servile to them. We are willing to accept this because freedom requires “the capacity not only to choose but also to face the consequences of one’s choice” while we see ourselves as “vulnerable people whose needs need to be met.”

By 2012, in his essay “Individualism and Its Contemporary Fate,” Minogue summarizes the story of the West in broad historical perspective as beginning with Greek and Roman warrior citizenship. In the rest of the world, custom, rank and religion “determined the manner of life” following their “own single right way” into hierarchical social order. Europe slowly broke from this cosmological uniformity with its diverse decentralized fiefs, Judeo-Christian individualism, and the development of the “consultative practices of feudal monarchies,” culminating in such agreements as Magna Carta and operationalized through their “vast range of face-to-face encounters” such as the mutual-obligation chivalric hierarchy, the medieval universities, and the rise of natural science as early as the 12th century.

Martin Luther is given a special place in this development, for although individualism preceded him, it achieved a much broader audience enlarged by technologies like printing to communicate his new revolutionary “singular formula” that set all individuals “free from law” to aspire to “a higher dutifulness,” placing Christian piety even over moral law.

“In a world of printed books the number of truths competing for recognition constantly multiplied.” In this 16th century Europe, “a quite new and remarkable moral practice appeared,” a practice that was theorized in different ways by Hobbes, John Locke, and the Baron de Montesquieu. The latter especially was “the Aristotle” of modern political thought. Montesquieu explained the change by identifying three historical types: the classical polis and tribe relying on courage and virtue; the non-European state utilizing myth and despotic fear; and the new,  monarchical European states resting upon rules of law. The European provided individual security in a more open cultural setting that Minogue defines as modern freedom. Individuals were allowed to maintain some ambiguity about the rules, with the divine right monarchies still able to “repeal laws without having to break or ignore them” under a code of “honor” allowing the order, creativity, and civility that produced Western prosperity.

Smith’s New Science Poses Its Challenge

Adam Smith challenged this claim by giving freedom itself the credit for that prosperity. The idea of an economy hardly existed before he used his new science to formulate the idea of a free market where the state protected but allowed individuals, guided by self-interest, to freely contract to produce economic as well as social freedom and greater wealth. This allowed Smith to create “a kind of revolution in moral sensibility,” turning what was once the vice of selfishness into an invisible hand producing social gain. Smithian capitalism was broadly adopted, but the stigma lingered, “generat[ing] a never-ceasing stream of proposals to replace the supposedly chaotic and selfish interests of individuals by central direction in the interests of all.”

Luther’s contribution ended up freeing the individual from the social conventions underlying the law rather than from the state itself. In this sense, even in its decline, Minogue finds that Christian free individualism “remains the heart of our civilization.” But that also explains why that secularized doctrine led to “endless conflict.” For our time has become a “graveyard of inherited conventions” releasing individuals from commitment to marriage, family, and state to create a new secularized “higher dutifulness” based on compassion and a duty to others’ social needs. The new “right way” became a political religion promoting economic and social equality. The word that became crucial, according to Minogue, was “vulnerability”—referring to women rendered vulnerable by marriage to men, and then to the vulnerability of “ethnic newcomers, homosexuals, transsexuals, children, problem families, drug users, old people,” the disabled, victims of burglary and even “the burglars themselves, especially if young.”

Turning the responsibility for protecting the vulnerable over to government and society translated into “a release from the ordinary obligation individuals have always had” to family and neighbor, creating a “collapse into atomism” that was usually blamed on capitalism. A “creeping utilitarianism” geared toward the single goal of compassion crowds out as frivolous even sports and games. Not only were those receiving public benefits “at the mercy of their government” but this freedom promising unconditional entitlement makes us “wary of others, including family, because they make claims on us,” leaving us “disconnected from the moral commitments of earlier times.”

Minogue’s Distillation of the Western Difference

In his final piece, from 2013, entitled “The Self-Interested Society,” Minogue concedes that he must go against his most basic teachings and become “perilously engaged in an abstract sociological sketch” to make sense of today’s disorder. He begins by noting that the West first evolved the nation-state as “an association of individualists managing their own lives,” as opposed to the governments in the rest of the world, which promised a “comprehensive system of justice” promoting social harmony. The Western model that he identifies with liberty was not so much based on self-preservation (this was common to Western and non-Western) but upon self-interest, which can only be understood as the historical event of moving from traditional to modern society, where “individuals must find some niche or enterprise within which to live,” to become self-reliant rather than being component parts within a traditional, cosmologically integrated community.

Traditional nations based upon “legitimization in terms of a comprehensive system of justice” grew from a common culture, with clear functions for each in a hierarchy based upon one’s contribution to the common good. Only in Europe and its colonies did a long history develop the concept of the individual into a “contractual order of social relationships” based upon self-interest, a development that became most obvious by the 17th century with the rise of words hyphenated with the word “self.” This fostered a “process of moral calculation” that manifested itself even “more in our moral life than in the economy,” which balanced such choices in “the interests of both the actor and those his acts will affect,” creating the free way of life enjoyed by Westerners.

Minogue ends by warning that most supporters of this historical European liberty seem to assume a universal desire for making free moral decisions. The truth, though, is that “what most people seem to want is to know exactly where they stand and be secure in their understanding of the situation.” Freely-decided rules and processes are risky; they will produce unexpected and sometimes unwelcome outcomes. It is this tension between the desire for security and the risks inherent in freedom that makes the latter “constantly vulnerable to those who try to seduce us with dreams of perfection.” Centralized compassion for “abstract classes of vulnerability” rather than individual calculations leads to nations becoming unable to say no to chronic debt, which threatens their survival and erodes the virtues of the people.

“Societies are necessarily imperfect and making them perfect is not an option for creatures such as humans,” writes Minogue. All that is possible is to “choose where imperfection may least harmfully find an outlet in our complicated societies” and to remember that freedom is what made the West so successful.

Evolution of His Thought

So how can a reviewer conclude about a book of essays that summarizes a great mind evolving his thinking about liberty over a long period of time? Minogue consistently disliked abstracted freedom, and therefore necessarily changed his thinking on what freedom is under varying,  concrete circumstances. Editor Fuller’s favorite Minogue piece ends with Hobbes’s very restricted definition of freedom, one certainly difficult for a Lockean America to digest. Minogue  rejected Berlin’s narrow “negative freedom,” and insisted government must be positive, although limited. He was attracted to classical virtue, which based freedom on courage, but seemed to consider its warrior discipline not possible today, nor even his idealized divine-right monarchy.  He was partial to Adam Smith but thought that Smith’s emphasis upon self-interest must be seriously refined to avoid a “total oppositionality.”

While it is difficult to locate in Minogue a definitive meaning for the term “freedom,” he did identify what liberty is not: it is not servility, which means thinking like a slave or (perhaps worse) freely viewing natural human restraints as obstacles to be removed by a benevolent master. Minogue could point to only three key institutions for freedom today: monarchy, Christianity, and conservatism. These in fact were identified for him by his progressive opponents, who targeted them as frustrating their plans for human perfection.

By monarchy, Minogue simply meant the European nation state, with or without a monarch, but derived from “feudal conditions” that established a view of humans as fallen creatures requiring the separation of Caesar from state to frustrate the totalitarian temptation. Yet, while Minogue’s Western nation-state may be essential, its still expanding size and uncontrollable debt, its fracturing so evident in, most recently, the Italian elections, and in the shaky Left-Right coalition in Germany, the populist turns in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria, in the threat of Catalonian, Basque, Scot and other secessions, and even in the divisiveness of American politics, cast doubt.

Still Minogue’s great insight for lovers of liberty was the criticality of the state if restricted in scope and supported by culture. Another was his insistence that “human beings are irredeemably moral creatures.” It was either: ancient myth and fear, classical courage and virtue, European tradition and rule of law, modern enforced totalitarian ideological uniformity, or postmodern “devout and pious” utilitarianism demanding perfection but producing servility. European rule of law was essential for freedom but it rested upon a Christian moral order that, with all of its “problems,” is also “the source of the traditions on which Western openness has been created.”

The survival prospects for the subsidiary institutions Minogue valued—family, locality, associations, conservative politics, private charity, and churches with perfection delayed until another world—are tenuous. But they have maintained a certain integrity, if in wounded form. The Pew Research Center’s major study of world moral orders reported that at least until 2050, Christians will continue to outnumber secularists in Europe, will still count for two-thirds of Americans, and will remain the largest world religion.

Kenneth Minogue held up Edmund Burke’s conservatism as the social force that could protect the other two institutions from the corrosive forces of modernity and keep liberty alive into the future—a challenging legacy worthy of the wisdom of its author.