The Tension in Classical Liberalism - A Rigid System with Dynamic Elements
In the previous post The Idea(s) of Freedom (1/3) - Uniform Meaning versus Dispersed Meanings, I emphasised what I consider a fatal internal contradiction in the classical liberal system of liberty: the ambition to offer a set of principles that establish exhaustively the meaning, the one and only valid conception of liberty. This gives rise to a contradiction, since liberty is defined in terms of building blocks (rights, property, justice) which are subject to deliberative contestation, different degrees of political support and thus constant historical change. The general concept ("the system") of liberty is not congruous with the dynamism of the elements from which it is built.
It is telling that the great scholars of natural rights, Grotius (1583 - 1645) and Pufendorf (1632 - 1694), especially the latter, were considered the most respected writers on natural law at the time, earning John Locke's (1632 - 1707) admiration, while
[n]either [...] could be called liberal individualists; on the contrary, both reached conclusions that were more favourable to absolutism [i.e. the unconditional sovereignty of the ruler, G.T.] But as (Locke indicated) Grotius and Pufendorf presented a theory of natural rights and obligations that could be used to solve the fundamental problems of political philosophy. They provided a conceptual structure, a way of thinking about political problems, that promised to bring system and coherence to a difficult discipline.
Smith G.H. (2015), The System of Liberty, Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, p.145
The Loss of Social Realism
Smith presents Locke's concept of freedom as an advancement compared to the mechanistic idea of freedom offered by Hobbes.
For Hobbes, freedom is the ability to do as one wills without external impediments of any kind. For Locke, in contrast, freedom is the ability to do as one wills with one's own without the coercive intervention of other people. (Ibid. p. 138)
Under Hobbes' conception, we arrive at paradoxical outcomes; for instance, a robbery may be both a violation and an exercise of freedom, i.e. a violation of the freedom of the person robbed, and an exercise of the robber's freedom.
However, there are two provisos not taken into account by Smith:
(1) To define freedom as the ability to remove ANY external impediment is certainly less than satisfactory. However, by rejecting such a wide definition of freedom, we have not yet settled the issue of whether it may still be advisable to remove impediments on specific occasions that necessitate the partial violation of freedom-defining rights. Which brings us back to the dynamic, case-driven character of rights, property, and justice. And it brings us to another objection to Smith's argument:
(2) While Locke's view of freedom is expounded by Smith to be a "social concept," defining freedom as a pattern of admissible/inadmissible human interaction, on closer inspection, it does not deserve such characterisation.
For, in Locke's view, writes Smith,
a condition of perfect freedom can said to exist when property rights, both in one's person and in external goods, are fully recognized and protected. Thus to the extent that a legal system approximates this goal, it can be said to preserve and enhance liberty. (Ibid. p. 138)
The unfortunate theme of "system" recurs in the notion of "a condition of perfect freedom," against which we are supposed to measure the degree of desirable approximation to liberty attained by the legal order. But it is not "a condition of perfect freedom" that drives the real life process of developing and defending freedom. It is not an intellectual construct that "can be said to preserve and enhance liberty," but social interrelationships that comprise far more weighty and efficacious factors than a doctrine claiming perfection.
In this sense, Locke's classical liberalism presents us with a static notion of liberty that does not do justice to the dynamic conditions of freedom in the real world, where the political character of freedom-defining social relations is pervasive.