Gladstonian liberalism in the modern age

If I am going to get into personal labels, I am a Gladstonian liberal. So here we are with the naming of things where “liberal” is the equivalent of insane while “conservative” is prudential common sense:

The differences between the classical-liberal and conservative traditions have immense consequences for policy. Establishing democracy in Egypt or Iraq looks doable to classical liberals because they assume that human reason is everywhere the same, and that a commitment to individual liberties and free markets will arise rapidly once the benefits have been demonstrated and the impediments removed. Conservatives, on the other hand, see foreign civilizations as powerfully motivated—for bad reasons as well as good ones—to fight the dissolution of their way of life and the imposition of American values.

Integrating millions of immigrants from the Middle East also looks easy to classical liberals, because they believe virtually everyone will quickly see the advantages of American (or European) ways and accept them upon arrival. Conservatives recognize that large-scale assimilation can happen only when both sides are highly motivated to see it through. When that motivation is weak or absent, conservatives see an unassimilated migration, resulting in chronic mutual hatred and violence, as a perfectly plausible outcome.

Since classical liberals assume reason is everywhere the same, they see no great danger in “depreciating” national independence and outsourcing power to foreign bodies. American and British conservatives see such schemes as destroying the unique political foundation upon which their traditional freedoms are built.

Here is the definition of Gladstonian liberal from Wikipedia which seems accurate enough for me and is utterly and in every way distinct from the “classical” variety as defined above.

Gladstonian liberalism is a political doctrine named after the British Victorian Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstonian liberalism consisted of limited government expenditure and low taxation whilst making sure government had balanced budgets and the classical liberal stress on self-help and freedom of choice. Gladstonian liberalism also emphasised free trade, little government intervention in the economy and equality of opportunity through institutional reform. It is referred to as laissez-faire or classical liberalism in the UK and is often compared to Thatcherism.

It is also the essence of the economics and political philosophy of John Stuart Mill. See his Principles of Political Economy and On Liberty to see these things spelled out. (A modern version of the economics of Mill can be found in my Free Market Economics.)

Personal freedom and personal responsibility within a society of limited government, tolerance and open enquiry guided by an all pervading Judeo-Christian ethic. And to go back to Wikipedia, this is the foreign policy approach for a Gladstonian liberal.

In foreign policy, Gladstone was in general against foreign entanglements, but he did not resist the realities of imperialism. For example, he approved of the occupation of Egypt by British forces in 1882. His goal was to create a European order based on co-operation rather than conflict and on mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.

Let me therefore go to the last para of the first article discussed for an interesting and enlightening comparison.

Brexit and Mr. Trump’s rise are the direct result of a quarter-century of classical-liberal hegemony over the parties of the right. Neither Mr. Trump nor the Brexiteers were necessarily seeking a conservative revival. But in placing a renewed nationalism at the center of their politics, they shattered classical liberalism’s grip, paving the way for a return to empiricist conservatism. Once you start trying to understand politics by learning from experience rather than by deducing your views from 17th-century rationalist dogma, you never know what you may end up discovering.

Labels will get in the way but I think the core principles are clear. And it need hardly be pointed out that the worst imaginable rationalist dogma is found under the heading of “socialism”, the absolute antithesis of Gladstonian liberalism which is socialism’s most intractable enemy.

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