Social Order and Political “Leaders”

Social Order and Political “Leaders”


Thomas Hodgskin was a great classical liberal leader. His book has this quote about Social Order and the motivations of other polical “leaders” he knew in Parliament.

His insights anticipated the Public Choice School of economists, who teach us to look to the behavioral motives of elected officials and their bureaucratic employees. His book: The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832) was very important in the 1830s’ British debates about the proper role of government. He strongly opposed Jeremy Bentham’s and James Mill’s Utiliarianism, and he directly influenced Herbert Spencer.

See George H. Smith’s series on this great classical liberal.
Hodgkin’s independent spirit, his intense dislike of unjust authority, and his determination “to make a powerful resistance to oppression every time [he] was its victim” was forged during a brief career in the Royal Navy. One is reminded of Herman Melville’s story of “Billy Budd.”

Let’s take this complex quotation and break it into four segments of argument.

  1. What is “social order”? How does it arise peacefully?
  2. Social order occurs prior to the State and legislators.
  3. Legislation attempts to freeze out natural changes.
  4. The political meddling by politicians introduces social dis-order.

1. What is “social order”?

“Social order is the mutual dependence of all those who contribute to the subsistence and welfare of society. It includes the manner in which they assist and protect each other, and provide for the mutual wants by the interchange of their respective products. . . .”

Hodskin defines “social order” as a process F.A. Hayek would later describe as “spontaneous order.” It arises from the evolution of usage and successful experimentation just as all social customs evolve, as well as our common language.

2. It is prior to government

“If by social order be meant the great scheme of social production, mutual dependence, and mutual service, which grows out of the division of labour, that scheme I will boldly assert the legislator frequently contravenes, but never promotes – that grows from the laws of man’s being, and precedes all the plans of the legislator, to regulate or preserve it. . . .”

The bureaucrats and Parliamentarians who make regulations and laws are restrictive and seek “to regulate or preserve” the status quo for the benefit of vested, crony interests.

3. Political meddling is costly

“In fact his attempts to keep in one state what is continually in progress are mischievous. . . .”

The bureaucrat and the legislator cause more direct and indirect harm to the peaceful operation of social order than they intend. We can measure this in the rent-seeking costs of lobbyists and protectionists, and the expense of compliance with regulations.

4. The motivations of the lawgivers

“We must then set aside as mere pretexts the assertions of the legislator, that he intends to preserve social order, and promote the public welfare; and we must deal with legislation as solely intended to preserve the power and privileges of the legislator.”

The meddling of the political “leader” is for the purpose of keeping himself and his peers in power. Whether this is a conscious “conspiracy” of political parties, or an indirect effect of making incentives for rent-seekers to work for protectionism, the results are the same for average people: lower standards of living.

The model of “the legislator” in Thomas Hodgskin’s writing is Jeremy Bentham and his protege James Mill, who saw in mechanistic Utilitarianism the key to setting up a “designed,” positive-law utopian scheme for government. This Utilitarianism almost destroyed the classical liberal arguments for human rights and civil liberties in the early decades of the 19th century.

Thomas Hodgskin and Herbert Spencer preserved the original, central argument for private property rights developed by John Locke on the premise of a peaceful “social order,” contrasted with the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (human lives are “nasty, brutish and short” due to warfare of “all against all” in nature). This discussion should now turn to John Locke’s innovation in his 1st and 2nd Treatise on Government.

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Richard Cobden, free trade

Richard Cobden, was a Richard Cobden
Member of Parliament. He is still a strong voice for free trade, as “best” British (and universal) commercial policy. He was able to win his government to free trade in 1846, with a half-century of strong economic growth to follow.

This great idea, of the connection between free trade and peace, was urged at a time of a great delusion about “balance of power” and Russia. It sounds familiar to a 20-21st century observer. Cobden’s classical Liberal Party dominated the government during the following decades and Britain “ruled” the world in a period of great peace and prosperity.

His 2nd greatest achievement was the Free Trade Treaty with France (1860), which became a model for many other such treaties that opened up other countries; Britain was not “closed” again until conservatives took the government and wanted to enhance “imperial preference” in trade. Then the Boer War and the first World War were indirect consequences of that new direction for commercial policies, as other governments followed Bismarck instead of Cobden.

Wars historically come in years/decades following the closing off of an era of “free trade” as Britain enjoyed through the mid-19th century.