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Book Summary: The Liberal Approach to the Past
Encompassing Various Historical and Philosophical Perspectives through the Lens of Liberalism
This book explores how liberal ideas — such as individual rights, democracy, and freedom — examine the practice of history and historical interpretation. Michael J. Douma presents selected liberal thinkers and how they approached historical events, figures, and narratives.
Prior to delving into well-known works of liberalism, such as Road to Serfdom and others, it's valuable for us to comprehend how the thought processes of liberals aided them in formulating their theories and writings.
Picture this: You arrive at your friend's house for dinner, and it turns out your friend is a renowned chef. The meal is so delicious that you can't resist asking for the secret recipes. Your gracious friend shares the recipes, but it leaves you wondering about the creative process that led your friend to come up with these famous dishes.
What I can say about this book is somewhat like this — this book primarily delves into the chef's imaginative thinking process that inspired the creation of these renowned recipes.
The Shift of “Liberal” Meaning in the U.S.
Before we turn the first page of this book, we need to be in the same page on the definition of “liberal”.
The terms “liberalism” and “liberal“ have moved away from classical liberal philosophy that emphasizes individual liberty, economic freedom, and limited government. In contrast to the original meaning, Americans today associate the word liberal with left-leaning ideology such as “progressivism” or “social democrat” with emphasis on more government intervention to advance social justice, redistribution of wealth, and welfare or social safety nets.
“Around 1900 even the term ‘liberal’ underwent a change. People who supported big government and wanted to limit and control the free market started calling themselves liberals.”
- David Boaz
In his essay "What Does ‘Liberal’ Mean, Anyway?”1, David Boaz highlights that in the United States, "liberal" once referred to advocates of limited government, individual freedom, and free-market capitalism, but its meaning changed during the 20th century, becoming associated with government intervention and social welfare policies. He emphasizes the importance of clear language to convey political ideas accurately and advocates for using terms like "libertarian" to represent the original liberal principles of limited government and personal liberty. Boaz, a distinguished senior fellow at Cato Institute, praises Ronald Reagan for Reagan’s strong commitment to limited government, free-market economics, and individual liberty.2 In today’s American politics, Reagan’s classical liberal position is associated with the term: “conservative”.
“Many intuitively understand, too, that classical liberalism bears little relation to the postwar ‘liberalism’ advanced by the American left.”3
- James M. Buchanan
James M. Buchanan, Nobel Prize laureate in economic science in 1986, in his work on “Saving the Soul of Classical Liberalism”, emphasizes the need to preserve the core principles of classical liberalism. Buchanan argues that classical liberalism has been eroded by various forces, including the growth of welfare state and the distortion of democratic processes. He contends that a return to the foundational values of limited government, property rights and economic freedom is essential to maintain the essence of classical liberalism.
So, What Does “Liberal” Mean in this book?
“Liberal” in this Michael J. Douma’s book refers to the classical liberalism: limited government, individual freedom, and free-market capitalism.
This book contains 19 writings from self-described liberal historians: James Anthony Froude, Frederic William Maitland, William Torrey Harris, Heinrich Rickert, Charles George Crump, Benedetto Croce, Maurice Mandelbaum, R. G. Collingwood, F. A. Hayek, Pieter Geyl, Herbert Butterfield, Ludwig von Mises, Jacques Barzun, Henry F. Graff, Henry Steele Commager, J. F. Hexter, Roy A. Childs Jr, R. M. Hartwell, and Sheilagh Ogilvie.
Here, I am going to give a bit of summary of the key ideas from Hayek, von Mises, and Froude presented in this book. Interestingly enough, while writing this article, I found that the subject in this book can be analyzed and debated from different viewpoints, as these ideas are not immutable. Feel free to differ.
F. A. Hayek
“The Historicism of the Scientific Approach” is a chapter in a F. A. Hayek’s 1952 book The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. The chapter in summary, involves a critique of the application of scientific methods to the study of human society and economics, emphasizing the limitations of such an approach and the importance of individual freedom and decentralized decision-making.
“The whole idea of variability of the human mind is a direct result of the erroneous belief that mind is an object which we observe as we observe physical facts.”
- F. A. Hayek
Hayek criticism of historicism and scientism is a key component of his political and economic philosophy. He argued that historicism, the belief that historical and social phenomena can be studied in the same way as natural sciences; and scientism, the excessive reliance on the methods of the natural sciences, were misguided and potentially harmful.
He believed that historicism was flawed because it ignored the complexity and unpredictability of human interactions. He argued that scientism, which seeks to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the social sciences, was problematic because human behavior is influenced by subjective values and cannot be reduced to simple laws like in the natural sciences.
Further, if we explore his other writings such as The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, his idea on historicism and scientism is essential to his belief in the importance of individual liberty and spontaneous order in social systems, advocating for limited government intervention and the free market as mechanism to achieve social and economic progress.
Ludwig von Mises
Below is what Michael J. Douma said about Ludwig von Mises.
“As I wrote elsewhere: ‘Mises’s version of liberty is not the liberty of the state or of politics, nor is it a kind of Hegelian liberty that acts on the stage of history through the rational unfolding of an ultimate plan. For Mises, liberty is inescapably the subject matter of history. We literally cannot choose not to write about liberty when we write history.’”
- Michael J. Douma
Mises’ book, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, is a significant work in the field of economics and philosophy. In chapter 8, Mises discusses the philosophy of history and its relation to the theme of history and the theme of the philosophy of history.
Mises’ perspective on the theme of history is largely influenced by his strong advocacy for methodological individualism and the importance of individual actions in shaping historical events. He argues that history is not a deterministic process but rather the result of countless individual choices and actions. Mises emphasizes that understanding history requires a focus on the decisions and actions of individuals and their interactions within the framework of society and institutions.
Regarding the philosophy of history, Mises expresses skepticism about grand historical narratives and teleological explanation that try to find singular purpose or meaning in the course of history.
Teleological refers to the idea or concept that things have a purpose or goal, and events or processes are directed towards achieving that purpose directed by God or nature or some other superhuman entity. In teleological explanations, actions or phenomena are often explained by their intended outcomes or final causes. It is a view that things in nature or the universe have a purpose, end, or design.
He argues that historical events should not be interpreted as part of a predetermined plan but rather as the result of complex human interactions and decisions.
James Anthony Froude
This book provides a reproduced James Anthony Froude’s lecture, “The Science of History”, delivered at the Royal Institution, Feb 5, 1864, which altercates Henry Thomas Buckle’s belief.
Buckle was a 19th-century British historian. One of his key theories was the idea that history could be studied scientifically, applying empirical methods and statistical analysis to understand the patterns and causes of historical events. He believed that these scientific methods could reveal the laws governing human progress and the development of civilization. His theory also emphasized the role of geography, climate, and social conditions in shaping the course of history. He argued that these external factors had a significant influence on the behavior of societies.
Froude was a novelist, lecturer, editor, and historian. Froude was critical of some aspects of Buckle’s work, particularly his deterministic and reductionist approach to history.
“And thus consistently Mr. Buckle cared little for individual. He did not believe that the history of mankind is the history of its great men. Great men with him were but larger atoms, obeying the same impulses with the rest, only perhaps a trifle more erratic. With them or without them, the course of things would have been much the same.”
- James Anthony Froude
Here are some of Froude’s criticism of Buckle:
Lack of individual agency. Froude argued that Buckle’s emphasis on external factors like geography and climate downplayed the role of individual agency and the actions of significant historical figures. Froude believed that great men and women could have a profound impact on history, which Buckle’s theory seemed to overlook.
Ignoring cultural and moral factors. Froude contended that Buckle’s focus on empirical data and statistical analysis ignored the importance of cultural and moral factors in shaping history. Froude believed that values, beliefs, and ideologies played a significant role in historical events, and these aspects were not adequately addressed in Buckle’s work.
While Froude had valid criticism of Buckle’s work, it is worth noting that both historians made significant contribution to the field of historical scholarship in the 19th century.
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Boaz, David. “What Does “Liberal” Mean, Anyway?” Cato Policy Report, vol. XLV, no. 3, 2023, pp. 1, 6-8.
Boaz, David. “Remembering Ronald Reagan.” 2004.
Buchanan, James M. “The Soul of Classical Liberalism.” The Independent Review, vol. V, no. 1, 2000, pp. 111–119.