Do What Thou Wilt and Bleeding-heart Liberals? "A rag-bag of contradictory ideas and wishful thinking" or a valid philosophy?

Kate Hoolu

The quote above is attributed to JM Keynes, the 1930's pioneer economist, who had conflicting views to Classical Liberals. In this article I will briefly outline the different strands in the development of Liberalism (it would be fairer to say Liberalisms), and highlight some of the apparent contradictions that Keynes objected to, and finally give my conclusion as to whether Keynes' comments are fair. This article is also intended as a 'primer' for a forthcoming essay on this site by Francis Breakspear about Thelema and Christopher Hyatt's 'Psychopath's Bible', as many of the criticisms directed at Crowley's philosophy find earlier echoes in Liberalism, but Hyatt's subjectively horrible book is not so far from Liberal theory taken to the extreme.

The core values of Liberalism are difficult to identify due to the pluralist aspect and current homogeneity of UK politics especially; but they revolve around ideas of progress, reform, freedom and the individual.

Liberalism arguably started in the 17th century with the thoughts of Hobbes and Locke following the English civil war, but it was not really until the early nineteenth century with the development of utilitarianism by James Mill and Jeremy Bentham that the bones of the "Classical" Liberal ideologies can be clearly seen. Bentham's Hedonistic Calculus and his theories that individuals are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding creatures led on to ideas about morality and "goodness", culminating in the principle of government based on the "greatest good for the greatest number". At face value this seems just and democratic; but in a finely balanced society it could mean slavery and torment for 49% of the citizens, providing the other 51% were having a ball. The very real possibility of slavery in a liberal society is one apparent contradiction that Keynes would have spotted.

James Mill's son, John Stuart Mill, was 'hot-house' tutored by Bentham and he became the leading light of Modern Liberal philosophy in the 19th century. He later overturned many of his father's (and Bentham's) ideas, believing instead that Bentham's hedonism was too simplistic an idea on which to base a philosophy. JS Mill distinguished between higher and lower pleasures (clearly a subjective term) and believed that man tended to the higher forms of pleasure and self-development rather than just pure gratification; and it is on this that he based much of his ideas.

When speaking of "liberty" it is important to distinguish the differences between the two main types, as this difference can lead to the sort of contradictions that Keynes abhorred. Negative liberty is what James Mill and Bentham meant; in that as far as possible the state intervention in the life of the individual is kept at an absolute minimum (the "nightwatchman state"); liberty here being the freedom from interference.

Positive liberty is that found when state intervention (especially in the economy and authoritarian laws) is higher; but that individuals have freedom to do a great many things, this is what JS Mill meant.

Economic Liberalism, as alluded to above, is based on the 18th century economist Adam Smith; who applied Liberal ideas to economic policies of intervention, arguing that a free market encouraged the best of all worlds for consumers, employers and employees; with the national economy becoming self-regulating and without any need for government intervention; and this idea was later extended to international trade. In practice this approach seemed often to lead to a state of chaotic "boom or bust" economies; with recessions and unemployment commonplace.

Later Liberal thinkers, such as TH Green came back in part to JS Mill's ideas on personal development and moral choice; Green believing in providing a stage on which individuals could make morally "right" decisions, rather than having a state which coerced people to follow a particular moral route. The last Liberal government in the UK was over 80 years ago, but it followed the reformist tradition; arguably laying the foundations for the (now disintegrating) welfare state (Old age pensions, school meals, labour exchanges and health insurance).

In an ideology which promotes any kind of large-scale freedom there will always be problems of logic and application; for example in one person's freedom to harm another there is contravention of the rights of the person being harmed to be free from such injury. JS Mill recognised this kind of paradox, and included it in his "Harm principle", which briefly allows society to intervene to prevent anyone being harmed by the actions of another without compromising the Liberal philosophy. The modern Liberal Democrats and New Labour are still struggling with the implications of this matter in the issue of legalisation or decriminalisation of drugs, and dealing with refugees. Arguably as they harm only the user they should be legalised, but if the user later becomes a problem to society (and a financial burden, perhaps due to heroin addiction) then they are technically causing harm to others (indirectly, to taxpayers) and society must intervene.

There are many other potential problems with putting Liberal ideas into practice; as they can theoretically allow for such acts as infanticide, despotism and racism; none of which outwardly seem to be linked to freedoms. It can be said that there are no absolute freedoms ever possible (under any political ideology), as for example the absolute freedom to act as one wishes includes the freedom to sell ones' self into a lifetime of slavery so that one would not be absolutely free anymore. One of the problems with Crowley's 'Do What Thou Wilt', and something which he himself struggled with, both philosophically and physiologically, due to his own heroin addiction in later life. Liberalism viewed as a set of limited freedoms (but considerably less limited than some other ideologies) would probably be a more accurate summary.

From the above it can be seen that Keynes remarks are a rather unfair generalisation on a very complex and pluralistic ideology. Since Keynes' time, Liberal thought has cropped up in a great many guises; not least via Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative New Right in the 1980s. There are also elements of Mill in New Labour thought; and Green's rather collectivist ideas found favour with socialists at the genesis of the original Labour party. It would perhaps be fairer to remark that the main streams of Liberal theory, and Thelema are "biblical", in that there is something in there with a different meaning for everyone if they are selective enough; in the case of the New Right it can be argued that they took (and interpreted) Mill's initial ideas but not his attached moral caveats which might have regulated the ideas in a more humane fashion.

On the matter of contradiction this is perhaps a more fair judgment when we remember that Mill was largely a philosopher with little experience in practical applications; although to his credit he did wrestle with many of the thornier logical problems, which his ideas suggested to him. The future of Liberalism seems gloomy; perhaps it is seen at its best as a part of some other political party, as a pure strain of liberalism seems to be unworkable due to the highly problematic balance between these apparent inherent contradictions.

Kate Hoolu


Mailed Information on request from UK Liberal Democrat Party, 2001
On Liberty; JS Mill, Penguin 1985
Issues In Philosophy; C Pinchin Macmillan 1994
Political Ideologies; A Heywood, Macmillan 1992
Diary of a Drug Fiend; A Crowley. Various publishers, try