Liberalism and Self-Government

14 October 2022

This week we're thinking about the British Liberal tradition and its relationship to colonialism and self-government. Classical Liberal thinkers, like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, held that we're all born free, equal, and capable of rationality, and so we all deserve to be free and equal. So how does that square with a British Empire that denied people around the globe their autonomy for centuries, or a United States of America—whose Founding Fathers explicitly looked to those Liberal thinkers for inspiration—founded on colonialism, "manifest destiny," and slavery?

Locke himself owned stock in the Royal Africa Company, which was involved in the slave trade, and Mill worked for the British East India Company, which stole around $45 trillion from India. So should we say that Locke and Mill were flawed people with some genuinely interesting ideas, including the idea that human beings deserve freedom and equality, and even that there's a "right to revolution"? Or were their ideas precisely what enabled England to build a huge empire and then pretend that it was OK?

One way to understand the flagrant conflict between theory and practice—writing about freedom but working for the East India Company—is to say that Locke and Mill allowed chauvinism to cloud their judgment about other countries. Maybe they genuinely believed that everyone is capable of rationality, and therefore deserving of freedom—but they also thought, benightedly, that certain nations hadn't reached that point yet. If you were British, they thought you counted as capable of self-governance; but if you were born and raised in Ireland, India, or Africa, they thought you were part of a culture in its "infancy," and you needed to be babysat by someone more responsible. 

These 17th- and 18th-century British writers failed to recognize rationality in other people, because they couldn’t see past differences in language and customs. That’s clearly ridiculous. But is it a problem with the concept of rationality? Is it a problem for Liberalism? Maybe a defender of Liberalism could say this: if they’d been proper Liberals, they would have opposed that kind of bigotry.

A critic of Liberalism would deny that: Locke and Mill were smart people; they were Liberals; and they didn’t oppose that kind of bigotry. So maybe Liberalism was just an ideology (in the pejorative sense), a smokescreen that gave cover to theft and exploitation. 

Still, any ideology can be used as a cover for theft and exploitation. Take the United States: its settlers didn’t appeal to Liberalism, but said that God wanted them conquer the entire continent. And when the Persians were running around conquering all their neighbors, they weren't exactly quoting John Locke. So surely Liberalism is at least no worse than other ideologies.

That said, this isn't much of a defense of Liberalism: at best, to quote The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy's entry about Earth, it is "mostly harmless." If it so dramatically failed in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, is there any reason for us to keep it alive today? Even if it could theoretically work in some ideal world, can it work in reality?

Well, maybe. These days we’re not doing perfectly by any means, but we’re at least doing better (Britain doesn’t have an empire any more, for one thing). And a lot of Western social institutions are grounded on Liberal principles of self-governance. Even beyond the West, some democratic movements have drawn on Liberal ideas. So should we give (more) credit where it’s due? We'll see what our guest has to say: Uday Singh Mehta from the City University of New York, author of Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought.

Comments (3)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, November 1, 2022 -- 7:43 AM

Several notes here: good

Several notes here: good synopsis of history, colonialism came and went and left a mark. I don't think it any longer poses an influence, good, bad or indifferent. Those who could engage something like it seem to prefer genocide. Liberalism, if it is not yet dead, is comatose. Here, for example, political power is held by those who, in any practical sense, reject change. We call that conservatism. Or, majority rule: ' we will have self-government, but your self had better align with ours, or your self had just as well stay home'. New and different is dangerous to status quo. We'll be having none of that!

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, November 14, 2022 -- 8:25 AM

Well, the Empire was not too

Well, the Empire was not too interested in liberal thinking, was She? Far more interested in mining the riches of the world. So, in any practical sense, there is nothing to square here. Civilizational superiority ruled the time and England was not the only prosperous country that wanted greater prosperity. Colonialism was de rigeur. If there were moral or ethical qualms, no one appeared to notice, save possibly the Church. She too had a steak on the grill with all of this. No sense in rocking the boats. Lesson in practical philosophy closed.

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wigsparrow's picture


Wednesday, January 17, 2024 -- 2:05 AM

Exploring the complex

Exploring the complex relationship between British Liberalism and colonialism raises critical questions about the ideological foundations that shaped empires. As we delve into the contradictions of figures like Locke and Mill, it prompts reflection on how notions of freedom and equality intersected with imperialism. Looking forward to Uday Singh Mehta's insights in 'Liberalism and Empire' to navigate the intricate history and impact of Liberal thought on global governance run 3

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