When Kipling coined this phrase in the 19th century he was lamenting the gulf of understanding between the imperial British and their subjects on the Indian subcontinent. It has since entered general usage meaning two things that are so different they have no opportunity to unite.
In the development and discussion of liberty there are two strains which fit this description. There is the English school of thought born out of fits and starts developed over centuries by trial and error as first the Lords and then the common people of England fought for and gained individual liberty, personal freedom and economic opportunity. On the other side is the French School of thought which sprang from the French Revolution. This revolution was based upon a foundation of several generations of French thinkers who labored under the extremely autocratic divine right monarchy which held France in thrall for so long.
Our Republic sprang from the English tradition, and for most of its History has developed along the lines it defined. Today we find our traditions and our model of governance under assault not from without but from within. After successfully defeating the Fascist totalitarians in World War II and subsequently defeating the Soviet totalitarians in the Cold War we find ourselves face-to-face with home grown want-to-be totalitarians. Many wonder how this can be. How can people raised in America think so differently than Americans have thought for so long?
What we face is a clique of academics who have no real world experience and who have accepted the French as opposed to the English school of thought. Once we explore the two this will reveal it to be what one might expect from those who have inhabited the ivory towers for their entire adult lives.
So what are the differences between the English and the French theories of Liberty?
The English theory was forged in the fires of English History. Starting with the Magna Charta wherein the Lords forced King John to accept some limitation on his absolute power, it continued on through the slow expansion of rights and the Civil War. Leading eventually to the emasculation of the Lords, the triumph of the House, and the primacy of its Prime Minister, the English tradition grew it was not imposed. This process was highly empirical and unsystematic.
The French theory is the product of a slow germination at first by intellectuals and academics who labored under a repressive regime of hereditary elites ruled over by kings who claimed divine right to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to whoever they wanted. These thinkers had no way to experiment. They had no way to see if their ideas worked in the real world. They thought in virtual vacuums building highways in the air to link sand castles of the mind. Their approach was rationalistic and systematic.
The English school built upon such thinkers as David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. The French built upon the works of such notables as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nicolas de Condorcet, and François Quesnay.
The French rationalists believed that man was originally endowed with the intellectual and moral capacity to deliberately build society, civilization and government. The English believe that all three are the result of an evolutionary process of trial and error. The French believed that thinking man could devise new and better forms of governance and impose them from above. The English believed that effective governance was a product of experience discarding that which does not work and perfecting that which does.
The English view is deeply entrenched in Christian tradition and thought. It does not build upon anything like the natural goodness of man, natural harmony, or natural liberty the hallmarks of the French school. They instead realized that it was informed self-interest that was the prime-mover amongst men. However there was no illusion that the natural liberty or natural harmony of interests would direct this self-interest to provide or develop society in a manner which promoted the general good. The English school and the works which their leading lights produced universally saw law and structure as the necessary framework within which the invisible hand could and would benefit the general society by working for the individual good. Or as a famous American once said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
It is obvious from even a cursory review of the works of the English school that they do not advocate for either anarchy in government or laissez-faire in economics. Both of which are common charges casually tossed in the direction of American Traditionalists by the progressive elites who control our government and media.
Conversely, the French school not only advocated but coined the phrase laissez-faire, and Anarchy as a political theory was developed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It is the French tradition which holds that liberty can be imposed from above and yet in a Schizophrenic fit of conscious these would-be liberators could say as Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, did, “Every law is an evil for every law is an infraction of liberty.” No matter what their theories say about the greatest good for the greatest number and their goal of a worker’s paradise these are the same people who brought us the Soviet gulag and the Cambodian killing fields.
The differences between the two schools of thought are best illustrated in their fundamental assumptions regarding the essence of human nature. The French relying on their rationalistic conscious design model hold that humans have an innate ability to think and a desire to act rationally based on their natural intelligence and basic goodness. The English believe that it is the institutions and traditions evolved over time that provide a framework which allows man to constrain his fallen nature. They see these institutions as platforms for the launching of society into a trajectory to good while at the same time restraining the darker side of human nature from doing its worst.
These two schools of thought are as different as east and west. Though they may at present in America travel on the same road they are heading for two completely different destinations. They may even race towards each other at a furious speed, and they may collide; however, never the twain shall meet.
Though Harry Reid may call those who oppose the endless spending anarchists, and Pelosi may call those who oppose raising the debt limit advocates of laissez-faire it is they who represent the intrusion of the French school into American politics. It is the Progressives who march around the world trying to impose liberty and democracy on cultures that find democracy abhorrent and ungodly. It is the Progressives who are dedicated to creating a utopia from the top down.
In other words a donkey may call an elephant an ass but that doesn’t make it one.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2013 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens