Hobhouse and Leadership: A Consideration of Liberalism

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In 1911, L. T. Hobhouse published his brief Liberalism meant for his home audience in Great Britain but it eventually came to be considered a classic treatment of the emergent “social liberalism” of the 20th century.  It remains a lucid, accessible, and generally persuasive statement of evolving liberal principles and thinking, despite the passage of over a century.  Hobhouse clearly understood his arguments to be an evolutionary statement in the long line of “liberal” thinkers stretching back through T. H. Green and J. S. Mill  to Bentham and Locke, among others.  Like all of those thinkers, he pays scant direct attention to the character and role of leadership in a liberal polity.  At the same time, again like many of those thinkers, he implies much about what must be expected of leaders and leadership in regard to a liberal polity but in his case it reflects his commitment to a polity that not only advances individual rights against the power of the state but reflects the evolution of the community and state into an enhanced condition of equality and liberty.

Despite the little direct attention to the subject of leadership (all references in this essay are to the 1964 edition of the 1911 original published by Oxford University Press, New York) it is possible to discern in Liberalism significant ideas about the role of leaders and leadership in an evolving liberal political culture.  In the latter regard, two points should be noted at the outset: (1) Hobhouse makes direct use of the word “leadership” only twice and uses less direct references (such as “leading”) only three or four times throughout Liberalism, and (2) his overall goal for liberalism is for a growth in equality and liberty that is to be constantly striven for but unlikely ever to be fully achieved.  For him, I think, Liberalism and, by inference, leadership must serve the prosperity and well-being of all persons within the larger purpose of developing a just society in which liberty is preserved in the context of equality.  Hobhouse makes very clear to anyone searching for broader justifications for leaders that any leader must be constrained by the general demand for liberty itself; vis. “a man is not free when he is controlled by other men, but only when he is controlled by principles and rules which all society must obey, for the community is the true master of the free man.” (19) but then he notes that this “is only the beginning of the matter.”  Indeed, he has no use for tyranny, either personal or collective, or rigid authority since he makes clear his thinking:

“some men are better and wiser than others, but experience seems to show that hardly any man is so much better or wiser than others that he can permanently stand the test of irresponsible power over them.  On the contrary, the best and wisest is he who is ready to go to the humblest in spirit of inquiry, to find out what he wants and why he wants it before seeking to legislate for him.  Admitting the utmost that can be said for the necessity of leadership, we must at the same time grant that the perfection of leadership itself lies in securing the willing, convinced, and open-eyed support of the mass” (118).

Add to this his fundamental assertion:

“. . . there is no right to injure another” and we can see that the scope and domain of leadership is not only restricted within a liberal polity but redirected to perhaps more different, difficult and higher purposes than in more traditional socio-political systems.”

In Liberalism Hobhouse straightforwardly rejects previous conceptions of freedom that understand it only in terms opposed to restraint by the public or government.  As a result we can see that leadership in the liberal community is directed by restraints, obligations, and expectations that assume, in large part, a different character than those of other societies, including prior conceptions of liberal society.  His argument is based upon the belief “true consent is free consent, and full freedom of consent implies equality on the part of both parties to the bargain.”  Elemental liberty comes from a government that prevents the abuse of the physically weak by the strong and more liberty comes with “. . . every restriction that it imposes with a view to preventing one man from making use of any of his advantages to the disadvantage of others”(50).  Thus, he identifies for both leaders and government a primary duty and obligation that applies to each as well as to every citizen.  Hobhouse uses the terms “unsocial freedom” and “social freedom” to underscore his point that the former rests on the claim that an individual can use his or her “. . . powers without regard to the wishes or interests of anyone but himself” whereas the latter “. . . for any epoch short of the millennium rests on restraint.  It is a freedom that can be enjoyed by all members of the community, and it is the freedom to choose (that) which does not injure others (50).

Further, he supposes that “. . . as all social liberty rests upon restraint, (the) restraint of one-man in one respect is the condition of the freedom of other men in that respect”(51).  So, “. . . good liberty . . . is (that) enjoyed by all who dwell  together, . . . and depends on and is measured by the completeness with which by law, custom, or their own feelings they are restrained from mutual injury” (51).  If the imperfections of society are placed against the these conceptions of “good liberty,” for which we might read “good society,”  we find the primary duties and obligations of leadership and government.  He does argue that whatever inequalities of “. . . actual treatment, of income, rank, office, consideration, there may be in a good social system, it would rest, not on the interest of the favored individual but on the common good.”

It should be noted that we can draw the inference here that at some point when those imperfections might be reduced or removed the roles of leadership and government in society might be greatly reduced or eliminated as the need for them is reduced and, perhaps, assumed by citizens acting both autonomously and collectively.  At any point, however, the definition of the common good and finding common agreement on it must be difficult.  However, my reading of Liberalism suggests that such social perfection is a goal that always recedes into the future even as progress toward it is achieved.

What, then, is expected of leaders in an evolving Liberal polity?  In one of his few references to leadership, Hobhouse says that “. . . those who effect a revolution ought to know whither they are leading.”  This implies not merely a sense of personal goals but that those goals also serve collective purposes by way of an ethic of responsibility for the future of the society.  In one of the most potent paragraphs in Liberalism as far as leadership is concerned he allows that leadership must seek to satisfy the “thirsty souls of humankind”:

“Great changes are not caused by ideas alone; but they are not effected without ideas.  The passions of men must be aroused if the frost of custom is to be broken or the chains of authority burst; but passion itself is blind and its work is chaotic.  To be effective, men must act together and to act together they must have common understanding and a common object.  When it comes to a question of any far-reaching change, they must not merely conceive their own immediate end with clearness.  They must convert others, they must communicate sympathy and win over the unconvinced.  Upon the whole, they must show that their object is possible, that it is compatible with existing institutions, or at any rate with some work form of social life.  They are . . . driven on by the requirements of their position to the elaboration of ideas, and in the end to some sort of social philosophy; and the philosophies that have driving force behind them are those which arise . . . out of the practical demands of human feeling” (30).

A great deal of the academic work on leadership that has occurred since Hobhouse wrote improves little on what is said, or says it as well as he does in this brief paragraph.  Indeed, he seems to foreshadow what James MacGregor Burns called transformational leadership, although it is somewhat surprising to note that no citation of Hobhouse appears in  Burns’ Leadership (1978. Harper & Row. New York).  Out of this brief but rich assertion, reinforced by a reading of the entirety of Liberalism, it is possible to begin to identify some of the rules and expectations of leadership as well as citizenship embedded in “Liberalism.”  Some of the rules identified here suggest that leaders, in order to move towards realization of liberal goals, must:

1. Hold a “Will to Learn” and Grow, Encouraging All People to do the Same (66-77)

This involves that sort of self-discipline that undergirds moral discipline and, in turn, allows that inner harmony making us capable of directing our own lives within a community which itself then grows – a primary aim of liberalism.  Liberty becomes then not merely the right of an individual but “a necessity of society.”

2. Work to Perceive Human Needs and Wants (70)

“. . . when we have well weighed the good and the evil of all parties concerned we can find no alternative open to us which could do better for the good of all.”

Here we may identify a need for an ethics of leadership responsibility for outcomes measured by the common good realized.  Thus, leaders must “know whither they are leading” as a result of thoughtful anticipation and consideration of the consequences of their actions; (31) with a marked ability to anticipate probable outcomes of any action while operating within the context and strictures of a liberal political culture.  This seems to be especially dangerous ground for both leaders and citizens since demagogues and charlatans not burdened by an ethic of responsibility, experience suggests, may seek and find advantage in deception or misunderstanding about what constitutes the common good.

3. Persuade Without Coercion (27, 74-79); Treating All Humans as “Capable of Right and Truth;” (59-61) 

Hobhouse rejects the belief among individualist liberals that the free play of self-interested individuals in the economic sphere will produce the most prosperous and just society possible.  He argues that Mill’s attempt to distinguish between self-regarding and other-regarding actions is inadequate to the social purposes of both liberty and justice.  The concepts of restraint and coercive and non-coercive actions need to be considered as well.  The State may coerce only to “. . . override individual coercion . . .” or coercion by “. . . any association of individuals within the State.”  Economic and social inequalities often produce abilities on the part of some to coerce others along with a willingness to do so in pursuit of their self-interest without regard to the common good which an only be found in the good of every person.  Restraint in awareness of one’s responsibility to the common good is the foundation of liberty since mutual self-restraint allows for mutual liberty.   Learning and growth cannot be compelled.  “. . . all social liberty rests upon restraint, that restraint of one man in one respect is the condition of freedom of other men in that respect.” (50)  Thus, a leader must not claim more freedom to act than any other; and neither accept nor exercise arbitrary rule (70);

4. Be Tolerant and Just; Respect and Encourage Liberty of Thought and Expression, Allowing for the Correction of Erroneous Ideas and Opinion in the Process of  Thought and Expression (19)  

Free speech as an expression of opinion is part of the social process of learning and growth.  “The Liberal does not meet opinions which he conceives to be false with toleration, as though they did not matter.  He meets them with justice, and exacts for them a fair hearing as though they  mattered just as much as their own” (63).  Let error have free play and truth may appear and value be added to the community and error may be discovered where it has not previously been perceived.

5. Seek Harmony in Realizing the Common Good; In Part by Sharing Leadership Roles and Obligations to Achieve Common Ends (41, 68) 

This speaks to an ideal to be sought; an “ethical harmony” that “men might attain.”  It also speaks to the difficulties faced by leaders of a liberal polity as conceived by Hobhouse and, suggests a Liberal unease with leadership as a concept and role since it so often gives rise to authoritarian forms antithetical to the liberal state.

6. Seek “Effective Liberty” for the Community and All in It (66-76)

“as opposed to “nominal freedom” found in the “absence of legal restraint wherein the stronger might still coerce the weak.” 

This, where legal restraint on coercive acts is coupled with self-restraint on the part of all to maximize a sort of practical mix of liberty marked by autonomy and acceptance of governance in which leadership, itself self-restrained,  must “. . . rely on the concrete teaching of  history and the practical insight of statesmanship.”  Most succinctly, this is made necessary since  “. . . liberty without equality is a name of noble sound and squalid result.” (48)

7. Not Allow Any Special Interest to Contradict the Common Good, Including his Own (30); and Avoid Seeking Personal Interest Inconsistent with the Common Good (50-51) 

This seems to be more than mere policy but a required element of character in Liberal leadership.  It is a common expectation for good government and leaders to be disinterested in the sense that self-interest should not be served by taking public office but also that policy development should serve the collective interest of the community and not the special interest of any individual or group.  Perhaps the primary reason for these rules is that, when such self-interests are served the capacity for coercion destructive of liberty and equality expands.

Many more concepts and ideas subject to debate and consideration might be drawn from Liberalism than reasonable space allows in this essay.  Hobhouse’ discussion is richer and more sophisticated than may be perceived at first glance and deserves more attention by many.  Here, by showing how a topic inferred within the text may enrich our understanding of both the inferred topic and a classic text, new reason can be found to read an early 20th century classic in political thought.

David R. Weaver

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David Weaver is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati in Political Science. His major areas of interest include foreign relations and political development, political thought and theory, and, primarily, leadership and democratic theory and practice.