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Hobhouse's Theories on the Relationship between the Individual and Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1917 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Hobhouse’s ‘The heart of liberalism’ from ‘Liberalism’, explores the relationship of the individual and society and how the two affect each other. Hobhouse does through his ideas of the conception of the organic society, his definition of common good and his view on a harmonious society. Hobhouse discusses the importance of social relations in the maintenance of society but also highlights that the role of the state is still very important. He adopts similar views as John Stuart Mill and Keynes, but his work is criticised by Hayek as he highlights that Hobhouse’s theory may be not be completely accurate when defining liberalism.

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According to Hobhouse’s view on the ‘organic’ conception to society the individual and society are mutually dependent. Hobhouse states “while the life of society is nothing but the life of individuals… the life of the individual in turn would be something utterly different if he could be separated from society.” This highlights that the individual good depends on the common good because society and the individual equally need each other for them to both fulfil their own capacities. Hobhouse criticises views that are either extremely collectivist or individualistic because he thinks that although, individuals need to be held accountable for their actions, they should not become subservient to the state.

Hobhouse emphasises the importance of discussing social relations through examining the collective rather than the individual. He states that “for Liberal theory, the relation of the individual to the community is everything. His rights and his duties are alike defined by the common good.” This highlights that common good should be determined by society as a whole as opposed just the individual, because the importance of community reflects the common liberalism viewpoint. Hobhouse places emphasis on dealing with problems in society through rational means highlighting that rather than punishing people for their wrongdoings, society can help provide a solution to make sure that no one’s rights are infringed upon. This reflects the idea in liberalism that rational interest determines the individual’s behaviour suggesting that we have free will over ourselves and society cannot restrict that with norms or values. This highlights that Hobhouse thinks that individuals are capable of making their own decisions and should be allowed to express themselves without restraints.

Additionally, Hobhouse suggests that common good of society is linked to the achieving a harmonious society. He states “Harmony in the full sense would involve not merely absence of conflict but actual support” so by using the concept of a harmonious society, he stresses the importance of the value to society. Society is dependent on the input of the individual as it determined what the output would be. Moreover, a good state is dependent on the common good which is why it can be suggested that society’s value is important. This theory suggests that everyone is society has a share which requires having skills, abilities, and health highlighting that progress and development in society is dependent on the individual itself. This follows the belief of positive freedom which gives power to the people, but highlights that the law must maintain negative freedom because individual needs to be prevented from doing everything that they think is not prohibited. This is because even if something is not prohibited it can still have a negative effect on society.

John Stuart Mill explores a similar idea as he attempts to establish the extent of which it is acceptable for society to exercise power over an individual, highlighting the struggle between liberty and authority. He explores the limitations that a powerful government could have on the rights of the individual undermining liberty as a result. This is because although the notions of “self-government” and “people’s power over themselves” seems ideal, Mill’s highlights that the people who exert power within society are not the ones that it is being exerted on. And, although the system of self-government means that there is a limit on rulers acting in their own interests, it does not mean that the will of the people is heard but rather only of that of the majority. Therefore, despite the system of self-government being much more preferable, it tends to overlook the weaker of less noticeable parts of society suggesting that the majority rule is a type of tyranny that is just as bad as any other type of tyranny. As a result, Mill believed that the people should have absolute independence to make decisions concerning themselves stating that an individual should have power “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”. This links to the idea of negative freedom which means that the individual has the power to do what they wish without having any constraints. However, Mill proposed that the government should have the right to regulate peoples conduct if it is to prevent harm. However, if an individual’s actions may be harmful to himself, society does not have the right to interfere as the individual is seen as an autonomous body.

Although, in ‘The heart of liberalism’, Hobhouse takes inspiration from the work of John Stuart Mill, he contrasts his view suggesting that individual concern is society’s concern, hence society may require interference from the government to prevent harm being caused. Hobhouse states that the reason for this is because it could “directly or indirectly affect the thought, action, and the character of those whom he comes in contact”, highlighting that unlike Mill, Hobhouse believes that individual and common good are directly linked because one individual could influence the behaviour of several others. Hobhouse structures the argument for the chapter by highlighting that Mill’s definition of liberalism may be the closest to Hobhouse’s. Although Hobhouse agree with Mill’s view, he suggests that Mill’s view is too narrow and may require further explanation. He builds up his own views by developing Mill’s view further. However, even though Hobhouse highlights Mill’s views, it can be suggested that they are different because Mill places too much emphasis on the individual portraying an individualistic stance on liberalism. Hobhouse’s concept on harmonious society and organic society go against this because they could not effectively work with extreme individualism or collectivism, Hobhouse suggests that there needs to be a balance of the two is society thus contrasting Mill’s classical liberalist standpoint.

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According to Hobhouse’s ‘the heart of liberalism’, it can be suggested that Hobhouse can be described as a liberal interventionist having adopted similar ideas as Keynes. Hobhouse believes that the state is needed because it provides things that the market cannot. He states “we are justified in regarding the state as one among many forms of human association for the maintenance and improvement of life” highlighting that Hobhouse views the state as a positive aspect to the progression of society suggesting that the state is the agent of welfare and a provider of equal opportunity. This highlights that to Hobhouse state intervention is acceptable because it helps improve society. This view is similar Keynes who suggests that state intervention in the economy in liberal states should be acceptable because it creates pressure for social reform. This can help forms of social welfare to develop to overcome crisis in society such as poverty, economy allowing the creation of more jobs. This is because he rejected the idea that the market self-regulates highlighting that there is a need for intervention from the state for it to work efficiently.

Contrastingly, Hayek opposes both Hobhouse and Keynes’ view of the role of the state suggesting that rather than helping society, it only hinders it. According to Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom (1944)’, individual political freedom is dependent upon individual economic freedom. Hayek believed that all other freedoms depend on economic freedom. If a society was to concentrates economic power in the state, it would lose political and intellectual freedom. Therefore, Hayek believed in the fee market suggesting, that the market should be allowed to freely flow without government intervention. He argued against the use of central planning to eliminate inequalities suggesting that the state should not intervene by using taxes as “the will of a small minority be imposed upon the people” making the process undemocratic. The idea of a big state to Hayek meant that there was more of a likelihood that there would be an abuse of power. This is why it can be suggested that Hayek has a negative view of socialism suggesting that “socialism is slavery”. Socialism is considered to have common roots in central economic planning and empowering the state meaning that the state would have all economic control such as Hitler in Nazi Germany. Hayek, essentially wanted to avoid western democracies such as the UK and US from adopting similar views, with his book acting as warning that what happened in Germany could happened to the UK. This can therefore, suggests that Hayek’s theory has empirical evidence highlighting that intervention of the state may indeed be a hindrance to the progression of society.

Hobhouse uses the ideas and theories that were developed through classical liberalism from authors such as John Stuart Mill but develops them further with his more social liberalistic views.


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