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Richard Carey on the Levellers at the Rose and Crown tonight

Richard Carey is a devoted student of the English Seventeenth Century and of its ideological struggles in and around the time of the Civil War. Tonight, he will be giving a talk about all this at the Rose and Crown in Southwark, and I will definitely be there.

There could hardly be a more important subject for an English libertarian. Libertarianism now has a rather American flavour. The biggest libertarian books, especially those of more recent vintage, tend to be written by Americans or at least in America. So, if it is the case (and it is) that libertarianism of the modern and self-consciously ideological sort actually has its origins in the English Seventeenth Century, then that is a fact that we English libertarians should regularly be celebrating and reflecting upon.

My own off-the-top-of-my-head take on this is that libertarianism of the sort I espouse most definitely did make its first big appearance in Seventeenth Century England, in the form of the Levellers. But the impeccably libertarian nature of this first great libertarian ideological eruption has been masked by the kinds of questions that most exercised those first English libertarians. Libertarianism now tends to be about what governments ought to do, and most especially about the many things that governments now do, but ought not to do, or at the very least to do much less. In the seventeenth century, libertarians with unswervingly libertarian views on, e.g., property rights as the correct institutional foundation of liberty, were not quite so exercised about how the government should behave, although they did have plenty to say about this. Their central concern was: Who has the right to be the government in the first place? If you do have to have some kind of government, who should choose it? The central preoccupation of those Levellers was: Where does political authority come from? If there must be government, who decides about who shall be that government?

Charles I – famously or infamously according to taste – claimed that God had chosen the government of England, in the form of … Charles I. This the Levellers, of course, challenged. But having challenged it, and the king having been executed, the question remained: If Charles I is not the legitimate ruler of England, then who is?

The Levellers were “egalitarian” in the sense that they were indeed far more egalitarian about who should be allowed to participate in that political debate, about who should govern. Political authority sprang from … everyone! When it came to deciding who the government was, everyone’s voice counted. This was the sense in which the Levellers really were, sort of, “levellers”.

But this political egalitarianism was seized upon by Seventeenth Century Royalists as evidence that the Levellers were also egalitarians in the modern sense, who believed that economic outcomes should be equalised by the government. They were accused of being socialists. There were indeed real socialists around at that time. These were the Diggers. But the Levellers had very different views to the Diggers.

Later, the Levellers were proclaimed to be socialists by another ideological tendency, namely … socialists.

The irony being that these later socialists mostly had ideas about how government should conduct itself were pretty much identical to those of Charles I. Charles I believed that the state (i.e. Charles I) had relentlessly to intervene in the market and in the workings of the wider society, in order to correct freedom’s economic and other injustices, and never mind any harmful consequences that flowed from such intervention, or “tyranny” as the Levellers called such activities. Modern socialists believe exactly the same, about themselves.

So, the Levellers, historically, have been caught in a pincer movement of lies, proclaimed by two different brands of statists. Royalist statists accused the Levellers of being socialists. Subsequent socialists claimed the Levellers as socialists. Both were wrong. But if we libertarians do not now correct these errors, nobody will.

I still recall with great pleasure the talk that Richard gave at my home last year about the ideological context within which the Levellers first arose, and the questions that they were most keen to answer. Tonight, I am hoping to learn more about the answers they gave to these questions, and, in general, about the nature of their libertarianism. Because libertarianism is most definitely what it was.

I wrote this posting in some haste, to be sure that what I wrote got posted in time to encourage at least some who otherwise might not have done to attend Richard Carey’s talk this evening. I am fully aware that the above is a highly schematic and simplified version of a very complicated story. I have, in particular, supplied no linkage to pertinent historical writings. Comments and corrections, especially with links to pertinent material, will be very welcome to me, and I’m sure to others also.

LATER: I see that in his piece about Richard (linked to above), Simon Gibbs includes yet again an earlier picture taken by me, of Richard sporting lots of hair like a down market Cavalier. Now he looks more like this:


Technically, that is not a good photo, but it’s the best I can do right now.

Hair matters a lot, when it comes to Seventeenth Century English ideological disputes.

11 comments to Richard Carey on the Levellers at the Rose and Crown tonight

  • Yes. Rather rushed this week and getting exactly the right photo takes on an air of optionality that perhaps it shouldn’t.

    You have also done rather better, I think, at getting across the importance of the narrative. Thank you.

  • Paul Marks

    The Moderates (as they called themselves) are a massively misunderstood group of people.

    The very name “Levellers” reflects that misunderstanding.

  • Incidentally, on the American/English thing, Rothbard described the Levellers as “the world’s first self-consciously libertarian movement”, and credited them with working out a “remarkably consistent libertarian doctrine”.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I contest whether opening the franchise on government slightly qualifies as proto-libertarian. The only question that matters is what powers the government has. Get that right and it shouldn’t matter who rules. One does not follow from the other.

    I have no objection to constitutional monarchy and would have opposed the execution of Charles I. I would however have been in favour of robust steps to make him obey the constitution.

    Many of the so called egalitarians of the English civil war were very much like their modern counterparts in that they advocated musical chairs for who got to be rulers but no real increase in individual autonomy.

  • Laird

    I agree with JV in that the proper extent of government power and “who rules” are entirely different questions. But I disagree that the latter is unimportant, if by “who rules” is meant “by what authority”. The source of government authority is a very important question and is prior to any discussion of the extent of its legitimate powers. That question is examined in Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority” and is worthy of attention.

    As to the Levellers, I confess that I don’t know enough about them. I shall have to remedy that. Sorry that I can’t be at the talk, though (there’s a fairly large ocean in the way!).

  • He’s pretty damn good at quizzes too. 🙂

  • Paul Marks

    There is a direct line from the (so called) “Levellers” to Major Cartwright in late 18th and early 19th century England – and to the “Barnburner” Democrats of the early 19th century America (people like President Van Buren).

    I might have my doubts about whether democracy will really lead to the strictly limited government they thought it would lead to, but certainly their intentions were good.

    Low taxes, low government spending, sound money, little regulation, freedom of speech, freedom of religion (and so on).

    What is there not to like?

  • Unfortunately most of what I’ve read about the Levellers has come from the pen of Christopher Hill, who I believe well personifies Orwell’s statement “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

  • Paul Marks

    Mr McPhail I must (for once) speak up in defence of academia.

    I remember listening to an academic (name – I can not remember his name!) from Christopher Hill’s own college at Cambridge being interviewed on BBC Radio Four, about the Civil War period. He was asked about Christopher Hill’s work – and replied that modern scholars did not take it seriously.

    I certainly hope that academics are indeed NOT teaching the falsehoods of Christopher Hill any more.

    Collectivists really are shameless – I remember (many decades ago now) first readin Hobsbawn’s “Industry and Empire”.

    I thought “well a lot of the arguments in this work make no sense – but there are lots of useful tables at the back”.

    The statistical tables were also unreliable – it was not just the words in the book that could not be trusted, it was the NUMBERS also.

  • Last night went well, though I haven’t checked footage yet.
    As well as getting educated on English history we also judged a writing competition: http://libertarianhome.co.uk/2014/05/writing-competition-winner/