The Classical Liberal Tradition - A 400 Year History Of Ideas And Movements: Lecture/Seminar Outline


Date: 14 May, 2022


This is an outline/overview of my Lecture/Seminar and extended paper on the history of the Classical Liberal tradition. It consists of the following sections:

  1. Introduction: What is Liberalism?
  2. CL and the State
  3. Liberal Ideas
  4. Key Individuals, Texts, and Movements for Reform
  5. A Balance Sheet of Liberal Successes and Failures
  6. Strategies to achieve Liberal Reforms

See also a PDF of the slides I used in the lecture.

It is part of a series of blog posts and essays on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition.

For an overview of my position see “The History of Classical Liberalism in 1,730 words (and one picture)” (12 Apr. 2022) here.

For further reading see:

  1. “The Classical Liberal Tradition: A 400 Year History of Ideas and Movements. An Introductory Reading List” (22 Apr. 2022) here.
  2. “600 Quotations about Liberty and Power” (28 Apr. 2022) here.
  3. “One Volume Surveys of Classical Liberal Thought” (11 Jan. 2021) here.



1. Introduction: What is Liberalism?

  1. The Problem of Definition:
    1. where CL lies on the political spectrum
      1. Is Liberalism "Left" or “Right”?
      2. Radical/Revolutionary (the emancipation of others) or Conservative (preserving existing liberties)?
  2. The Multi-Dimensional Nature of Liberalism
    1. political liberties
    2. economic liberties
    3. social (individual) liberties
    4. legal liberties
  3. The Three Main Kinds of Liberalism
    1. Radical Liberalism
    2. Moderate Liberalism
    3. “New” Liberalism
  4. Other Hyphenated Liberalisms
    1. proto-liberalism
    2. neo-liberalism
    3. false liberalism
    4. state liberalism
    5. LINO

See the following blog posts for more information:

  1. “The Multi-Dimensionality of Classical Liberalism” (19 April, 2022) here.
  2. “Plotting Liberty: The Multi-Dimensionality of Classical Liberalism and the Need for a New ‘Left-Right’ Political Spectrum” (17 April, 2022) here.
  3. “ ‘Hyphenated’ Liberalism and the Problem of Definition” (9 Aug. 2021) here.
  4. “Hyphenated Liberalism Part II: Utopian, Democratic, Revolutionary, and State Liberalism” (12 Oct. 2021) here.
  5. “The Conservative and Revolutionary Faces of Classical Liberalism” (11 Aug. 2021) here.
  6. “How Modern Day CL/Libertarians Differ From “Classical” Classical Liberals” (24 Aug. 2021) here.
  7. “The Incoherence and Contradictions inherent in Modern Liberal Parties (and one in particular)” (21 Oct. 2021) here.



2. Liberalism and the State

  1. How big/powerful should the State be?
    1. Limited government liberalism
      1. Minarchist State
      2. Ultra-Minarchist State
      3. Fully Voluntarist “State”
    2. big government liberalism: welfare-state, regulatory state
  2. The Problem of creating a Limited State
    1. via (piecemeal, democratic) reform or
    2. revolution (violence)
  3. The Problem of Keeping the State Limited
    1. public opinion / free press
    2. written constitution and bill of rights (policed by courts)
    3. a vigilant and consistent “liberal” political party
  4. The Problem of turning a big “predatory” State into a limited “protective” State
    1. The Problem of Obedience: Why people obey the State?
    2. persuading people a limited state / CL is a good thing
      1. the ideal of liberal justice for all
      2. the exaggeration of market failure
      3. the neglect of political failure
      4. public ignorance of basic economic principles
    3. overcoming the powerful groups who live off the state
      1. The Problem of Vested Interests and Rent-Seeking
      2. Class Rule and Class Struggle
      3. “crony-ism” (institutionalized privilege-seeking)
        1. “crony capitalism” - industry, commerce, banking, farming
        2. “crony democracy” (voters, politicians)
        3. “crony bureaucracy” and public sector unions

See the following blog posts for more information:

  1. “The Spectrum of State Power: or a New Way of Looking at the Political Spectrum” ( 25 Apr. 2022) here.
  2. “Classical Liberals on the Size and Functions of the State” (25 Apr. 2022) here.



3. Liberal Ideas

  1. What Liberals were AGAINST
    1. arbitrary political power,
    2. arbitrary religious power
    3. slavery & serfdom
    4. war & conscription
    5. restrictions on who could stand for election and vote
    6. heavy and arbitrary taxation
    7. central banks, fiat money, and national debt
    8. tariffs & other trade restrictions
    9. subsidies & monopolies to favoured industries
    10. empire & colonies
  2. What Liberals were FOR
    1. highest order ends: individual and social flourishing
    2. other high order ends: life, liberty, property, justice
    3. liberty as a “bundle” of more specific freedoms:
      1. political liberty
      2. economic liberty
      3. individual/social liberty
      4. legal liberty
    4. Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty
      1. Natural Law and Natural Rights
      2. Individual Liberty
      3. Private Property
      4. Free Markets
      5. Free Trade
      6. Idea of Spontaneous Order
      7. Consent of the Governed
      8. Limited Government
      9. Rule of Law
      10. Freedom of Speech & Association (special case of Religion)
      11. Peace
      12. Progress and Human Flourishing
    5. Liberal “Virtues”
      1. people should “live liberally” (i.e. by “liberal virtues”) as individuals, members of a family, as neighbors, and as citizens
        1. Being responsible for one’s own actions
        2. Respecting the equal rights of others
        3. Refusing to initiate the use of coercion against others
        4. Being open to new ideas & behaviour
        5. Showing compassion towards others
        6. Being tolerant of others
        7. Wanting liberal justice for all
  3. The “Liberal Vision”
    1. CLs have had inspiring visions of what a free society might look like and what its benefits to humanity would be
    2. this vision disappeared towards the end of the 19thC which led to young people looking elsewhere for inspiration (socialism, nationalism, fascism)
    3. Buchanan, Ebeling, and Boettke have called for CLs to rediscover their “liberal soul”, its “beautiful philosophy”, and the “passion for justice”
    4. some examples of inspiring CL “visionaries”
      1. Condorcet (1794): the ‘Tenth Epoch” of human progress towards unending liberty and prosperity
      2. Richard Cobden’s “dream” of free trade in everything (1846)
      3. Frédéric Bastiat’s (1847) speeches put into the mouths of “Mr. Utopian” and “Pancho” on urging people “to do as you please”
      4. Gustave de Molinari’s (1849) “Spartacus speech” urging modern day slaves to rise up and throw off their chains
      5. J.S. Mill’s (1859) vision of people engaging in “different experiments in living”
      6. Friedrich Hayek (1949): “a liberal Utopia”, “a truly liberal radicalism”, of interlocking spontaneous orders
      7. Ayn Rand’s (1957) vision of the anarchist refuge of “Galt’s Gulch”
      8. Robert Nozick (1974): the CL minimal state provides a “framework for Utopias” to complete against each other
      9. James Buchanan’s (2000) vision of “the soul” of CL which imagined a social order in which everyone can be free and where “no person exerts power over another”.
      10. Chandran Kukathas’ (2003) idea of the “liberal archipelago” of multiple jurisdictions in a sea of mutual toleration (2003)
      11. Peter Boettke’s (2021) radical vision of a cosmopolitan, emancipatory, and compassionate liberal society which is a “workable utopia”

See the following blog posts for more information:

  1. “Liberty as the Sum of All Freedoms” (26 April, 2022) here.
  2. “Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty” (25 Apr. 2022) here.
  3. “What Classical Liberals were Against” (12 Aug. 2021) here.
  4. “What Classical Liberals were For” (13 Aug. 2021) here.
  5. “What CLs were For – Part 2: Ends and Means” (19 Oct., 2021) here.
  6. “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future I” (27 August, 2021) here.
  7. “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future II: The Contribution of Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912)” (29 Aug. 2021) here.
  8. “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future III: Liberal Experiments, Frameworks, and Archipelagos” (11 Oct. 2021) here.
  9. “Hayek on a Liberal Utopia” (11 Sept. 2021) here.



4. Key Individuals, Texts, and Movements for Reform

[This section is necessarily brief. See the main section for more information.]
  1. The Pre-history of Liberalism (proto-liberalism)
  2. The Four Main Periods of Liberal Activity/Reform
    1. 1640-80s: the English Civil War/Revolution
    2. 1750s-1790s: the American and French Revolutions
    3. the long liberal 19th century 1815-1914
    4. the post-WW2 liberal renaissance
  3. Other Key Elements for Each of the Main Periods
    1. key thinkers and their texts
    2. “movers and shakers”: important politicians and movement organizers and agitators
    3. key political and legal documents
  4. A specific example of this: the Free Trade movement
    1. Key theorists: Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations (1776); J.B. Say, Treatise of Political Economy (1803)
    2. Activists and organisations: Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League (1838), Frédéric Bastiat and the French Association for Free Trade (1847)
    3. Document/Legislation: the Repeal of the Corn Laws (1846); the Anglo-French Free Trade Treaty (1860)

See the following blog posts for more information:

  1. “Classical Liberal Movements: A Four Hundred Year History” (17 Aug. 2021) here.
  2. “Classical Liberalism as a Revolutionary Ideology of Emancipation” (13 Oct. 2021) here.
  3. “Classical Liberalism as the Philosophy of Emancipation II: The “True Radical Liberalism” of Peter Boettke” (17 Oct. 2021) here.



5. A Balance Sheet of Liberal Successes and Failures

  1. The Achievements of Liberalism
    1. The Great Emancipation
      1. 1from coerced labour
      2. from the arbitrary authority of kings and princes
      3. from “cruel & unusual punishment”
      4. from violations of property rights
      5. from the arbitrary power of the Church
      6. from restrictions and bans on associating with others on a voluntary basis
      7. from restrictions on trade and industrial activity
      8. from restrictions on the movement of people, goods, and capital
      9. from strict limits on who could participate in political activity
      10. from war and conscription into the army
    2. The Great Enrichment
      1. spread of CL ideas led to changes in the way people interacted with other
        1. respect for the life, liberty, and property of others
        2. the dignity of productive and useful labour, trading with others
      2. greater productivity and innovation led to explosion of wealth creation
      3. longer life expectancy, lower infant morality (and childbirth deaths of mothers), reduction of disease, less demanding physical labour (mechanization), and greater home comforts for ordinary working people (piped water, sewers, heating, light)
  2. The Failures of Liberalism
    1. The emancipation project was left incomplete
      1. the inconsistent application of liberal principles
      2. complacency
      3. religious arrogance
    2. CL political and economic theory suffered from a series of weaknesses
      1. viewing “democracy” as an end in itself rather than as a means
      2. the weakening of belief in natural rights
      3. exaggerating the extent of and misunderstanding the reasons for “market failure”
      4. ignoring the problem of “government failure”
      5. not being able to explain the cause of the business cycle and the economic depressions which were the result
    3. Many CLs were politically naive
      1. their faith in the benevolence and omniscience of the state and its officials
      2. their willingness to let the new democratic state be “captured” by vested interests (both old and new)
      3. their faith in the ability and willingness of the “middling class” to make democracy work
    4. The inability to explain basic economic ideas simply to the ordinary person
    5. The “Loss” of the Intellectuals to Socialism
    6. CLs lost their “Vision” of what a free society should be like
  3. What still needs to be done?

See the following blog posts for more information:

  1. “The Success of Liberal Ideas has led to the Decline of Radical Liberal Parties” (6 Sept. 2021) here.
  2. “A Balance Sheet of the Success and Failures of Classical Liberalism” (21 Apr. 2022) here.



6. Strategies to Achieve Liberal Reforms

  1. the Aim is to change the Climate of Opinion and then Policies
  2. Understanding the Theory and History of successful Ideological and Political Change
  3. Getting the Main Building Blocks in Place: the Structure of Production of Ideas, their Dissemination, and their Practical Application
    1. Scholarship and Higher Learning
      1. innovative scholars who develop the “high theory”
      2. other scholars who take the theory further and disseminate it to their students
    2. Entrepreneurs and Investors in Ideas who establish research centres, think tanks, and outreach organisations
    3. Outreach Organisations which make the ideas available/accessible to students, teachers, intellectuals, and other interested members of the public
    4. the “Dark Side” of Liberal Reform (getting our hands dirty with “politics”)
      1. Lobby Groups and Policy Study Centres which influence politicians, legislators, senior bureaucrats, journalists
      2. Organisations/Parities which educate and organise ordinary citizens/voters by means of the “popularization” of liberal ideas (especially economic ideas)
  4. The main Threats to Liberty and “What is to be done”
    1. Identification of the current threats (15+)
    2. the Prioritisation of their danger to Liberty
    3. taking steps to Eliminate or Neutralise them using the “building blocks” outlined above
    4. using liberal means to achieve liberal ends

See the following blog posts for more information:

  1. “The Prospects for Liberty: The Threats it faces and how to counter them” (23 Mar. 2022) here.
  2. "The State of the Libertarian Movement after 50 Years (1970-2020): Some Observations" (25 March, 2021) here.
  3. "Rothbard on Strategy" (12 November, 2020) here.

And the following essays:

  1. "Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Scribblers: An Austrian Analysis of the Structure of Production and Distribution of Ideas". A paper given at the Southern Economics Association, New Orleans, November 21-23, 2015.HTML and PDF.
  2. a Liberty Matters discussion I hosted on "The Spread of Classical Liberal Ideas" (March, 2015) here.