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The Classical Liberal Tradition: A Four Hundred Year History of Ideas and Movements

Created: 24 Oct. 2021 (with 25 posts)
Updated:

[Eugène Delacroix, “Liberty leading the People on the Barricade” (1830)]

A Brief Overview (which is repeated below as well)

The original post: “The History of Classical Liberalism in 370 words (and one picture)” (11 Aug.2021) here

In a nutshell (371 w) this is my view of how the Classical Liberal (CL) movement and ideas have evolved over the past 400 years:

  • CL first emerged as a reaction to the excessive power of the absolutist state and church in early modern Europe (16th and 17th centuries).
  • Through a series of rebellions and revolutions this power was challenged based upon a combination of a desire by people to retain their traditional rights and privileges and the emergence of new ideas about the nature of individual liberty. These new ideas slowly evolved into more coherent and sophisticated theories of how societies, markets, and political institutions worked. CLs had some significant political victories, but they were only partial ones.
  • The period from about 1750 to 1850 was crucial in the development of CL ideas as a result of the Enlightenment in Europe and America, the development of economic theory by the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, and the emergence of political theories of limited constitutional government during the American and French revolutions and their immediate aftermath.
  • The heyday of CL was the 19th century (approximately 1830-1914) before CL ideas and institutions were smashed by the events of WW1. It was during this period that liberal, democratic, and constitutional societies emerged in Western Europe, North America, and some of the colonies of the British Empire (like Australia) with policies which allowed the growth of free trade, industrialisation, the free movement of people, freedom of speech, and the protection of property rights and the rule of law.
  • Unfortunately this experiment in liberty was all too brief before rampant statism, militarism, fascism, bolshevism, and welfare-statism seriously undermined it during the 20th century.
  • We are now living in a contradictory moment in history when we have never been as prosperous, educated, healthy, and “free” (in some important areas such as discrimination against people of colour, women, and homosexuals) yet at the same time popular belief in CL values are very weak and the burden of the state in terms of taxation levels, inflation, debt, regulation, and surveillance and regulation of our personal lives have never been greater.
  • So I would conclude that the great CL experiment has only partly been achieved and that there remains a great deal to be done before the promise of a fully free society as envisaged by our intellectual and political forebears can become a reality.

A List of Posts on this Topic

Older Posts:

  1. “Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty” (23 June 2015) here
  2. “The Key Ideas of Classical Liberalism: Foundations, Processes, Liberties” (23 June 2015) here

Recommended Reading:

  1. “The Classical Liberal Tradition: A 400 Year History of Ideas and Movements. An Introductory Reading List” (20 May, 2021) here
  2. “One Volume Surveys of Classical Liberal Thought” (11 Jan. 2021) here

The Many Faces of Liberalism:

  1. “ ‘Hyphenated’ Liberalism and the Problem of Definition” (9 Aug. 2021) here
  2. “Hyphenated Liberalism Part II: Utopian, Democratic, Revolutionary, and State Liberalism” (12 Oct. 2021) here
  3. “The Conservative and Revolutionary Faces of Classical Liberalism” (11 Aug. 2021) here
  4. “How Modern Day CL/Libertarians Differ From “Classical” Classical Liberals” (24 Aug. 2021) here
  5. “The Incoherence and Contradictions inherent in Modern Liberal Parties (and one in particular)” (21 Oct. 2021) here
  6. “The Myth of a liberal ‘Australian Way of Life’” (20 June 2021) here

Classical Liberals on the Role and Power of the State:

  1. “The Spectrum of State Power: or a New Way of Looking at the Political Spectrum” (10 Aug., 2021) here
  2. “Classical Liberals on the Size and Functions of the State” (10 Aug. 2021)
  3. “Classical Liberals on the Size and Functions of the State” (10 Aug. 2021)

What CLs were FOR and AGAINST:

  1. “What Classical Liberals were Against” (12 Aug. 2021) here
  2. “What Classical Liberals were For” (13 Aug. 2021) here
  3. “What CLs were For – Part 2: Ends and Means” (19 Oct., 2021) here

CL Visions of the Future Free Society:

  1. “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future I” (27 August, 2021) here
  2. “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future II: The Contribution of Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912)” (29 Aug. 2021) here
  3. “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future III: Liberal Experiments, Frameworks, and Archipelagos” (11 Oct. 2021) here
  4. “Hayek on a Liberal Utopia” (11 Sept. 2021) here

CL Movements and Crusades for Liberty:

  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

CL’s Successes and Failures:

  1. “The Success of Liberal Ideas has led to the Decline of Radical Liberal Parties” (6 Sept. 2021) here

The Incoherence and Contradictions inherent in Modern Liberal Parties (and one in particular)

In his survey of the history of liberalism, The Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton University Press, 2012), the Oxford political philosopher and scholar of the thought of J.S. Mill, Alan Ryan, observed that everything that liberals have believed in its long history have been “contested”.

For example, even as something as fundamental as their attitude to the state has split liberals into at least three camps: those radical liberals who believed that the state was an “unnecessary evil” which could largely be dispensed with, those moderate liberals who believed that it was a “necessary evil” which had to be restrained by strict constitutional limits to its powers, and those new liberals who thought (or rather still think) that the state is a good friend to liberty and that it is essential in order to achieve liberal goals (so long as the right people and the right party get elected), and that its powers must be constantly increased so long as these goals have not yet been achieved (what then happens to the state is never explained).

He also notes the rather bizarre distinction that historians of liberalism now have to make between two new kinds of hyphenated liberalism which have emerged, namely what he calls “pro-capitalist liberalism” and “anti-capitalist liberalism” (I think a better phrasing might be “market liberalism” vs. “anti-market liberalism” or perhaps “state liberalism”). So Ryan naturally asks whether a political concept like “liberalism” or “socialism” can have any meaning if it no longer has a “core” set of beliefs which define it in comparison with other political beliefs and which are “uncontested” by its adherents. [See my post on what I think have traditionally been the “core beliefs” of CLs “What Classical Liberals were For” (13 Aug. 2021) here.] As he says on p. 23:

Unless some substantial portion of the meaning of a concept is uncontested, it is hard to see how the concept could be identified in the first place. There must be a central uncontested core of meaning to terms like “liberty” if arguments about the contested penumbra are to make sense.

That modern day liberals could think it possible to still call themselves a “liberal” if they no longer believe in free markets and the “capitalist system” leads him to the sad conclusion that liberalism is no longer “intellectually rigorous” and that it has become “awkward and intellectually insecure”. One might say the same thing about social democratic parties like the Australian Labor Party which once explicitly called for a key socialist policy of state ownership of important industries and which has its electoral roots in the organised trade union movement, but which has now embraced key aspects of “neo-liberal” economic policy. As Ryan states on p. 42:

The liberalism that has triumphed, then, is not an intellectually rigorous system, manifested in its only possible institutional form. It is an awkward and intellectually insecure system, committed to democracy tempered by the rule of law, to a private-enterprise economy supervised and controlled by government, and to equal opportunity so far as it can be maintained without too much interference with the liberty of employers, schools, and families. It by no means embraces laissez-faire with the same fervor that Marxism brought to its attack on property and its passion for rational, central control of economic activity … Moreover, the inhabitants of liberal democracies are deeply, and properly, conscious of the shortcomings of their societies and certainly feel their “success” is an equivocal one.

A similar point has been made by the political economist Peter Boettke who developed two “tests” in order to assess the coherence and viability of different economic systems, but which I believe can also be applied to the ideas and policies of political parties. The tests Boettke developed were the “coherence test” and the “vulnerability test” which he explained as follows:

In my work in comparative economic systems, I tend to stress some methodological ground rules that I argue must be followed. First, one cannot compare the ideal theory of one system with the working reality of another system. To do so is an unfair comparison. Instead, one must compare theory with theory, reality with reality, or theory of a system with the reality of that system. Second, in assessing social systems, there are two critical tests: a coherence test and a vulnerability test. The coherence test refers to a strict logical analysis of chosen means to given ends. If, on the one hand, means chosen can be demonstrated to be incoherent with respect to ends sought due to knowledge problems, then that system must be eliminated from the menu of options. If, on the other hand, the chosen means could—if all the actors were richly informed—achieve the desired ends, but the incentives in the system were such that opportunistic behavior would undermine the achievement of those goals, then the system would be possible but impractical due to vulnerabilities. Political economy and social philosophy work together and strive to weed out the incoherent and the vulnerable, and leave only those social systems of exchange and production that are logically coherent and robust against opportunism. [Struggle, Introduction, FN6]

When one applies Boettke’s “coherence test” to the Australian Liberal Party it is clear that it is ideologically “incoherent” (or has incompatible beliefs) when it comes to the specific goals or ends liberals have traditionally wanted to achieve and the goals (or policies) it now advocates and has put into practice over the years (some are “liberal” but many are not). The party is also incoherent with respect to the means by which it wishes to achieve these liberal goals (using “illiberal means” to achieve liberal ends). [See my post on “What CLs were For – Part 2: Ends and Means” (19 Oct., 2021) here.]

[Note: Of course, if one’s goal is to regulate and control every aspect of a person’s life and to centrally plan large sectors of the economy (such as energy production) then the use of the coercive powers of the state to do this is perfectly “coherent,” consistent, and logical.]

One only has to contrast the platitudinous but still mostly liberal ideas as expressed on the Liberal Party’s website page called “Our Beliefs” – Our Beliefs | Liberal Party of Australia with the actual proposed policies which are interventionist and regulatory to a very large extent or straight out of the “Welfare State” playbook – Our Plan | Liberal Party of Australia.

A key point here is to note how much of the idea of “central planning” of the economy modern liberals are prepared to adopt as their own. The Liberal Party is quite explicit about this as they detail in the section called “Our Plan” where they reveal their attitude towards government planning in preference to “allowing” free people to engage in free trade with each to build “spontaneous orders” (which they should have by “right” not by “permission” from the government). Thus these modern liberals:

  • reject a fundamental liberal concept that free people going about their business create “spontaneous orders” (Hayek) of an economic, legal, and social nature which are “better” (in both a material and moral sense) than anything government planners can provide
  • believe that attempts by politicians and bureaucratic “planners” to improve upon this order by means of “legislation” or regulations are an improvement on the “chaos” of the market; yet true liberals believe that these attempts are doomed to failure in the material sense of creating disorder and lowering the standard of living of the people
  • reject the long-standing liberal view that the government and its bureaucratic planners should stand aside and allow free people to go about their business because the “orders” they create by their actions will be morally justified (not violating their rights to LLP) and will produce much greater prosperity for all.

There are several specific examples of how the Liberal Party wants the government to “centrally plan” key sectors of the economy such as infrastructure, energy, and broadband which are in glaring contradiction to some of principles declared in “Our Beliefs”. But the most glaring example of “illiberal” policy, or “the means” to achieve their goals, would have to be their whole-hearted embrace of Keynesian economic policies which are really only a watered down version of “central planning” adopted by most western states in the post-WW2 period in the face of the catastrophic failure of fully-fledge economic planning being undertaking in the Communist countries. The realisation was that, if attempts to centrally ALL sectors of the economy would inevitably fail (as Hayek and Mises argued) then the next way to “plan” an economy would be to control the money supply and interest rates upon which nearly everything else in the economy depended. Tinkering with these things has been the hallmark of government policy ever since – whether the government is run by Liberal or Labor. This runs counter to every CL idea of what a government should do when it is in power, namely to balance the budget, impose very low taxes, rely on “sound money” (which at the time was based upon gold and/or silver not paper or electrons), and to leave individuals and firms free to “go about their business” unmolested by interfering politicians and bureaucrats. The inappropriately named section of their website, called “Our Plan”, shows just how fare down the planning road, or “the road to serfdom” in Hayeks phrase, the Liberal Party has gone.

In addition, as an historian, I am struck by the fact that, since its very founding in 1944 the Liberal Party was a staunch defender of one of the 19thC liberals’ most hated economic policies, namely tariff protection and subsidies to favoured industries. Need one remind the reader that it took the coming to power of a “socialist” Labor Party” in 1972 to beginning dismantling Australia’s odious system of protection.

To jump forward to the present, one has the example of Liberal governments’ (both state and Federal) attempting to centrally plan the economy as part of its program of “lockdown socialism”, whereby politicians determined what sectors of the economy are “essential” and which ones are not (thus forcing them to close or severely curtail their business activity); who and where individuals could travel and associate with; and what they had to wear in public. Contrast this with the opening line of their statement of “Our Beliefs” :

We believe: In the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples; and we work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives; and maximises individual and private sector initiative.

Of course, “rights” in Australia were never “inalienable” as they were granted as “privileges” of the Crown and then Parliament which could and recently have been rescinded at will and at a moment’s notice. The people who opposed this and tried to defend their “inalienable rights” were thrown to the ground and beaten by the police or fined huge amounts of money.

Then, when one applies Boettke’s “vulnerability test” to the economic and political system which the Liberal (and Labor) Parties have jointly built, run, and expanded over the past 60 or 70 years one would have to conclude that the Liberal Party has created a system which is highly vulnerable to several threats to liberal values and liberal political practices. They have created a system which is highly vulnerable to take-over by powerful private vested interests to use for their own selfish interests (“private predation” in Boettke’s terminology, or “la spoliation légale” (legal plunder) in Frédéric Bastiat’s) as swell as by the politicians and bureaucrats who run the system who use it to advance their own power and careers to create a professional and permanent class of people engaged in “public predation” (“la spoliation gouvernementale” or plunder by government (Bastiat again))

However in the Australian Liberal Party’s defence, one should add that this is true for all the so-called “liberal democracies” (whether centre-right or centre-left, or just plain social democratic) which have emerged in the post-WW2 period, so it is not unique to the Australian Liberal Party.

If one believes in the liberal ends of small, limited, and responsible government, low taxes (and no taxes on the poor, especially indirect taxes), minimal to no regulation of private business activity (especially on the freedom to start a business), free trade and free markets (both internationally and domestically), then one would have to conclude that the Liberal-Labor political duopoly has created a system with institutions which have perverse incentives which have created multitudinous opportunities for “predation”, both private and public, and has prevented the full development of a true “liberal state” (which in my view would be a “minimal” or “ultra-minimal” state at a minimum (if you will pardon the pun), or a “fully privatised” or voluntary state. [See, Classical Liberals on the Size and Functions of the State (10 Aug., 2021)]

For example, the “liberal” political system has created

  • a permanent class of professional politicians: there are an increasing number of people who are active politically at university (studying law in many cases) in the “Young Liberals” (perhaps better called the politically “Ambitious Liberals”), then become “aids” to politicians already in Canberra or work for lobbyists or other groups seeking benefits from the state, who then get pre-selected in a safe seat and then move to Canberra as a fully fledged member of the “political class”.
  • a growing “dependent class” of people who live off taxpayers’ money distributed by the state. These can be businesses which seek and get government contracts for “public works”, or “defence”, or to supply various government services (computing and surveillance); or they can be the sick, the old, and the poor who have grown up expecting the state (or rather the taxpayers) to take care of them in their old age (the pension), when they are sick (Medicare), or when they are unemployed (the “dole” and now “Job Keeper”). The danger faced by ”liberal democracies” is that the time is fast approaching when the number of people in the “dependent class” will be greater than the number of taxpayers. The “dependent class” has the very strong incentive to vote for parties which will protect their “benefits” from cuts, or will increase them at politically opportune times (just before elections).
  • unresponsive bureaucracies which provide a huge number of “services” to the public but who have no institutional incentive to provide this service efficiently, cheaply, or quickly because their organisation does not experience “losses” when they do not service their customers adequately (as do for-profit organisations). In the absence of free market prices and profits and loses, the result of poor service is queueing, poor service, or even no service at all. There is of course also no private alternatives (the competition) to the government monopoly provider.
  • a general society wide belief that in times of crisis or emergency “the government ought to do something”, even if that “something” causes further harm (price controls to prevent “gouging”, society-wide lockdowns to prevent the “spread” of a disease) or is needed because of previous government policy failures (bans on ongoing forest and bush management leading to the build up of tinder which will cause larger and more destructive fire sin the future). In a truely liberal society the opposite would be the case. People in the first instance would either offer their own services or money to help others, or they would organise others in a group to do so).
  • a self-perpetuating cycle of “government failures” which inevitably lead to calls for further government interventions to solve the problems it caused in the first place. There are many examples of this one could mention (see above on bush fires) but the largest and most systemic example is that of the government control of the money supply and interest rates. Australia has had better money supply and interest rate polices than most other “liberal democracies” so it has gone for many years without an official “recession” until the current lockdown induced recession. Australia may have escaped temporarily from the boom-bust cycle of inflation and recession because of the demand for the resources it sells fro the booming economies of China and India. However, when the credit bubble in China bursts the similar inflation weaknesses in the Australian economy will soon be exposed. I am using the term “inflation” in the Austrian sense, i.e. not just observable rises in the prices of goods and services but the expansion of the money supply caused by government increasing the stock of money and manipulating the interest rate for loans. This causes “malinvestments” to be made by investors and companies which will prove to be unprofitable when the interest rates return to a more “normal”, market determined rate. The cycle I mention above means that, when the inevitable recession occurs to flag the existence of and then liquidate these malinvestments, there is a widespread demand for the government to “ease” the money supply, to provide “liquidity” to the markets, and to prevent business “failures”, which the government inevitable responds to by beginning the cycle of monetary expansion and inflation all over again.

Thus, it is for the above reasons that I think of the Australian Liberal Party as a “LINO”, liberal in name only, having long abandoned most of the core liberal ideals (except as empty rhetoric), willing to use non-liberal methods to enact its policies (the use of state coercion and regulation, even “planning” of some economic sectors), and creating political institutions which have perverse, illiberal incentives which all create pressure to constantly expand the size and scope of government. In the latter, it has been proven to be most successful, to the detriment of real liberty and real liberalism, and the large and ever-growing Liberal State unfortunately seems to be very long lasting, given the right care, as the manufacturer promised.

What CLs were For – Part 2: Ends and Means

Liberal Ends require Liberal Means to build Liberal Institutions

Introduction

Here are some further thoughts to add to my earlier post on “What Classical Liberals were For” (13 Aug. 2021). They have been stimulated and enriched by my reading of some essays by Richard Ebeling, Peter Boettke, and Stephen Macedo.

  • Richard Ebeling, For a New Liberalism (American Institute for Economic Research, 2019).
  • Richard M. Ebeling, “The Beautiful Philosophy of Liberalism” The Future of Freedom Foundation (July 10, 2018) online
  • Peter J. Boettke, The Struggle For A Better World (Arlington, Virginia: Mercatus Center, 2021).
  • Peter J. Boettke and Rosolino A. Candela, “Liberal Libertarianism,” in The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. Edited by: Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz (New York : Routledge, 2018), pp. 92-107.
  • Peter J. Boettke, “True Liberalism Is About Human Compassion.” Foundation for Economic Education (November 10, 2017). online.
  • Stephen Macedo, Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), chap. 7 “The Liberal Virtues,” pp. 254-85.

I believe that there is an important connection between the ideas people hold about the ends and goals they want to pursue and the best and appropriate means to achieve these ends on the one hand, and the institutions which provide the necessary framework which makes it possible for people with very different ends to “live together and pursue productive specialization and peaceful social cooperation” (Boettke, “True Liberalism”), on the other hand.

My discussion below will thus focus on what CLs have thought about liberal ends (ideas or principles), means (what I earlier called “processes”), and the institutions which makes the realisation of these ends possible.

Liberal Ends

The over-arching goal or end for radical liberals is human flourishing, or as Thomas Jefferson beautifully phrased it in the American Declaration of Independence (1776) as “the pursuit of happiness”. The “flourishing” intended in these sentiments is both that of the individual (or the Greek notion of “eudaimonia”) as well as the communities in which they live. [See David L. Norton, Personal Destinies (Princeton University Press, 1976).] Boettke clearly sees the connection between the two, the individual and the social, how individual flourishing promotes social flourishing (or the “public good), in this paragraph:

The common good is defined by a framework of general and universally applicable rules that exhibit neither discrimination nor dominion over individuals before the law. Given, as we said previously, following Norton, that individuals represent a composite of human potentialities, individuals can only flourish and actualize their own unique personhood in a context of voluntary social interaction. The common good of a liberal political order, which is to secure the right to liberty, allows for the possibility of a self-discovery process in consequent sociality with others to emerge. The creative powers of a free society are unleashed when individuals are at liberty to realize their own self-worth and uniqueness through their own effort and active pursuit in sociality with others. Consequent sociality emerges out of human action but not of human design from this self discovery process … [Liberal Libertarianism, p. 98 .]

This ultimate end of individual and societal “flourishing” is made possible by a set of second or contributory ends, namely:

  • liberty
  • prosperity
  • peace
  • justice

It should be noted that the end of achieving “liberal justice” which was so strong and “hot” among the radical liberals of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries faded as the 19thC progressed as it was replaced by the more luke-warm notion of utilitarianism, or the idea that a liberal government should pursue the goal of “the greatest good of the greatest number”, a goal which might mean the violation of the rights of a few, and hence an act of injustice, for the “benefit” of the many (as calculated by the government). The importance of the idea of “liberal justice” is something that is central to Macedo’s conception of a liberal society as stated in his book on Liberal Virtues (1990).

Some Liberal Means to achieve Liberal Ends

If increasing numbers of “moderate” and late 19thC “new” or “modern” liberals were willing to sacrifice liberal justice on the altar of “utility” or “expediency”, they were flying in the face of the older school of liberals who thought that liberal ends could and should only be reached by “liberal means”. However, logical consistency and ideological coherence was less important to these “liberals” (or rather “LINOs” who were “liberal in name only as time passed) who were forced by the necessity of getting re-elected to office to pander to the demands of an increasingly illiberal electorate and intelligentsia.

A “true radical liberal” (Boettke’s term) believes that a “free society” of “free individuals” would be achieved by a combination of the following four “means” (in order going from the individual to the global):

  • individuals as individuals “living liberally” – i.e. having a “liberal character”, a “liberal mind”, or living according to “liberal virtues”
  • individuals interacting with other people in a “liberal manner”, acting in a “just manner” towards others, showing mutual respect, and toleration of each other’s different beliefs and behavior, adopting a “live and let live” (laissez vivre) attitude
  • societies being structured in a “liberal” manner and having “liberal institutions” which protect these values by institutionalising them
  • multiple societies (some liberal, some less liberal, perhaps some not liberal at all) which comprise Hayek’s “Great Society” having ways to live with, alongside or “against each other” peaceably and for mutual benefit (Kukathas’s “liberal archipelago”); the idea is that of societies “rubbing together” because they have different values but not resorting to violence because they see the value of peaceful co-existence with each other.

Another way of thinking about the “means” by which true liberals can achieve these higher ends is to divide it into three kinds: the “personal means”, the “social and economic means”, and the “political means”. I have borrowed this way of distinguishing between them from Oppenheimer’s distinction between the “political” and the “economic means of acquiring wealth”.

The Personal Means of Achieving a Liberal Society

The “personal means” to achieve these goals begins with each person attempting to live by certain “liberal virtues” , i.e. by “living liberally” oneself. As Boettke has expressed it, having a “true liberal mind-set” (Reconstruction, p. 261) and being “liberal in thought, in word, and in deed” (Reconstruction, p. 279). These “liberal values” include the following:

  • becoming an autonomous, self-governing, and responsible individual
  • showing “liberality” in the way one thinks (this is a 18thC notion about having an openness to new ideas, being generous towards others)
  • being cosmopolitanism in one’s interests, and open-minded when confronted by new, different, and perhaps challenging ideas and behaviour
  • being tolerant towards others who think and behave differently
  • being sociable, willing to engage and associate with others, both for its own sake as well as for mutual benefit
  • being compassionate and showing sympathy for others
  • wanting to see “liberal justice” done and made available to everybody regardless of their race, wealth, status, or social background
  • taking responsibility for own’s own actions, in other words being a “free and responsible” individual

The Social and Economic Means

The “social and economic means” to achieve the above liberal ends include putting into practice and living by the following principles or key ideas of CL (see my earlier post on “What Classical Liberals were For” (13 Aug. 2021) ). These should be considered to be the essential “rules of the game” for interacting with others in a society:

  1. recognising each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property (grounded by the idea of natural rights or utility)
  2. the non-aggression principle (NAP)
  3. private property and contract
  4. voluntary cooperation with others
  5. free markets
  6. toleration of other people’s ideas and (non-violent) behaviour
  7. freedom of speech and association
  8. free movement of people, goods, & ideas
  9. peaceful coexistence with others (whether one’s immediate neighbour or the “neighbouring” state)
  10. the rule of (just) law
  11. the consent of “the governed”
  12. limited government (by a constitution and/or a bill of rights)
  13. the arbitration of disputes (both domestic and foreign)

Political Means

In additional to the personal and the social/economic means, there are also the “political means” by which these liberal ends can be realised.

I have talked earlier about the importance of the “liberal revolutions” and the “crusades for liberty” in which CLs have been active for over 400 years. The emancipation of individuals and societies was achieved by both liberal revolution (the English, American, and French) and by piece-meal incremental reforms (like some the “crusades” discussed by Ebeling). [See “Classical Liberalism as a Revolutionary Ideology of Emancipation” (13 Oct. 2021) online.]

I would add here that perhaps the first “emancipation” is the one that each individual has to achieve for themselves, a kind of internal or “self-emancipation” whereby an individual frees their own mind from the bonds of dogma, superstition, intolerance, bigotry, hatred, and the desire to dominate others – or as “En Vogue” said in their 1992 song “Free your mind and the rest will follow”. [See “Free Your Mind (song)” Wikipedia.]

Once individual or societal emancipation has been achieved, or at least partially achieved, one needs a variety of “liberal institutions” or “orders” (Hayek’s phrase) which arise spontaneously and can maintain these reforms and practices over the longer period and allow for their growth, development, and evolution over time

Liberal Institutions to achieve Liberal Ends

Institutions make it possible for all of the above mentioned ends and means to work in practice. They have arisen spontaneously (in many cases) over a period of several centuries and provide the historical setting within which productive cooperation can take place and be maximised, and which places limits on the destructive and plundering actions of both private individuals and public officials.

As David Hume, Adam Smith, and other CL theorists have argued, for liberal institutions to function properly we do not have to assume or predicate upon a change in the nature of human beings, as do many socialist theorists who base the proper functioning of a socialist society on the emergence of a “new socialist man”. Human beings do not have to become “angels” for markets and a free society to “work”. In fact, especially in the case of political institutions, we should heed Hume advice and assume that all men are “knaves” and will abuse their position of power if given a chance.

As Boettke states in “True Liberalism” what we need for a free society to function is “a set of institutions where bad men (and women) could do least harm if they were to assume positions of power” (i.e., to engage in public predation). And I would add to that that we need “a set of institutions which will encourage (incentivise) bad or selfish men and women to do the most good for others” (and thus avoid the temptation to engage in “private predation”).

I have divided my discussion of “liberal institutions” into five main groups:

  1. the overall framework or what Hayek called “The Great Society”
  2. legal institutions
  3. political institutions
  4. economic institutions, and
  5. social (or private) institutions

All these institutions require certain “rules of the game” (Buchanan) or “the social rules of engagement” (Boettke) in order to provide some certainty and predicability in “how the game is played” (Hayek). These “rules” make it possible to resolve conflicts and enable cooperation among disparate individuals and groups of individuals without having to resort to the costly and destructive (and in my view immoral) use of force. Furthermore, these “rules of governance” can emerge in two ways, either endogenously and spontaneously through evolution and voluntary cooperation (or what Hayek called “spontaneous orders”), or exogenously by individual creation (what Hayek terms “organisations”) which can be done non-coercively or coercively depending on the circumstances.

I have discussed the overall “framework” (Nozick) or meta-order which Hayek has called “The Great Society”, within which other orders and organisations can flourish and operate freely, in another post: “Classical Liberal Visions of the Future III: Liberal Experiments, Frameworks, and Archipelagos” (11 Oct. 2021) online.

Concerning the other kinds of institutions I will just briefly list some of their key aspects:

Legal institutions:

  • the rule of law (common law);
  • freedom of contract (exchange of property),
  • tort law (compensation for harm and injury),
  • arbitration (private) of disputes;
  • endogenous and spontaneous emergence/evolution of “the rules of the game” “the rules of governance”

Political institutions:

  • constitutional limits on state power,
  • freedom of speech and association,
  • free and open elections (democracy),
  • local governance (to the greatest degree possible)

Economic institutions:

  • spontaneous endogenously generated orders,
  • free and open markets (price setting and listing),
  • exchanges (stock, commodities),
  • the division of labour,
  • corporations and partnerships

Social institutions:

  • also known as civil society (freedom of association)
  • there are myriads of private associations, organisations , clubs, societies, churches, unions, co-operatives (with the right to include or exclude whomever they wish as members);
  • local communities and neighbourhoods

Let me finish with some quotes from the authors listed at the start of this post: two from Macedo’s book on Liberal Virtues (1990) and Peter Boettke’s The Struggle For A Better World (2021).

Macedo nicely summarizes the CL idea of how “liberal citizens” combine their notion of individual autonomy with a liberal “public life”:

[*Liberal Virtues*, pp. 273-4]: Much of liberal politics will be informed by public moral principles; liberal citizens often recognize the authority of good reasons publicly given and defended; liberal political life should often have an elevating and educating effect.

We should also remember that liberal citizens will not learn justice only, or even mainly, from political participation as it is usually conceived of (voting, discussing candidates and politi­cal issues, campaigning, and so forth). From early on and throughout their lives, liberal citizens learn and apply public norms in their interaction with others, children learn respect for rules and fair play from their parents and from childhood games. They criticize, discuss, listen to others, and take votes, they follow, debate, change, and help enforce rules, at home, in school, at work, in games, and with their friends. They gradually learn to restrain their impulses, to respect others as equals, and to direct and apply their energies with diligence. They learn to make judgments for themselves and hopefully acquire a measure of individuality and autonomy. They learn something about due process, and fairness, and respect for those who are different; they develop judicial, legislative, and executive virtues. All of this takes place without political control, though it is all importantly influenced by our political practices. It would be wrong, therefore, to view participation in campaigns and elections as the sole or even primary font of public virtue: private life goes a long way in helping to prepare us for our public duties.

And:

[*Liberal Virtues*, p. 274}: If liberal autonomy and the practice of liberal politics emphasize activity, initiative, and moral duty, we can expect further effects on the character of liberal citizens. Like the democratic citizens Tocqueville observed, liberals will be willing to take initiatives on their own. And since nothing in the emphasis on individuality and choice would justify the supposition that liberal citizens will pursue self-gratification as a primary end, we should expect liberal citizens to be prepared to combine in voluntary associations for common ends both altruistic and otherwise. Autonomous liberal subjects will prize not isolated activity but the liberty to choose how to be associated, with whom, in what manner, and for what purposes. The public life of liberal subjects will not be con­fined to their political relationships, as critics of liberalism sometimes wrongly assume, but will include participation in the host of clubs and associations that do exist and flourish in liberal societies: the ubiquitous Kiwanis and Rotary, Cham­bers of Commerce, churches, environmental lobbies, retire­ment clubs, Masons, Elks, and Lions.

While, Peter Boettke reminds us that the ultimate end to is to have a society in which individuals and the communities in which they live can flourish and prosper and for all people to enjoy the benefits of “liberal justice”:

[Boettke, Intro to *Struggle*]: However imperfect that (liberal emancipation) project has been pursued in our problematic past— and it has indeed been imperfectly pursued—the struggle remains to understand and pursue a coherent and consistent vision of a society of free and responsible individuals, who can prosper through the voluntary participation in a market society, and live and be actively engaged in caring communities with their family and friends. Humane liberalism, cosmopolitan liberalism, true radical liberalism— this should be the promise of the liberal society to everyone regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. People are people, and liberalism is liberal. We are, after all, one another’s dignified equals. Open and tolerant, peaceful and prosperous, and dynamic and evolving—these are the hallmarks of a humane liberal economic, political, and social arrangement of human affairs.

Classical Liberalism as the Philosophy of Emancipation II: The “True Radical Liberalism” of Peter Boettke

This year Peter Boettke from George Mason University and the Mercatus Center has published a collection of his talks and papers on The Struggle For A Better World (Arlington, Virginia: Mercatus Center, 2021). See the table of contents here and available online as a PDF. See below for a list of Boettke’s works discussed here.

A central theme of these papers is firstly,

  1. that from the very beginning the “liberal project” has been “an emancipation project” which has had to “struggle” for victory against very powerful entrenched interests over a period of several centuries;
  2. secondly, that this project was left incomplete at the end of the 19thC when the liberal movement began to fade out as an intellectual and political force;
  3. and thirdly, that it is the task and the duty of modern-day “true radical liberals”, like himself and his students, to complete the “liberal emancipation project” by reformulating liberal ideals to suit the changed conditions of the 21st century and showing how these ideals and the policies which they inspire can improve the lives of those who have yet to be “emancipated”.

[See the discussion of Richard Ebeling’s idea on the “Five Classical Liberal Crusades” for liberty in “Classical Liberalism as a Revolutionary Ideology of Emancipation” (13 Oct. 2021) online.]

What I want to do in this post is to summarize Peter Boettke’s views on “the liberal emancipation project” and to supply some thoughts of my own to add to those I have expressed in Part I.

The Liberal Project is an Emancipation Project

In my post on “What CL were Against” (12 Aug. 2021) I summarised my thoughts by saying that until the modern era CLs or rather “proto-liberals” identified as their main opponents “Throne” (the monarchy) and “Altar” (the established church). Boettke goes a few steps further, of which I very much approve, by adding four more, namely the Sword (the military), Slavery (one form of coerced labour), the Plough (symbolising two things: the other form of coerced labour, i.e. serfdom, and the traditional very low productivity of peasant agriculture), and Mercantile interests (the vested interests in the manufacturing and trading industries who were able to secure monopoly privileges, subsidies, and tariff protection for their goods from the state). His description of the long and hard “struggle” for emancipation from these impositions on people’s lives, liberties, and properties is worth quoting at length (from the Introduction to The Struggle For A Better World (2021):

The liberal project, I have argued repeatedly throughout my career, was born as an *emancipation project* — freeing individuals from subjugation by the Crown, from the dogma of the Altar, from the violence and oppression of the Sword, from the bondage of Slavery, from the miserable poverty of the Plough and from the special privileges granted to the Mercantile Interests.

We learn from the history of the struggle of the wars for religious toleration, from the long struggle for constitutionally limited democratic government and the rule of law, from the long process of economic development that delivered humanity from crushing poverty and improved the material conditions of billions who were able to live longer and more satisfying lives. Along the way, hard-fought battles for the abolition of slavery, for suffrage for women, for the right of individuals to love whom they want and as they want, had to be won. All of that did happen over the course of history. In fact, it might be impossible to understand the development of the disciplines of economics and political economy without understanding that it evolved simultaneously with the political institutions of liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that it must continually evolve in the context of 20th- and 21st-century understanding of liberal cosmopolitanism.

There are a couple of things to note from his account. Firstly, although he doesn’t used the phrase “crusades for liberty” as Ebeling does, his list is quite similar but with the addition of the right to live with or marry someone of the same sex which was very much a late 20th and early 21st century “crusade”.

Secondly, these “emancipations” had to be fought for by specific individuals, at specific historical moments, and these individuals had certain ideas about liberty and justice in their minds which provided them with the motivation to engage in these “struggles.” Boettke is correct to link the development of the disciplines of liberal political theory and liberal political economy with these more practical political movements, which one could say were the application or implementation of these ideas into practice. Thus there is an important interconnection between “Theorie und Praxis” (theory and practice) or as Ludwig von Mises put it, between ideas and human action.

And thirdly, that this liberal project of emancipation is not finished, both in the sense that it was not completed satisfactorily at the time and that there is a great need for several “new emancipations” in the present given the fact that societies have changed so much in the interim. Boettke goes on to say:

However imperfect that project has been pursued in our problematic past— and it has indeed been imperfectly pursued—the struggle remains to understand and pursue a coherent and consistent vision of a society of free and responsible individuals, who can prosper through the voluntary participation in a market society, and live and be actively engaged in caring communities with their family and friends. Humane liberalism, cosmopolitan liberalism, true radical liberalism— this should be the promise of the liberal society to everyone regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. People are people, and liberalism is liberal. We are, after all, one another’s dignified equals. Open and tolerant, peaceful and prosperous, and dynamic and evolving—these are the hallmarks of a humane liberal economic, political, and social arrangement of human affairs.

The Liberal Agenda of Liberty, Prosperity, Peace, AND Justice

The reason for the weakening and then cessation of the classical liberal emancipation movement in the 19thC, even after so much good had already been achieved, was due Boettke argues to a missing element in the “classical liberal” vision of a free society which tended to focus on “liberty, prosperity, and peace”. That missing element was something that “radical liberals” had in abundance in the late 18th and early 19thC and which which the “moderate liberals” (my term not his) of mid-century had largely lost was a passion for “justice”. This was the conviction that government issued privileges to certain groups, high taxes, multitudinous regulations and interventions in the free market, restrictions on what occupations people could or could not enter, were of course costly and inefficient, but the most important factor to the radicals was that they were morally wrong and unjust, that they violated the natural rights to life, liberty, and property that all individuals had by right, caused uncountable hardship and suffering to ordinary working people, and that therefore they had to be abolished immediately. This fervour, this anger, this impatience to see the right and just thing done, and done for all people not just a select few, was palpable in the thoughts and words of radicals like Thomas Paine, Richard Cobden, and Frédéric Bastiat, but it seemed to peter out in the classical liberal movement as the century wore on.

Boettke discusses this missing component in the CL vision in his essay “Fearing Freedom: The Intellectual and Spiritual Challenge to Liberalism” (2014) (reprinted as chap. 12 in The Struggle for a Better World):

As long as the state provides the appropriate laws and institutions—the rules of the game and their enforcement individuals can be left alone to pursue their own projects while realizing the values of liberty, prosperity, and peace through mutually beneficial exchange with one another. The classical-liberal ideal was never fully realized because although the intellectual vision captured the essential role of the state in providing the required infrastructure, there was a lack of attention to the distinction between the political structure and political intervention into the socioeconomic game. As a result, the structural constraints required to limit the negative consequences of politicized interventions were not established. Within a few generations, the classical-liberal ideal failed to inspire.

… critical to the failure to continually inspire was that the classical-liberal list of liberty, prosperity, and peace was incomplete because it omitted justice. The injustice of capitalist distribution inspired instead the socialist vision. The idea of justice, in both its Aristotelian senses of commutative justice and distributive justice, captures the intellectual imagination. The classical-liberal vision is one consistent with commutative justice (equity in the process), but its relationship to distributive justice (equity in outcomes) has always been dubious at best. …

Political machinations that undermine the generality of the rules and instead yield benefits to some at the expense of others must be constantly identified and resisted in a renewed defense of the justice of the classical-liberal order. Only by so doing will the twenty-first-century political economist complete his eighteenth century counterparts’ program and demonstrate the logical affinity between liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice.

Correcting the Intellectual Errors and Political Mistakes of the Past

In addition to the gradual attenuation of the liberal regard for “justice” for all people, the new “liberal state” which emerged in the 19thC in Britain, the US, in France, and elsewhere, faced a number of significant problems which made it very difficult for even well-meaning liberal reformers. These problems were caused by several theoretical and political errors on their part, which it is hoped 21stC radical liberals now better understand and can steps to avoid making in the future. They include:

  1. their misplaced hopes for democracy
  2. their faith in the benevolence and omniscience of the state and its officials
  3. the “presumption of state intervention” replaced “the presumption of liberty” to solve problems
  4. that “market failure” was more of a problem than “government failure”
  5. their belief that those who “make the rules of the game” should also “referee the game”, and even “play in the game”

For example, it was assumed that democracy itself was enough to bring about the emancipation of those whose rights were being systematically violated by previous state actions and entrenched and powerful vested interest. It was assumed that if only the “right people” got elected and introduced liberal reforms, and if the bureaucrats who administered the reform policies were impartial, fair-minded, and disinterested (as Bentham and James Mill expected them to be), then the liberal reform process would be successful. Without the proper institutional reforms to limit the self-interested behaviour on the part of politicians and bureaucrats who “ran” the state on the one hand (the problem of “public predation”), and the desire and ability of profit-seeking businessmen, industrialists, and financiers who most benefited from the “capitalist system” on the other hand (the problem of “private predation”), then the liberal state would fall victim to the same problems that plague all political systems – the rise to power of venal and corrupt politicians, self-interested bureaucrats, and a legislature which was ripe for the picking by vested interests seeking political rents for a price (what Bentham and Mill called “the sinister interests”).

The work of economists in the tradition of Hayek, Buchanan, and Rothbard have provided modern radical liberals with a much more clear-sighted, realistic, perhaps even cynical view of how politics actually works and thus one might hope that they will not make the same mistakes as their intellectual forebears in the 19thC. As Boettke and Candela observe about the three different forms of liberalism under discussion – radical liberalism, classical liberalism, and modern liberalism:

All three forms of liberalism, we contend, share similar goals, namely to achieve peaceful cooperation among diverse individuals and groups, to eliminate wretched poverty, and to free individuals from the tyranny of others over their lives. In our rendering, the radical liberal is essentially an updated classical liberal who, on the basis of social science and history, is more pessimistic about the constitutional project to constrain public predation and more optimistic about mediating institutions of civil society to ward off private predation. [Boettke and Candela, “Liberal Libertarianism” (2018), Note 3, p. 105.]

Rethinking a “True Radical Liberal” Vision

Given this failure on the part of 19thC liberal states to fully realise their emancipation agenda, liberals in the 21stC according to Boettke need to rethink their vision of what a free society would look like, making sure that they reinstate the notion of justice to its proper place, and how best to place limits on the political structure to make sure it cannot engage in predation itself (public predation) or encourage or enable others to engage in the predation of others (private predation). Boettke is confident that modern “true radical liberals” can develop a “vision of a society that exhibits neither discrimination nor dominion” and that:

Such a society can be made possible only through the establishment of an institutional structure that constrains ordinary politics while also providing the appropriate rules that enable the invisible hand of the market to operate. … (T)wenty-first century political economists must be unwilling to treat rules and their enforcement as given and instead must focus their intellectual attention on the emergence and establishment of the rules of the game themselves. We can see how institutions transform situations of conflict into opportunities for realizing the gains of social cooperation by witnessing how groups across a variety of countries and cultures engage in bottom-up constitution making to solve their societal problems. We can learn to live better together and establish a social order that simultaneously achieves liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice. Such a vision of the “good society” can and must inspire the citizenry not only with the scientific demonstration of the efficacy of freedom, but also with the aesthetic beauty and spiritual meaningfulness of the extensive social cooperation that are possible among free individuals.

The Contribution Liberal Historians can make to this Project

As an historian I would add that 21stC liberal historians also have an important role to play in re-invigorating the classical liberal vision of a free society which would be an important complement to the activities of the political economists. This would include research in the following areas:

  1. “market failure”: showing with historical examples that many (most? all?) of the failures attributed to “capitalism” and the free market system (the boom bust cycle, inflation, the tendency toward the formation of monopolies, the growth of inequality, environmental degradation) are not an inherent part of the free market system but the result of government interventions which prevent the market system from operating efficiently and justly.
  2. “government failure”: debunking the commonly held view that the government is made up of a group of well-meaning, disinterested people who “are here to help”; that governments have access to more and better information that other people and are thus in a better position to make plans about the future direction the economy and the society should be moving in; that the government can identify “market failures” and have the means and the will to rectify them
  3. “the ruling elite”: identifying those individuals and groups (the “vested interests”, the ruling class) who actively seek and get benefits paid for at taxpayer and consumer expence; showing how over time they have become entrenched and very powerful, and how they defend their interests
  4. “the great emancipation”: documenting in detail how the “great emancipation” was inspired by classical liberal ideas; who took action to campaign for and bring about these emancipations of serfs, slaves, ordinary working people, women; the opposition they faced and the difficulties they had to overcome; assessing the successes and failures of these movements
  5. “the CL tradition”: providing an intellectual history of the origin of the key ideas which make up the ideology of “liberalism”, its sources in the ancient world, its evolution during the medieval period, its emergence in the 17thC in a recognisably modern form, the enormous impact these ideas had in the “era of revolutions” (America and France), the setbacks and failures it experienced and the reasons for this
  6. “spontaneous orders”: studies of historical examples of how, when, and why spontaneous orders have emerged, especially endogenously generated legal rules and norms
  7. “the state”: histories of how the state arose, who controlled and ran them, how its major institutions emerged and evolved over time (the army, the courts, the bureaucracies, taxation, prisons, central banks, etc), the social and economic crises they caused and how they attempted to solve them, their relationships with other states

My hope is that the theory provided by the new radical liberal political economists and the political philosophers (something I have not written about yet but which deserves its own post) will join with the empirical work of the historians to build a more inspiring and attractive vision of a truly radical liberal society which is based upon the principles of liberty, prosperity, peace, and justice, firmly anchored in the admirable achievements of the emancipations it has already inspired and achieved in the past, and willing and able to seek the much needed emancipations of other oppressed and neglected groups in the future.

Bibliography of Works mentioned above

Peter J. Boettke, The Struggle For A Better World (Arlington, Virginia: Mercatus Center, 2021). Online at The Struggle for a Better World | Mercatus Center: F. A. Hayek Program. It contains:

  • Introduction. “Economic and Political Liberalism: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”
  • chap. 1 “The Battle of Ideas: Economics and the Struggle for a Better World” – Speech given as the 12th Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture at the New Zealand Business Roundtable in Wellington, New Zealand, 2006. Published in 2007.
  • chap. 3 “Liberty vs. Power in Economic Policy in the 20th and 21st Centuries” – – originally published as “Liberty vs. Power in Economic Policy in the 20th and 21st Centuries” in the Journal of Private Enterprise 22, no.2 (Spring 2007): 7–36. This speech was first delivered as a Plenary Lecture at the 2006 Association of Private Enterprise Education meetings in Las Vegas, Nevada.
  • Chap. 12 “Fearing Freedom: The Intellectual and Spiritual Challenge to Liberalism” – Published in The Independent Review 18, no. 3 (2013/14): 343–58.
  • Chap. 13 “Rebuilding the Liberal Project” – “Edited version of a paper presented at the special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Stockholm, November 3–5, 2017. Originally published in Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy Magazine 33, no. 4 (2017): 25–35.”
  • Chap. 16 “Pessimistically Optimistic about the Future” – Originally published in The Independent Review 20, no. 3 (2016): 343–46.
  • Conclusion. “Liberalism, Socialism, and Our Future”

Peter J. Boettke and Rosolino A. Candela, “Liberal Libertarianism,” in The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism. Edited by: Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz (New York : Routledge, 2018), pp. 92-107.

Peter Boettke, “The Reconstruction of the Liberal Project,” in F. A. Hayek: Economics, Political Economy and Social Philosophy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 257-81.

Classical Liberalism as a Revolutionary Ideology of Emancipation

[Liberty has overturned the Hydra (monster) of Tyranny and smashed the yoke of Despotism (1793)]

Several CL/L thinkers have regarded the efforts of groups of people over the past 400 or so years to create a freer society as a general and long-term “struggle” between Liberty and Power (Rothbard), or a series of “classical liberal crusades” (Ebeling) against various forms of institutionalised coercion and legal privilege.

MNR believes that throughout history there has been a struggle or “race” between the “Old Order” of privilege and plunder which he calls “Power”, and the new emerging order of free and emancipated individuals who live together and interact with each other via voluntary association and exchange and mutual respect for each other’s rights to LLP (life, liberty and property), or what he refers to collectively as “Liberty”. This struggle, Rothbard believes, takes place on an ideological level as a battle of ideas between those who justify the action of the state and its rulers on the grounds of “divine right,” tradition, the greater wisdom and knowledge of the elite who rule, or just mere expediency; and those who defend the ideas of natural rights, individual liberty, free markets and free exchange, productive labour, and peaceful coexistence. The struggle also takes place on a political level as those who wield Power are reluctant to give up their privileges, and those who seek Liberty resent the impositions which are made upon them and the violations of their rights to LLP. Now and again these two struggles, ideological and political, come together to produce a shift in the relationship between the forces of Power and the forces of Liberty, which on several occasions has resulted in the advance of Liberty and the retreat of Power. [See his essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” (1965) and Preface to FNL “The Libertarian Heritage: The American Revolution and Classical Liberalism” (1978).]

The best example of this struggle between Liberty and Power took place within the English-speaking world (the Empire and metropole) in the 140 years between the 1640s and the 1780s which saw three major revolts or revolutions led by “liberals” (although they did not call themselves by that name) seriously challenge and weaken the Power of the state. These challenges to state Power were the English Civil Wars and Revolution of the 1640s (with ideas drawn from the work of Edward Coke and Levellers like Richard Overton and John Lilburne), the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (John Locke and the Whig party), and finally the American Revolution of 1776-1783 (Jefferson, Madison, Paine, et al.). On the strong connections between these “three British revolutions” see the collection of essays Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776. Edited by J.G.A. Pocock (1980).

The most important of these “liberal revolutions” in MNR’s view was the sometimes quite violent American revolution, which he regards as a “classical liberal” revolution, and the less violent, more peaceful evolution of liberal institutions in late 18th and early 19thC, first in England and then later spreading to other parts of Europe (and their colonies like Australia and Canada). As the pamphlets of the period (1750s-1770s) clearly show, the ideology which motivated the rebels and revolutionaries was an explicitly liberal one and they shared MNR’s view that it was a struggle between the “liberty” of the British colonists and the “power” which the Crown and its officers wielded in the north American colonies. [See Bernard Bailyn, “Power and Liberty: A Theory of Politics” in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1992), pp. 55-93; and Bernard Bailyn, “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation,” in S. Kurtz and J. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (1973), pp. 26–27.]

What is interesting to note is that this struggle resulted in a nearly 100 year period of revolutions and upheavals across the entire “Trans-Atlantic” world where liberal, enlightened views about individual liberty, responsible and limited government, and free markets were put into practice with varying degrees of consistency and success. This is well discussed by historians like Robert Palmer in The Age of the Democratic Revolution: The Challenge (1959) and The Age of the Democratic Revolution: The Struggle (1964). Although, the incomplete nature of this revolutionary movement to achieve all its aims has been stressed by Jonathan Israel in The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 (2017), and The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830 (2019).

Richard Ebeling has a similar view which he describes as a series of “classical liberal crusades” for liberty. The passion with which CLs of this period engaged in these emancipatory movements justifies their being called “crusades”. For some, it was based upon their deeply held religious sensibilities (such as the Quakers’ desire to end slavery and war), while for others it was more secular and based upon their ideas of the justice of self-ownership, voluntary exchange and association, and private property, and their passion to enjoy these things for themselves as well as, most importantly, to extend them to others.

These “crusades” were more like individual campaigns in the broader liberal “battle” for emancipation. Whereas Rothbard focuses on the American Revolution which sought systemic change in the way entire societies were governed, the liberals who were active in these “crusades” sought to change only one, perhaps very glaring, injustice at a time.

The five CL “crusades” Ebeling identifies are the following:
1. the crusade against coerced labour such as slavery and serfdom (the abolitionism)
2. against the arbitrary authority of kings and princes (republicanism and the rule of law)
3. against restrictions on trade and industrial activity (free trade and deregulation)
4. against strict limits on who could participate in political activity (democracy) and
5. against war and conscription into the army (peace).

Below I have slightly reworded his more detailed description which he provides in his essay “The Beautiful Philosophy of Liberalism” (2018) and his book For a New Liberalism (2019), chap. 1 “The Classical Liberal History and Heritage of Freedom,” pp. 15-26 [on the “crusades pp. 19-25]:

The Five Great Classical-Liberal Crusades for Liberty:
1.) First was the freedom of the individual as possessing a right of self-ownership. [and against slavery]
2.) The second great classical-liberal crusade was for the recognition of and legal respect for civil liberties. [no unwarranted or arbitrary arrest and imprisonment; freedom of thought and religion, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of association; the rule of law (justice was to be equal and impartial, and that all were answerable and accountable before the law, even those representing and enforcing the law in the name of the king)
3.) The third great classical-liberal crusade was for freedom of enterprise and free trade. [end of mercantilism (the system of government planning was then called)]
4.) The fourth classical-liberal crusade was for greater political liberty. [participation in choosing rulers – enlarged voting franchise]
5.) Finally, the fifth of the classical-liberal crusades of the 19th century was for, if not abolishing war, then at least reducing the frequency of international conflicts among nations and the severity of damage that came with military combat. [protect non-combatants, treatment of POWs, banning certain forms of warfare

These crusades for liberty began in the 17thC and continued until the mid- to late-19thC at which time Ebeling believes the CL movement lost its way and began to become both more conservative (or “moderate” in my terminology), that is to say it was content to sit on its laurels and not to pursue these crusades to their logical conclusions, and to drift towards socialism (i.e “new liberalism”) and other state-based solutions to the “social problems” which continued to plague European and American society.

For example, although there were some CLs (Condorcet, JS Mill) who advocated the right of women to own property, work for a living outside the home, attend college or university, enter any profession or trade they wished to, sign contracts, dissolve their unhappy marriage, and vote in elections and stand for election, the broader CL movement did not take up this movement for the emancipation of women with the same passion they had shown in the movement for the abolition of slavery or for free trade. In other words, it did not become another “classical liberal crusade” so other ideological and political groups took it up and made it their own.

The same could be said about the rights of indigenous people in the colonies run by the European powers (Britain and France) or the plight of ex/freed slaves in the US after the Civil War. Again, except for a handful, most CLs believed the colonised indigenous people were “lesser” or inferior human beings who were not yet ready for full participation in a more “civilised” society. They had to be “educated” and “Christinanised” before that could happen and in the meantime they had to be governed by a form of “tutelage” under their European governors and administrators.

In fact, the very notion of there being an acceptable form of imperialism (or colonialism), i.e.“liberal imperialism”, was a serious contradiction in CL thinking which would have disastrous consequences in the 2nd half of the 20thC when anti-colonial liberation movements began to get underway in earnest. When one looks at the leaders of these anti-colonial independence movements in the post-WW2 period it is apparent that they had studied in universities of the major European capital cities and had learnt, not the free market economic ideas of Mises and Hayek and the liberal political values of JS Mill, but Marxist and Leninist ideas about the central planning of the economy and the dictatorship of the party.

A third example would be the emancipation of gays who would not be allowed to enjoy equal rights under the rule of law until the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

MNR has other reasons to explain why the liberal revolution for emancipation was left unfinished by the end of the 19thC. Like Ebeling he thinks the CLs became complacent with the partial victories they had already achieved and preferred to defend the new status quo from challenges from the rising socialist movement from below and a reconsolidated conservative group from above, instead of pressing on to complete their liberal reform agenda. He also thought that CLs made a number of serious compromises with state power which enabled it to retain considerable power over the economy (such as control over a central bank and the issuing of currency), the armed forces (the retention of a standing army in peacetime, the expansion of the navy in an arms race with other imperial powers), and compulsory tax-payer funded public education (which enabled the state to instill ideas about nationalism and obedience to state in the minds of young people). Rothbard ties these compromises with state power to an underlying ideological cause, which was the gradually abandonment of the more radical defence of individual liberty on the grounds of natural law and natural rights which called for immediate abolition of theses injustices, and its replacement by a much more moderate, gradualist approach to reform based upon the theory of utilitarianism (FNL, pp. 14-15).

For Rothbard, in order to complete the liberal revolution the next “crusades” the CLs should have taken up in the late 19thC were the “separation” of money and the state, the “separation” of education and the state, and the “separation” of guns and the state; thus building upon their already quite successful crusade for the “separation of church and state”.

In spite of the incomplete nature of some of these CL “crusades” they were successful enough to completely transform western societies and lay the groundwork for an extended period of extraordinary prosperity, freedom, and peace which was unprecedented in human history and which we continue to enjoy today. This is in spite of the many setbacks resulting from the more recent period of the growth of government and its regulation of the economy and private life. Useful surveys of this unprecedented transformation of western society can be found in the recent work of Deidre McCloskey on Bouregois Society and the “Great Enrichment” which it made possible to lift 100s of millions of people out of the traditional state of poverty and oppression which they endured for millennia. Accompanying the “Great Enrichment” was what I call the “Great Emancipation” (following McCloskey’s lead in terminology) which is discussed above. On this see the works of Theodore S. Hamerow, The Birth of a New Europe: State and Society in the Nineteenth Century (1983) and Jerome Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe (1978).

Bibliography

Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged Edition (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992). 1st ed. 1967. Especially chap. III “Power and Liberty: A Theory of Politics,” pp. 55-93.

Bernard Bailyn, “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation,” in S. Kurtz and J. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 26–27.

Jerome Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe (Princeton University Press, 1978).

Richard M. Ebeling “The Beautiful Philosophy of Liberalism” The Future of Freedom Foundation (July 10, 2018) – online.

Richard Ebeling, For a New Liberalism (American Institute for Economic Research, 2019).

Theodore S. Hamerow, The Birth of a New Europe: State and Society in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Jonathan Israel, The Enlightenment That Failed: Ideas, Revolution, and Democratic Defeat, 1748-1830 (Oxford University Press, 2019).

McCloskey’s “Bourgeois trilogy” on bourgeois virtues, dignity, and equality:

  • Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues : Ethics for an Age of Commerce (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  • Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: The Challenge (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959).

Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: The Struggle (Princeton University Press, 1964).

[Pocock] Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, 1776. Edited by J.G.A. Pocock (Princeton University Press, 1980).
Murrary N. Rothbard, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought (Spring 1965, no. 1), pp. 4-22;

Murrary N. Rothbard, “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought (Spring 1965, no. 1), pp. 4-22.

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Revised edition. (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1978), “Preface. The Libertarian Heritage: The American Revolution and Classical Liberalism,” pp. 1-19. Online at Mises Wire.