What CLs were For – Part 2: Ends and Means

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

Liberal Ends require Liberal Means to build Liberal Institutions


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.


[*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.