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

Created: 24 Oct. 2021 (with 25 posts)

[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