Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty

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

I have selected 12 Key Concepts which I think are most important to understanding what CLs have believed in/advocated over the past 400 odd years. Given the sheer number and diversity of individuals who have been part of the CL movement over this time and in many different countries there is probably no single thinker who would agree with every aspect of these key concepts. Rather, they are an amalgam or “ideal type” taken from the various streams of thinking about individual liberty which have emerged in Western Europe and North America since the early modern period. It is designed to summarize in a more manageable way a complex way of thinking about the nature of individual liberty.

They are the following:

  1. Natural Law and Natural Rights
  2. Individual Liberty
  3. Private Property
  4. Free Markets
  5. Free Trade
  6. Idea of Spontaneous Order
  7. Consent of the Governed
  8. Limited Government
  9. Rule of Law
  10. Freedom of Speech & Association (special case of Religion)
  11. Peace
  12. Progress and Human Flourishing

For each of the topics I have selected a number of quotations from some classic text to illustrate what classical liberals (and some photo-liberals) have thought on the matter. They come from a compilation of “600 Quotations about Liberty and Power” I made when I was at Liberty Fund between 2004 and 2018.


(1.) Natural Law and Natural Rights

Key ideas:

  • the world is governed by natural laws which are discoverable by human reason
  • Tom Paine’s “imprescriptible rights”: the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
  • rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it
  • [alternative view of utilitarianism – maximization of happiness or utility]

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Sir Edward Coke declares that your house is your “Castle and Fortress” (1604) at the OLL
  2. Richard Overton shoots An Arrow against all Tyrants from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever (1646) at the OLL
  3. Pascal and the absurd notion that the principles of justice vary across state borders (1669) at the OLL
  4. John Locke on the rights to life, liberty, and property of ourselves and others (1689) at the OLL
  5. Algernon Sidney argues that a People’s liberty is a gift of nature and exists prior to any government (1683) at the OLL
  6. Francis Hutcheson on the difference between “perfect” and “imperfect” rights (1725) at the OLL
  7. Sir William Blackstone differentiates between “absolute rights” of individuals (natural rights which exist prior to the state) and social rights (contractural rights which evolve later) (1753) at the OLL
  8. Denis Diderot argues that the laws must be based upon natural rights and be made for all and not for one (1755) at the OLL
  9. Frédéric Bastiat asks what came first, property or law? (1850) at the OLL
  10. Lysander Spooner spells out his theory of “mine and thine”, or the science of natural law and justice, which alone can ensure that mankind lives in peace (1882) at the OLL

(2.) Individual Liberty

Key ideas:

  • the dignity of the individual, individual autonomy, sanctity of life
  • an individual, private sphere which is protected from outside interference
  • right of voluntary association among individuals
  • civil society results from voluntary association between individuals with common interests
  • the Law of Equal Freedom (Spencer)

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Magna Carta guaranteed the freemen of the kingdom their liberties forever (1215) at the OLL
  2. Immanuel Kant on the natural right to seek happiness in one’s own way (1791) at the OLL
  3. Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that freedom was the “Grand and Indispensable Condition” for individual flourishing (1792) at the OLL
  4. In Percy Shelley’s poem Liberty liberty is compared to a force of nature sweeping the globe, where “tyrants and slaves are like shadows of night” which will disappear in “the van of the morning light” (1824) at the OLL
  5. Harriet Taylor wants to see “freedom and admissibility” in all areas of human activity replace the system of “privilege and exclusion” (1847) at the OLL
  6. Alexis de Tocqueville on the true love of liberty (1856) at the OLL
  7. J.S. Mill’s great principle was that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (1859) at the OLL
  8. J.S. Mill spoke in Parliament in favour of granting women the right to vote, to have “a voice in determining who shall be their rulers” (1866) at the OLL
  9. Lysander Spooner on the idea that laws against “vice” (victimless crimes) are unjust (1875) at the OLL
  10. Lord Acton writes to Bishop Creighton that the same moral standards should be applied to all men, political and religious leaders included, especially since “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (1887) at the OLL

(3.) Private Property

Key ideas:

  • property rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it (i.e. they are “natural rights” not “artificial rights” (Hodgskin)
  • the right of self-propriety or self-ownership (the Levellers & Locke)
  • the right to create or acquire property titles in unowned resources (Locke)
  • the right to exchange property titles with others (private contracts)
  • the right to enjoy one’s property so long as no aggression is initiated against others (non-aggression axiom)
  • property rights (in one’s person, home, possessions) create an individual, private sphere which must be protected from outside interference (by state, church, other individuals) (Humboldt & Mill)

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Gaius states that according to natural reason the first occupier of any previously unowned property becomes the just owner (2nd Century) at the OLL
  2. Captain John Clarke asserts the right of all men to vote in the formation of a new constitution by right of the property they have in themselves (1647) at the OLL
  3. William Penn on property as one of the three fundamental rights all men have (1679) at the OLL
  4. Sir William Blackstone argues that occupancy of previously unowned land creates a natural right to that property which excludes others from it (1753) at the OLL
  5. James Mill on the natural disposition to accumulate property (1808) at the OLL
  6. J.B. Say on the self-evident nature of property rights which is nevertheless violated by the state in taxation and slavery (1817) at the OLL
  7. Thomas Hodgskin argues for a Lockean notion of the right to property (“natural”) and against the Benthamite notion that property rights are created by the state (“artificial”) (1832) at the OLL
  8. Wolowski and Levasseur argue that Property is “the fruit of human liberty” and that Violence and Conquest have done much to disturb this natural order (1884) at the OLL
  9. Lysander Spooner spells out his theory of “mine and thine”, or the science of natural law and justice, which alone can ensure that mankind lives in peace (1882) at the OLL
  10. Auberon Herbert on the “magic of private property” (1897) at the OLL

(4.) Free Markets

Key ideas:

  • domestic free markets and international free trade (A. Smith, F. Bastiat, L. von Mises)
  • voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial (ex ante)
  • division of labour
  • freely set market prices (information about supply & demand – Hayek)
  • private ownership of economic assets
  • private contracts for exchange of property
  • legal protection of property rights
  • decentralized decision-making – “I, Pencil” – Hayek’s “problem of knowledge”
  • no regulation outside of legal protection of property rights (tort law for fraud, damages)
  • complete freedom of movement of people (labour), capital, and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
  • minimal/no taxes, balanced government budgets
  • no subsidies or protection for favoured individuals or groups
  • the incentive of profit and the disincentive of losses

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Robert Molesworth on the benefits of open borders and free immigration (1705) at the OLL
  2. Montesquieu thought that commerce improves manners and cures “the most destructive prejudices” (1748) at the OLL
  3. Adam Smith on the greater productivity brought about by the division of labor and technological innovation (1760s) at the OLL
  4. Adam Smith argued that the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” was inherent in human nature and gave rise to things such as the division of labour (1776) at the OLL
  5. Destutt de Tracy on the mutually beneficial nature of exchange (1817) at the OLL
  6. Nassau Senior objected to any government regulation of factories which meant that a horde of inspectors would interfere with the organization of production (1837) at the OLL
  7. Philip Wicksteed’s positive vision of the “cash nexus” (1910) at the OLL
  8. Ludwig von Mises on how price controls lead to socialism (1944) at the OLL
  9. Ludwig von Mises argues that monopolies are the direct result of government intervention and not the product of any inherent tendency within the capitalist system (1949) at the OLL
  10. Israel Kirzner defines economics as the reconciliation of conflicting ends given the existence of inescapable scarcity (1960) at the OLL

(5.) Free Trade

Key ideas:

  • complete freedom of movement of people and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
    domestic free markets and international free trade (A. Smith, F. Bastiat, L. von Mises)
  • natural harmony of interests leads to peace
  • benefits of division of labour, comparative advantage (David Ricardo) exist between households, cities, regions, and “nation states”
  • no subsidies or protection for favoured individuals or groups
  • policy of unilateral free trade is beneficial to consumers

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. The right to free trade under Magna Carta (1215) at the OLL
  2. Adam Smith on the “liberal system” of free trade (1776) at the OLL
  3. Condy Raguet on the anti-Christian character of protection and the need for peace on earth (1832) at the OLL
  4. John Ramsay McCulloch argues that smuggling is “wholly the result of vicious commercial and financial legislation” and that it could be ended immediately by abolishing this legislation (1899) at the OLL
  5. Richard Cobden’s “I have a dream” speech about a world in which free trade is the governing principle (1846) at the OLL
  6. Frédéric Bastiat on the most universally useful freedom, namely to work and to trade (1847) at the OLL
  7. Harriet Martineau condemns tariffs as a “vicious aristocratic principle” designed to harm the ordinary working man and woman (1861) at the OLL
  8. Henry George on a “free trade America” as the real city set on a hill (1886) at the OLL
  9. William Graham Sumner on free trade as another aspect of individual liberty (1888) at the OLL
  10. Yves Guyot accuses all those who seek Protection from foreign competition of being “Socialists” (1893) at the OLL

(6.) Idea of Spontaneous Order

Key ideas:

  • institutions emerge spontaneously and evolve over time
  • by pursuing their own selfish interests in a voluntary manner they are led as if by an “invisible hand” (Adam Smith) to promote the welfare of others
  • e.g. language, money, private law, markets

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Henry Vaughan argues that it is the voluntary and “universal concurrence of mankind”, not the laws, which makes money acceptable as a medium of exchange (1675) at the OLL
  2. Bernard Mandeville on the social cooperation which is required to produce a piece of scarlet cloth (1723) at the OLL
  3. Adam Smith on the natural ordering Tendency of Free Markets, or what he called the “Invisible Hand” (1776) at the OLL
  4. Adam Smith argued that the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” was inherent in human nature and gave rise to things such as the division of labour (1776) at the OLL
  5. Adam Ferguson observed that social structures of all kinds were not “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (1782) at the OLL
  6. Bernard Mandeville uses a fable about bees to show how prosperity and good order comes about through spontaneous order (1705) at the OLL
  7. Horace Say on “I, Pin” and the international division of labor (1852) at the OLL
  8. Herbert Spencer on spontaneous order produced by “the beneficent working of social forces” (1879) at the OLL
  9. William Graham Sumner on the industrial system as an example of social co-operation (c. 1900) at the OLL
  10. Philip Wicksteed on how impersonal economic relations help others (1910) at the OLL

(7.) The Consent of the Governed

Key ideas:

  • the idea that rulers (kings) have a duty to protect the interests of their subjects and that there is an unwritten (historical) “contract” that binds the two parties, namely that the subjects agree to obey or “consent” to being ruled so long as the king fulfills his duties towards the people; that if this contract is “broken” the people have the right to seek a new ruler
  • sometimes this “consent” can be explicit, for example for the first generation of people who participate in founding a new regime after a revolution (as with the American and French revolutions and the various Constitutions they drew up); at other times is is “tacit” (silent) consent for those later generations, especially if they participate in periodic elections to chose their representatives (“rulers”)
  • The right to change one’s government – either by staying put and choosing a new one (election) or removing a despotic one (right of revolution); or killing a tyrant (tyrannicide)
  • there was a long tradition of
  • other forms of “consent” (or rather the withdrawal of consent) is demonstrated by physically removing oneself from the jurisdiction one does not like, such as
  • internal (personal & geographical) – right to free movement within the state (no slavery, being tied to the land (serfs), internal passports & controls)
  • external (personal & geographical) – right to emigrate/immigrate, right to cross political borders
  • internal (govt, leave its “jurisdiction”)
  • right to change one’s government (“throw the bastards out” in free elections, problem of “serial bastardry”)
  • right of rebellion against unjust state, resistance to tyranny
  • the right to secede
  • the right to ignore the state (Spencer)

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Cicero on the need for politicians to place the interests of those they represent ahead of their own private interests (1st century BC) at the OLL
  2. La Boétie argues that tyranny will collapse if enough people refuse to cooperate and withdraw their moral support to it (1576) at the OLL
  3. Althusius argues that a political leader is bound by his oath of office which, if violated, requires his removal (1614) at the OLL
  4. Adam Smith on social change and “the man of system” (1759) at the OLL
  5. Thomas Jefferson on the right to change one’s government (1776) at the OLL
  6. Edward Gibbon believed that unless public liberty was defended by “intrepid and vigilant guardians” any constitution would degenerate into despotism (1776) at the OLL
  7. Thomas Jefferson feared that it would only be a matter of time before the American system of government degenerated into a form of “elective despotism” (1785) at the OLL
  8. George Washington warns the nation in his Farewell Address, that love of power will tend to create a real despotism in America unless proper checks and balances are maintained to limit government power (1796) at the OLL
  9. Herbert Spencer concludes from his principle of equal freedom that individuals have the Right to Ignore the State (1851) at the OLL
  10. John Stuart Mill on “the sacred right of insurrection” (1862) at the OLL

(8.) Limited Government

Key ideas:

  • governments rule with the consent of the governed (Locke)
  • strictly defined powers limited by constitution or bill of rights (Jefferson, Madison)
  • right to choose one’s rulers/representatives (elections); elections to periodically remove bad governments (Philosophic Radicals – Mill)
  • checks & balances to limit power of branches of government (Montesquieu, US Constitution)
  • decentralization of power (federalism, states rights, municipal govt.)
  • the problem of defining the limits of govt. power (classical Smithian view, nightwatchman state (JB Say, Bastiat), anarcho-capitalism (Molinari, Spencer, Rothbard)
  • the problem of keeping government limited (Public Choice, “who guards the guardians?)

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Edmund Burke asks a key question of political theory: “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (how is one to be defended against the very guardians who have been appointed to guard us?) (1756) at the OLL
  2. James Madison on the need for the “separation of powers” because “men are not angels,” Federalist 51 (1788) at the OLL
  3. William Godwin on the need to simplify and reduce the power of the state (1793) at the OLL
  4. Jeremy Bentham on the proper role of government: “Be Quiet” and “Stand out of my sunshine” (1843) at the OLL
  5. Frédéric Bastiat on the state as the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else (1848) at the OLL
  6. Bastiat asks the fundamental question of political economy: what should be the size of the state? (1850) at the OLL
  7. John Stuart Mill on the need for limited government and political rights to prevent the “king of the vultures” and his “minor harpies” in the government from preying on the people (1859) at the OLL
  8. The Australian radical liberal Bruce Smith lays down some very strict rules which should govern the actions of any legislator (1887) at the OLL
  9. William Graham Sumner on the “do-nothing” state vs. ”the meddling” state (1888) at the OLL
  10. Hippolyte Taine on how the modern bureaucratic state destroys spontaneous and fruitful private cooperation (1890) at the OLL

(9.) Rule of Law

Key ideas:

  • rule of laws not of men
  • law applies equally to all (including agents of the state)
  • common law
  • independent courts
  • common law, trial by jury, right to habeas corpus
  • abolition of “cruel & unusual punishment” (torture, death penalty)

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Under Magna Carta the King cannot imprison a freeman without being convicted by a trial of his peers (1215) at the OLL
  2. Sir Edward Coke defends British Liberties and the Idea of Habeas Corpus in the Petition of Right before Parliament (1628) at the OLL
  3. Algernon Sidney argues that a law that is not just is not a law (1683) at the OLL
  4. John Locke on the idea that “wherever law ends, tyranny begins” (1689) at the OLL
  5. Sir William Blackstone provides a strong defence of personal liberty and concludes that to “secretly hurry” a man to prison is a “dangerous engine of arbitrary government” (1753) at the OLL
  6. Cesare Beccaria says that torture is cruel and barbaric and a violation of the principle that no one should be punished until proven guilty in a court of law; in other words it is the “right of power” (1764) at the OLL
  7. The IVth Amendment to the American Constitution states that the people shall be secure in their persons against unreasonable searches and seizures and that no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause (1788) at the OLL
  8. Lysander Spooner on Jury Nullification as the “palladium of liberty” against the tyranny of government (1852) at the OLL
  9. J.S. Mill in a speech before parliament denounced the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the use of flogging in Ireland, saying that those who ordered this “deserved flogging as much as any of those who were flogged by his orders” (1866) at the OLL
  10. Pollock on “our lady” the common law and her devoted servants (1911) at the OLL

(10.) Freedom of Speech & Association

Key ideas:

  • freedom of the press (political, scientific, religious)
  • the right of assembly
  • the right to engage in peaceful protest
  • no state-enforced religion
  • right to practice the religion of one’s choice
  • liberty of political belief and practice (18th & 19thC, JS Mill)
  • toleration of all unorthodox thought and (non injurious) behaviour

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. John Milton on the tyranny of government licensed printing (1644) at the OLL
  2. Benedict de Spinoza on the natural right every person has to think and speak on any subject they choose (1670) at the OLL
  3. John Locke believed that the magistrate should not punish sin but only violations of natural rights and public peace (1689) at the OLL
  4. Pierre Bayle begins his defence of religious toleration with this appeal that the light of nature, or Reason, should be used to settle religious differences and not coercion (1708) at the OLL
  5. The Earl of Shaftesbury on the value of good conversations for questioning everything (1709) at the OLL
  6. Elisha Williams on the unalienable right every person has to think and judge for themselves (1744) at the OLL
  7. David Hume argues that “love of liberty” in some individuals often attracts the religious inquisitor to persecute them and thereby drive society into a state of “ignorance, corruption, and bondage” (1757) at the OLL
  8. Voltaire notes that where Commerce and Toleration predominate, a Multiplicity of Faiths can live together in Peace and Happiness (1764) at the OLL
  9. Thomas Jefferson’s preference for “newspapers without government” over “government without newspapers” (1787) at the OLL
  10. Benjamin Constant and the Freedom of the Press (1815) at the OLL

(11.) Peace

Key ideas:

  • non-interference in the affairs of other nations (Washington, Cobden)
  • international arbitration to solve disputes
  • free trade between all nations
  • war leads to higher taxes, debt, growth in size of government
  • opposed taxation, conscription, national debt to fund “standing army” & fight wars
  • favoured local, volunteer militias (US Bill of Rights) – irregular, guerrilla war (Am. Rev)
  • “war is the health of the state” (R. Bourne) & Robert Higgs’ “ratchet effect”
  • modern military is anti-individualistic, command economy (Mises), socialist institution
  • free and open immigration/emigration

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Erasmus has the personification of Peace come down to earth to see with dismay how war ravages human societies (1521) at the OLL
  2. Hugo Grotius on Moderation in Despoiling the Country of one’s Enemies (1625) at the OLL
  3. John Trenchard on the dangers posed by a standing army (1698) at the OLL
  4. Madison argued that war is the major way by which the executive office increases its power, patronage, and taxing power (1793) at the OLL
  5. George Washington on the Difference between Commercial and Political Relations with other Countries (1796) at the OLL
  6. James Mill likens the expence and economic stagnation brought about by war to a “pestilential wind” which ravages the country (1808) at the OLL
  7. Thomas Hodgskin on the Suffering of those who had been Impressed or Conscripted into the despotism of the British Navy (1813) at the OLL
  8. Richard Cobden urges the British Parliament not to be the “Don Quixotes of Europe” using military force to right the wrongs of the world (1854) at the OLL
  9. William Graham Sumner denounced America’s war against Spain and thought that “war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery” would result in imperialism (1898) at the OLL
  10. Ludwig von Mises laments the passing of the Age of Limited Warfare and the coming of Mass Destruction in the Age of Statism and Conquest (1949) at the OLL

(12.) Progress and Human Flourishing

Key ideas:

  • A belief in the possibility of Progress (intellectual and material/economic)
  • through hard work and initiative both individuals and society can be improved indefinitely
  • wealth creation is a product of the free market and trade
  • savings create pool of wealth to benefit current & next generation
  • goal of individual flourishing (Humboldt)
  • and “the pursuit of happiness” (Thomas Jefferson)

EoL articles:

Quotations from some Classic Texts:

  1. Marcus Aurelius on using reason to live one’s life “straight and right” (170) at the OLL
  2. The Earl of Shaftesbury states that civility and politeness is a consequence of liberty by which “we polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides” (1709) at the OLL
  3. Jean Barbeyrac on the Virtues which all free Men should have (1718) at the OLL
  4. Immanuel Kant on the natural right to seek happiness in one’s own way (1791) at the OLL
  5. Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that freedom was the “Grand and Indispensable Condition” for individual flourishing (1792) at the OLL
  6. Voltaire on the Benefits which Trade and Economic Abundance bring to People living in the Present Age (1736) at the OLL
  7. Montesquieu thought that commerce improves manners and cures “the most destructive prejudices” (1748) at the OLL
  8. Condorcet writes about the inevitability of the spread of liberty and prosperity while he was in prison awaiting execution by the Jacobins (1796) at the OLL
  9. Lord Macaulay writes a devastating review of Southey’s Colloquies in which the Poet Laureate’s ignorance of the real condition of the working class in England is exposed (1830) at the OLL
  10. Samuel Smiles on how an idle, thriftless, or drunken man can, and should, improve himself through self-help and not by means of the state (1859).at the OLL

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

Date: 22 Apr. 2022

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

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

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

See other posts relevant to this topic.

1. Introduction: What is Liberalism?

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

2. Liberalism and the State

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

3. Liberal Ideas

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

4. Key Individuals, Texts, and Movements for Reform

[This section is necessarily brief. See the main section for more information.]

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

5. A Balance Sheet of Liberal Successes and Failures

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

6. Strategies to Achieve Liberal Reforms

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

A Balance Sheet of the Success and Failures of Classical Liberalism

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

Introduction

Following the rise to power of Louis Napoleon, who declared himself Emperor Napoléon III in 1852, the radical French CL and political economist Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) gave a lecture at the Musée royale de l’industrie belge in October 1852 on “Les Révolutions et le despotisme envisagés au point de vue des intérêts matériel” (Revolutions and despotism considered from the point of view of material interests). In this lecture he declared that it was the function of economists to be “les teneurs de livres de la politique” (the bookkeepers of politics) who should periodically draw up a balance sheet of the “profits and losses” or the “costs and benefits” of political activity. In his case it was the impact of the French Revolution in 1789 and another revolution on February 1848. [For the details of his political “bookkeeping” see my essay “Gustave de Molinari on Economists as the Bookkeepers of Politics: ‘Unfortunately, No One Listens To Economists’.” (23 April, 2020). Online.]

I want to do much the same here, but this time to draw up a list of the costs and benefits of a political and economic ideology, or rather the “successes” and “failures” of Classical Liberalism (henceforth “CL”). My conclusion is that the very considerable “benefits” or achievements of CL have not been recognized as they should have been, and that modern day CLs and libertarians have not adequately recognized and discussed the very obvious costs or “failures” of their tradition. What they can do to address the latter is a matter still to be resolved.

The Achievements of Liberalism

The achievements of CL have been enormous since CL first began challenging the Old Order of the monarchical/absolutist state (Throne) and the established church (Altar) in the 17th century, with most of its successes coming in the late 18th century (the American and French revolutions) and their aftermath in the 19th century.

These achievements can be summarized as

  1. the Great Emancipation, and
  2. the Great Enrichment

The Great Emancipation

Richard Ebeling has called this movement the CL “crusades” for liberty and Peter Boettke “the emancipation project”. This freed millions of people from the bondage (Boettke’s word) of the Throne (the monarchy), the Altar (the established church), the Sword (the military), Slavery and Serfdom (the large land and plantation owners), the Plough (pre-industrial agriculture), and the Mercantile interests.

See the following posts for more information:

  1. “Classical Liberalism as a Revolutionary Ideology of Emancipation” (13 Oct. 2021) here
  2. “Classical Liberalism as the Philosophy of Emancipation II: The “True Radical Liberalism” of Peter Boettke” (17 Oct. 2021) here

My list of “emancipations” is a compilation and expansion of Ebeling’s and Boettke’s lists. As a result of CL reforms and revolutions much of western Europe, America, and the English colonies were emancipated:

  1. from coerced labour such as slavery and serfdom (abolition)
  2. from the arbitrary authority of kings and princes (constitutional limits to state power, the rule of law, freedom of speech, low taxation)
  3. from “cruel & unusual punishment”, such as torture, the death penalty, arrest without court order, imprisonment without trial (trial by jury, independent judiciary, habeas corpus, punishments which “fit the crime”)
  4. from violations of property rights (legal protection of property, enforcement of contracts)
  5. from the arbitrary power of the Church (freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom from paying compulsory tithes)
  6. from restrictions and bans on associating with others on a voluntary basis (marriage and divorce laws, private clubs and associations (“civil society”))
  7. from restrictions on trade and industrial activity (free trade and deregulation, freedom to enter and practice a profession or trade)
  8. from restrictions on the movement of people, goods, and capital (freedom to move within the country, freedom to emigrate, free trade)
  9. from strict limits on who could participate in political activity such as voting and standing for election (democracy, freedom of association, freedom of speech)
  10. from war and conscription into the army (peace, low taxes and debt, laws of warfare, international arbitration)

Note: There were many aspects of life in the 19th century which were never regulated by the state in any systematic manner, such as private activities such as prostitution, or the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol and drugs. It would only be in the 20th century, when liberal ideas and institutions were severely weakened that the state began to prohibit, sometimes ruthlessly, so-called “victimless crimes” like prostitution, alcohol, and drugs.

The Great Enrichment

This is Deidre McCloskey’s term and she has documented how the great emancipation led directly to an explosion of wealth creation (market driven innovation, greater productivity of free production and free trade) which in turn led to longer life expectancy, lower infant morality (and childbirth deaths of mothers), reduction of disease, less demanding physical labour (mechanization), and greater home comforts for the first time in human history, especially for ordinary working people (piped water, sewers, heating, light).

For a summary of her findings see this article:

Deirdre McCloskey, “The Great Enrichment” Discourse (July 13, 2020 here

and note the accompanying table showing the extraordinary increase in wealth which 1.4 to 2% annual growth can achieve:

The argument is that this modest annual growth was made possible for the first time in human history, and was only possible at all, because of CL reforms in ideas, behaviour, and institutions.

It is important to note that an important pre-condition for the Great Enrichment” was a change in thinking about the merits of productive labour. Traditional elites considered productive labour undertaken by themselves to be demeaning to one’s social status, thus one needed servants, serfs, and slaves to undertake the actual hard work to create wealth. For most of human history the ideal elites sought to copy was that of the warrior or the aristocratic land owner with the time and leisure and wealth to pursue “higher” ends. The sea change which made the Great Enrichment possible was for more and more people to see that productive labour (including running a business, engaging in trade, selling goods and services to ordinary consumers) was a “noble” activity in itself and that all impediments to such activity should be removed. This applied not just to others but also to oneself and one’s children, that it was no shame to “go into trade” as it was called. For example, a key indicator of how these ideas about labour had changed during the course of the 19th century in Britain was the number of “beer barons” who were awarded knighthoods and earldoms by the British monarchy.

The Failures of CL

Although these emancipations and enrichment completely transformed European and American society and laid the foundation for our modern world they were left incomplete and unfinished, and, as a result, other ideologies less friendly, even very hostile to CL, have become dominant (socialism, welfare statism, fascism/populism).

1.) The emancipation project was left incomplete with some groups left out or ignored (women, gays, indigenous people). This was due to a number of factors:

  1. the inconsistent application of liberal principles by believing that not all human beings had equal “rights” to life, liberty and property, or that if they had these rights they were already “protected” by their “guardians”, whether they be their husbands, fathers, or more “advanced” white men;
  2. complacency on the part of many CLs who believed that the continuation of the liberal project was “inevitable” as it was part of an unstoppable evolutionary process, or
  3. their religious arrogance since they believed that they had undertaken a Christian “civilizing mission” to bring God and liberal order to the colonies.

The exclusion of these groups opened the door for other political and economic ideologies to step into the gap left by the CLs and to offer an alternative route to their eventual emancipation by means of much greater state intervention.

2.) CL political and economic theory suffered from a series of weaknesses which made it vulnerable to criticism and being replaced by other ideologies which seemed to be able to offer explanations and solutions to current problems. These other “solutions” usually involved much greater state regulation and control of both private life and the economy. Some of the theoretical problems within CL theory included:

  1. viewing “democracy” as an end in itself rather than as a means to achieve a higher end (such as removing the power and privileges of the old elites, making politicians and government agents accountable “to the people”, placing strict limits on the power of the state; instead, democracy came to be seen as an end in itself which was applicable to larger and larger areas of human activity, such as economics, thus giving rise to the idea of “social democracy”
  2. the weakening of belief in natural rights as the foundation of liberty (which had radical implications) and its replacement by utilitarianism which was a far weaker defence of liberty in that it allowed many exceptions based upon bureaucratic and political calculations of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle
  3. exaggerating the extent of and misunderstanding the reasons for “market failure” which led to the belief that the government (regulation) should be used to rectify these failures; the older “presumption of liberty” as the guiding principle of government policy was replaced with “the presumption of government intervention” to solve problems
  4. ignoring the problem of “government failure” by overestimating the ability of the state to regulate economic matters; the reasons for this failure of government would not be fully appreciated until the work of Mises and Hayek in the 1920s and 1930s (the problem of rational economic calculation under socialism, the problem of knowledge), and Buchanan and Tullock in the 1960s (the self-interested behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats)
  5. not being able to explain the cause of the business cycle and the economic depressions which were the result which hurt the working class and seriously disrupted industry and commerce; again, this problem would not be fully understood until Austrian economists (Hayek and Mises) developed their theories of the connection between the expansion of the money supply by governments, the “malinvestments” which this caused, resulting in a series of inevitable “corrections” and the repricing of goods.

3.) Many CLs were politically naive in thinking that coercion by the state was an acceptable means of pursuing liberal ends. The “new liberals” especially came to see the state not as a “necessary evil” but as a “positive good” for the spread of emancipation and enrichment. This “political naïveté” took several forms, such as

  1. their faith in the benevolence and omniscience of the state and its officials; CLs recognized that “private predation” undertaken by powerful private interests such as privileged landowners, manufacturers, merchants, and bankers and financiers had been a serious problem and was therefore the focus of many early CL reforms (abolition of serfdom, tariff protection, subsidies to favored industries), but they did not also recognize that “public predation” by the new democratic state itself was becoming a serious problem as well. To put this problem in the language of Public Choice (Buchanan and Tullock) it was naive of CLs to think that those who “make the rules of the game” (the members of Parliament) should also “referee the game”, and even “play in the game”. They too had their own vested interests which included the desire to wield power, to enjoy the “perks of office”, and to be re-elected.
  2. their willingness to let the new democratic state be “captured” by vested interests (both old and new); the new democratic state provided a mechanism for powerful political and economic elites to continue their predatory behaviour under cover of “national development” or “national security”; some of these elites were new, such as the newly wealthy and ambitious leaders of industry and commerce who sought the reintroduction of tariffs in the late 19th century, or supported the arms race as it provided large contracts for ship building among other things; others were members of the old elite who came from traditionally privileged groups who had benefited from the old order, such as wealthy landowning families who traditionally staffed the courts, the military, and the colonial administration; a third group were made of intellectuals who staffed the new bureaucracies which administered the expanded activities of the state in areas such as public works, transport, education, health, and welfare.
  3. their faith in the ability and willingness of the “middling class” to make democracy work; the argument was that an educated and morally upright middle class would make sure that the new democratic state would remain very limited in its powers, that it would only ensure that “the rules of the game” (the protection of life, liberty, and property) were adhered to and that the state would do nothing else; related to this idea was the notion that as the “working class” became more affluent they would come to share the values of the liberal middle class and would do likewise; what became apparent was that all social and economic classes wanted to use the power of the state to grant themselves privileges at the expence of others; this is what Bastiat described as the definition of the modern state:

> “L’Etat, c’est la grande fiction à travers laquelle tout le monde s’efforce de vivre aux dépens de tout le monde” (The State is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else) “The State” (JDD, 25 Sept. 1848) (CW2, p. 97)

4.) The inability to explain basic economic ideas simply to the ordinary person: this has been a long standing problem for CLs going right back to its origins; this is because many economic insights are not self-evident as they require a longer term perspective to appreciate (that a small amount of growth p.a. can lead to a doubling of income in a generation); that the results or consequences of government intervention cannot be seen immediately (Bastiat’s notion of “the unseen”) but emerge over time (such as shortages), whereas a government subsidy, price control, or welfare payments can be seen immediately (Bastiat’s “the seen”); that some incentives (or disincentives) can be rather subtle, as with Smith’s idea that the self-interest of a producer might lead as though an “invisible hand” were at work, to improve the well-being of society as a whole. So long as people acted on moral principles (that it was wrong to seek and get government handouts or privileges) then they did not need to know the finer points of economic theory to realize that government intervention was not a good thing; however, as this moral belief waned, they needed to understand the other, more technical and theoretical reasons to avoid government intervention, and this understanding they did and still do not have.

5.) The “Loss” of the Intellectuals to Socialism: the group which might have persuaded the ordinary person of the moral and economic benefits of free markets were the “intellectuals”, however as the 19th century wore on the intellectual class increasingly moved away from CL and adopted socialist, nationalist, or other statist beliefs instead. This movement away from CL was noted by writers such as Julian Benda, La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals or The Betrayal by the Intellectuals) (1927), Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942), and Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism” (1949). Why the CL movement “lost” the intellectual class to socialism and statism in the late 19th century is an important question which modern day CLs have to find an answer to and a way to reverse the situation. A common response is that the uncertainties of making a living in a free market where one’s work is only rewarded if consumers value your work enough to voluntarily pay for it, drove intellectuals into the apparently more certain and predictable arms of the state which provided them with secure jobs in the administration or the state funded academy. Another explanation is that intellectuals adopted the old aristocratic disdain for “productive labour” and did not want “to dirty their hands” with commerce. Why this was the case is unclear.

Of course, another response might be that CL is wrong both morally and economically speaking, that the “intellectual class” recognized this, and were therefore right to turn their backs on it.

[See Richard Ebeling, “Can Capitalism Survive? 80 Years After Schumpeter’s Answer” The Future of Freedom Foundation (Apr. 19, 2022) Online .]

6.) CLs lost their “Vision” of what a free society should be like: CLs lost their “vision” of what a fully free society might look like and why this was desirable, and thus “lost” the moral high ground to the socialists and statists. Their loss of vision made their ideology less attractive to the young, who found an alternate and more attractive and inspiring vision in socialism/Marxism, nationalism, and fascism. One of the reasons why radical liberals in the late 18th and early 19th century were able to put forward an inspiring vision of what emancipation might achieve, and thus attract many people to the CL cause, was their passionate sense of justice, or rather their hatred of the injustice which they could see all around them. This passion came out in their polemical writing, best exemplified by Thomas Paine whose “Common Sense” (1776) and “The Rights of Man” (1791) inspired CLs on both sides of the Atlantic. Who in the late 19th century was writing similar inspiring essays to attract a new general of young people to CL? Very few – perhaps only the aging members of the last generation of “old liberals” like Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) and Auberon Herbert (1838-1906).

This loss of “vision” was pointed out by Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick in the second half of the 20th century, and again by Richard Ebeling and Peter Boettke in the 21st.

On CL Visions of the Future Free Society see:

  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

What still needs to be done?

I will reserve discussion of this matter to a future post. In the meantime see my thoughts on the problems we face and some strategies to solve them:

  • “Strategies to Achieve a Free Society” (24 March, 2022). Online and also here.

On the (im)Possibility of finding a “Third Way” between Liberalism and Socialism

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

Some people can see the logic in applying political, moral, and economic principles consistently and avoiding contradictions which make being consistent impossible. Thus for example, if you really do believe that profit, interest, and rent are immoral (as many early socialists did) because they are “unearned” by the capitalist / factory owner, the banker or money lender, and the land or property owner, and which is paid at the expense of those who do in fact “work” (or “labour”), then this is immoral and a form of exploitation which must be stopped.

If you really do believe, as another example, that the payment of wages to workers by a profit-making factory owner or employer is also a form of exploitation since the worker never receives the “full value” of what their labour produces, the difference going to the owner in the form of “profit”, then this too must be stopped because exploitation is immoral.

If you really do believe that “capitalism” is riven by internal contradictions that lead inevitably to periodic economic recessions and depressions, that the workers’ standard of living is doomed to gradually decline through unchecked population growth and the decline in their wage rates, that the exploitation of nature for profit leads inevitably to environmental destruction, pollution, and global warming, that “overproduction” of consumer goods leads to rampant and degrading “consumerism”, that “globalisation” of markets creates a race to the bottom as countries with cheap labour drive out of business those countries where wage rates are much higher, if you believe these things then logic tells you that you have to oppose them because they are immoral and damaging to the welfare of ordinary working people and possibly will also lead to the end of the world. Hence the passion held by supporters of “Extinction Rebellion”.

On other other hand, radical liberals / libertarians believe none of these things are true but they do have a similar desire to see their principles put into practice in a logical and consistent manner, namely the idea that individuals by their nature as human beings have rights to life, liberty, and property which pre-date the creation of the state and which trump (no pun intended) any claim the state may have to take away or infringe upon these rights; that the non-aggression principle should apply in all social and economic relations between people; and that when states, groups, or other individuals use aggression to interfere with these natural rights they engage in the unjust exploitation of others which is immoral and thus should be brought to an end as soon as possible. [I will not go into these claims in any detail here. See other sections of this collection of posts for more information.]

Thus it would seem that there is and can not be any “third way” or compromise, at least in terms of theory (but perhaps not in terms of actual policies), between the logically consistent socialist/communist and the logically consistent radical liberal / libertarian. Either the payment of wages by a profit-seeking factory owner is exploitation or it is not; likewise, either the seizure and confiscation of a person’s justly acquired property by the state is unjust or it is not. However, this is exactly what those who are less attracted to logical consistency from both sides want to believe is possible. People from both the “liberal side” and the “socialist side” have thought that there must be a way to avoid the “problems” (as they see them) of the logical extremes of both ends of the political spectrum [See the post on this.]
Thus we have seen attempts at creating a “Third Way” for liberals in the emergence of “New Liberalism” in the late 19thC and “neo-liberalism” after WW2, both of which tried to “soften” the extremes of laissez-faire free market capitalism, the appearance of large “monopoly” firms, and rampant “anti-social” individualism with the injection of just enough “socialism” to remove its rough edges.

We have also seen socialist and Labour Parties do something very similar, with Tony Blair’s Third Way for the British Labour Party in the late 1990s (or “New Labour” as his campaign slogan called it); the pragmatists and “economic realists” in the Australian Labor Party under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s, who wanted to remove the extreme measure of traditional socialist calls for the “nationalisation” of industry by the state and to allow a sizable dollop of “privatisation”, private ownership, free market pricing, and competition.

In spite of the logical contradictions this attempt to find a “Third Way” inevitably produces, this has not stopped political parties from pushing these theoretical problems to one side and to nevertheless try to create what I have called a “smorgasbord” of policies which have elements of both liberalism and socialism in them. [See my post on “The Success of Liberal Ideas has led to the Decline of Radical Liberal Parties” (6 Sept. 2021) ) where I discuss the problems this has caused in creating parties which are LINO (“Liberal in Name Only”) and SINO (“Socialist in Name Only”).]

If we too just push aside the theoretical contradictions this creates and just focus on the policies we can see that the result is not a good one. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) has called these policies “middle of the road” policies, by which he means both parties try to avoid being a consistent and radical liberal party on the right hand side of the road, as well as trying to avoid being a consistent and radical socialist party on the left hand side of the road, and thus follow a “middle of the road” policy which is supposed to be a bit of each but works out being neither one nor the other. For a variety of reasons I cannot go into here , Mises believes the steady pursuit of “middle of the road” policies will end up inevitably taking the party which follows them to the left hand side of the road. See his The Middle of the Road Leads to Socialism) given to the University Club of New York, April 18, 1950 and which was later published in his book Planning for Freedom (1952) [available online .]

Thus, as I see it, the problem boils down to the following problems:

  1. “new” liberalism or neo-liberalism is not consistent in its adherence to and application of liberalism and thus becomes LINO (“Liberalism in Name Only”)
  2. the same is true for “New Labour” or what we might call “neo-socialism” which is not consistent in its adherence to and application of socialism and thus becomes SINO (“Socialism in Name Only”)
  3. and attempts to follow a “middle of the road” policy between these two political and economic ideologies will drive both LINOs and SINOs eventually towards a more interventionist “centrist” position, as they bid for voter support in elections by offering them more and more “handouts” and subsidies to special interests, as the desire to win and stay ion office overpowers any ideological conviction they once might have had as “liberal” or “socialist” parties.

The Multi-Dimensionality of Classical Liberalism

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

[See also another post on “Plotting Liberty: The Multi-Dimensionality of Classical Liberalism and the Need for a New ‘Left-Right’ Political Spectrum” (17 April, 2022) here.]

Another aspect to consider is the multi-dimensional nature of liberalism. The one dimensional political spectrum with two end points of total liberty at one end and total state power is better than the traditional “left-right” spectrum which hides this important feature, but it too has its limitations. As Bastiat and others recognized in the mid-19th century, liberty could take many forms or dimensions, and that “true liberty” was the sum of all these different forms freedom might take. To simplify matters, one could limit the analysis to just three dimensions which would include “political” freedoms (like freedom of speech, assembly, rule of law, constitutional limits on the power of the state, representative government, and so on), “social” freedoms (such as all kinds of voluntary and cooperative activity, freedom of religion, marriage, drug-use, behaviour, dress), and of course “economic” freedoms (such as free trade, choosing one’s career, property rights, free markets, freedom/protection of contracts, free market pricing).

More specifically:

  • political/legal freedoms
  • economic freedoms
  • social/individual freedoms

(One might have “legal freedoms” as the 4th dimension, but I have kept the list to three dimensions to make it easier to visualize.)

Political/Legal Freedoms:

  • freedom of speech and assembly (religion)
  • constitutional limits on the power of the state
  • representative government
  • the rule of (just) law
  • equality under the law
  • protection of private property and contracts
  • right to emigrate/immigrate

Economic Freedoms:

  • free markets
  • laissez-faire or minimal intervention/regulation
  • right to choose and enter a trade/profession
  • the division of labour
  • free trade & exchange
  • free movement of capital and people

Social/individual Freedoms

  • all kinds of voluntary and cooperative activity (family, civil society)
  • marriage
  • drug-use (“capitalist acts between consenting adults” (Nozick))
  • religion
  • toleration of different behaviour and dress

Thus, according to this way of looking at liberalism, one could say that “radical” liberalism embraces all three dimensions of freedom to their maximum extent; “moderate” liberalism might be strong on two out of the three dimensions, but allow for considerable restriction in one of the dimensions (such as paternalistic controls on private behavior, or tax-payer funding for unemployment benefits, or state compulsory education). Finally, what I have called “ersatz” liberalism (“false” liberalism, or LINO liberalism, i.e. liberalism in name only) would be that form of liberalism where the restrictions in all three dimensions of liberalism are so extensive that it has been transformed into some other kind of political philosophy.

The question then becomes how to determine the boundary line between “radical” and “moderate” liberalism (which I consider to be forms of “true” liberalism) from the “false” liberalism. This is a mater of personal judgement perhaps.

The various forms of “ersatz” liberalism which have emerged since the late 19th century are in many ways like a political smorgasbord, where politicians take a little bit of economic freedom, a pinch of social freedom, and combine it with a dollop of “political” freedom (“democracy”) and call this mixed plate “liberalism”. But is this “liberalism” in any meaningful sense of the term? How is it to be distinguished from welfare state socialism with some aspects of liberalism (usually social and political freedoms but not so much economic ones)?

I think the boundary between the two kinds of liberalism is much easier to see from a natural rights perspective than from a utilitarian one. Utilitarian calculations of what the state should or should not do can become very blurred with no sharp and clear ways of determining where the beginning and end points are. The exceptions to the NAP can be rather numerous and open-ended which results in a blurring of the political spectrum where there is no longer a clear distinction between non-coercive voluntary activity and state- sanctioned or state initiated coercion. A natural rights perspective brings the nature of state actions into much sharper focus as the use of coercion (or its threat) against individuals (life, liberty, property) I think is a much more objective thing (though not absolute as threats can be disguised or hidden or not always immediately apparent). But the radical liberal who wants to see the NAP applied as broadly as possible (absolutely and with no exceptions??) makes no distinction between coercive actions by the state or its representatives and other private individuals. All such acts, by whomsoever committed, are immoral, criminal, and should be banned, without exception. This perhaps is the sharp distinction which separates “radical” liberals and all other kinds of liberals. All other kinds of liberals, from “moderate” to “new” or “ersatz” allow (even require) varying degrees of state coercion as part of their political philosophy. The “radical” liberal does not do so. The issue for those “liberals” who do not want to go down the path of the “radicals” is to decide upon a non-arbitrary place to stop state coercion. How far does this path can one go and still remain a “liberal” in any meaningful sense of the word?

This also raises the question of “practicability”, is such an absolute form of liberalism even possible? or does necessity and practicability require coercive actions by the state from time to time (the moderate position), or always and constantly (the conservative and ersatz liberal) if society is to be prevented from falling apart (the conservative) or if society is to be a more just and fair one (the ersatz liberal and the socialist)?

Note: See also my previous posts on “hyphenated 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