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Classical Liberalism

It's time to bring back the ideology that drove human progress.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 24, 2010

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Classical Liberalism

In his recently re-published article "What Is Classical Liberalism?" historian Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as the ideology that advocates:

  • private property
  • an unhampered market economy
  • the rule of law
  • constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press
  • international peace based on free trade

As an ideology or political program, classical liberalism - the liberalism of the 19th Century, was a success. It is true that countries that most closely adhered to its values, such as the United States and Great Britain, were themselves guilty of imperialism, land theft, racist policies, and other demonstrably un-liberal policies. On the other hand, almost all nation-states of the period were guilty of the same atrocities, yet they never became as wealthy or powerful. Nations that upheld classical liberal values most often and most consistently became the best places to live.

The basis of the classical liberal claim is primarily an economic argument about the requirements for, and benefits of, free exchange. But it is also, undeniably, a product of the Christian West. From Biblical principles to the emerging markets and decentralized states of places like northern Italy of the late Middle Ages, to the development of English common law, to the Reformation, to Enlightenment writings on politics, economics, and philosophy, classical liberalism can't be traced to one particular source or be reduced to any one particular idea.

In other words, classical liberalism is NOT a philosophy. It is and remains an ideology, a vision of what the laws governing human society should be. It is a set of values that become political ends; ends which the classical liberal believes are indispensible for the happiness and well-being of all.

But liberals who took their inspiration mainly from the Enlightenment philosophers (such as Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, Hume, and Smith) started searching for The One Great Principle of it all. There were in fact two Great Principles: Liberty and Equality. As a result, classical liberalism - which remains an ideology rather than a political philosophy - gave birth to two political philosophies: libertarianism and egalitarianism.

Both political philosophies, as all political philosophies do, seek to define justice. The libertarian sees justice in the ownership of one's personhood and in the self-ownership of the products of one's own labor. Egalitarianism sees justice in the equal treatment of everyone. The "logical conclusion" of the libertarian train of thought is the abolition of all State functions except (perhaps) national defense and justice enforcement; the "logical conclusion" of egalitarianism is the abolition of any private forms of prejudice and discrimination, and in the public sharing of wealth.

The egalitarian, with roots in the classical liberal tradition, would then look upon the classical liberal ideology and view its program, particularly regarding private property and an unhampered market economy, as a threat to the egalitarian philosophy. The libertarian, on the other hand, would see the classical liberal ideology, agree with all of it, but demand much more from it. The program, which the classical liberal ideologue might view as good in-and-of-itself based on economic theory and history, must be framed by the libertarian mainly in terms of the individual right to self-ownership. Any policy that is intended to advance the classical liberal agenda but violates libertarian "theory" is viewed as a betrayal.

What happened, then, is that egalitarian liberals abandoned the classical liberal project altogether and embraced the Progressive Movement. Progressivism started out as a movement to clean up corruption in government, then morphed into an ideology of white supremacy, eugenics, and imperialism. Finally, it became known for regulating Big Business and eventually adopting the welfare policies of the Socialists. During the New Deal, progressives took over the "liberal" label that egalitarians called themselves.

Advocates of the older classical liberalism, which was firmly anti-racist and anti-war, found themselves aligned with low-tax, Main Street, Middle America Republicans. This anti-New Deal alliance was the genesis of modern conservatism. After the launch of the Cold War, scholars such as Murray Rothbard began to articulate and define the unique philosophy of libertarianism that would shrink the State as much as possible.

As the process shook out, progressives took over the Democratic Party and conservatives took over the Republican. Egalitarian liberals provided the conscience of the Democrats - calling for peace and civil liberties. Libertarians were the conscience of the Republicans, consistently demanding smaller government. At the same time, however, the still-small libertarian movement could swing back and from Right to Left and back again, and started their own political party that defies left-right categorization.

The ultimate result, however, is that the classical liberal ideology has been lost in the shuffle. As progressives and conservatives struggle for power, the call of "far left" egalitarianism for peace and civil liberties is undermined by its rejection of the rest of the classical liberal agenda. And libertarians still fight amongst themselves over what course of action most closely adheres to libertarian principle.

Philosophically, I am libertarian. But the nuances of libertarian theory are no longer my political concern. What we need is a strong affirmation of classical liberalism. Although called "classical," it is not a throw-back ideology. It is rather, the one ideology that provides the motor for human progress. The American nationalistic ideologies of progressivism and conservatism, not to mention totalitarian and collectivist ideologies from abroad like communism and fascism, are hysterical reactions to classical liberalism. This is understandable, because classical liberalism allows for society to change and evolve naturally. It is by nature a threat to those who benefit from State favors.

Egalitarianism constantly points the fingers at other people's real or perceived greed and bigotry. Libertarianism constantly points fingers at The State. Classical Liberalism changes the subject. It does not assign bad motives on anyone, including the State. It just seeks to point out the absurdity and injustice of attacking private property, the free market, the rule of law, civil liberties, and free trade.

And now is a good time to re-affirm and argue for Classical Liberal values. Classical Liberalism doesn't put the State on trial. It instead asks proponents of State coercion:

  • What do you have against private property?
  • What do you have against free exchange?
  • What do you have against the Rule of Law?
  • What do you have against the free press and freedom of religion?
  • What do you have against free trade?

Every political issue facing America (and the world) is an attack on one of these five values. It's time to start articulating and promoting these values once again.
 

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