Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

What Is Classical Liberalism? | Mises Institute

Posted by M. C. on November 4, 2018

Today’s “conservatives” aren’t even close.

Ralph Raico

“Classical liberalism” is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism. The qualifying “classical” is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France), because liberalism has come to be associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals. This version of liberalism — if such it can still be called — is sometimes designated as “social,” or (erroneously) “modern” or the “new,” liberalism. Here we shall use liberalism to signify the classical variety…

America became the model liberal nation, and, after England, the exemplar of liberalism to the world. Through much of the 19th century it was in many respects a society in which the state could hardly be said to exist, as European observers noted with awe. Radical liberal ideas were manifested and applied by groups such as the Jeffersonians, Jacksonians, abolitionists, and late-19th-century anti-imperialists.

Until well into the 20th century, however, the most significant liberal theory continued to be produced in Europe. The 18th century was particularly rich in this regard. A landmark was the work of the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Dugald Stewart. They developed an analysis that explained “the origin of complex social structures without the need to posit the existence of a directing intelligence” (in Ronald Hamowy’s summary). The Scottish theory of spontaneous order was a crucial contribution to the model of a basically self-generating and self-regulating civil society that required state action only to defend against violent intrusion into the individual’s rights-protected sphere. As Dugald Steward put it in his Biographical Memoir of Adam Smith(1811), “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and the tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.” The Physiocratic formula, Laissez-faire, laissez-passer, le monde va de lui-même (“the world goes by itself”), suggests both the liberal program and the social philosophy upon which it rests. The theory of spontaneous order was elaborated by later liberal thinkers, notably Herbert Spencer and Carl Menger in the 19th century and F.A. Hayek and Michael Polanyi in the twentieth…

With the onset of industrialization, a major area of conflict opened up between liberalism and conservatism. Conservative elites and their spokesmen, particularly in Britain, often exploited the circumstances of early industrialism to tarnish the liberal escutcheon of their middle-class and Nonconformist opponents. In historical perspective, it is clear that what is known as the Industrial Revolution was Europe’s (and America’s) way of dealing with an otherwise intractable population explosion. Some conservatives went on to forge a critique of the market order based on its alleged materialism, soullessness, and anarchy.

To the extent that liberals associated conservatism with militarism and imperialism, another source of conflict arose. While a strand of Whiggish liberalism was not averse to wars (beyond self-defense) for liberal ends, and while wars of national unification provided a major exception to the rule, by and large liberalism was associated with the cause of peace. The ideal type of antiwar and anti-imperialist liberalism was provided by the Manchester School and its leaders Richard Cobden and John Bright. Cobden, particularly, developed a sophisticated analysis of the motives and machinations of states leading to war. The panacea proposed by the Manchesterites was international free trade. Developing these ideas, Frédéric Bastiat proposed an especially pure form of the liberal doctrine that enjoyed a certain appeal on the Continent and, later, in the United States…

It is the socialist state that classical liberalism has opposed most vigorously. The Austro-American Ludwig von Mises, for example, demonstrated the impossibility of rational central planning. Prolific for more than fifty years, Mises restated liberal social philosophy after its eclipse of several decades; he became the acknowledged spokesman for liberal ideology in the 20th century. Among the many students on whom Mises exercised a remarkable influence was Murray N. Rothbard, who wedded Austrian economic theory to the doctrine of natural rights to produce a form of individualist anarchism, or “anarchocapitalism.” By extending the realm of civil society to the point of extinguishing the state, Rothbard’s view appears as the limiting case of authentic liberalism…

With the end of the classical-socialist project, classical liberals and antistatist conservatives may agree that it is contemporary social liberalism that now stands as the great adversary of civil society. The political preoccupation of classical liberals is, of necessity, to counteract the current now leading the world toward what Macaulay called “the all-devouring state” — the nightmare that haunted Burke no less than Constant, Tocqueville, and Herbert Spencer. As older quarrels grow increasingly obsolete, liberals and antistatist conservatives may well discover that they have more in common than their forebears ever understood.

Be seeing you



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