The Beautiful Philosophy of Liberalism

There has been a great paradox in the modern world. On the one hand, freedom and prosperity have replaced tyranny and poverty for tens, indeed for hundreds of millions of people around the world over the last two centuries. Yet the political and economic system that historically has made this possible has been criticized and condemned. That political and economic system is liberalism.

By liberalism, I do not mean American “progressive” liberalism, historically a modified and reduced form of what used to be called socialism — that is, central planning of all economic affairs. In its modern “progressive” form, it has been watered down to mean extensive and intrusive government regulation of private enterprise with wide redistribution of wealth based on a prior conception of social justice. (See my article “Barack Obama and the Meaning of Socialism.”)

Nor do I mean what in many other parts of the world is often referred to as neoliberalism. While it is frequently claimed that neoliberalism favors a wild and unrestricted capitalism, in fact it is institutionally far closer to American progressive liberalism, under which private enterprise and profit seeking are permitted, but, again, an extensive interventionist welfare state combined with government–business crony favoritism and corruption hampers the functioning of a truly free and competitive market. (See my article “Neo-Liberalism: From Laissez-Faire to the Interventionist State.”)

What is lost in all the labeling is the original meaning and significance of political and economic classical liberalism, which has nothing to do with what passes for American progressive liberalism or neoliberalism in other countries around the globe.

The Real Liberalism

Classical liberalism, the liberalism that began in the 18th and 19th centuries and transformed the world in ways that have bettered the material and social circumstances of humankind, has been going down an Orwellian memory hole. Yet it was this older liberalism that began the liberation of humanity from tyranny and poverty, and wherever remnants of this original form of liberalism still exist, prosperity continues to grow.    

Natural rights are today often ridiculed or discounted by philosophers who frequently find it easier to speak about ethical nihilism and political relativism. And yet the modern world of freedom had its origin in them. These are rights that reside in people by their nature as human beings and that logically precede governments and any man-made laws that may or may not respect and enforce these rights.

Political philosophers such as John Locke articulated the meaning of these rights in the 1600s and 1700s. “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person,’” insisted Locke. “This nobody has any right to but himself. The ‘labor’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”

While all people have a natural right to protect their lives and their peacefully produced or acquired property, they form political associations among themselves to better protect their rights. After all, people may not be strong enough to protect themselves from aggressors; and they cannot always be trusted when in the passion of the moment they use defensive force against others that may not be proportional to the offense against themselves.

Here in a nutshell is the origin of the ideas that germinated for nearly a century after John Locke and then inspired the Founding Fathers in the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, when they spoke of the self-evident truths that all men are created equal with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and for the preservation of which men form governments among themselves. (See my article “John Locke and American Individualism.”)

While every American schoolchild knows, or used to know, by heart those stirring words, what most Americans know less well is the remainder of the text of that document. Here the Founding Fathers enumerated their grievances against the British crown: taxation without representation; restrictions on the development of trade and industry within the British colonies, and regulations on foreign commerce; a swarm of government bureaucrats intruding into the personal and daily affairs of the colonists; and violations of basic civil liberties and freedoms.

What aroused their anger and resentment is that a large majority of these American colonists considered themselves British by birth or ancestry. And here was the British king and his Parliament denying or infringing upon what they considered their birthright: the customary and hard-won “rights of an Englishman,” gained over several centuries of successful opposition against arbitrary monarchical power.

Freedom is the common intellectual inheritance left to us by the great thinkers of the West. But it is nonetheless the case that much that we consider and call individual rights and liberty had their impetus in Great Britain, in the writings of political philosophers like John Locke and David Hume, legal scholars like William Blackstone and Edward Coke, and moral philosophers and political economists like Adam Smith.

What their combined writings and those of many others gave the West and the world over the last three or four centuries was the philosophy of political and economic liberalism. What began as the “rights of an Englishman” became by the late 18th and early 19th centuries a universal political philosophy of the individual rights of all human beings everywhere and at all times.

The Classical-Liberal Crusade Against Slavery                                                   

What were the vision and agenda of 18th- and 19th-century classical liberalism? They may be understood under five headings.

First was the freedom of the individual as possessing a right of self-ownership. The great British classical-liberal crusade in the second half of the 18th and the early decades of the 19th century was for the abolition of slavery. The words of the British poet William Cowper in 1785 became the rallying cry of the anti-slavery movement: “We have no slaves at home – Then why aboard? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall.”

The British Slave Trade Act of 1807 banned the slave trade, and British warships patrolled the West Coast of Africa to interdict slave ships heading for the Americas. This culminated in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which formally abolished slavery throughout the British Empire on August 1, 1834.

Though not overnight, the British example heralded the legal end to slavery by the close of the 19th century through most of the world touched by the Western nations. The end to slavery in the United States took the form of a tragic and costly civil war that left a deep scar on the country. But the unimaginable dream of a handful of people over thousands of years of human history, that no one should be the slave of another, finally became the reality for all under the inspiration and efforts of the 19th-century classical-liberal advocates of individual freedom.

The Classical-Liberal Crusade for Civil Liberties                                                  

The second great classical-liberal crusade was for the recognition of and legal respect for civil liberties. Since the Magna Carta in 1215, Englishmen had fought for monarchical recognition of and respect for certain essential rights, including no unwarranted or arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. These came to include freedom of thought and religion, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of association. Above it all was the wider idea of the rule of law: that justice was to be equal and impartial, and that all were answerable and accountable before the law, even those representing and enforcing the law in the name of the king.

In the United States, many of these civil liberties were incorporated into the Constitution in the first 10 amendments, which specified that there were some human freedoms so profoundly fundamental and essential to a free and good society — freedom of speech and the press, freedom of religion, a right to armed self-defense, freedom of association, protections against self-incrimination and unwarranted search and seizure of private papers and property, and speedy trials along with impartial justice — that no government should presume to abridge or deny them.

The Classical-Liberal Crusade for Economic Freedom                                          

The third great classical-liberal crusade was for freedom of enterprise and free trade. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, governments in Europe controlled, regulated, and planned all the economic activities of their subjects and citizens as far as the arms of their political agents could reach.

Adam Smith and his Scottish and French allies demolished the assumptions and logic of mercantilism, as the system of government planning was then called. They demonstrated that government planners and regulators have neither the wisdom, nor the knowledge, nor the ability to direct the complex, interdependent activities of humanity.

Furthermore, Adam Smith and his economist colleagues argued that social order was possible without political design. Indeed, “as if guided by an invisible hand,” when people are left free to direct their own affairs within an institutional setting of individual liberty, private property, voluntary exchange, and unrestricted competition, a “system of natural liberty” spontaneously forms that generates more wealth and coordinated activity than any governmental guiding hand could ever provide.

The benefits of such economic liberty made Great Britain and then the United States the industrial powerhouses of the world by the end of the 19th century; classical-liberal economic policy rapidly did the same, though at different rates, in other parts of Europe, and then, slowly, in other parts of the world as well. Population sizes in the West grew far above anything known or imagined in the past, yet increased production and rising productivity were giving those hundreds of millions of more people an increasing standard and quality of living. Indeed, if enough economic freedom and open competition continue to prevail, it is possible that by the end of the 21st century, abject poverty will be a thing of the past everywhere around the world.

The Classical-Liberal Crusade for Political Freedom

The fourth classical-liberal crusade was for greater political liberty. It was argued that if liberty meant that people were to be self-governing over their own lives, that should also mean they participate in the governing of the society in which they live, in the form of an enlarged voting franchise through which the governed select those who hold political office on their behalf.

Liberals condemned the corrupt and manipulated electoral process in Great Britain that gave office in Parliament to handpicked voices defending the narrow interests of the landed aristocracy at the expense of many others in society. So as the 19th and early 20th centuries progressed, the right to vote moved more and more in the direction of universal suffrage in a growing number of countries around the world, including the United States.

It was not that these earlier liberals were unconcerned about the potential abuses from democratic majorities. In fact, John Stuart Mill, in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), proposed that all those who received any form of financial subsidy or support from the government should be denied the voting franchise for as long as they were dependent in such a manner upon the taxpayers. There was too much of a possible conflict of interest when those who received such redistributive benefits could vote to pick the pockets of their fellow citizens. Alas, his wise advice has never been followed. (See my article “Thinking the Unthinkable: No Voting Right for Those Living at the Taxpayer’s Expense.”)

The Classical-Liberal Crusade for International Peace

Finally, the fifth of the classical-liberal crusades of the 19th century was for, if not abolishing war, then at least reducing the frequency of international conflicts among nations and the severity of damage that came with military combat.

In fact, during the century that separated the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the commencement of the First World War in 1914, wars at least among the European powers were infrequent, relatively short in duration, and limited in their physical destruction and taking of human life.

Classical liberals argued that war was counterproductive to the interests of all nations and peoples. It prevented and disrupted the natural benefits that can and did improve the conditions of all people through peaceful production and trade based on an international division of labor in which all gained from the specializations of others in industry, agriculture, and the arts.

Because of the classical-liberal spirit of the time, there were some successful attempts to arrange formal rules of war among governments under which the lives and property of innocent noncombatants would be respected even by conquering armies. There were treaties detailing how prisoners of war were to be humanely treated and cared for, as well as banishing certain forms of warfare deemed immoral and ungentlemanly.

It would, of course, be an exaggeration and an absurdity to claim that 19th-century classical liberalism fully triumphed in its ideals or its goals of political and economic reform and change. The counter-revolutionary forces of socialism and nationalism gained momentum and influence before classical-liberal policies could be fully followed and implemented in the years leading up to the First World War in 1914.

However, if there is any meaning to the notion of a prevailing spirit of the age that sets the tone and direction of a period of history, then it cannot be denied that classical liberalism was the predominate ideal in the early and middle decades of the 19th century and that it changed the world in a truly transformative way. Whatever (properly understood) political, economic, and personal liberty we still possess today is because of that earlier classical-liberal epoch of human history.

America the Beacon of Individual Liberty

In the new nation of the United States of America at the end of the 18th century, there was a written constitution that in principle and a significant degree of practice recognized the rights of individuals to their life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.

In America, most individuals could say and do virtually anything they wanted, as long as it was peaceful and not an infringement on other citizens’ similar individual rights. In America, trade across this new and growing country was generally free from government regulations and controls or oppressive taxes, so people could live, work, and invest wherever they wanted, for any purpose that took their fancy or offered them attractive gains and profit.

It may seem to many a cliché, but in those decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when few migration restrictions barred the door, America stood out as a beacon of hope and promise. Here people could have a “second chance.” They could leave behind the political tyranny, religious oppression, and economic privileges of the “old country” to have a new start for themselves and their families. Between 1840 and 1914, nearly 60 million people left the Old World to make their new beginnings in other parts of the world, and almost 35 million of them came to America. Many of us are the lucky descendants of those earlier generations who came to “breathe free” in the United States.

Today, in America and around much of the world, these classical-liberal ideas and ideals of individual liberty, unhampered free markets and free enterprise, and constitutionally limited government, the purpose of which is to secure and protect each person’s life and property rather than abridge them, are being lost.  

They are disappearing from high school and college and university curricula, or when referred to are condemned or ridiculed as outdated or irrelevant or wrong-headed. The self-appointed social critics and intellectual trendsetters of ideas have turned to new collectivist versions of race, gender, and social group. This can only end badly for the future of freedom. (See my articles “Campus Collectivism and the Counter-Revolution Against Liberty” and “Collectivism’s Progress: From Marxism to Race and Gender Intersectionality.”)

The ideas and spirit of classical liberalism, the original and true liberalism, need to be fully reborn, restated, and reintroduced as the guiding ideas for an America and a world of liberty, prosperity, and peace. 

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Richard M. Ebeling

 Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER's campus from 2008 to 2009.