Can there be a classical liberal political science?

To answer that question, it is instructive to examine how classical liberal ideas have developed and what disciplines have shaped the classical liberal tradition most.

And to begin, we must acknowledge that contemporary scholarly classical liberalism has developed in an imbalanced way.

By far the greatest intellectual investment has been in economics.

There are good reasons for this, of course: the understanding of market processes and market ordering that liberal economists have given us is central to an appreciation of the counterintuitive idea that unplanned and decentralized voluntary action can yield beneficial social results.

The insight that the market economy is a spontaneous order has been a crucial one for the development of modern classical liberalism as a whole. And economists, those who study market processes and orders, have a disproportionate tendency to be sympathetic to open and liberal markets. Most of the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society—the organization that shaped the intellectual agenda of postwar classical liberalism—were economists (of one methodological stripe or another).

Somewhere behind economics, in an order I wouldn’t know how to rank, come law and philosophy.

Classical liberal legal scholarship has encompassed both US constitutional law, recovering a sense of the commitment to liberty found in the US Constitution’s protection of rights as well as its structure of federalism and separated powers; and private law, especially in the law-and-economics tradition.

Classical liberal philosophy has taught us a great deal about the meaning and intellectual structure of rights, liberty, and justice, and about the vision of human well-being and flourishing that animates a concern with freedom. And, in a broad way, these streams of research and scholarship in economics, law, and philosophy have complemented and enriched each other, contributing to the emergence of a distinctive kind of classical liberal social theory—the humane studies highlighted in the name of the organization that hosts this website.

In contrast, political science, including the kind of political theory that is done within political science, has been relatively neglected in this ongoing scholarly program. (So has sociology; another topic for another time.)

This is not, as some readers will be tempted to think, because political scientists are sympathetic to “the state” as economists are sympathetic to the market. Political scientists are in routinely in the business of studying things we don’t find attractive: wars, coups, revolutions, genocides, civil wars, authoritarianism, populism, voter ignorance, and institutional dysfunction of all kinds.

Yet the study of those topics through the lens of political science ought to be a key part of a classical liberal social theory.

We don’t have to agree with those who think that markets and civil society are constituted by the state to see that they may be either facilitated or jeopardized by political outcomes. War, civil war, institutional collapse, the rise of authoritarian or totalitarian governments—understanding where these come from and how to inhibit them is a cornerstone of a fully developed account of social orders compatible with human liberty.

And we don’t have to conceptually identify democracy or majoritarianism with liberty in order to think that, as a matter of fact, constitutional democratic governments are a crucial feature of free societies. It follows that we ought to care about how they work, and where they come from.

But the current classical liberal interpretation of political science is lacking.

All too often, classical liberal social theorists (who, in other domains, are well aware that social outcomes can be the product of human action without being the product of human design) treat political outcomes as being a matter of other people’s bad will and bad decisions. But political orders are complex emergent phenomena, as much as other orders in human society. Building a stable government that protects and facilitates individual liberty, involves more than a group of people with the correct beliefs about rights theory agreeing to do good things rather than bad things.

In other words, too many classical liberals who understand complexity in other social arenas become decisionists when they think about politics: all we need from governing institutions, they assert, is for people to make good decisions rather than bad ones.

They fall into this fallacy partly because they identify good government from a classical liberal perspective with mere inaction: all our rulers need to do is to stay their hand. Whatever the truth (and it’s a partial truth, as Hayek knew) of laissez faire as a description of good policy, it is no truth as an answer to the underlying organization of violence, coercion, and rule. A political order that can engage in and commit to the right kind of inaction, in the right ways and at the right times, is a rare accomplishment, and we still know too little about how to get it and how to keep it.

Over the course of these posts in coming weeks and months, I will identify some obstacles that have prevented the development of a classical liberal political science and political theory that can fit within the broad development of the humane studies. (Spoiler alert: Lockean social contract theory and public choice theory, while they’ve both taught us valuable things, have become in important ways intellectual obstacles to overcome.) And I’ll try to draw on what political scientists and theorists have learned, offering some thoughts about what needs to be incorporated within the developing liberal social theory of the humane studies.