Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism, Part 1: Introduction

Nigel Ashford,

Release Date
May 9, 2012


Free Markets and Capitalism

What is “classical liberalism?” Many people say they’re a classical liberal – or “libertarian” – but that means different things to different people. Libertarians agree that the government should be limited, but disagree why.
In this seven part video series, Dr. Nigel Ashford explores five different schools of thought within the Classical Liberal tradition:

  1. The Chicago School
  2. Public Choice
  3. The Austrian School
  4. Natural Rights
  5. Anarcho-Capitalism

Dr. Ashford takes a close look at the fundamental beliefs of these five schools of thought, exploring how they are similar, and how they are different.
Throughout the series, Dr. Ashford challenges you to think critically and humbly about your own beliefs. What do you believe? What do you think the role of the government should be, and why? What is your philosophy about government? Are you a classical liberal, or something else? Dr. Ashford hopes you will approach these questions with humility, and draw your own conclusions.

What is Classical Liberalism? (Video): For a concise overview of what the term “classical liberal” means, check out Dr. Ashford’s video “What is Classical Liberalism”
Definition of Classical Liberalism [Text]: A one-page definition of “classical liberalism” as defined by Richard Hudelson in Modern Political Philosophy.
The Libertarian Reader, edited by David Boaz [Book]: A compilation of classical liberal writings ranging from Lao Tzu to Ayn Rand, from Frederick Douglass to Milton Friedman.
Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz [Book]: In this book, “David Boaz presents the essential guidebook to the libertarian perspective, detailing its roots, central tenets, solutions to contemporary policy dilemmas, and future in American politics.”
Classical Liberalism vs. Welfare Liberalism (Video): A full, hour-long lecture on the distinctions between classical and welfare liberalism.
1.  What are the main principles of classical liberalism? Is there one more important than the others?
2.  What is the difference between classical liberalism and what is described as liberalism in the United States?
3. Is there a difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism?

Schools of Thought in Classical Liberalism, Part 1: Introduction
So what I want to look at today is: What is the proper role of government? What should governments do, and what should they not do? Classical liberals all agree that government should be limited, but they disagree about how they get to that conclusion. And it’s those differences that I really want to look at today.
My goal is not to advocate one or other of these positions—I certainly have a view on those questions—but I want to approach it with some degree of intellectual humility. As I always say, I know some of the things I believe in are wrong; I just don’t know which ones. So how do I discover what of my ideas are wrong? I can only doing that by articulating, presenting them as clearly as possible and listening to peoples’ disagreements—where they think I’m wrong on those issues—and I get that little bit closer to the truth. And that’s what I want to encourage you to do today, is to look at these different ideas, think about these different ideas, and come to you own conclusions about which of these you agree with and which of these ideas that you disagree with.
And I want to approach it by looking at three different questions that anyone concerned about the role of government should care about. So the first question is: How do we decide what the role of government should be? What is the methodology or the philosophy that will determine how we decide this question? Secondly, why should government be limited? Unless you’re a totalitarian, that is someone who believes that government should control every aspect of your life, then you believe that government should be limited. The question then becomes, why do you think it should be limited? Should it be limited because of the consequences of government actions, or should it be limited because people have natural rights, which government should not interfere with? And then the third question is: What is the legitimate role of government? What should governments do, and what should government not do?
I’m going to ask those three questions with reference to five different schools of thought. All classical liberal, all believe that liberty is the most important political value, but disagree on these three fundamental questions.