What is Classical Liberalism?

Nigel Ashford,

Release Date
February 11, 2011


Role of Government

Dr. Nigel Ashford explains the 10 core principles of the classical liberal & libertarian view of society and the proper role of government: 1) Liberty as the primary political value; 2) Individualism; 3) Skepticism about power; 4) Rule of Law; 5) Civil Society; 6) Spontaneous Order; 7) Free Markets; 8) Toleration; 9) Peace; 10) Limited Government. Dr. Ashford is Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University.

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.

What is Classical Liberalism?
If you ask most people what classical liberalism is, then they’ll say, it’s essentially free-market economics. It’s all about low taxes, laissez faire, reducing the government intervention in the economy. But in fact, that’s a rather impoverished and narrow idea of what classical liberalism is. It’s actually a comprehensive philosophy, a way of thinking about human society, human life, and the world, which has implications for all of the major academic disciplines. And as such, it has made major contributions in all of the different disciplines over the last 250 years or so. And what I’m going to do is explain what those are.
Now, the key basic insights, the basic ideas, were first developed in the late 18th and early 19th century. At that time, they weren’t split up into separate disciplines. Was Adam Smith an economist or was he a philosopher or was he a sociologist or was he a psychologist? In some sense he was all of them. And that was true of the other people who were around at that time.
Today, of course, the different disciplines have all become very distinct and very different, as we will see. In some ways, there’s a gain to this, because it means you get more in-depth study and knowledge of a particular subject. On the other hand, there are also losses, because it means the connections between the various disciplines are not so apparent or so obvious to most people. And that’s particularly true here, because it means the way in which key classical liberal insights play out in different disciplines are often not appreciated. So what are the key basic ideas then?
The first is that the goal of life in this world is happiness and human flourishing and wellbeing. You may say, well, that’s a no brainer. But in fact, there have been many people historically who think that the goal of human life should be something else, like winning kudos for the next world, for example, or serving your ruler, or glory, or a whole range of other things.
The second basic insight is that personal choice and, hence, individual liberty are crucial in explaining both how society develops and in the achievement of individual happiness and flourishing. Without these things you can’t have them; that’s the second key idea.
The third is that commerce, wealth, and trade are good, while war and conflict are bad. Again you may think that this is something obvious and trivial, but yet again many people historically have not thought this. There’s been a long-standing tradition which says that war brings out the finest qualities in human beings and that wealth is actually bad for you. And this is an idea we still have around today.
There is the idea of the individual, the idea that people are distinct separate persons, and that each one is in some sense unique, as well as being self-governing. The idea of a spontaneous order first found in Smith, perhaps, and since developed by many other scholars. The idea that much of the order and structure we see in society is not the product of conscious design or will or plans, it’s something that just happens when you have the right kinds of institutions and rules in place. The idea of improvement or progress, the idea that things can get better, either in a positive sense, of more of what is good, or in a negative, but still important sense, less of what is bad. Again you may think this is obvious, but this kind of optimistic view of the world, the idea that improvement is both possible and desirable, is a relatively recent development and it’s a key liberal insight.
Finally, there’s the idea that reason, rather than tradition or authority, is the way to understand the world and make sense of it. In other words, if you want to really know what is going on to understand what the nature of the world is, how human society works, the way to do this is not to rely on a sacred text, not through simply believing what we are told by authorities but through reason, empirical investigation, and study.
Now, one of the subjects we have is history. The basic ideas of classical liberalism necessarily mean both an interest in history and a particular way of thinking about the past, which poses distinctive questions. In 2016, we’re going to have the 50th anniversary of an event, which for classical liberals, is one of the most important events of the 20th century: the sailing of the first container ship from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to North Carolina. Why is that important? Well for a classical liberal, as we’ll see, it’s an enormously important event, and that reveals, I think, what the crucial classical liberal insights are in this area. What you have in classical liberalism is a view of history that concentrates on the fortunes of liberty and the range of actual freedoms. Because classical liberals think that freedom is the most important aspect of human life and essential for human flourishing then when you look at the past, what you ought to do is to trace the evolution of liberty, the way in which the freedom has grown or diminished in particular times and places, the kinds of things that are necessary for it to exist, the kinds of things that are inimical to it, that tend to destroy it.
It’s also a view of history, in which as I said a moment ago, the truly important people are not the generals, the politicians, the kings, the popes, the rulers, the people who have and exercise political power, but ordinary people, the wealth creators, the people who live together through peaceful exchange and who create the good things in life, the wealth, the physical goods that we require, but also the intellectual discussion, the cultural products that make life more rich and fulfilling. And particularly important are the inventors and entrepreneurs. I mentioned a moment ago the event in 1956, when the first container ship sailed. Why was that so important? Well because it reduced the cost of shipping goods around the world by a factor of 30. Suddenly, it cost 1/30 of what it has done before to move goods around the planet. What that did was to create an enormous increase in world trade. It tied the world together much more closely than it had ever been tied together before. And the result was a huge increase in human wellbeing and prosperity and in human interconnectedness around the world. That did far more to shape the world in which we live than any amount of legislation, politics, and action by government.
And this is also, therefore, a view of history which emphasizes change, both for good and for bad. It emphasizes, in other words, the way in which the world in which we live today is something novel, something unprecedented, and, generally speaking, something much better than anything that has gone before. One of the key liberal insights for history is to realize that the modern world is the best world ever to have been born in. If you had been born in any other previous time, for example, then you would have had a one in four chance of dying before your first birthday. It would be almost certain that by the time you reach the age of 20 you would have experienced the death of a close relative, a parent, or a sibling. The range of opportunities open to you would have been enormously constrained compared to those that even the lowest-ranked people in society now have open to them. In other words, we are incredibly lucky. And why is this so? This is the insight; this is due ultimately to our society being in important respects freer than societies in previous times and history.
What about economics though? Economics is in many ways the first discipline to emerge in which those classical liberal insights are applied. In some ways it’s still the central one because of the importance of physical wellbeing, comforts, and wealth in human flourishing and in human life. However, it’s not the only one. Also it’s important to realize that economics is a much more wide-ranging discipline than is commonly realized. And this is particularly true when you apply the kind of classical liberal principles of progress, individuality, and the importance of human flourishing and human happiness.
What economics looked at this way is really about is how to organize the affairs of society so that each person has the maximum potential to realize their own goals and to maximize their own wellbeing. In other words, the principle of economics, from the classical liberal point of view, is to understand how societies can be organized such that if you take any person at random in that society, their chances of achieving their life goals are higher than they would otherwise be. And this is not the same thing as, for example, equality, or any other kind of social goods that many other people value. It’s all about, essentially, people maximizing their own life plans their own individual flourishing and finding out also through the discovery process, based on the choices they make, what it is that they want to be, what it is that they want to do, what is best for them, what will, in fact, maximize their own happiness. Now, this is, in fact, undoubtedly an ethically uplifting goal. One of the key classical liberal insights in economics is that economics is in fact about activities, goals, ways of behaving that are ethically virtuous.
The view of many opponents is that economics is entirely about sordid money grubbing, thatit is entirely about base crass materialism. The rejoineder is to say, it is about money, it is about materialism, but this is good. For example there’s the insight that a successful and functioning economy is one which has the maximum degree of free exchange between autonomous individuals. That means exchanges by which two people are both made better off than they were before. Surely that is something virtuous, something good. It’s not something that you should be deploring or regarding as being somehow morally disreputable.
So when originally economics developed in the late 18th and 19th century, it was a reaction against the hostility to trade and commerce and luxury, as it was called at the time, affluence as we would now say. This way of thinking is still with us. We now have these people who think that somehow we should have all kinds of taxes on ways of behaving, products, and things that people consume, on the grounds that they are, in the views of some people, bad for us. Apparently, you should be paying a huge amount of tax on fast foods because that’s bad for you, no matter how much pleasure it might bring you.
There is somebody out there, somebody amongst the elite, someone like Cass Sunstein, who knows what is better for you than you do yourself. And this kind of idea is in fact a throwback to the ideas that were attacked by the early classical liberal economists. What this also means is hostility to the use of public power to benefit special or favored groups. So when you apply the classical liberal way of thinking, when you realize that the aim of policy should be to maximize the opportunities for any randomly chosen person, you’re certainly not going to support a policy which involves taking large amounts of resources from ordinary people and giving them to specially privileged groups, such as the incompetent managers of large automobile manufacturing companies, for example, or the people in the financial services sector who have made major screw-ups and have suddenly gone running to their friends in the government to try and bail them out.
Finally the last key classical liberal insight in economics is the idea that, in many cases, what we face in life is the alternatives of individual choice or collective choice. Do you want to have the choices you make about how to dispose of your resources made by yourself, through all kinds of market decisions and nonmarket decisions, or do you want to have the choices made collectively on your behalf through a collective political process and ultimately by a political class? And this, I think, is the choice that has been before us in terms of economics for the last 200 years.
Now, psychology may not strike you as being an area where classical liberal insights apply, but in fact this is very much the case. Now recently, a well-known film star and television star has been appearing a lot on YouTube and in the media, creating what you might call products which are, the least to say, interesting. You all know who I am talking about, of course: Mr. Sheen. And this raises all kinds of interesting questions about, well, what is going on in his mind. Now you may think, what has that got to do with classical liberalism? Well it does in a way, because classical liberalism provides us with a distinctive way of thinking about the human mind, the human personality, psychology in other words, which leads us to view Mr. Sheen’s antics in a particular light, I would suggest. The key idea here is the idea of the autonomous and choosing person. In other words, the key insight for psychology that comes from those basic classical liberal principles is the idea that human beings are in some final ultimate sense autonomous.
They are in a certain very fundamental sense not controlled by other impersonal forces or structures. What they are, the kind of person that they are, is the product of the choices they have made, for good or bad. In some sense therefore yourself, your person, is a kind of project which you’re engaged in throughout your life. You, in a very real sense, make yourself. Obviously, other kinds of things have an impact upon you, but it’s the way you respond to those, the things you do, the choices you make—according to this way of thinking—that really shape the kind of the person that you are, the kind of qualities that you have of mind and character.
Now, this is obviously in contrast to a whole range of other ways of thinking about psychology, which implies instead the degree to which you are not a choosing creature, the degree to which your personality, the kind of mindset you have is the product of forces over which you have no control. So, for Freud, for example, there are a whole series of structures of the human mind which you really ultimately can’t control. In fact you have to repress them because that’s the only way you can live in a human society, which means you are going to be miserable all the time. He was a very cheerful chap, as you may gather.
All this is the idea that your psychology is essentially the product of social circumstances, that the kind of a person you are, the kind of mind that you have, will be determined by your social background, the physical environment in which you live, and other matters of that sort. Or again, this is a currently a very modish idea, that a lot of this is genetic. It comes down to the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived and the kind of genetic inheritance that we all have from them. And there’s a whole lot of things which, therefore mean you just can’t help yourself. So apparently this is why many people can’t stop eating lots of sugar. It’s because they are driven to do so by some kind of genetic predetermination.
So by contrast, in classical liberal psychology, there’s a focus on self definition and autonomy and therefore, ultimately, of personal responsibility, which leads us, I think, to say in the case of the well-known actor to whom I alluded earlier, we would be both rather judgmental, however much we might find what he’s been producing entertaining and comical at the same time.
Now in the history of psychology there’s been a whole number of classical liberal insights, if you will, and schools. Some of these have proved to be, shall we say, wrong options. In the 19th century, there was a great classical liberal interest in the pseudo-science of phrenology, which is the idea that different parts of the brain correspond to different human capacities and abilities. And, therefore, to find out what someone’s psychology was like, you had to look for bumps on the head, which indicated that that part of the brain was well-developed. And you can still go to junk shops and see these little china heads with little bumps on the side; that was clearly not the way to go.
On the other hand, in the 20th century you have the humanistic psychology of people, such as Maslow and Rollo May and others, which is very much self-consciously a part of a classical liberal approach to the human mind and the human psyche. There’s also, of course, a longstanding tradition within classical liberal psychology of a critique of the coercive aspects of modern psychiatry, in particular in the work of people such as Thomas Szasz, who attacks the way in which mental health and the concept of mental illness has been used to justify elaborate and severe restrictions on personal freedom of a whole range of kinds.
Another discipline that’s often not associated with classical liberalism is sociology. Today, we tend to think that sociology is the quintessential socialist or social democratic discipline. It’s thought of as being something inherently driven that way because of its interest in and concern with the collective society as a whole. Certainly it’s the case that amongst, for example, sociology majors at major universities or among sociology professors, the number who profess or hold classical liberal ideas is very, very small compared to some other disciplines. But in fact, this is something historically contingent, I would argue. Many of the major figures in the development of sociology were in fact great classical liberal thinkers. So for example, Herbert Spencer, very important figure in the development of sociology as a discipline, is also one of the great classical liberal thinkers in a number of disciplines, but particularly in that one. William Graham Sumner, the man who invented the concept of the folkway while he was a professor of sociology at Yale, was also of course another great ardent advocate of a laissez faire and of classical liberal principles, also a great opponent of imperialism, as was Spencer, another point to bring outthere.
In addition, by the way, I should also point out that there are many great sociologists historically who were conservatives. In fact, you can make a strong case, if anything, to say that sociology historically is associated with a conservative view of society and human nature, if we think of figures like Emile Durkheim, Frances  le Play, or Talcott Parsons. Now, again what you have in the classical liberal approach to sociology is a view of human society that emphasizes human agency, the way in which things happen in the world happen because of decisions made by individuals, rather than some kind of supposedly autonomous and rarified structure.
Secondly, in many ways, the key insight from classical liberalism, the principal of spontaneous order, the way in which the way to understand social processes, social developments, social change is through a focus not upon design or purpose, not upon either the use of power, but rather upon spontaneous order, the way in which things change quite dramatically and suddenly because of a process that no one person really understands, intends, or designs.
And this kind of insight enables us to understand a whole range of social phenomena that otherwise are extremely difficult to explain. For example, take criminal behavior and the levels of crime at any given time in society. This is an area where you do get significant changes in patterns over time. In the United States, for example, from about the early 1960s through to the early 1990s, there’s a long-run ineluctable increase in the per-capita rate of crime. Since the early ’90s, there’s been a very steep decline, which is still continuing. Now, there are many people who claim that this is because of some shift in public policy or some actions taken by governments or police departments and things of the sort. And all kinds of people, like Rudy Giuliani, trying to claim the kudos and credit for the declining crime, in his case, in New York City. In fact, when you look at it from a classical liberal viewpoint, if you’re a classical liberal criminologist that is, you realize this isn’t the case, because the increase before 1992 roughly and the decline since then took place regardless what the public policy was. So the conclusion you need to come to is that what you’re dealing with here is a spontaneous social process, something else which is rather mysterious, in which public policy actually had a very small part to play.
The other big insight in classical liberal sociology is the constant tension in human society between power and voluntary social relations. In other words, between social relations, social orders, and structures which are based ultimately upon top-down power, upon one party having the ability ultimately to coerce the other party so that they can tell them what to do and they have to do it, and on the other hand, relations based upon free-exchange, voluntary agreement, and voluntary private cooperation. This, for example, is a major feature in a work of recent classical liberal sociologist Stanislav Andreski, and he takes up the old Herbert Spencer idea of the military organization of society, the society based upon power and hierarchy, as compared to the industrial organization of society, the society based upon voluntary cooperation and exchange. This enables you to understand the whole range of human institutions and large-scale patterns of human social interaction as arising from the fluctuating balance between these two things. It also gives you great insights into the way in which institutions like the family, for example, have developed or worked as well as other kinds of institutions related to that, such as marriage and childhood.
Political theory is the other discipline, along with economics, that is most associated with classical liberalism. If you think about the history of physical philosophy, there are a whole number of important figures who are generally seen as being the part of the kind of genealogy or life story of classical liberalism, as far back, for example, as John Locke followed by other people in the 18th century, people like Adam Smith, maybe Montesquieu, Jeremy Bentham, and then into the 19th century, people like John Stuart Mill, then in the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek in his later career, a number of other important thinkers of that kind. And certainly this is an area where, you might say, the classical liberal tradition is still very much alive and well.
So what, though, are the key classical liberal insights or arguments in this area? It’s to argue essentially for a view of politics which has the following big features: the first is that the goal of politics is human wellbeing. The aim of political arrangements, the aim of forms of government, the aim of politics as a process, is to maximize human wellbeing and to minimize things which harm human wellbeing, above all to minimize conflict of various kinds, violence, strife, and the resort to violence as a way of settling differences or of achieving status or wealth.
Now, you might say, but surely everyone wants that, isn’t that what everyone thinks? Well, no, historically, to the degree that this is what many people think it’s because of intellectual victories gained by liberals in previous times. Many people historically, have thought that the goal of life is for the individual to serve some kind of collective good or to serve God, that the goal of politics is to promote glory or power or the spreading of the true faith. A whole range of other goals like this, which has nothing to do necessarily and may be actively hostile to the goal of human wellbeing. And so that’s a very important and profound insight that this is what politics should really be about.
The second crucial insight is the idea of individualism, the idea that human society derives its drive, its function from individual choice and individual agency. Now, when this is applied to government, the key liberal insight is that governments are essentially exercising only a delegated power. They are only exercising a power which has been delegated or handed over to them on a temporary basis by the individuals of whom society is composed. So rulers, presidents, kings, people of that sort do not have any kind of power of their own, much less power derived from God or anything like that. They only have what power is given to them by the people over whom they exercise the power. And of course, the corollary of that is that this can be withdrawn at any time.
So there is a classical liberal theory, if you like, of revolution, going right back to Locke, but developed and articulated by all the other kinds of thinkers who I mentioned. And the third great insight is that because of this, therefore, the role of power in society and, hence, of government needs to be very strictly limited and guarded. What classical liberal thinkers right from the 18th century onwards have been very aware of, much more than people of other traditions, is the enormous dangers of political power, the degree to which political power, while it may be necessary, is incredibly dangerous and could do an enormous amount of harm to both people and to the onward development of the society.
The classic example of this is the insight of the political scientist R. J. Rummel that in the course of the 20th century you were twice more likely to be killed by your own government then you were by somebody else’s government. When you add up all the people who died in wars and then you add up all the people who were murdered by their own government, there are more than twice as many in the second category. So if you were a Russian, for example, you were twice as likely to be killed by a Stalin as you were to be killed by Hitler and his agents. And that kind of principle shows just how dangerous political power is.
Of course there are many other things classical liberals have argued about. They’ve argued about what kind of government there should be, the mechanisms that you should have, the kind of function policies should have in everyday life. But those, I would say, are the key and crucial insights. And they’re the ones that still generate an extremely rich kind of research agenda, which is very much an on-going project.
What I hoped you will have gathered from this is that it doesn’t really matter what intellectual discipline you’re talking about, the fundamental insights of classical liberalism, the way of thinking about human life, human society and the world that they embody, will lead you to approach that subject in a distinctive way, to ask specific questions, to be concerned with particular topics and subjects, to think about the discipline and the subject. In other words, in a distinctive way, one that will explain what liberty is, why liberty matters, why a world in which liberty is greater is a better world than one in which it is restrained. And in doing so, in increasing our understanding in that discipline to make it more likely that we will know what to do and what not to do in order to promote liberty in the world in which we live.