Classical Liberalism- A Primer


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  • Classical liberals give priority to individual freedom in social, political and economic life. They recognise that different people’s freedoms may conflict, and disagree on where the limits to freedom lie, but broadly agree that individual freedom should be maximised and the use of force should be minimised.

  • They see the individual as more important than the collective and call for limited, representative government that draws its legitimacy from the people. Governments should themselves be bound by the rule of law, and justice should be dispensed according to accepted principles and processes.

  • Classical liberals disagree about the exact role of the state, but generally wish to limit the use of force, whether by individuals or governments. They call for states that are small and kept in bounds by known rules. The main problem of politics is not how to choose leaders, but how to restrain them once they have power.

  • Classical liberalism is not the same as American liberalism, which values social freedom but gives much economic power to the state. Nor is it an atomistic idea: it sees individuals as members of various overlapping groups, with many family, moral, religious or other allegiances. Such civil society institutions are a useful bulwark against central state power.

  • Free speech and mutual toleration are viewed as essential foundations for peaceful cooperation between free people. Classical liberals argue that such cooperation gives rise to spontaneous social orders (such as markets, customs, culture and language) that are infinitely more complex, efficient and adaptive than anything that could be designed centrally.

  • In economics, classical liberals believe that wealth is not created by governments, but by the mutual cooperation of free individuals. Prosperity comes through free individuals inventing, creating, saving, investing and, ultimately, exchanging goods and services voluntarily, for mutual gain – the spontaneous order of the free-market economy.

  • Classical liberalism can be traced back to Anglo- Saxon England and beyond, but derives largely from the ideas of thinkers such as John Locke (1632–1704), Adam Smith (1723–90) and the Founding Fathers of the United States. In recent times, it has been refreshed by scholars such as F. A. Hayek (1899–1992) and Milton Friedman (1912–2006).

  • Different classical liberals advance different arguments for freedom. Some see it as a good in itself, others appeal to the idea of natural rights enjoyed by all individuals. Some say that authority over others stems solely from their agreement to submit to laws, embodied in a social contract. A number argue that social and political freedom simply makes everyone better off.

  • Classical liberals also advance different arguments for toleration. Many believe that forcing people to do things against their will is costly and damaging and produces perverse results. Others see no justification for interfering in people’s lifestyle choices, provided that nobody else is harmed by them. Some cite the benefits of allowing diverse ideas and opinions.

  • Classical liberalism is not a fixed ideology, but a spectrum of views on social, economic and political issues, grounded in a belief in freedom and an aversion to the coercion of one individual by another. It has enjoyed a revival in recent decades, but now faces new and urgent questions – such as the freedom that should be extended to groups who wish to destroy freedom.

  • Classical Liberalisim- A Primer recieved the following praise from Walter Grinder, President Emeritus at the Institute for Civil Society,

“This primer is a fine encapsulation of liberalism and the various strands of its tradition. The book has been sorely needed now for years, if not for decades. Every young liberal-minded student in every country in the world should be reading and discussing this book.”  

2015, Readings in Political Economy 2. 

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Eamonn Butler is the co-founder and Director of the Adam Smith Institute.