Government and Institutions

Who are the greatest classical liberal thinkers of all time?

What exactly is classical liberalism? What do liberals believe? What are the key social, political and economic issues they have debated and thought about? What does it mean to be a “liberal thinker”? And who are the greatest liberal thinkers of all time?

These questions are answered in my new book, School of Thought – 101 Great Liberal Thinkers.

In it, you will find famous names such as Pericles of Athens, John Milton, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, F. A. Hayek and Ayn Rand, all of whom advanced the ideas of personal and economic liberty – as well as less familiar ones such as Asoka the Great, John Lilburne, Josephine Butler and Harriet Martineau, who all played their part.

Liberal thinking is not something confined to Britain or America, as some critics suggest. As we make our way through the great liberal thinkers, we find them in ancient China, India, Greece and Rome; in France, Germany, Italy, Finland and other countries of Enlightenment Europe; in nineteenth-century Australia and Austria.

For each person featured, I list their main contributions to liberal thought – the role of government and the limits to state power, the opposition to arbitrary taxes, individual rights, the due process of law, competition and the division of labour, the spontaneous order of a free society, free trade, free speech, property, liberal feminism, prison reform, constitutions and much more.

And I list their key outputs – Jefferson’s drafting of America’s Declaration of Independence, for example, or John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, or Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Then I explain very briefly – this is the ultimate liberal crib book – their background, the issues they faced, their main ideas and the impact of those ideas both at the time and on our lives and thought even today.

Take the Chinese scholar Zhuang Zhou, who lived 24 centuries ago. He argued that human knowledge is limited and that human values are individual and personal. So no authority can wisely or humanely interfere in people’s lives and business. The world, he said, “does not need governing; in fact it should not be governed”.

Or the Anglo-Dutch author Bernard Mandeville, who in a scandalous but witty satire on eighteenth-century life, argued that society rested on self-interest rather than benevolence – and that rather than try to curb such “vices” we should in turn channel them to become “publick benefits”.

Then there is William Godwin, who started life as a church minister but ended up an anarchist. A friend of the Romantic poets Coleridge, Byron and Shelley, his scandalous activities and ideas made him famous – or notorious. He called for the complete overthrow of law, property and politics, insisting that government promotes only ignorance and dependence. Or his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued that the education system was holding back women by schooling them to be good companions for men, rather than free and independent individuals.

And there is the twentieth-century American libertarian Isabel Paterson, a New York Herald Tribune columnist, who showed that the fastest-growing countries were those whose economic and legal principles allowed individual creativity to flourish. She also argued that monopolies grew out of privileges conferred on firms and individuals by government.

There is also the Anglo-Austrian philosopher Sir Karl Popper, who in his 1945 book The Open Society and its Enemies considered how a tolerant society should deal with those who would destroy toleration. He chided social scientists for focusing on groups and “historical laws” rather than individuals, the real source of all action. And he observed that the main political question was not “Who should rule?” but how we can prevent rulers from doing too much damage.

Plainly, there is a wide spread of colourful ideas in the classical liberal spectrum, ranging from anarchists at one end to “social liberals” at the other. So what do they actually agree on?

They start from the idea that we should try to maximise individual freedom. As John Locke pointed out, the whole point of government is to set people free, not to control them. They disagree on the role of the state but believe that people should be restrained to the very minimum that is necessary. They also see individuals as more important than collectives. Only individuals have purposes and interests, only individuals do things.

Classical liberals are tolerant of others, and believe that people have to deal with others, despite their differences – rather than trying to force them into conformity. They want to minimise coercion.

While some liberal thinkers see no use for government at all, most believe that the state has an important – but strictly limited – role. It exists to defend individuals against violence and theft from others at home or abroad, and to dispense justice when violence is used. They also believe in the rule of law – that laws should apply equally to everyone, so that those in power cannot use the law to further their own interests.

Classical liberals understand the creative power, and the orderliness, of a spontaneous society. Nobody consciously invented markets, money, language or justice: they have simply evolved and persisted because they have served us well. Given our limited knowledge, consciously trying to redesign society is a fairly sure way to ruin society. In the social sphere, that means maximising freedom of action. In the economic sphere it means free markets with the minimum of intervention and regulation.

Being sceptical about power and the likely self-restraint of those who are given it, classical liberals call for strict limitations on the state – what it can do, and how it can do it. They much prefer the organising ability of civil society – the clubs, associations, unions, religions, schools, online communities, campaigns and charities that bring people together for their common purposes. That, after all, is what everyone on the left and the right says they want. But the spontaneous collaboration of free individuals achieves it much less clumsily than any centralised government ever could.

We owe a lot to the classical liberal thinkers of the past 24 centuries. Just how much? You will have to read the book.


This article was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of EA magazine. School of Thought – 101 Great Liberal Thinkers can be downloaded here.


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

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