Over the past several hundred years, one moral and political philosophy has left a greater mark on the world than any other. Often opposed by other ideologies, it has defeated all those which sought to banish it to the dustbin of history. This philosophy is known as liberalism and continues to have a tremendous influence on modern life.
Somehow, despite its prevalence, a surprising number of people couldn't begin to explain what the philosophy they ostensibly support is or what the arguments in support of it are. To correct this, let's take a look at the philosophy and the ideas and arguments of some of its founders.
Before we begin, I should say that today we are focusing on classical liberalism; it differs from the term "liberalism" as Americans tend to use it and has some significant points of disagreement with its modern decedent. What those are and why they exist are the subject for another time.
Liberalism begins with the assumption that people are or should be free and that restrictions on their liberty must be justified. Liberal thinkers debate the proper role of the state and often agree that it is a limited one which would result in very few restrictions beyond those needed to secure the rights of everybody living under its jurisdiction. When this was first proposed, during an era of absolute monarchy and nearly unchecked power of institutions over individuals, it was a radical claim.
For classical liberals, "liberty" usually means what might be called "negative liberty" today. These liberties are "negative" in the sense that they can be seen as "freedoms from interference." This contrasts with "positive" liberties, which are "freedoms to do" or the capacities to accomplish something. Classical liberalism is very concerned with the right of people to be left alone to live their own lives.
This means a liberal society will let people decide things like their own religion, their idea of what constitutes a good life, and what organizations they want to be a part of, among other things. Importantly, since cohesion is not applied in these areas of choice, people are free to join a church or civic group when it suits them and leave when it suits them and face no government reprisals for it. Liberal theorists typically advocate for tolerance of others to assure that these freedoms of choice are applied to everyone.
Classical liberals also tended to argue that the economy, or some version of it, existed before or independently of the state. As a result, they maintain that the right to private property is natural and should be fairly unlimited. For some thinkers, this also ties into ideas of independence from external authority, as a person with enough property to be more or less financially self-sufficient would be able to tend to themselves and select when to engage with institutions that could help them but might infringe on their rights.
Let's take a closer look at three of the more prominent classical liberal philosophers, what they thought, and why they thought it.
Considered the Father of Liberalism, John Locke wrote two treatises on government attacking absolute monarchy and supporting a more limited view of government. While his conception of liberalism is explicitly based on a theology many people would dispute, his reasoning has been applied in secular conditions to great success.
Like many other thinkers at the time, Locke turned to an idea of what life was like before the existence of governments, known as the state of nature, to make his arguments. For Locke, people in the state of nature were free within the boundaries of "natural law" and generally get along. However, in this condition, there is nobody to turn to if somebody else violates your rights, like if they steal from you, and no neutral arbitrator to turn to if you and somebody else have a dispute.
Locke argues that these issues eventually drive people to want to create a state to protect people's rights by enforcing natural law and acting as a neutral arbitrator when people have disputes.
The state he envisions people would create in this situation is a minimal one that focuses almost exclusively on protecting people's natural rights of "life, liberty, and property." It does not try to determine how people live their lives within the confines of natural law. It tolerates various religions and worldviews- since to promote one above all others would go beyond its prerogatives. It cannot operate in ways contrary to the rule of law, features a representative legislature with majority rule, the separation of powers, and is founded by people explicitly consenting to be governed this way.
His defense of private property is noteworthy. He argues that some variation of the economy exists in the state of nature and that nobody would willingly create a state if it were going to take away their property.
However, he holds that property can only be held if it will be used before it spoils, was acquired by the labor of the person who owns it, and if after acquiring it there is still enough of the resources it is made of left in the commons for the next person. What limits these principles place on a person going into Sherwood Forest in 1690 to cut down a tree to make lumber with and a person trying to start a business today is still debated.
A German philosopher, Kant is widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of all time. He worked in every area of philosophy there was to work in, political philosophy among them.
Kant based his liberalism on the idea of freedom from other people's choices and universal rationality. He maintains that all people have a fundamental dignity as rational and moral beings. This both obligates us to act accordingly and to respect the dignity of others. From this starting point, he argues that the state should exist to assure that individuals enjoy "Freedom, insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law."
This freedom is limited by what is consistent with reason but is wide-ranging; a large number of liberties are required for a rational, autonomous person to be able to utilize those capacities. These liberties include the freedom of speech, religion, and the right to pursue happiness in any way a person wants to, so long as it is consistent with everybody else being able to do the same. Anything less than this conflicts with a person's moral autonomy and borders on treating them as a child.
He further argues that no state should make a law that "a whole people could not possibly give its consent to." That means things like laws granting privileges to one group of people and not others would be prohibited, as no rational group would sign a contract giving them the short end of the stick. It allows for other things, such as a generally applied tax of debatable value, as a rational person could consent to such a thing if the arguments for it were sound.
While he thought that an elected representative government was the best option for providing these protections, but didn't rule out other models. He also strongly asserted the necessity of constitutional governance.
While most interpretations of Kant maintain that his idea of freedom is "negative," there is some ambiguity in his writings which led some commentators to suggest he is open to ideas of positive liberty as well. Given his reliance on and admiration for some of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas, this idea is not absurd, though it is difficult to prove.
While better known as an economist, Adam Smith was also a philosopher who considered the problems of society as a whole. Between how important his economics are to classical liberalism and the nuanced approach of his political philosophy, Smith remains an essential figure in the liberal tradition.
Unlike some of the other thinkers we're looking at, Smith thought it was a legitimate goal of government to help the poor and promoting the virtue of society. He went so far as to say:
"...[the] civil magistrate is entrusted with the power not only of restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree."
However, this isn't a call for a moralizing government. It is a call for the government to do less than it was at the time.
As he thought with economics, Smith thought society would work best when people were generally left alone to handle things themselves. He argues that people can only develop virtue on their own; if they are only doing it because the government is telling them to do so, they aren't actually virtuous. Additionally, he didn't think that politicians would be very good at promoting virtue or prosperity, suggesting that they can handle issues like defense and criminal justice while leaving other tasks to individuals with better knowledge of the conditions on the ground than far off bureaucrats.
His economics, based on the idea that markets often provide the best possible outcomes when left alone, became the basis for the classical liberal stance on capitalism. While he wasn't quite as opposed to government intervention as many people think, his arguments in favor of fewer restrictions on business meshed well with other liberal ideas on property and freedom.
This overall approach is important in how it differs from our two other thinkers. While Locke and Kant both appeal to natural rights or individual autonomy to support their ideas on liberty, Smith leans on arguments showing how a society that values liberty will be a better place to live in than one that does not, in addition to it being morally defensible.
While few people will want to base their freedom on the idea that it is expedient, the appeal to tangible benefits has proven to be one of the more convincing arguments for liberty.
Many philosophers, arguably starting with John Stuart Mill, continued to work within the liberal tradition but considered the new problems of industrial society, market failures, and what happens when there is no longer a "nature" to take resources from like there was in 1690. Their work, combined with critiques of liberalism from other ideologies, notably socialism and conservatism, led to an evolution of liberal philosophy into the modern version we see today.
Despite some elements of liberal thought dating back to ancient times, the political philosophy of classical liberalism, which changed the world by elevating the rights of man and continues to influence our thinking even as we move past it, is surprisingly young. It achieved a lot in its few hundred years of existence, and its arguments for liberty, equality, democracy, and the right to get on with our lives and business continue to resonate today.
While most people may not be classical liberals anymore, taking time to consider the philosophy is an exercise that we can all benefit from.
From Your Site Articles
Related Articles Around the Web
Read the original post:
- The Liberal Party suspends Glasgow candidate Derek Jackson 'with immediate effect' after Nazi-style salute and star of David wearing at Glasgow count... - May 9th, 2021
- Liberal | Definition of Liberal at Dictionary.com - May 9th, 2021
- Interesting New Pew Study; White Liberals More Likely To Have Mental Problems - wbckfm.com - May 9th, 2021
- Despite recent wins, hypocrisy will rob liberals of a big victory over Modi - Firstpost - May 9th, 2021
- Joe Oliver: Will Liberal failures and lapses never end? - Financial Post - May 9th, 2021
- Megyn Kelly Irked By Liberal Action Figures: UWS Week In Review - Patch.com - May 9th, 2021
- Letter to the editor: Hypocrisy on full display by liberal Democrats - Wooster Daily Record - May 9th, 2021
- Should Canadians get vaccinated abroad? Liberals, Tories skirt the issue but health experts encourage it - CBC.ca - May 9th, 2021
- Liberal candidate Simon Behrakis forced to apologise over failing to 'show respect' - ABC News - May 9th, 2021
- Erin O'Toole: The Liberals' internet regulation bill opens the door to a massive abuse of power - National Post - May 9th, 2021
- Liberal Party: behaviour of candidate treated as hate incident - Glasgow Times - May 9th, 2021
- Families call LIberal gun control bill insult to all victims of gun violence - CP24 Toronto's Breaking News - May 9th, 2021
- Police treating Liberal Party candidate's interaction with Humza Yousaf as hate incident - The National - May 9th, 2021
- Liberal heavyweight asked to review Opposition Leaders office - The Age - May 9th, 2021
- Meghan McCain Slams Mask-Wearing Liberals On 'The View,' Plans to Have "Hot Vaxx Spring" - Decider - May 9th, 2021
- Peter Gutwein describes allegations against Liberal candidate Adam Brooks as 'differing points of view' - ABC News - May 9th, 2021
- Patently fair - The Indian Express - May 9th, 2021
- Scottish election 2021: Big re-election wins for Liberal Democrat MSPs shows just how popular they are Willie Rennie MSP - The Scotsman - May 9th, 2021
- Trudeau says Liberal budget is not a launch pad for a federal election - Yahoo Canada Finance - April 21st, 2021
- Some provinces not ready to embrace Liberal pledge to build a national child care system - CBC.ca - April 21st, 2021
- Rohail Hyatt issues one last clarification about what he means by 'liberal' - The Express Tribune - April 21st, 2021
- The State Of Liberal Arts Education In India - Forbes India - April 21st, 2021
- Liberals promise $30B over 5 years to create national child-care system - CBC.ca - April 21st, 2021
- Conservative MP says budget needs job creation, while former Liberal candidate pleased with document - battlefordsNOW - April 21st, 2021
- Freeland delivered an election budget, Liberal and Conservative MPs agree - CBC.ca - April 21st, 2021
- Former Liberal leader Andrew Peacock remembered as 'great Australian' with lasting legacy - ABC News - April 21st, 2021
- "This Is Just What Liberals Like To Do, Spend Money," Says Portage-Lisgar MP Of Federal Budget - PembinaValleyOnline.com - April 21st, 2021
- Hypocrisy of Liberals: They Outrage Over Election Campaigning, But Egged On Farm Protests - News18 - April 21st, 2021
- Libertarian vs. Liberal: Key Differences and Similarities - April 19th, 2021
- The Liberal Party is faking social media, so what will Facebook do? - Crikey - April 19th, 2021
- Conservative Vs. Liberal - 8 Key Differences - April 19th, 2021
- 5 things to watch for when the Liberals unveil the federal budget - CBC.ca - April 19th, 2021
- Its Not Just Young White Liberals Who Are Leaving Religion - FiveThirtyEight - April 19th, 2021
- Why Liberal arts is the degree young is India talking about - India Today - April 19th, 2021
- Remembering Andrew Peacock, a Liberal leader of intelligence, wit and charm - The Conversation AU - April 19th, 2021
- Liberal Party seeks to prevent The New Liberals from registering - Independent Australia - April 19th, 2021
- Why the WA Liberal Leader has hired a former disgraced government advisor - 6PR - April 19th, 2021
- Four Cartier watches? Bah! Libs hand out the equivalent of 90 a year to party hacks - Crikey - April 19th, 2021
- Dem Leaders Quick to Kill Liberal Dream of Packing the Court - Yahoo News - April 19th, 2021
- Liberals' bill on Indigenous rights getting pushback from Conservatives, First Nations critics - CBC.ca - April 19th, 2021
- Is the Supreme Court biased in favor of conservative Christianity? - Deseret News - April 19th, 2021
- Bringing in gender quotas in the Liberal party is not just right it's smart politics too - The Guardian - March 31st, 2021
- Conservative opinion columnist Rob Port to begin new livestream show with liberals - Grand Forks Herald - March 31st, 2021
- Germany's liberal FDP cool on three-way tie-up with Greens and SPD - Reuters - March 31st, 2021
- I would kill to be sexually harassed at the moment: Liberal Teena McQueen stuns colleagues in closed door meeting - Sydney Morning Herald - March 31st, 2021
- In Israel, Liberals Lost. The American Left Should Heed Their Lessons. - Foreign Policy - March 31st, 2021
- Working with the far-right? What a watershed Liberal Party vote means for Swedish politics - The Local Sweden - March 31st, 2021
- No space for liberal education - The Indian Express - March 31st, 2021
- Paynes silence speaks volumes about the Liberal Party - Sydney Morning Herald - March 31st, 2021
- Liberals amend Biodiversity Act in the face of industry, landowner criticism - CBC.ca - March 31st, 2021
- Liberal Democrats and Greens make election pact in a bid to defeat Conservatives in Guildford - Surrey Live - March 31st, 2021
- Roberts, Kavanaugh join with liberal justices to rule for woman shot by police while fleeing - ABA Journal - March 31st, 2021
- From Liberalism To Secularism, the Battle for Bengal Has Just Begun - The Wire - March 31st, 2021
- Ive really struggled: Federal Liberal MP reveals personal grief as motivation for changing course on quotas - Sydney Morning Herald - March 31st, 2021
- What is a liberal? What is a conservative? | Fox News - March 21st, 2021
- Whos who in the Liberals left, right and centre factions? - Sydney Morning Herald - March 21st, 2021
- Liberals want to blame rightwing 'misinformation' for our problems. Get real - The Guardian - March 21st, 2021
- New College ranked among the best value liberal arts colleges in the nation - Florida Politics - March 21st, 2021
- A Dutch election boosts both pro-EU liberals and the far right - The Economist - March 21st, 2021
- Boris Johnson was portrayed as a liberal, but his draconian government is wrecking Britain - The Independent - March 21st, 2021
- What to expect from the Liberals: an election, ASAP - Maclean's - March 21st, 2021
- Reality Bites: A Tale of Two Liberal Indian Universities, one old and the other new - National Herald - March 21st, 2021
- Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee on the importance of speaking out about injustice as a woman in leadership - ABC News - March 21st, 2021
- The first Liberal MP to join the March 4 Justice: her heartfelt message for the PM - Sydney Morning Herald - March 21st, 2021
- Conservatives say senior Liberal staffers should appear as witnesses in WE Charity review - The Globe and Mail - March 21st, 2021
- The Liberal Party needs more women in Parliament and that means quotas - Sydney Morning Herald - March 21st, 2021
- From such a small pool, its very hard for the Liberals to think big - The Age - March 21st, 2021
- Nicolle Flint admits SA Liberals could have done more to support her during 2019 election - ABC News - March 21st, 2021
- It wont get up: Bullish OBrien ready to face his challengers - The Age - March 21st, 2021
- Electric vehicles should get tax breaks and free tollways says Liberal MP - Sydney Morning Herald - March 21st, 2021
- Dr. Seuss probably would have thought 'cancel culture' was bunk - Newsday - March 9th, 2021
- Question to determine whether a friend or relative is a liberal or a leftist - Johnson City Press (subscription) - March 9th, 2021
- Opinion | Is Humility, Not Righteousness, the Key to Persuasion? - The New York Times - March 9th, 2021
- Labor and Liberal parties criticised for running WA election online ads without disclosing links - ABC News - March 9th, 2021
- Liberal leader fit to be tied after breaking Leg dress code - Winnipeg Sun - March 9th, 2021
- OPINION: The divide between liberal arts and STEM doesn't have to exist if we don't want it to - N.C. State University Technician Online - March 9th, 2021
- Bruce to stand for Aberdeenshire West Liberal Democrats - Grampian Online - March 9th, 2021
- Ontario Liberals say they've paid off $10-million debt from the 2018 election - CP24 Toronto's Breaking News - March 9th, 2021
- Something must be done: Former Liberal MP slams culture that excludes women - The New Daily - March 9th, 2021
- BC Liberals step up criticism of BC NDP over COVID-19 - Powell River Peak - March 9th, 2021