Classical liberalism

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Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law, and emphasizes economic freedoms found in economic liberalism which is also called free market capitalism.

Classical liberalism was first called that in the early 19th century, but was built on ideas of the previous century. It was a response to urbanization, and to the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States. Notable individuals whose ideas contributed to classical liberalism include John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Jean-Baptiste Say, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo. It drew on the economics of Adam Smith and on a belief in natural law, utilitarianism, and progress.

The term classical liberalism was applied in retrospect to distinguish earlier 19th-century liberalism from the newer social liberalism. Core beliefs of classical liberals included new ideas—which departed from both the older conservative idea of society as a family and from later sociological concept of society as complex set of social networks—that individuals were "egoistic, coldly calculating, essentially inert and atomistic"[1] and that society was no more than the sum of its individual members.

Classical liberals argued for minimal state, limited to the following functions:

  • protection against foreign invaders, extended to include protection of overseas markets through armed intervention,
  • protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens, which included protection of private property, enforcement of contracts, and suppression of trade unions,
  • building and maintaining public institutions, and
  • "public works" that included a stable currency, standard weights and measures, and support of roads, canals, harbours, railways, and postal and other communications services.

They asserted that rights are of a negative nature which require other individuals (and governments) to refrain from interfering with the free market, whereas social liberals asserts that individuals have positive rights, such as the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to health care, and the right to a living wage. For society to guarantee positive rights requires taxation over and above the minimum needed to enforce negative rights.

Core beliefs of classical liberals did not necessarily include democracy where law is made by majority vote by citizens, because "there is nothing in the bare idea of majority rule to show that majorities will always respect the rights of property or maintain rule of law."

James Madison argued for a constitutional republic with protections for individual liberty over a pure democracy, reasoning that, in a pure democracy, a "common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole...and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party...."[2]

Friedrich Hayek identified two different traditions within classical liberalism: the "British tradition" and the "French tradition". Hayek saw the British philosophers Bernard Mandeville, David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Josiah Tucker and William Paley as representative of a tradition that articulated beliefs in empiricism[3], the common law, and in traditions and institutions which had spontaneously evolved but were imperfectly understood. The French tradition included Rousseau, Condorcet, the Encyclopedists and the Physiocrats. This tradition believed in rationalism[4] and sometimes showed hostility to tradition and religion. Hayek conceded that the national labels did not exactly correspond to those belonging to each tradition: Hayek saw the Frenchmen Montesquieu, Constant and Tocqueville as belonging to the "British tradition" and the British Thomas Hobbes, Priestley, Richard Price and Thomas Paine as belonging to the "French tradition"

In the United States, liberalism took a strong root because it had little opposition to its ideals, whereas in Europe liberalism was opposed by many reactionary or feudal interests such as the nobility, the aristocracy, the landed gentry, the established church, and the aristocratic army officers.

Thomas Jefferson adopted many of the ideals of liberalism but, in the Declaration of Independence, changed Locke's "life, liberty, and property" to the more socially liberal "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

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Footnotes

  1. Hunt, E. K. Property and Prophets: the Evolution of Economic Institutions and Ideologies. New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2003 ISBN 0-7656-0608-9
  2. James Madison, Federalist No. 10 (22 November 1787), in Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist: A Commentary on the Constitution of the United States, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (New York, 1888), p. 56
  3. Empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience.
  4. rationalism is the view that "regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge" or "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification". More formally, rationalism is defined as a methodology or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive".