Understanding Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is the ideology of liberties, rights, individualism, reason, and tolerance that comes in a political and economic form. It is one of two dominate types of liberalism (the other being social liberalism; which evolved from classical liberalism during the 1800s).

Unlike other ideologies, classical liberalism is generally adverse to using the classically conservative authority of the state beyond ensuing basic liberties and rights.

This laissez faire classically left wing style focused on individual liberty can thus at an extreme result in a lack of social equality and justice (and even a lack of order in the state of it refuses to tax and organize the state). This “flaw” is what caused classical liberalism to evolve in a few general directions over time, one toward social liberalism to push for social justice, one toward social conservatism to combat that via classical liberal values, one toward classical conservatism (its natural antithesis) to mash up classical and social liberalism with conservatism (this “middle way” is called neoliberalism), and one toward what we today call libertarianism which at its core simply sticks to laissez faire classical liberal values.

Classical liberalism is classically left-wing in that it tends to favor limited government and be less elitist than classical conservatism. However, like the other forms of liberalism and conservatism, it can come in both elite and populist forms (despite its somewhat populist spirit). It’s main focus is on liberty from government rather than social issues unlike its close relative the socially left-wing social liberalism.

With that said, classical liberalism, as the ideology of reason, generally favors a limited mixed government with voting rights (but not “no government” or “anarchy”). In other words, it is inspired by the liberal republics of history, not by the philosophy of pure democracy strictly (in fact, its philosophy generally rejects pure democracy as a core philosophical plank). This truth can often be confused by well reasoned arguments for very limited government presented by thinkers ranging from Adam Smith, to Thomas Jefferson, to Ludwig von Mises.

TIP: Its called “classical liberalism” in hindsight, because it was the first modern iteration of liberalism. Like classical literature used to be just literature in its day, but now its classical. So it is for liberalism. That said, the term liberalism didn’t come into us until later.

TIP: In philosophy, the philosophy of free-will is called by the name “liberty.” Thus liberalism is speaking as much to the Platonic concept of ensuring democracy (pure liberty and equality) via a mixed government (where human reason and government reign in those qualities), as it is about the general concept of free-will (AKA individual liberty). Conversations about the first use of the term “liberal” aside, we can see the tenants of liberalism in the works of Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Locke, America’s founders, and more. The general championing of reason, liberty, equality, tolerance, free-will, and individualism, all of which were ideals long before they had a catchy name, speak to what “liberalism” (especially in its classical form) means today and has always meant.

Classical Liberalism in the Political and Economic Forms

In the political from, classical liberalism is the ideology of liberty and rights for all individuals in the collective equally (generally considered left-wing). In this sense it is closely related to classical democracy. However, because it is also the ideology of reason, it tends to embrace a sort of mixed-democracy rooted in a republic with a separation of governmental powers and checks and balances.

Generally, classical liberalism rejects the authority of kings and rejects the collectivist nature and social stratification of monarchies and church states (the old estates; the classical monarchy/aristocracy). Thus, we can say it is an ideology where liberty and individualism comes before equality (despite liberty and equality being two of its main virtues).

Classical liberalism is exemplified by the enlightenment thinkers, liberal revolutions, the use of reason, voting rights, legal rights, a separation of powers, and the push for other Bill of Rights style individual liberties and rights like freedom of speech and religion. It favors tolerance, reason, and liberty over the authority of the state. Like with democracy, sovereignty rests in the citizens, and from there powers are delegated to governors (to create a liberal mixed republic).

In the economic form, classical liberal economics is the ideology of liberty and individualism in markets. It generally rejects the authority of kings and rejects the economics of the monarchs (seen in mercantilism).

Classical liberal economics is exemplified by Adam Smith, father of classical liberal economics (and went on to inspire the neoclassical economists like Milton Friedman).

Classical liberal economics isn’t a purely laissez faire economic ideology, but it does generally favor a mostly free-market with little government involvement. Thus, its economic system is capitalism (which, while it does result in social stratification by wealth, offers more opportunity to all on-paper).

Classical Liberalism vs. American Liberalism (Drive Home History #3).

TIP: As you read on, you’ll realize classical liberalism evolved in many directions and today is used to denote many almost conflicting views by different ideological factions. Today in America Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, social conservatives, social liberals, neoliberals, neocons and more all might consider themselves “classical liberals.” And indeed they should, our country was founded on classical liberal values (like much of the West). With that said, don’t let any of this confuse you, and don’t let the usage of the term “liberal” in America confuse you (it essentially means “social liberal” when no other context is given). History and philosophy are written in stone, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, and Mill do not change, the text of Plato’s Republic does not change, and therefore the meaning of classical liberalism (and thus at its core liberalism) does not change. A modern libertarian or social liberal in America does not get to redefine a term, instead, they get to draw inspiration from already defined terms and apply it to their broader ideology. A classical liberal is not a libertarian, a libertarian is a libertarian and they often hold classically liberal values. Simple as that. The only thing that is purely classical liberal is classical liberalism in its pure form.

Values and Key Figures of Classical Liberalism

Examples of Classical Liberal Values: Economic freedom, separation of governmental powers, tolerance, free trade, individual liberty, property rights, the use of reason, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, appreciation for science and education, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair trial, popular sovereignty, and more.

Simply put, classical liberalism champions essential Human Rights (like those found in the Bill of Rights), but not necessarily at the cost of using too much governmental power. Its ideology was dominate from the mid-1600s to the late 1800s, from a rejection of Kings to the rise of inequality in the mid-1800s to the late 1800s (when some started to question of a laissez faire state could actually provide for the general welfare after the inequality of industrialization and the events of the civil war).

Import Figures of Classical Liberalism: John Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Stewart Mill.

TIP: The video below is from the libertarian perspective. This perspective will tend to focus on liberty and turn the blinders on to aspects of inequality. That though is no different than the tensions of the liberal state in the 1800s that led to Marx and the Civil War. So it is not inappropriate that the tension continues under the different forms of modern liberalism which all evolved from the same principles. With that qualifier mentioned, Learn Liberty is an excellent source on liberty in general and on classical liberalism in general (at least from the perspective of a modern conservative or libertarian liberal).

What is Classical Liberalism? – Learn Liberty.

On the Origin of Liberalism

The roots of classical liberalism: Classical liberalism is an idea that is closely related with democracy (which Plato essentially defined as an ideology of liberty and equality in his Republic). Cicero comments on what would become known as liberal values and so does Machiavelli. However, the proper roots of liberalism are found in the Age of Enlightenment when the use of reason and the printing press allowed the liberal revolutionaries to break away from Kings with the aide of philosophers like Locke and Rousseau.

The Evolution of Classical Liberalism: Breaking away from churches and kings was the first order of business following the Age of Enlightenment (Age of Reason) in which classical liberalism was born. This resulted in the liberal revolutions in England, America, and France (followed by centuries of revolutions in other parts of the world; not all liberal, but many were). After gaining liberty, many countries noticed that pure liberty and equality were not recipes for long-term success, and thus many evolutions occurred. Some evolutions evolved toward social liberal progressivism, some toward conservative-liberal protectionism, and some in other directions. Meanwhile, some ideologies, like neoliberalism tried to mash up all the styles, while others like libertarians tried to stick to the classical liberal roots.

TIP: The term liberal didn’t come into popular use until later, we call the liberals of the era of the liberal revolutions “classical liberals” today to denote a stance different from the modern form of liberalism “social liberalism” (which errs towards equality). In other words, liberalism forked into two clear paths in the 1800s, the original one we call “classical” the one focused on social equality we call “social.” They are both liberalism, and they both have the same core values of liberty, equality, tolerance, and the use of reason. They just differ on their position on the use of governmental power to ensure the common welfare.

TIP: There were many different forms of classical liberalism in the late 1600 and 1700s, and even more arose over time as socialism and social liberalism also arose in the 1800s. The difference between types of classical liberals is as striking as the differences between, in terms of late 1700’s America, a classically liberal slave holder, a classically liberal abolitionist, and a classically liberal baron from New England. Likewise, if you look to philosophy you’ll see that even the more classically liberal Locke and socially classically liberal Rousseau are strikingly different. Below we’ll discuss more forms of classical liberalism.

TIP: In America, both the founding factions (the Federalists and Anti-Federalists) were liberal factions. The Federalists were conservative-liberals and elite liberals (more right) and the anti-federalists were populist and radical classical liberals (more left). Meanwhile King George, Redcoats, and Loyalists were the conservatives of the era. This helps us understand a truism, that is, “what liberalism and conservatism mean, while generally constant, can change a bit depending on context.” Today in America most Americans are at least a little liberal, and that is why we support things like the Bill of Rights, yet there are also factions we would call conservative (classical and social). The reality is, if we want to speak accurately, we could use terms like American Social Liberalism or American Social Conservatism (as the term “American” denotes a basic classical liberal foundation).

Comparing Classical Liberalism to Conservatism and Social Liberalism

Liberalism Compared to conservatism and social liberalism: Classical liberalism and social liberalism are, in many ways, the antithesis of classical conservatism and social conservatism respectively.

To give you a sense of this, the following chart compares liberalism and conservatism in their social and classical forms based on the liberal “virtues” of liberty and equality (see learn more about the differences between liberalism and conservatism):

Sphere of political action Liberal Left-Wing The Left-Right Balance Conservative Right-Wing
Liberty Favoring Freedom (Classical Liberalism) Balanced Liberty Favoring Authority (Classical Conservatism)
Equality Favoring Collectives (Social Liberalism) Balanced Equality Favoring Individuals (Social Conservatism)
Left-Right Chart Liberal Vs. Conservative

This chart shows the different types of liberalism and conservatism as the political “left” and “right”.

TIP: As you can get a sense of from the above charts, in terms of classical forms of governments: Conservatism is the ideology of Monarchies, and Liberalism is the ideology of Democracies (meanwhile, the ideal mixed-republic‘s ideology is somewhere in the middle despite being favored by classical liberals.) Likewise, in terms of their social forms, social conservatism is the ideology of social hierarchy and nativism and social liberalism is the ideology of egalitarianism and inclusion. A person may be inclined toward any ideology due to their personal tastes, but generally speaking they are all valid and naturally occurring pieces of the same puzzle meant to temper each other.

Different Forms of Classical Liberalism

Different forms of classical liberalism: Finally, let’s look at some different forms of classical liberalism to hammer in the point that this ideology is really a single term under which many different forms fall.

  • Classical liberalism in general: A pushback against the authority of church and state in religion, economics, and liberties and rights. It favors the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers in respect to rights and politics. Key beliefs are the separation of powers, voting, republics, free-trade, religious liberty, free speech, (usually) anti-slavery, etc.
  • Economic classical liberalism: Like Smith and Ricardo. The focus is on free-trade, not state-based mercantilism.
  • Religious classical liberalism: Many minority faiths wanted the freedom to practice religion without persecution. This was not common before modern times. Thus, some classical liberals, like Martin Luther, were more focused on religious freedom than any other aspect of liberalism.
  • Radical classical liberalism: Like the shirtless patriots of the French Revolution who became a tyrannical Jacobin mob, and also like some of the more individual liberty minded Americans in the south such as Jefferson. This can range from being so liberal that you justify slavery, or being so liberal you behead all the elite, to wanting to live in peace on a farm and not have the government tell you what to do.
  • Social classical liberalism: Most liberal philosophers were what I would call social classical liberals. The founders of America couldn’t dismiss slavery; Locke and Montesquieu defined it as an abomination. Rousseau advocated for the general will and voting rights. The philosophers, as is evidenced by their famous works, were very focused on republics, mixed governments, human rights, being against slavery, justifying private property, the state of nature, the social contract, the rights of man and citizen, etc. In the 1600’s and 1700’s, they developed ideas that we haven’t fully grasped today. To use an analogy, where the classical liberal radicals were like early versions of Malcolm X, the classical liberal philosophers were like early versions of Martian Luther King. This group included the early progressive groups like abolitionists and reformers.
  • Liberal conservatism: The old Whigs like Burke and more conservative American founders like Hamilton and Adams can be described as liberal-conservative classical liberals. They were against Kings and for basic rights and free-trade, but that aside, they generally favored classical conservatism. The liberal wing of the Tories, the liberal emperor Napoleon, and even the other enlightened monarchs were of this type. Most modern elites are a type of liberal-conservative, typically in America a “neocon” (like the Bushes) or “neoliberal” (like the Clintons). Meanwhile, Classical Liberal Neoliberalism (one flavor of neoliberalism) is the ideology of Milton Friedman (who some might consider “libertarian”).
  • Libertarianism: Those who, despite history, still take the classical liberal position today (mostly unchanged) are called libertarians. This group ranges from true classical liberals in the most staunch sense like Mises or Ron Paul, to right wing versions like Rothbard, or establishment versions like Friedman. The catch-all label libertarian contains about as many different groups as “classical liberal” does in the first place.

"What is Classical Liberalism?" is tagged with: Adam Smith, American Politics, Capitalism, Equality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Liberalism and Conservatism, Liberty, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers

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