Liberalism/Classical Liberalism

Classical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties and political freedom with representative democracy under the rule of law, and emphasizes economic freedoms found in economic liberalism which is also called free market capitalism.[1][2]

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.[3] Notable individuals whose ideas contributed to classical liberalism include John Locke,[4] 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,[5] utilitarianism,[6] and progress.[7]

Meaning of the term


The term classical liberalism was applied in retrospect to distinguish earlier 19th-century liberalism from the newer social liberalism.[8] The phrase classical liberalism is also sometimes used to refer to all forms of liberalism before the 20th century, and some conservatives and libertarians, especially in the United States, use the term classical liberalism to describe their belief in the primacy of individual freedom and minimal government.[9][10]

Core beliefs


Classical liberals believed that individuals should be free to obtain work from the highest-paying employers, while the profit motive would ensure that products that people desired were produced at prices they would pay. In a free market, both labour and capital would receive the greatest possible reward, while production would be organised efficiently to meet consumer demand.[11]

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.[12]

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.[13][14]

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."[15] For example, 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...."[16]

Text was used with some modification from the Wikipedia page Classical liberalism, under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

  1. Modern Political Philosophy (1999), Richard Hudelson, pp. 37–38
  2. M. O. Dickerson et al., An Introduction to Government and Politics: A Conceptual Approach (2009) p. 129
  3. Conway, p. 296
  4. Steven M. Dworetz, The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism, and the American Revolution (1994)
  5. Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination (1992) p. 58
  6. Gerald F. Gaus and Chandran Kukathas, Handbook of Political Theory (2004) p. 422
  7. Hunt, p. 54
  8. Richardson, p. 52
  9. "An American Classical Liberalism" is an example of an article that defines "classical liberalism" as small government.
  10. "Guide to Classical Liberal Scholarship", Introduction defines "classical liberalism" as a belief in peace and freedom.
  11. Hunt, pp. 46–47
  12. Hunt, pp. 51–53
  13. Kelly, D. (1998): A Life of One's Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State, Washington, DC: Cato Institute
  14. James L. Richardson, Contending Liberalisms in World Politics, pp. 36–38, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001, ISBN 1-55587-915-2
  15. Ryan, A. (1995): "Liberalism", In: Goodin, R. E. and Pettit, P., eds.: A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p. 293
  16. 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