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The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism
by Amy H. Sturgis

© The LockeSmith Institute, 1994

No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the written permission of THE LOCKESMITH INSTITUTE, except for brief quotations used in reviews or critical essays/articles.

Introduction: The Definition of Classical Liberalism

Contemporary Liberalism consists of separate and often contradictory streams of thought springing from a common ancestry; the intellectual parent of these variants has not only endured intact, it has outlived some of its offspring and shown more intellectual stamina than others. The tenets of this parent, known as classical liberalism, have answered the needs and the challenges of over three centuries in the West. By observing its past and discovering how it responded to the dramatic historical dynamics of economic, technological, political, and social changes we may understand how classical liberalism provides a strong foundation for the future.

In order to assign consistent terms in this study, I must first define classical liberalism. Scholars have offered different interpretations of this term. For example, E. K. Bramsted, co-editor of the monumental anthology Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce (1978), asserts that the classical liberal champions the rights of individuals (with careful attention to the more endangered rights of minorities), the right of property in particular, the government's obligation to protect property, limited constitutional government, and a belief in social progress (36). John Gray broadens this description in Liberalism (1986) to include philosophies demonstrating individualism, egalitarianism, and universalism (x). In Liberalism Old and New (1991), J. G. Merquior argues that the theories of human rights, constitutionalism, and classical economics define classical liberal thought.

These scholars and others actually agree far more than they differ concerning the philosophy's components. For the purpose of this chronology and analysis, I shall apply a broad set of criteria to determine if an idea or individual fits within this intellectual tradition. In this context, classical liberalism includes the following:

  • an ethical emphasis on the individual as a rights-bearer prior to the existence of any state, community, or society,
  • the support of the right of property carried to its economic conclusion, a free-market system,
  • the desire for a limited constitutional government to protect individuals' rights from others and from its own expansion, and
  • the universal (global and ahistorical) applicability of these above convictions.

These characteristics do exclude certain thinkers commonly linked with classical liberalism, although they embrace far more individuals than they dismiss. Failure to exhibit them, however, does point to a very fundamental difference with the minds that compose the tradition. Two diverse cases of thinkers associated with yet not belonging to this ideology may serve as examples. First, Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarians accepted limited rights and market economics as long as they provided the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Classical liberal ends thus served as convenient means to them, but the eventual ends they sought betrayed an intellectual collectivism incompatible with the above criteria. From a different angle, Jean Jacques Rousseau's vision of the social contract, while also noteworthy, included an almost mystic notion of a general will. Such a concept created an unaccountable power elite to interpret and impose this will, by force if necessary. Again, vital components of classical liberal thought are offended. Neither Bentham nor Rousseau therefore are members of this legacy.

Any single attempt to chronicle the history of classical liberalism cannot do justice to the immense richness and diversity of the individuals or movements within it. In this story three distinct flavors coexist and often blend: the realistic English tradition of law, the rationalistic French tradition of humanism, and the organic German tradition of individualism. Gray characterizes these three as competing yet complementary definitions of liberty, with Britain representing independence, France self-rule, and Germany self-realization (13). Beyond these national differences, two parallel concepts survive throughout the history of classical liberalism irrespective of geographical boundaries. One is predicated upon a negative view of human nature, accepting that people are equally fallen and incapable of perfection. It follows from this perspective that power must be limited because it would allow some corrupt individuals to do more harm than others. The other view maintains that all people are inherently good and perfectible, so power must be limited to allow humanity to evolve toward a more perfect order of self-government.

This chronology admittedly cannot discuss every contributor or school of thought in such a multi-dimensional and lasting tradition. For example, the contributions of Lysander Spooner and the 19th century American anarchists or Albert Jay Nock and the American Old Right could easily have been included. I have made an effort to note leaders that symbolize the ideology's historical stages. The absence of names or works does not necessarily signify any defensible judgment of importance. This treatment is meant to provide a general introduction to the rise, decline, and reemergence of classical liberalism and therefore is limited by space and purpose. As the decision to include and omit facts was difficult and, to a degree, arbitrary, I beg the indulgence of the reader as I begin this historical overview.