Not to be confused with modern American liberalism or liberal Republicans, classical liberalism places highest value on liberty and the individual.
In a short video, Nigel Ashford of Institute for Humane Studies explains the tenets of classical liberalism. Not to be confused with modern American liberalism or liberal Republicans, classical liberalism places highest value on liberty and the individual. Modern American liberals, or progressives as they often prefer to be called, may value some of these principles, but most, such as free markets and limited government — and I would add individualism and toleration — are held in disdain by them.
Here are the principles of classical liberalism that Ashford identifies:
Liberty is the primary political value. “When deciding what to do politically — what should the government do — classical liberals have one clear standard: Does this increase, or does it reduce the freedom of the individual?”
Individualism. “The individual is more important than the collective.”
Skepticism about power. “Government, for example, often claims ‘we’re forcing you to do X because it’s in your own interests to do so.’ Whereas very often, when people with power do that, it’s really because it’s good for themselves. Classical liberals believe that the individual is the best judge of their own interests.”
Rule of law.
Civil society. Classical liberals believe that problems can be dealt with best by voluntary associations and action.
Spontaneous order. “Many people seem to assume that order requires some institution, some body, to manipulate and organize things. Classical liberals don’t believe that. They believe that order can arise spontaneously. People through their voluntary interaction create the rules by which people can live by.”
Free markets. “Economic exchange should be left to voluntary activity between individuals. … We need private property to be able to do that. … History show us that leaving things to free markets rather than government planning or organization, increases prosperity, reduces poverty, increases jobs, and provides good that people want to buy.”
Toleration. “Toleration is the belief that one should not interfere with things on which one disapproves. … It’s a question of having certain moral principles (‘I think this action is wrong’), but I will not try and force my opinions — for example through government — to stop the things I disapprove of.”
Peace. Through free movement of capital, labor, goods, services, and ideas, we can have a world based on peace rather than conflict and war.
Limited government. “There are very few things the government should do. The goal of government is simply to protect life, liberty, and property. Anything beyond that is not justifiable.”
This video is available on YouTube through LearnLiberty.org, a site which has many other informative videos. Besides this video, other resources on classical liberalism include What Is Classical Liberalism? by John C. Goodman, Christianity, Classical Liberalism are Liberty’s Foundations by Leonard P. Liggio, What is Libertarian? at the Institute for Humane Studies, Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism (review of James M. Buchanan book by William A. Niskanen), Myths of Individualism by Tom G. Palmer, and Palmer’s book Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice.