3.3.1 Classical Liberalism

Dr. Gregory Millard and Dr. Valérie Vézina

Classical liberalism represents the ideology in its original form: a set of beliefs that coalesced in Britain and from there penetrated into America and Europe, over the 17th and 18th centuries. By the middle of the 19th century, this classical version of liberalism had attained peak influence, becoming something like the ‘common sense’ of a great many statesmen. As opposed to a model of society defined primarily by aristocratic privilege, religious orthodoxy, and closed economies, classic liberals emphasized individual liberty and what we would today call ‘personal responsibility.’ For example, a person could do as they pleased as long as they injured no one; the appropriate role for government intervention in social life was modest, involving such activities as maintaining a military, and building roads and bridges and other basic infrastructure. This approach gave people considerable freedom to live as they wished. That said, people who made what were understood to be irresponsible or immoral choices were left to fend for themselves, relying on private charity; those who could not pay debts were thrown in prison, and little consideration was given to life circumstances. If someone turned to crime, the fact that they might have been born into abject urban poverty and had few other options was simply irrelevant.

Formal/legal equality was an important classical liberal principle; however, it was usually defined very narrowly by today’s standards. Early classical liberals tended to believe that there should be legal equality for propertied men. This represented a huge advance for equality compared to the complicated networks of inherited legal ranks and privileges that tended to mark pre-liberal Europe. Its limitations, however, are obvious. The idea was that, if one did not possess property, one had no stake in social prosperity – and, as Bob Dylan sings, ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ Such people could not be trusted to make responsible choices with the public purse. Therefore, a wide diffusion of full rights of citizenship, including the right to run for office, was out of the question as far as many early classical liberals were concerned. There was also a belief that reason, and other basic attributes of fully realized humanity, required a degree of cultivation that was beyond the reach of poor and working-class people, who were consumed with a desperate daily grind and in no position to realize such gifts. Thus, only well-to-do men had full rights of citizenship. Women, meanwhile, were also regarded as less than fully rational and were generally considered property of their husbands. Unattached women could find employment in some domains, such as teaching and service, but they lacked the full array of legal rights and entitlements that classical liberal ‘equality’ demanded for propertied men. The fact that women in Canada were not legally declared ‘persons’ until 1929 exemplifies the blatantly patriarchal assumptions that tended to inform classical liberal thought in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Still, we should not be too dismissive of the radical seed contained in the classical liberal commitment to equality. As noted, it was a bold idea when compared to what went before. Classical liberal nostrums about ‘the rights of man’ and ‘all men [being] created equal’ could eventually be leveraged to demand full legal rights for all males, irrespective of property or wealth, which is what happened over the course of the 19th century in many countries influenced by liberalism, such as Britain, Canada, and the United States. Legal discrimination on the basis of religion and race gradually became more distasteful to classical liberals over time. Furthermore, the English words ‘man’ and ‘men’ often meant ‘humanity as a whole,’ including women. Suffragettes could call upon the same ideals to demand equal legal rights for women – a struggle that won many key victories in the early 20th century.

Economically, classical liberal doctrine was heavily influenced by the great economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith. Smith argued, in effect, that the free market is an optimally efficient system. The profit motive gives businesses a strong incentive to produce things that people want to buy, while competition gives them strong incentives to do so as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The market acts like an ‘invisible hand:’ overproduction is swiftly corrected because flooding the market destroys profits, so people stop producing such items and services; under-production is swiftly corrected because of the rewards that come from meeting untapped demand. The best thing for governments to do is to get out of the way: laissez-faire, i.e., leave the market alone, was the watchword. Doing so will lead to economic expansion, or ‘the wealth of nations.’ The role for government, Smith thought, was to provide national security, law enforcement, and infrastructure, which could not profitably be provided by market actors. (Smith also argued for the public provision of schooling at all levels and showed openness to government regulation in some cases, but later generations of his followers often ignored these arguments) (Smith 1970).

Historically, classical liberalism grew in influence as capitalism and the effects of the Industrial Revolution spread throughout much of Europe and North America and, eventually, beyond. These forces came together to provide colossal technological innovation, urbanization, and the creation of huge amounts of private wealth. The classical liberal model seemed, in many eyes, to work. Those countries in which it was influential seemed incredibly dynamic and often very prosperous, taken as a whole.

However, the second half of the 19th century brought increasing doubts about all of this. Laissez-faire capitalism and industrialization created immense wealth and technological innovation, but also appalling poverty. Labourers often worked in miserable conditions for long hours and for minimal pay. They were frequently children. Urban slums abounded and were rife with prostitution, disease, and violence. Economic slumps brought little assistance from the state and could leave even hard-working and capable people in desperate straits. As workers gradually acquired voting rights and as labour unions increasingly mobilized – and socialism and anarchism gathered force as possible alternatives – liberals began to rethink what their ideology meant. Gradually, this ushered in a new version of liberalism often called ‘reform’ liberalism.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction by Dr. Gregory Millard and Dr. Valérie Vézina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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