Flat White

So you think you’re a classical liberal?

16 February 2020

5:00 AM

16 February 2020

5:00 AM

A fair number of people nowadays are announcing that they’re classical liberals. An apparently more or less equal number of other people are busy telling them that they’re not – that they’re actually libertarians, or conservatives, or hypocrites. Claire Lehmann, the editor of Quillette, has declared that classical liberals should ‘own our position and stop pretending it’s ideology-free.’ So what is classical liberalism? And what is a classical liberal?

To understand what classical liberalism is, it helps to have some sense of the history of liberalism. Liberalism as an intellectual tradition has a few figures who, like John the Baptist, foreshadowed the light without quite being it themselves (I’m thinking here of writers like Milton, whose liberal inclinations never quite broke free of the Biblical moorings of his intellectual era). For most intellectual historians, Locke is the key early figure. After Locke, we might count various figures in revolutionary and pre-revolutionary France (Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu) and America (Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton) as key figures in the liberal tradition.

Most people would point to John Stuart Mill as a – maybe even the – central thinker in the liberal tradition. But we’ve already seen, with the French and American luminaries listed above, that the liberal tradition, like any tradition, was capable of bifurcating, or branching off into different directions. This is something that continued into the twentieth century, where more British liberals like Isaiah Berlin wrote influential works of liberal theory – and so did left-leaning progressives like John Rawls.

It’s people like Rawls, who tended to see economic egalitarianism as a key enabler of liberty, who now tend to be called ‘liberals’ in an American (and, increasingly, a global context). (In Australia, of course, the Liberal Party is set against this sort of left-wing theory, and embraces as many conservatives as traditional liberals.) Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, like a few other great books (Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France comes to mind) generated a number of almost equally influential responses, among which was Robert Nozick’s libertarian classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

This brings us to a sub-question. What is a libertarian? For me, libertarians represent a particular branch of liberalism that has roots in Austria but that has flourished especially in the United States. (Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian transplant to the US, encapsulates that trend.) American libertarians – who tend to be of the right – place a special emphasis on private property, a small state, and the right of all citizens to bear arms. They stress what they see as individual rights or ‘entitlements,’ and they tend to look at politics from that vantage point.


Now, it’s clear that the idea of rights or entitlements isn’t absent from the rest of the liberal tradition. A theory of how entitlements are generated can definitely be found in Locke. But it’s also clear that American right-libertarians choose to stress this aspect of the tradition more, say, that American left-liberals typically do. This, of course, is partly what it means to be on a separate branch of a tradition. Libertarians are the branch that decided that entitlements were among the most important things in the liberal tradition. Other liberals declined to join them in that, and that’s how libertarians branched off.

They weren’t the only ones to stress certain parts of the tradition rather than others, and that means they also weren’t the only ones to branch off. Rawlsians have kept talking up the synergies between freedom and equality. British liberals (and British left-libertarians, like the Spiked crew) tend to be more concerned with social freedoms than anything else (the freedom to take drugs, say, or to watch porn). At a certain point, with all the liberal branches out there, it becomes hard to make out the tree.

But that’s common with intellectual traditions, which tend to consist of different conversations that branch off into other mini-conversations. At the edges, it’s hard to say whether the original conversation is being continued or departed from. But people usually have a sense of the kinds of points that characterize certain strands of thought rather than others. And all the various strands of liberalism stem from a concern with freedom as a central value in our political lives.

Now let’s go back to the question we started with. When someone says that they’re a ‘classical liberal,’ what are they saying? Well, they could be saying any one of a number of things. They could be signalling that they’re a libertarian. They could even be hinting that they’re a conservative, or a hypocrite. More likely, though, they’re trying to indicate that they are fans of the liberal tradition, especially before liberalism began to be associated with the things it’s currently associated with on US college campuses.

It’s important to notice, though, that saying you’re a classical liberal isn’t necessarily to associate yourself with one specific branch of the liberal tradition (though it may), just as identifying yourself as a ‘traditional Christian’ isn’t necessarily to associate yourself with Roman Catholicism rather than Eastern Orthodoxy. You could be saying ‘I’m a traditional Christian!’ with the additional, hidden premise that only Roman Catholics are true representatives of traditional Christianity. But it’s more likely you just want to signal your adherence to what you see as the basic principles of Christianity – and to dissociate yourself with more recent styles of Christian practice.

Claiming to be a ‘classical liberal’ then, is simply to assert adherence to a long-lasting, broad tradition of thought that stresses liberty as a principle of political life (and maybe also to signal dissatisfaction with the nostrums of some contemporary ‘liberals.’) This is, in fact, the mainstream tradition of our liberal democratic societies, one that forms the basis for many of our most basic laws and customs.

Some ‘classical liberals’ will lean libertarian; others will feel more like centrists. But the term itself in about as partisan as ‘democrat; and if identifying as either a traditional liberal or democrat is now seen as showing your hand politically, then we really are in trouble.

James Kierstead is senior lecturer in classics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where his research focuses on ancient Greek democracy. He tweets at @Kleisthenes2.

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