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What is classical liberalism?

As a moral and political philosophy, classical liberalism lays a framework for the good society.

EMILY CHAMLEE-WRIGHT: Liberalism in the classical sense of the word is a moral and political philosophy. And it's built around a core set of ideas, probably the most important of which is the recognition that all human beings possess, inherently possess, dignity and should be respected. And respecting human beings means giving them some space, giving them freedom to pursue their individual plans and purposes and projects. And that then leads to the next important core concept, which is individual liberty. And when you bring those two ideas together – human dignity and individual liberty – that informs the liberal notion of justice, which is that each of us has a duty to respect the individual rights of other people. And that is included whether or not we are individuals ourselves or thinking about individuals as having that duty to respect our fellow human beings who are walking the planet, but also governments, that governments within the liberal tradition also have to respect every individual.

And you're starting to see how these ideas start to combine and intersect with one another and they inform in turn the liberal concept of equality. That in a liberal society, human beings, all human beings, have equal standing within society and also before the law. And so these ideas interlock with one another into a coherent system of ideas. Now these ideas have long taproots that reach back to ancient philosophical traditions. But ideas within the classical liberal tradition really start to begin to flower in the late seventeenth and then throughout the eighteenth century. So by the end of the eighteenth century you have scholars who are self-aware that they are writing within the liberal tradition. So Adam Smith, for example, writes about the liberal plan, which is kind of a recipe. If you have liberty, justice and equality you have the foundation of a functional society.

And we also see, of course, in the late eighteenth century the launch of the American experiment. And when you look at those founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, they are wrapped up within this liberal tradition. Now obviously the rights that were guaranteed within these documents were not consistently applied. We still had a lot of illiberalism yet to shed. But they lay the foundation for an emergent system of liberalism within the American context that could become more full fledged into a coherent system of ideas and political rules of the game and really a set of liberal values as well.

The liberal ideal is the good society, a tolerant and a pluralistic society. The liberal society is one in which economic and intellectual progress are the norm because of a kind of radical commitment to openness. And the liberal society, the good society, is also one in which individuals and communities flourish because of that openness but also because of a commitment to peaceful and voluntary engagement and mutual respect. And I'm emphasizing these social virtues because that's probably the biggest misperception about what liberalism is all about. That by emphasizing the individual, people often think that well, there's no room left to think about community or society seriously. I think that view is mistaken. That it's actually exactly the opposite. That because liberalism focuses on the individual it's actually a sublime paradigm for how we get to the good society.

Now theoretically yes, within a free society individuals can wall themselves off from the social world. But it's highly unlikely in part because we are hardwired both from our biological evolution and then through our cultural evolution to want to be part of the social world. But more to the point here it's the activities within a liberal society that draw us in. There are tremendous benefits to being part of a social environment when you have openness because you've got all that experimentation. You've got all of that collaboration going on, and this generates tremendous benefits. And so we tend to be drawn into the social world within a liberal context. But, as we are drawn into the social world we need rules of the game that allow us to cooperate not only with our closest friends and neighbors but with society at large, a scale. And that's where the rules of just conduct come in. The rules of just conduct are liberalisms response to that need.

And if you think about what constitutes the rules of just conduct it's sort of like a constellation of social norms and formal rules that allow us to cooperate with one another. So, for example, our cultural norm that says we're going to respect mine and thine, right, lay the foundation for rules of property. The mutual expectation that we have for one another that it's good for us to keep our promises. It lays the foundation for rules of contract. And respect for the integrity of other persons lays the foundation for rules that favor consent over force. And so that's what I mean when I say that liberalism is a paradigm for the good society not just in spite of the fact that it emphasizes the individual but because it emphasizes the individual. Because it emphasizes the individual's plans and purposes as being important it means that if I'm going to ask you to cooperate or collaborate with me and engage and associate with me, I have to make sure that you're a voluntary participant in that engagement. So it's a whole system that's built upon that volunteerism.

Now I want to be clear that liberalism isn't opposed to visionaries and it isn't opposed to common purposes and collective goals so long as they are freely chosen and there's an exit option. So we learn a ton when we try out new things. We can try out new ideas, new philosophical systems. We can enter into a new faith practice, a new religious faith and see how that feels. And we learn a ton when we engage in these kinds of practices. We learn from our own experiments. We learn from the experiments of others. We learn from successful experiments and also failed experiments. But what's critical is that when we choose to associate with some great visionary or sign on to some common cause we also can choose to disassociate. We also have the option to abandon a failed plan. We have an opportunity to exit a group that we feel is stepping across a border, boundary that we're not comfortable with. That's the essential difference. I think more than anything that's the difference between a liberal society and an illiberal society is whether or not there's a realistic exit option.

  • The moral and political philosophy known as classical liberalism is built around a number of core concepts, including, perhaps most importantly, human dignity and individual liberty.
  • Emily Chamlee-Wright, president of the Institute for Humane Studies, introduces these two principles as forces that shape the liberal notion of justice. This applies to both individuals' treatment of others, as well as the government's treatment of individuals.
  • This just conduct contributes to the liberal ideal: the good society. By emphasizing the individual, liberalism encourages collaboration and cooperation while also offering the freedom to make choices and learn from failure.