Classical Liberalism, a lecture for a Global Studies theory class

Classical Liberalism





Adam Smith: economist

De Toqueville

John Maynard Keynes: founder of modern economic liberalism

Woodrow Wilson: liberal/progressive president

Lecture Outline:

Origins of Liberalism

What was Liberal Ideology

Economic Liberalism

Violence accompanied the Spread of Liberalism

The Paradox of Liberalism

The Class-based aspect of Classical Liberalism

How the Great Depression changed Liberalism

Liberalism in International Relations

Final Reflections on Liberalism


Domenico Losurdo: Liberalism: A CounterHistory

John French, The Two Faces of Liberalism

Website: “Theory in Action: Liberalism”

Circle the room:

What words come to mind when you think of liberalism? (this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with the word or idea. It’s just what comes to mind).

Origins of Liberalism

  • Modern liberalism as an economic and political philosophy emerged out of seventeenth century Europe, although the term was not invented until 1815
  • A comprehensive philosophy, which spoke to how people should organize both politically and economically
  • A product of two powerful forces
  • First the Enlightenment, which referred to people using reason to question the power of tradition
  • This meant that people questioned the power of traditional political structures, such as feudalism
  • They also questioned the power of the Church
  • Hard now to understand the power of the Church in medieval society
  • Controlled most means of intellectual production: universities, presses, etc.
  • People in Spain and Portugal lived in fear of the Inquisition
  • Everywhere, it was very dangerous to express original religious ideas, for fear of being labeled a heretic
  • This meant that Enlightenment thought was perceived as being subversive by those in power
  • If you want to understand a society, and what it truly fears, a good way to do so is to look at its borders
  • Today people look for drugs and weapons at the border
  • But 300 years ago they looked for books
  • If you were a custom’s agent in eighteenth century Mexico, you would come aboard ships and look for the books of Voltaire or Hobbes
  • But there was a second force behind liberalism, besides Enlightenment thought
  • This was the terrible wars of religion which swept Europe
  • The 30 years war, which accompanied the spread of Protestantism, devastated Germany
  • The Catholic Church fought a terrible war to stamp out Lutheranism, and the other emerging Protestant churches
  • In France, there were terrible religious wars
  • In England the king was overthrown
  • What had begun as a political struggle became a terrible religious war between Protestants and the Catholic Church
  • This background also shaped the development of liberalism
  • There were different liberal traditions in different countries
  • If we think about English liberalism, perhaps the most influential thinker was Hobbes
  • Famous for his line that life in a state of nature, is nasty, brutish and short
  • He argued for a world in which private religious beliefs should not matter politically
  • A radical ideal
  • he was writing in the context of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, when the King was overthrown and a constitutional monarchy ultimately established
  • British liberalism emerged out of this historical context
  • In the Middle Ages there was no difference perceived between politics and religion
  • Hobbes wanted to separate the Church and the State, so as to end religious conflicts
  • An emphasis on toleration

What Was Liberal Ideology?

  • So what were the core ideas of liberalism?
  • Individual freedom and equality
  • This was true politically
  • Personal choice and liberty is essential to human happiness
  • People should only surrender those powers that they willingly gave up to their representatives
  • Most of the key ideas of the U.S. are based on this, as well as liberalism
  • No taxation without representation
  • One person, one vote
  • Freedom of religion, of speech, free and fair elections, the importance of constitutions, etc.
  • These were the key ideas of early liberal thinkers, such as John Locke, who is often described as the person who more than any other created liberalism
  • He used the idea that people had natural rights to critique absolutism
  • In his mind, society was based on the rule of law, which over-rode the traditional power of kings and the Church
  • The consent of the governed was key to any state
  • There is an idea that is important in liberalism: spontaneous order
  • With the right institutions in place, people will self-organize to address problems
  • Voluntary associations, etc, key
  • Optimistic vision of the future
  • Progress can be made, if people are given the freedom they need to address the world’s problems
  • We are moving towards a world with greater political freedom and liberty
  • The present world is the best world to have been born in

Economic Liberalism

  • But liberalism went beyond this political vision
  • Argued that personal freedom was also important economically
  • The government should stay out of the lives of its citizens economically as well
  • Commerce, wealth and trade are good, and should not be interfered with by the state
  • This was a radical idea
  • In the eighteenth century, the key economic philosophy in Europe was mercantilism
  • Kings should limit who their people could trade with, to maximize exports, but minimize imports
  • The idea was to build up as large a supply of gold and precious metals as possible, as a means to help fund war
  • There are multiple economic problems with this
  • You can’t have an international economic system in which every nation runs a surplus
  • Think of the Great Depression in which every nation tried to do this, and trade collapsed
  • Liberal economic thinkers like Adam Smith challenged traditional economic views
  • Emphasized the importance of individual freedom
  • People should be free to trade with whom they wanted
  • This was based on the ideal of comparative advantage
  • Countries benefit if they specialize in producing goods that naturally are produced there at lowest cost
  • Canadians don’t grow bananas, and Egyptians don’t grow ice wine
  • This emphasis on choice and freedom also applies to individuals
  • People should be free to choose what economic activities they will undertake
  • A radical change from the past
  • Medieval Europe’s economy governed by trade guilds
  • Unions of people who controlled what was produced, where and by whom
  • You did not have to be a blacksmith because that was what your father had done
  • Smith argued for personal freedom economically
  • The invisible hand of the market was more productive shaping economic policy than the rules of kings
  • When people make individual economic choices freely, it will maximize wealth, and this was good
  • Today when we think of liberalism, we often think first about the economic ideals of neoliberalism
  • Important to remember that these were not separate from political ideals
  • For liberal thinkers political freedom entailed economic freedom.
  • People had the right not only to life and liberty, but also to property
  • We’ll talk next week about the founders of neoliberalism
  • For F.A. Hayek, the Austrian founder of neoliberalism, economic freedom was the key to political freedom
  • Political freedom was the goal
  • He viewed Communism as the great threat
  • With the state’s control over the economy, all individual freedom ended.
  • Perhaps because liberalism involved issues of freedom it invoked such powerful emotions that it could lead to violence.

The Violence that came with Liberalism’s spread

  • Liberalism challenged the power of kings and priests and the Pope
  • No wonder it was dangerous
  • This meant that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, liberalism was associated with violence
  • Liberalism defined the thought of the French revolution in 1789
  • Based on the idea of the importance of equality
  • One of the first acts of the new government was the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
  • The revolution overthrew the power of the two estates: the Church and the nobility
  • Permitted radical change: the end of the feudal system
  • Cannot overstate the challenge that the revolution represented to the Catholic Church
  • Remember Robespierre’s position on the Catholic Church
  • The Church was dead: worship reason instead
  • Everything from the past was challenged
  • They even tried to rename the months of the calendar
  • The French revolution represented a radical challenge to the old order
  • Had the support of liberals
  • Not only France had a revolution, but also the United States
  • The American revolution was based on liberal ideals, which it used to challenge the authority of the British king
  • The single key concept was the liberal ideal of inalienable rights
  • Think of all the key ideas of the American revolution: no taxation without representation, separation of Church and State, freedom of speech, and all of the other individual freedoms
  • All liberal ideals
  • These also formed the basis for the United States Bill of Rights of 1789
  •  In Latin America, political classes divided between the liberal and conservative parties
  • this led to a century of conflict
  • between 1857 and 1861 Mexico underwent the War of Reform between the liberals and conservatives
  • liberal ideas part of the Cristero rebellion in the 1920s, when the issue was the separation of Church and State
  • elsewhere in the region the ensuing wars lasted nearly a century
  • in Colombia they lasted much longer, and you could make an argument that they are still ongoing
  • irony: liberalism was based on the idea of tolerance
  • a person’s private beliefs should not exclude them from the political process
  • yet liberalism’s spread created terrible conflicts and revolutions
  • created incredible turbulence in eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe
  • the Revolution of 1848 saw one monarchical government after another collapse in Europe, as people demanded republics with constitutions and Bills of Rights
  • many people have drawn comparisons between this period and the Arab Spring
  • a moment when populations no longer accepted the presence of old autocracies
  • in the end, liberal states did have less conflict
  • largely avoid the terrible religious and ethnic conflicts found elsewhere
  • but this only came after lengthy fighting

The Paradox of Liberalism

  • there were also contradictions that were always inherit within liberalism
  • if you want to explore these in depth read Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History
  • the first contradiction is that some of the most advocates of liberalism also supported slavery
  • this was the case with the famous English liberal John Locke
  • he was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which took part in the slave trade
  • he justified slavery by pointing to its role and existence in classical antiquity, particularly Sparta
  • he argued that the principle of equality applied only to peoples of the same species and rank
  • within Britain, he would defend the importance of work houses, which were mandatory work locales for unemployed men
  • he argued that poor children should be forced to work beginning at the age of three, as a practice that was beneficial not only economically but also morally
  • abroad, his thought would inspire the men who led the South’s secession in the Civil War
  • men like John C. Calhoun
  • Calhoun was a man who eloquently defended the importance of minority rights
  • At the same time he declared slavery to be a “positive good” that the slave owners should not renounce
  • from the start, the American constitution enshrined slavery
  • slaves, for example, were to count as 3 fifths of a person in determining how many votes a state would have
  • very strange: if you look at the rhetoric that surrounded the American revolution, patriots accused the king of wanting to make them slaves
  • but there was little discussion of slavery within the US, which was defined as essential
  • ironically, it was the British which freed those slaves who were willing to serve in the British army
  • one of the things that the patriots feared most was a slave rebellion
  • Domenico Lusordo has pointed out another fundamental contradiction
  • If you look at the most fervent critics of slavery in the late eighteenth and early twentieth century, they nearly all lived in autocratic regimes, and were conservatives
  • Very strange- I don’t have a good explanation for this
  • If you looked at the people who were apologists for slavery, they were very often liberals
  • Think about the case of John Stuart Mill
  • He supported slavery in British colonies by arguing that it was an essential tool to introduce civilization to backwards peoples
  • It was not only in the case of slavery that we see this contradiction
  • People who used liberal ideology to critique King George, were the same people who believed that the extermination of the native americans
  • This was not only the case with American revolutionaries
  • De Toqueville was a famous French liberal 
  • He also advocated the use of violence by the French state to seize Algeria as part of the French Empire
  • Here is a quote from de Toqueville: “I have often heard in France men whom I respect, but do not support, consider it reprehensible that crops are burned, silos emptied, and lastly that unarmed men, women and children are seized. For me this is a regrettable necessity, but one to which any people that wants to make war on the Arabs will have to submit.” (Losurdo, 234)
  • He also believed that it was necessary to destroy all Arab population centers in areas of resistance: “To destroy anything that resembles a permanent gathering of population or, in other words a town: I believe it is of the utmost importance not to allow any town to survive, or arise, in the regions controlled by Abd el Kader (the leader of the resistance).” DL, 235.
  • de Toqueville also celebrated the Opium War, as a sign of European vigor in contrast to Oriental passivity
  • This contradiction between the ideals of liberalism, and their restriction to the white race, is known as the paradox of liberalism
  • Some people have argued that it was inherent ideological problem within liberalism
  • Domenico Losurdo argues that it is more accurate to say that for these thinkers beliefs could not trump political economy
  • In other words, these people so benefited from slavery, imperialism, the seizure of indigenous lands, that they could not apply their ideas to the world that they lived in
  • If you look at slavery, it more than survived despite three liberal revolutions, in France, America and Britain
  • It reached its apogee during this period
  • Nor were these ideas only applied outside of Europe
  • Liberal thought ascendant at the time when British rule carried out some of its most painful policies in Ireland, such as the 1848 potato famine

Class Based Aspect to Liberalism

  • Marxists would later argue that this was not such a paradox as it seemed
  • They suggested that liberalism was always the thought of a privileged class
  • Represented an effort by property owning individuals to assert their rights against royal authority, while also denying those rights to those whom they exploited
  • It is worth noting that the paradox did not exist everywhere and at all times
  • After the French Revolution the new government abolished slavery based on liberal ideals
  • It would later be reinstated by Napoleon himself, whose wife, Josephine, came from a slave holding family in Martinique
  • Yet it is perhaps too simplistic to say that liberalism was the ideology of a certain class only
  • There was always a tension between liberal ideals and U.S. reality
  • When the constitutional convention created the constitution, it included a clause that required free states to return run-away slaves to their owners
  • But it did so without ever using the word slave
  • The contradiction between what the constitution contained, and the liberal ideals upon which it was based, was too large
  • It’s also the case that although a certain class may be instrumental in creating a particular ideology, that does not mean that it cannot be adopted and used by others
  • During the Civil Rights movement liberal ideals were employed very effectively by those people fighting segregation

The Changing Meaning of Liberalism: the Great Depression

  • The meaning of liberalism changed with time
  • Classical liberals were the sole kind of liberals throughout the nineteenth century
  • World War One represented a great victory for liberal democracies, as autocratic governments collapsed around the World
  • But the Great Depression was a difficult period that led people to question liberal ideals
  • Modern liberalism emerged under the influence of John Maynard Keynes, who advocated a role for the government in economic affairs
  • His basic argument was that totally free markets were not ideal
  • In times of crisis, the government had to intervene to ensure demand, and to act as a lender of last resort
  • Without massive government intervention in the economy, WWII could not have been won
  • Economic paradigms had changed.
  • Two great ideals behind liberalism: freedom and equality
  • With the Great Depression, liberals gave much more thought to equality, and what that entailed for government policy
  • Equality meant that people also had economic rights: social security, disability benefits, unemployment insurance
  • These leveled the playing field
  • A complex shift in philosophy
  • But the key aspect of new liberalism was that it gave as much emphasis to equality as it did individual freedom
  • For this reason, it envisioned an activist state intervening to ensure that all citizens had access to basic social benefits
  • Today most developed countries are liberal democracies
  • When we think about liberalism now, we typically think of modern liberalism
  • This ideology is not the same thing as classic liberalism, which was deeply suspicious of power, and advocated a limited role of government
  • For example, Classic liberals believe problems best dealt with through charitable organizations
  • Modern liberals: rely on government to provide these services
  • Classic liberals: free markets
  • Government should not tell people what to build or produce
  • Modern liberals: history shows that leaving things to free markets can lead to profound economic crises at times
  • Classic liberals: toleration a profound principle
  • Don’t intervene in people’s personal affairs
  • Government is supposed to limited, to the minimum to ensure peoples and their property
  • Modern liberalism: government has a role to ensure peoples’ health and well-being
  • For example, the government might restrict smoking, or limit the size of soft-drinks
  • Classical liberals: taxes should be kept to a minimum
  • Modern liberal: taxes can be a useful tool to shape behavior
  • These are just a few concrete examples of the changes between classic and modern liberalism 
  • So there has been a profound change in liberalism since the nineteenth century
  • Deep difference between classical and modern liberalism
  • In many respects, modern conservatism is classical liberalism

Liberalism in IR:

  • liberalism is also a powerful strain of thought in IR theory
  • Had deep roots in liberal thinking that went back to the emergence of the modern state, and the thought of John Locke in the seventeenth century
  • These philosophers tended to take a positive view of international relations
  • War was not inevitable
  • They had a hopeful vision of the future
  • The belief in progress was a core liberal belief in IR
  • They believe in the importance of international law, which can limit the horrors of war 
  • Immanual Kant: created the idea of the Perpetual Peace
  • As democracy spreads so will peace, as democracies will not fight each other
  • This is an important idea in modern political science
  • Liberals also emphasize the importance of the individual
  • For this reason they do not focus only on the state in international relations
  • The more connections between individuals that there are, the less likely there is to be war
  • For this reason, it is important to foster trade between different nations
  • It is also important to create entities in international affairs besides the state
  • The EU and NATO are such bodies, that reduce the risk of conflict among their members
  • In the modern world, war is less likely because there are fewer financial incentives for war
  • In short, it is a relatively optimistic vision of international relations, which emphasizes the importance of international law and international relations
  • liberalism became a powerful strain of thought in International Relations after World War One
  • U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was convinced that the war had happened because of a failure of international law and international institutions
  • It was widely believed that these should have prevented the conflict
  • Wilson believed that they had not been sufficiently strong to prevent the war
  • Wilson decided to create the League of Nations to prevent another conflict
  • The failure of the League tarnished Wilson’s legacy
  • But Wilson still a key figure in how liberalism is perceived
  • Glenn Beck is fascinated with Woodrow Wilson, and critiques Wilson in his program
  • Portrays Wilson as a failure
  • Critiques Wilson as a way to attack the United Nations, and international law
  • He views the UN as a threat to US power
  • His attacks on Wilson show the enduring power of liberal thought
  • liberalism remains an important school of thought in IR
  • In essence, very similar to liberalism in politics and economics, in that it has an optimistic vision of the future, and stresses the importance of the law
  • I want to show a brief video that dicusses liberalism in IR
  • Will describe the thought very clearly
  • Theory in Action:


  • We start this course by talking about classical liberalism, because its influence was so fundamental
  • “liberal” is a word that in the US creates a powerful emotional response
  • this makes sense given its power
  • the goal of this lecture has been to describe classical liberalism, which was the key ideology of the nineteenth century
  • this changed profoundly after the Great Depression, with the birth of modern liberalism
  • next class we will discuss neoliberalism, which was essentially a return to classical liberalism
  • a belief that modern liberalism had abandoned its roots
  • key idea: not only one form of liberalism
  • but all forms of liberalism have their roots in the profound forces in early Modern Europe, in particular the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, and the Religious Wars, which led liberals to emphasize toleration


Liberalism shaped the history of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. And yet there are few books written about it. I don’t know why. Why do you think so few academics study liberalism?

What do you think the term liberal means in American politics? What connotations does the term have? Why?

The American revolution was fought on liberal ideals: separation of Church and State; no kings but rather elected representatives, etc. Why do you think that liberalism therefore has a negative economic connotation?

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