An Introduction to Classical Liberalism

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke

Six Wednesdays, Sept. 23 to Oct. 28, 2009

True or “classical” liberalism is the philosophy of the free society with free markets. This is what the word “liberalism” originally meant in the nineteenth century when it was coined, and what it still means today everywhere outside of the United States. In that century liberalism was a world-wide movement that stood for constitutional or limited government as opposed to the then prevailing rule of absolute monarchs, for free trade as opposed to the nationalistic and protectionist scheme of “mercantilism,” for the freedom of religion, opinion and scientific investigation, and in general for restriction on the use of coercion to cases where it was truly necessary, namely for the prevention or punishment of unjust coercion.

This was the philosophy the United States was founded on. It was formulated largely by John Locke, whose writings, especially the second of his Two Treatises of Government, were widely read in the North American colonies. The latter document was used, in parts even word for word, in the composition of the Declaration of Independence.  The philosophy of true or genuine liberalism lies at the basis of the Constitution. It is expressed plainly in the Bill of Rights. It was further developed by Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.  During the second half of the nineteenth century true liberalism with its doctrine of free trade became generally the reigning philosophy of the Western nations, both in governmental policy and among the more educated classes, until the First World War.  The philosophy was so closely identified with European civilization that the War, the first great general failure of that civilization, was falsely regarded as also the failure of liberalism.  By 1920 liberalism had lost its prestige and the hunt was on for a replacement. That turned out to be, in many countries, socialism; in the United States, the substitute was mainly the “progressive” movement, reflected in the philosophy of John Dewey and the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  FDR, however, decided to use the term “liberal” for his own viewpoint, which emphasized the role of government in solving economic problems, a very different meaning indeed, because it was still familiar to Americans. Thus true liberals in the United States felt compelled to find another way to speak of their philosophy, which became “classical” liberalism, but only in this country.   The Cato Institute, which undoubtedly belongs to this tradition, has decided to call it “market liberalism.”

Authors who represent this viewpoint include Immanuel Kant, Antonio Rosmini, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick and James Buchanan.