Freedom and Tradition: An Introduction to Classical Liberalism and Conservatism

A Course with Professor Thomas Patrick Burke

Fall 2006

Unlike most other countries, which owe their identity to accidents of history, the United States was founded on a definite philosophy. The philosophy reflected in the founding documents and institutions of our nation, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is often called Classical Liberalism — “classical” in order to distinguish it from the very different viewpoint usually called liberalism in the United States today, otherwise known as “modern” liberalism, which has close affinities with socialism.

Classical Liberalism was originally formulated by the English thinker John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson remarked that the political opinions of the American people were best represented in the writings of Locke, but many others have contributed to it, including Adam Smith, the founder of the science of economics. The basic tenets of this philosophy can be summarized in the phrase: a free society with free markets. Among our lecturers this semester it is the general viewpoint espoused especially by Walter Williams and Richard Epstein.

Conservatism, on the other hand, tends to emphasize the value of experience, custom, tradition and virtue in governing society. The great exponent of that philosophy at the time of the American Revolution was Edmund Burke, who condemned the French Revolution as evil and unnecessary, but supported the American one as a true expression of English tradition. As conscious movements, both classical liberalism and conservatism originated largely in England, but have in many respects found their true home in America. Classical liberalism argues for freedom, that we should have the right to do as we please so long as we do not harm others. Conservatism points out that some of the things we can do with that freedom are very much better than others.