Review: “The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism”

The term “Liberalism” comes from “Liber,” the Latin root for “Liberty” and “Freedom” (Smith 9). It later became associated with qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and open-mindedness.

Classical liberalism was a humanistic outlook rather than merely a political doctrine. Classical liberals emphasized the need for freedom. Freedom was their “polar star” (Smith 2). They believed that they had the right to “use their bodies, freedom, labor, and justly acquired property” as they desired. In turn, they had to respect the same freedom for others (Smith 2).

George H. Smith wrote that classical liberals believed:

One is truly free when one can act on one’s own judgment in pursuit of one’s own goals, enter into voluntary relationships with other people, and dispose of one’s person and property as one sees fit, so long as one respects the equal freedom of other people to do the same. (7)

Classical liberals, while being guided by the idea of freedom, were not without their biases as well. To some modern critics, these biases have continued to fester within the tradition. Earlier proponents of classical liberalism narrowly defined “freedom” as being exclusive to only white male property owners. Some of these men were even slaveholders who argued for the freedom of every “person.” In later centuries these prejudices were exposed more, sometimes by other liberals, for being racist and sexist (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1–3.3.3).

As classical liberalism developed, its defenders fought for the freedom of individuals in areas such as “commerce, religion, speech, and the press” (Smith 7). Moreover, classical liberals were often opposed to “slavery, military conscription, victimless crime laws, [and] imperialism” (Smith 7) Later on, many activists defending the equal rights of women and children were inspired by classical liberal ideas (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

But in comparison “to the complicated networks of inherited legal ranks and privileges that tended to mark pre-liberal Europe,” classical liberalism was a bold stance to take (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1). It was a challenge to the “principle of absolute sovereignty,” regardless of whether it resided in “the king, the parliament, or the people” (Smith 10).

Some critics, such as the liberal utilitarians, argued that natural rights weren’t absolute. Sometimes it was necessary for the state to override the liberty of individuals for the public good. This justification was often invoked in times of war. Utilitarians believed in the “greatest good for the greatest number.” For philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, the state was potentially a benevolent power, capable of promoting the greatest happiness through its laws (Smith 162).

But if liberty could be overridden in exceptional cases, why was the state justified in overriding it? What rulers were wise enough, or virtuous enough, to decide what rights should be sacrificed for the public good? (Smith 34)

Furthermore, if rights could easily be taken away in favor of some poorly defined ideal of “goodness” or “happiness,” then those in power could use that as a convenient pretext for any policy they wanted. At the same time, legislation based on the “greatest good” could end with unforeseen consequences.

How were the people to decide if their rulers were just or not? Rulers have historically professed their noble intentions. They have claimed to be for the good of the people, even while instituting chattel slavery, destroying indigenous populations, and invading other countries for natural resources.

Rulers have been corrupted by power before. Even those acting from the noblest intentions have made mistakes. And if the system itself was considered to be unjust, then the ruler was the byproduct of the system rather than its primary cause. If the ruler were removed, the same systemic issues would perpetuate themselves.

For many classical liberals, there was no reason to believe the professed intentions of those in power. The people had to judge them based on the pattern of their actions. Over time, rulers revealed their true intentions through the consequences that followed.

Joseph Priestly considered a government to be tyrannical when it had extensive control over the lives of individuals and individuals had little control over their lives. He wrote that people should be free to follow their own judgments as long as they did not violate the rights of others (Smith 39–40).

Lockean liberals believed in the value of social utility, but not at the expense of their inalienable rights. They had to guard themselves against injustice.

The state itself was seen as a “coercive institution” that used force and the threat of force to achieve its goals (Smith 71). From the perspective of the state, it not only had the moral justification to use force, but it could decide on what force was acceptable.

Furthermore, the state was considered the “legal sovereign of a territory” (Smith 81). According to George H. Smith, “‘Legal’ refers to the realm of legitimate coercion. ‘Sovereign’ refers to the ultimate judge or arbiter. ‘Territory’ refers to a geographical area” (81).

If those in power were the only ones to judge the rightness of their actions, if they determined their own legitimacy, they could potentially act in an unjust and arbitrary manner. They could avoid responsibility for their actions based on their powerful position in society.

For natural rights liberals, if a state claimed to have legitimate authority over others, it had to justify itself. Tyrannical governments were institutions that “systematically violated [the] inalienable rights” of the people (Smith 162). For liberals, these rights were the fundamental characteristics of human nature. They gave rise to the conditions required for social cooperation.

Inalienable rights existed separately from the state, not because of it. They weren’t artificially created out of its laws (Smith 162). They couldn’t be given over to anyone, not even by consent. To some liberals, the entire purpose of the state was to protect these rights (Smith 120).

For philosophers in the Lockean tradition, if the state couldn’t justify its moral legitimacy, it had to be resisted. And if it continued to enforce unjust laws, then it needed to be overthrown (Smith 124). Unjust governments stopped being respectable if they undermined their own moral authority. Then they were as good as criminal gangs or pirates. Challenging these governments at every level made them more accountable.

George H. Smith wrote:

Those in government are especially susceptible to the corruption of power, because government is an institutionalized coercion. Ultimately, the only way to check the abuse of power is through active resistance… If the abuse of power is allowed to grow unchecked until it becomes tyrannical, then no remedy will be available except a complete revolution… By resisting unjust laws before the onset of total tyranny, we may be able to reverse the growth of power, thereby avoiding tyranny–and the need for revolution. (126)

For classical liberals, the existence of the state was the “physical embodiment” of the moral argument. If the state couldn’t meet its own standards, then it was immorally exercising its power (Smith 146).

Critics have argued that no state could reasonably meet all these standards. By calling the legitimacy of the state into question, radical liberals were undermining the traditions of their institutions. Rather than adhering to the government, their attacks were leading to the abolishment of it.

The implications of these arguments were dangerous for those in power. If the state was exposed as being illegitimate, then its entire existence was threatened. For critics who claimed that even a flawed state was better than anarchy, these ideas broke down the foundation of their institutions.

Classical liberals argued that the principle behind the government was more important than its form. They believed that any government, regardless of its structure as a monarchy, democracy, and so on, should always “preserve the rights and freedom of individuals” (Smith 176).

At the same time, individuals who chose to live in voluntary association with others were responsible for their actions. Most people were not isolated from the society around them. They, in turn, affected society through their attitudes and behaviors.

For methodological individualists like Georg Simmel, society was “the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction” (Smith 204). It was not a noun, but rather, a dynamic process that was “renewed and realized” through ongoing interactions. Older relationships were established while newer relationships emerged. These social interactions were significant for the people who engaged in them. They were “essential to [the development of] his or her identity” (Smith 206).

By the end of the 19th century, classical liberalism was declining. A new form of liberalism was coming about that justified more state intervention (Smith 213). New liberals shifted their concerns over to the social utility of their reforms. Natural rights were seen as secondary issues or dismissed entirely (Smith 214).

Noam Chomsky said in an interview with Bryan Magee that liberals, such as Homboldt and Mill, lived in a different period than those in the 21st century. They were dealing with a “post-feudal, pre-[modern] capitalist society,” unaware of the immense “divergence [in power]” that would develop later on.

Classical liberals were aware of the disparity in power between the state and the individual. And it was their task to abolish the power of the state when that state threatened their human rights.

But in later centuries, liberalism began to involve the intervention of the state in a capitalist economy. Classical liberals were influenced by figures such as Adam Smith, who argued for the free market system with the assumption that human beings were naturally sympathetic and cooperative. He wanted an “equality of outcome, not opportunity” (Chomsky). Although Smith was skeptical of the government, he did support intervention when it came to “national security, law enforcement, and infrastructure” (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

Reform liberals were in favor of the freedom to be left alone just like classical liberals, except they believed individuals should have the capacity for freedom or the “equal opportunity” to prosper just like those who were wealthy (Millard, Vézina 3.3.2). They wanted the government to take a more active role, such as redistributing wealth through taxation and developing more social programs for the poor (Millard, Vézina 3.3.2).

Classical liberalism coalesced in Britain and from there penetrated into America and Europe, over the 17th and 18th centuries” but it “grew [to the height of its] influence as capitalism and the effects of the Industrial Revolution spread throughout much of Europe and North America and, eventually, beyond. These forces came together to provide colossal technological innovation, urbanization, and the creation of huge amounts of private wealth (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1)

During the 19th century, however,

laissez-faire capitalism and industrialization created immense wealth and technological innovation, but also appalling poverty. Labourers often worked in miserable conditions for long hours and for minimal pay. They were frequently children. Urban slums abounded and were rife with prostitution, disease, and violence. Economic slumps brought little assistance from the state and could leave even hard-working and capable people in desperate straits. (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

These conditions led to social reforms and the strengthening of labor unions. The popularity of alternative philosophies such as socialism and anarchism arose as well. (Millard, Vézina 3.3.1).

Classical liberals were against the concentration of power, but in earlier centuries, they were focused more on the “church and state and feudal system” (Chomsky).

Philosophers such as Humboldt “had no conception of the forms that industrial capitalism would take” (Chomsky). Enlightenment figures were not around to see the concentration of corporate power and its tremendous influence on the state (Millard, Vézina 3.3.2).

According to Nicki Lisa Cole:

Capitalism today is a much different economic system than it was when it debuted in Europe in the 14th century. In fact, the system of capitalism has gone through three distinct epochs, beginning with mercantile, moving on to classical (or competitive), and then evolving into Keynesianism or state capitalism in the 20th century before it would morph once more into the global capitalism we know today.

Nevertheless, classical liberals “stressed the importance of diversity and free creation” among individuals (Chomsky). They believed that liberty was central to their lives and they resisted any institution that violated their inalienable rights.

Work Cited:

Chomsky, Noam. Magee, Bryan. Men of Ideas. The Ideas of Chomsky. BBC Television. 1978.

Chomsky, Noam. Government in the Future. Published at February 16, 1970.

Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. The Three Historic Phases of Capitalism and How They Differ. ThoughtCo. Apr. 5, 2023.

Millard, Gregory. Vézina, Valérie. Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction.

Smith, George. The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. Cambridge University Press. 2013.


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