Classical liberalism — or simply liberalism, as it was called until around the turn of the century — is the signature political philosophy of Western civilization. Hints and suggestions of the liberal idea can be found in other great cultures. But it was the distinctive society produced in Europe — and in the outposts of Europe, above all, America — that served as the seedbed of liberalism. In turn, that society was decisively shaped by the liberal movement.
Decentralization and the division of power have been the hallmarks of the history of Europe. After the fall of Rome, no empire was ever able to dominate the continent. Instead, Europe, became a complex mosaic of competing nations, principalities, and city-states. The various rulers found themselves in competition with each other. If one of them indulged in predatory taxation or arbitrary confiscations of property, he might well lose his most productive citizens, who could “exit,” together with their capital. The kings also found powerful rivals in ambitious barons and in religious authorities who were backed by an international Church. Parliaments emerged that limited the taxing power of the king, and free cities arose with special charters that put the merchant elite in charge.
By the Middle Ages, many parts of Europe, especially in the west, had developed a culture friendly to property rights and trade. On the philosophical level, the doctrine of natural law — deriving from the Stoic philosophers of Greece and Rome — taught that the natural order was independent of human design and that rulers were subordinate to the eternal laws of justice. Natural-law doctrine was upheld by the Church and promulgated in the great universities, from Oxford and Salamanca to Prague and Krakow.
As the modern age began, rulers started to shake free of age-old customary constraints on their power. Royal absolutism became the main tendency of the time. The kings of Europe raised a novel claim: they declared that they were appointed by God to be the fountainhead of all life and activity in society. Accordingly, they sought to direct religion, culture, politics, and, especially, the economic life of the people. To support their burgeoning bureaucracies and constant wars, the rulers required ever-increasing quantities of taxes, which they tried to squeeze out of their subjects in ways that were contrary to precedent and custom.
The first people to revolt against this system were the Dutch. After a struggle that lasted for decades, they won their independence from Spain and proceeded to set up a unique polity. The United Provinces, as the radically decentralized state was called, had no king and little power at the federal level. Making money was the passion of these busy manufacturers and traders: they had no time for hunting heretics or suppressing new ideas. Thus, de facto religious toleration and a wide-ranging freedom of the press came to prevail. Devoted to industry and trade, the Dutch established a legal system based solidly on the rule of law and the sanctity of property and contract. Taxes were low, and everyone worked. The Dutch “economic miracle” was the wonder of the age. Thoughtful observers throughout Europe noted the Dutch success with great interest.
A society in many ways similar to Holland had developed across the North Sea. In the 17th century, England, too, was threatened by royal absolutism, in the form of the House of Stuart. The response was revolution, civil war, the beheading of one king and the booting out of another. In the course of this tumultuous century, the first movements and thinkers appeared who can be unequivocally identified as liberal.
With the king gone, a group of middle-class radicals emerged called the Levellers. They protested that not even Parliament had any authority to usurp the natural, God-given rights of the people. Religion, they declared, was a matter of individual conscience: it should have no connection with the state. State-granted monopolies were likewise an infringement of natural liberty. A generation later, John Locke, drawing on the tradition of natural law that had been kept alive and elaborated by the Scholastic theologians, set forth a powerful liberal model of man, society, and state. Every man, he held, is innately endowed with certain natural rights. These consist in his fundamental right to what is his property — that is, his life, liberty, and “estates” (or material goods). Government is formed simply the better to preserve the right to property. When, instead of protecting the natural rights of the people, a government makes war upon them, the people may alter or abolish it. The Lockean philosophy continued to exert influence in England for generations to come. In time, its greatest impact would be in the English-speaking colonies in North America.
The society that emerged in England after the victory over absolutism began to score astonishing successes in economic and cultural life. Thinkers from the continent, especially in France, grew interested. Some, like Voltaire and Montesquieu, came to see for themselves. Just as Holland had acted as a model before, now the example of England began to influence foreign philosophers and statesmen. The decentralization that has always marked Europe allowed the English “experiment” to take place and its success to act as a spur to other nations.
In the 18th century, thinkers were discovering a momentous fact about social life: given a situation where men enjoyed their natural rights, society more or less runs itself. In Scotland, a succession of brilliant writers that included David Hume and Adam Smith outlined the theory of the spontaneous evolution of social institutions. They demonstrated how immensely complex and vitally useful institutions — language. morality, the common law, above all, the market — originate and develop not as the product of the designing minds of social engineers, but as the result of the interactions of all the members of society pursuing their individual goals.
In France, economists were coming to similar conclusions. The greatest of them, Turgot, set forth the rationale for the free market:
“The policy to pursue, therefore, is to follow the course of nature, without pretending to direct it For, in order to direct trade and commerce it would be necessary to be able to have knowledge of all of the variations of needs, interests, and human industry in such detail as is physically impossible to obtain even by the most able, active, and circumstantial government. And even if a government did possess such a multitude of detailed knowledge, the result would be to let things go precisely as they do of themselves, by the sole action of the interests of men prompted by free competition.”
The French economists coined a term for the policy of freedom in economic life: they called it laissez-faire. Meanwhile, starting in the early 17th century, colonists coming mainly from England had established a new society on the eastern shores of North America. Under the influence of the ideas the colonists brought with them and the institutions they developed, a unique way of life came into being. There was no aristocracy and very little government of any kind. Instead of aspiring to political power, the colonists worked to carve out a decent existence for themselves and their families.
Fiercely independent, they were equally committed to the peaceful — and profitable — exchange of goods. A complex network of trade sprang up, and by the mid-18th century, the colonists were already more affluent than any other commoners in the world. Self-help was the guiding star in the realm of spiritual values as well. Churches, colleges, lending-libraries, newspapers, lecture-institutes, and cultural societies flourished through the voluntary cooperation of the citizens.
When events led to a war for independence, the prevailing view of society was that it basically ran itself. As Tom Paine declared:
“Formal government makes but a small part of civilized life. It is to the great and fundamental principles of society and civilization — to the unceasing circulation of interest, which passing through its million channels, invigorates the whole mass of civilized man — it is to these, infinitely more than to anything which even the best instituted government can perform that the safety and prosperity of the individual and the whole depend. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. Government is no further necessary than to supply the few cases to which society and civilization are not conveniently competent.”
In time, the new society formed on the philosophy of natural rights would serve as an even more luminous exemplar of liberalism to the world than had Holland and England before it.
This is the first part of a three-part series. The series is dedicated to the memory of Roy A. Childs, Jr.