Classical Liberalism, Libertarianism, and Individualism

Early liberal theory began with John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill, writes Dr. Dolhenty


I have often been asked to present a brief introduction to Classical Liberalism and how it fits into the philosophical tradition of which I consider myself to be a member, that of Classical Realism. Furthermore, some have questioned me about my use of the term “Moderate Libertarianism” to also describe my political philosophy. And finally, there have been questions raised about my use of the term “Individualism” and how that term is used in Classical Liberalism. I hope this essay satisfies, at least to some extent for now, those who have raised these matters with me.

Classical Liberals and Welfare Liberals

Classical Liberals, like myself, stress such ideas as voluntary association, incentives, and self-interest. We believe that people are bound by their own decisions, agreements, contracts, and so on. Therefore, people may do unpleasant jobs, for instance, because they pay. They may, of course, do things as well for non-financial reasons. It is important to note that we stress that our way of doing things combines a way to get things done with a high degree of individual freedom. We assume that people recognize the rights of others and some uncontracted obligations toward others, as well. Classical Liberalism can be contrasted with Welfare or Modern Liberalism which has an opposing view and is currently the dominant political philosophy in the United States.

Welfare Liberals think that citizens should have far more welfare guarantees; indeed, some have suggested that everyone should have a guaranteed income. For example, two Yale Law School professors, Bruce Ackermann and Ann Alstott, have advocated that every U.S. citizen with a high school diploma should receive a bounty of $80,000 on his or her twenty-first birthday.

Welfare Liberals tend to favor paternalistic actions by government to protect people, and they are less worried about the ethics and practicalities of social engineering by government. They give more weight to social obligations, instead of basic rights, and when they talk about rights and obligations, they have in mind the idea that those who are fortunate have an obligation to serve the community as a whole.

To accomplish their aims, Welfare Liberals are strong proponents of public or state education. They use this as a means of shaping people for the so-called responsibilities and duties of citizenship, much of which could be rightly called “state propaganda.” Classical Liberals, by the way, tend to see something sinister in governments shaping character through education. We are very suspicious about that.

So we can say in a general way that one approach, Classical Liberalism, favors incentives, the shaping of the individual through family upbringing, and participation in the ordinary institutions of a commercial society. The other side, Welfare or Modern Liberals, puts greater weight on socialization to predispose people to specific views and perspectives which favor their agenda.

Welfare Liberalism, by the way, does have a real problem with how to get individuals to do things since there is little incentive to do constructive things if you are given what you need by the government rather than having to work for it yourself. One might note that welfare recipients have little incentive to take really unpleasant jobs.

Classical Liberals emphasize the importance of individual freedoms of various kinds. We see these as moral rights. There is, however, a great deal of room for disputes about the scope and character of these rights, as in government by consent. We do argue about these rights, which can enliven any gathering of Classical Liberals. We do agree, however, that any government that does exist exists to safeguard or protect the individual rights of its citizens, that is, that is the proper role of government even though we realize that some actual governments don’t do that. So we might say that this ought or should be the role of any “legitimate” government.

We also expect that if people’s rights are safeguarded and protected, human interaction will generate well-being or happiness for each individual. This is achieved through voluntary market transactions, voluntary mutual aid and charity and, in very limited ways, possibly through government action. We believe that individuals are the best judges of their own interests and that government should be limited in scope and function by what citizens will consent to and by individual rights. So we tend to favor a self-limiting Democratic Republic with a written constitution that guarantees protection of individual rights against a simple majority rule.

Virtually all Classical Liberals agree with the ideal of the rule of law, rather than the rule of men. And the law should be general in character, publicly available, not retrospective, not arbitrary and capricious, but objective and based on a rational foundation. Government should act only on the basis of the law, and not on mere whim or circumstance. Furthermore, the state should be broadly neutral regarding people’s concerns, such as with religion for example. While we all agree that law and order in any society is important and it is the government’s job to see to this matter through protecting the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is some disagreement among Classical Liberals over the matters of national defense and “public goods” such as mail services and other things that people need but that are not provided or are underprovided by the free market.

Classical Liberals also emphasize private property. In fact, many of the early Classical Liberals fostered the idea that individual rights included primarily the rights to life, liberty, and property. In the U.S. Declaration of Independence the right to property was changed to the right to the pursuit of happiness. I happen to agree with this modification because, in my opinion, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “absolute” rights, whereas, the right to property is not absolute on its face but is derived from the former three and especially the right to the pursuit of happiness, which is a primary right while the right to property is secondary.

By the way, not all Classical Liberals agree with me on this so, as you can see, there are disputes, mostly minor fortunately, among those of us who claim to be Classical Liberals. I see this as positive because it means Classical Liberalism is not simply a dead political philosophy but a living one with many theoretical and practical problems still to be resolved. But the right to property is definitely important to us and your private property should not be interfered with by others, including the state, outside the law. The law should protect justly acquired private property, the only exception being in certain specified emergencies and only then with due process of law.

The Development of Early Liberal Theory

There are three key figures in the development of early Classical Liberalism: John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill. Let me briefly sketch out their main ideas and contributions to the development of early liberal theory.

John Locke was a British philosopher who lived from 1632 to 1704. His political philosophy emphasizes individual rights, mainly the right of one’s person not to be interfered with and the right of justly acquired property. He held that people can acquire rights to unoccupied property that did not require the agreement of government. He argued that the purpose of government is to protect those rights and that we can be justified in rejecting a government that interferes with them. You can see that these ideas influenced the colonists at the time of the American Revolution and continue to influence some of our views even today. By the way, it is interesting to note that Locke, in his First Treatise of Government, also argued that the needy had a “right” to subsistence from the surplus of others — an idea that some have seen as a basis for ideas about welfare entitlements.

Adam Smith was a Scottish economist who lived from 1723 to 1790. He gives an account of people’s rights which is similar to Locke’s, although his view of their foundation is somewhat different. Smith argues that individual rights allow for the development of wealth within commercial society. A legal government based on the recognition of such rights allows for the development of wealth through the division of labor. People’s specialization in different tasks could lead to immense gains in productivity. These activities need coordination, but in a wider society, such coordination could take place spontaneously through economic self-interest. His vision of a liberal society is one in which people’s rights are respected, yet the problems of social coordination and the production of wealth are resolved. In other words, a developed market economy would permit issues of human well-being to take care of themselves. It would not be necessary to maintain government institutions to guarantee a right to subsistence because wealth would be generated automatically. Particular needs of individuals, then, could safely be left to charity.

Now a few remarks about John Stuart Mill. Mill was a British philosopher who lived from 1806 to 1873 and is best known for his defense of individual liberty that one would usually associate with arguments based on rights. He argued for the importance of autonomy and individual self-development. He claimed that if other people tolerated such freedoms, benefits would accrue to the wider society. Mill also argued for toleration of diverse opinions, resting his argument on the idea that knowledge is fallible.

What we might term “modern” Classical Liberalism grew out of the ideas put forth by these three thinkers. But I would argue that none of them provided a good philosophical foundation for Classical Liberalism. First, Locke was a committed Empiricist philosopher. I don’t think Empiricism can provide a solid foundation for his political ideas since Empiricism lacks a rational metaphysics, indeed it tends to deny metaphysics in the first place. Second, Mill was an advocate of Utilitarianism, another philosophical movement which provided little or no metaphysical foundation for its doctrines. Third, Adam Smith appears not to have been particularly concerned with metaphysics at all. My conclusion, therefore, is that no explicit metaphysical foundation was provided by any of these philosophers for the classical liberal ideas they espoused. But I believe a metaphysical foundation is needed.

Why A Metaphysical Foundation is Necessary

It seems to me that ideas, particularly in ethics and political philosophy, have to be grounded on something. They have to have some foundation upon which they are built and which can justify them. Otherwise, it seems we are just plucking them out of thin air or merely making them up for our convenience, or maybe because they simply appeal to us personally. So I think a philosophical foundation to justify and rationalize our ethical and political ideas is necessary. The philosophical foundation in this case would be within metaphysics in general and the philosophy of man or philosophical anthropology in particular. Let me try to explain this in more detail.

The first question we must ask before we get into the matter of moral or political philosophy is: What is man? Or we might ask, What is human nature? This is a metaphysical question, a problem we resolve in that branch of metaphysics which we call philosophy of man, philosophical anthropology, or sometimes philosophical psychology or philosophy of animate nature. These terms are used interchangeably, although philosophy of animate nature is a broader term which includes all of life, not just humankind.

So we need to answer this important question, as I’ve said. What is man or what is human nature in its essential characteristics? I say essential characteristics because we are only concerned with those characteristics which all human beings have in common, that is, those elements which make a human being to be a human being in the first place. It seems to me we cannot determine how a human being ought to act or what ultimate end a human being ought to seek until we first determine what a human being is.

The procedure, I suggest, would be something like this: First, we determine what the nature of a human being is; Second, we determine what the ultimate end of a human being is as far as life on this earth is concerned; Third, we determine what sorts of human acts promote the achievement of this end and which acts tend to prevent us from achieving it; Fourth, what sort of society and political arrangements ought we create or maintain in order to best serve us in achieving the ultimate end which human beings ought to seek. This is an obvious oversimplification but it does, I think, include the main points of the appropriate procedure.

I am a Classical Realist as far as philosophy goes, that is, I am within the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas. Classical Realists argue that man is a “rational” or “reasoning” or “thinking” animal. The nature of a human being is “rational animality.” The “rational” part includes conceptional intelligence, the ability for self-reflection, free will, and other “rational” characteristics which only human beings possess. We also share characteristics with other animals, of course, such as sensation, metabolism, reproduction, and so forth. But it is the “rational” aspect that is important here.

We say, therefore, that man is a rational animal, with the emphasis on “rational.” The next question becomes: What is the ultimate end for this rational being? What is it that this rational being ought to seek? To make a long story short, we argue that the ultimate end, or that which we as rational beings ought to seek, is happiness, by which we mean “a life well lived” or a “successful” human life or, as Aristotle says more specifically, a life “in accordance with virtue.” We would say that this is the only end which can clearly be an end and not a means for human beings. Wealth, pleasure, fame, and so forth, are merely means and not ends. We know this because we can always ask the question, Why do you want wealth, or fame, or whatever?, and we can always get an answer, and usually the answer is “to make us happy” or to achieve happiness. But what happens when you ask someone: Why do you want to be happy, or achieve happiness? It is virtually impossible to come up with an answer at all. Happiness, in other words, seems to be an end in itself, and not a means to anything else.

Anyway, Classical Realists assert that the nature of a human being is summed up in the concept “rational animal,” and the ultimate end or that which they ought to seek is “happiness.” The question is now asked: What ought human beings do to achieve happiness? Or we might ask: What actions should human beings perform and what actions should they avoid in order to achieve happiness? These questions are properly the subject of ethics or moral philosophy. Since we aren’t really dealing with the details of moral philosophy here, I’ll not go into them except to say a few things about human nature, human acts, and human ends as these are important to Classical Liberalism.

If our nature is to be rational and our end is our own happiness, then it seems to follow that we must possess certain “rights” which are necessary to achieve our ultimate end and which spring from human nature itself. The metaphysical ground for these rights, call them human rights or natural rights, is the nature of man himself. The justification for asserting these natural rights is that they are necessary for our full development as human beings and the achievement of our natural end, which is happiness. This is basically why we emphasize the rights to life, liberty, and those things which we need to pursue and achieve happiness, including such things as property, education, self-esteem, and so forth.

Classical Liberalism comes into play at this point. The question is: What sort of social and political arrangements are necessary for the full development of a human being, as regards his nature and his proper end? Each human being is a unique individual. Each human being is a social animal. Each human being is a moral being. Each human being has certain natural or human rights. Each human being needs to exercise these rights in order to achieve his proper end as a human being. What sort of social and political environment is necessary for a human being to become a fully developed success as a human being? That is the key question in applied political philosophy.

In answer to the above question, the Classical Liberal would argue that the proper social and political environment for a human being would be one in which his natural rights are protected, where voluntary transactions are encouraged, where individuals are considered the best judge of their own interests, where human beings are bound by their own decisions, agreements, and contracts, where human beings can grow virtuously and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, and so on. Human beings are best served by social institutions and political arrangements which are in accord with their nature as rational, free, and purposeful beings.

I believe that Classical Liberalism as a social and political theory naturally develops from and can be grounded on Classical Realistic metaphysics, particularly the metaphysics of man or philosophical anthropology as formulated by Classical Realism. Man is what he is, and Classical Liberalism provides the general social and political framework through which man can best achieve his natural end, which is his own happiness or a life well lived.

Moderate Libertarianism

I have described myself at times as a “moderate” Libertarian. I use the modifier “moderate,” by the way, only to distinguish myself from those Libertarians who accept what is called Anarco-Capitalistic Libertarianism. While I am sympathetic to the ideas promoted by the Anarco-Capitalists, I do think that many of their ideas are naive and unrealistic. In a perfect world where everyone, or at least most people, accepted and lived by the principles set out by the Anarco-Capitalists their ideas would not seem so unrealistic.

But this is not a perfect world we live in and I don’t think it ever will be (go ahead and call me a pessimist if you want to). The Anarco-Capitalists are opposed to government in any form and believe that everyone would be better off operating in a totally unregulated, absolutely free society, where private property rights are the basis on which to settle all human differences. I might agree with this as an ideal. Unfortunately, I do not think this ideal can be achieved in the world as it is today. So I do not belong to this “wing” of the Libertarian movement.

Let me speak briefly, however, about Libertarianism in general, that is, what appears to be the basics of Libertarianism, disregarding the various schools or forms of Libertarianism that may exist.

It seems to be clear that Libertarianism developed from Classical Liberalism. Its modern form developed in the United States, where it drew on rights theory, free-market economics, the romantic individualist ideas set out in works such as those of Ayn Rand, for instance, and the American tradition of non-interventionism in foreign policy. The Vietnam War, and resistance to conscription during that time, and the socio-political attitudes arising from the turmoil of the 1960s seem to have resulted in a loose movement that included a variety of different people, conservatives and liberals, who held the common view that people ought to make decisions for themselves and not force their decisions on others.

A division eventually developed between those Libertarians who wanted to get rid of the state or government altogether and those who were uneasy about the state, but thought that it should be severely limited. The former group are called the Anarco-Capitalist Libertarians, while the latter group are called either just Libertarians or, like myself, Moderate Libertarians. There may be, of course, other interpretations of Libertarianism that I don’t know about, and they may place another modifier in front of the term “Libertarian.” Also, I don’t think there are significant foundational differences between Moderate Libertarians and Classical Liberals, although disagreements between the two may arise when it comes to some specific practical policies such as defense, capital punishment, law and order, and so forth, and the role of a government in these matters.

Libertarianism links Adam Smith’s ideas about markets and coordination and John Locke’s ideas about human rights. In a market setting, individual interaction is consensual, voluntary, and motivated by gain. For this to take place, the participants need a moral and legal framework and this is provided by Locke’s ideas about moral rights. Voluntary transactions in markets and elsewhere are to be contrasted with coercion, which Libertarians associate with the state. Generally speaking, Libertarians prefer that the private sector develop codes of conduct and regulations regarding the marketplace of goods and ideas.

So, as a Classical Liberal and a Moderate Libertarian, I am wary of the state, although I accept that under current conditions some form of limited government appears necessary. Originally, our Founding Fathers did a pretty good job of getting it right: a declaration of natural rights, a written constitution, separation of powers, a federal system, limited regulation of public and private life, and so forth. Of course, a few mistakes were made but most of these have been rectified. Today I think that among the biggest problems we have are the unnecessary intrusion of the state into the marketplace, a growing threat by the state against our natural and civil rights, excessive taxation, and state invasion of our private lives.

The Place of Individualism in Classical Liberalism

Individualism is a concept that can have different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. When I was in college there was a group of us who considered ourselves Individualists in a social and political sense. We belonged to an organization called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists and were promoting natural rights, political freedom, and a free-market economy. We did not use the term “Classical Liberal” then, but that is what we essentially were. Now I look at Individualism in a more specific way and consider the concept to be part of an overall Classical Liberal social and political philosophy.

From the standpoint of Classical Realistic metaphysics, and as Aristotle noted, the Individual is the primary reality and has the first claim to recognition. Individuals are regarded as independent substances. In moral philosophy the ultimate end of human action is the free self-development of the individual that results in a life well lived or in happiness as conceived by Aristotle. Society exists for the sake of the individual. The highest purpose of the state, if there is to be a state, consists in aiding individuals to achieve their own happiness. The result of this understanding of moral philosophy is that each individual, each human being, is supremely important. Each individual is an end in himself or herself and should regard his or her own success in life as of supreme importance.

The above concept of Individualism fits in perfectly with Classical Liberalism. Every person is sovereign in a social and political context. The citizen in a Classical Liberal society is recognized as having a moral nature with personal authority over his or her own life. No state or government may deny individuals their natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their own happiness. The state exists for the sake of the individual and not the individual for the sake of the state.

In concluding this short account of Individualism, I would like to address two issues about which some may be concerned: (1) the place of the individual in relation to a social group, and (2) the matters of benevolence, charity, and sympathy.

There are some who claim to be Individualists and think, therefore, that this prevents them from social or community participation. Critics of Individualism often point out that this is a defect in the Individualistic philosophy. It is true that some think Individualism means something like “rugged” individualism or they interpret Individualism in an extreme form whereby a “true” Individualist must always be totally “independent” and never be “part” of a group. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Remember, human beings are social animals. We are necessarily born into a community — a family of some type — and for the first years of our life are hardly in a state of self-sufficiency. We learn our language from the society around us. We receive our early education within a social context. And we cannot ignore the fact that our self-development as a fully-formed human being occurs within a social framework of some type. The better the social framework, the better the self-development. So this concept of so-called “rugged” individualism is really a myth. The genuine Individualist has no problem with voluntarily participating in social groups. Classical Liberals do get together and socialize. Libertarians have many organizations and, indeed, even a political party. Individualists do cooperate with one another to achieve common goals.

Individualism does not mean that one isolates oneself from society, communities, associations, organizations, and so forth. In fact, Individualists need to join together and work together if the political philosophies of Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism are to be promoted.

Finally, in regard to the matters of benevolence and sympathy. Basically, what I mean by these terms is doing good for others, helping others, and feeling for others. This includes what we call “charity” towards others and also the institutions which promote this type of cause. Sometimes those new to an Individualist philosophy get the idea that benevolence toward others is to be avoided and never, never show sympathy for another person. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

The distinction which is necessary regarding this issue is the difference between forced or coercive “benevolence” or “required” sympathy, and voluntary and free acts of benevolence and sympathy. There is really no such thing as “forced” benevolence. Acts of benevolence, acts of charity, and expressions of sympathy must be voluntary and freely given, by their very definition. State welfare programs are not acts of benevolence or charity. Redistributing the wealth of a nation through forced taxation is neither benevolent nor an act of charity.

Individualists should not be hesitant about voluntarily working together in social associations. And they should not be hesitant about performing acts of benevolence or charity, or expressing concerns of sympathy toward others whom they value as human beings. So let’s put an end to this nonsense that somehow Individualists are callous people who do not care for others and will not participate with one another in programs to better the community in which they live and work.

What I have written in this brief essay hardly does justice to either Classical Liberalism or Libertarianism. I just hope I have developed an interest on your part to pursue a further study of these topics.

jon-dolhentyDr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.