The ideas of classic liberalism go back to such figures as John Locke, and later figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, and Thomas Robert Malthus. More modern proponents can be found among small government conservatives such as Rand Paul and Justin Amash as well as Libertarian types such as Ron Paul and John McCafee. In theory it could include small government liberals, but I am not aware of any. Even strict constitutionals would fall into this category as the majority of our founders did. By small government, it is not meant some budget cuts here or there, but in limited role. That is to say that the role of government in private life should be minimized and not increased.
There are three notable characteristics of classical liberalism, but for our purposes, the one that matters is natural law. This is simply the idea that there are certain rights inherent to all humans that can be understood universally by the use of human reason. The most recognizable example of this to most of us is probably the following:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The idea of natural law goes back to Greek philosophers and some, including myself, would say that it is alluded to in the Bible as well. The source of these rights has been debated, for example Kant claimed these rights through reason alone while our own Declaration of Independence claims these rights of the creator (please, let us not digress into is America a Christian nation or not as that is not relevant to this particular discussion), yet the basic belief remains the same and are very long lived. From Seneca the Younger, (4BC -65AD) we find the following:
“It is a mistake to imagine that slavery pervades a man’s whole being; the better part of him is exempt from it: the body indeed is subjected and in the power of a master, but the mind is independent, and indeed is so free and wild, that it cannot be restrained even by this prison of the body, wherein it is confined.”
Similar sentiments would be echoed throughout history to the natural law of the medieval Catholic church, through the protestant reformation, to our Declaration of Independence, Rand Paul who said:
“I grew up in a family that despised not only communism but collectivism, socialism, and any ‘ism’ that deprived the individual of his or her natural rights. ”
Because I am writing the blog I will also include a good one from Lysander Spooner who is a pretty fascinating guy. If you haven’t heard of him. do a bit of research. :
“A man’s natural rights are his own, against the whole world; and any infringement of them is equally a crime; whether committed by one man, or by millions; whether committed by one man, calling himself a robber, or by millions calling themselves a government.”
Outside of these natural rights, there is no moral quality given by society, but rather moral quality is decided by individuals who in turn form voluntary associations. Think churches. Those associations then expressed various moral stances of course, but they were not governmental institutions. Among individuals, you found debates based upon reason, and while there were moral appeals to natural rights, those appeals were then a debate of reason as the inherent morality of the natural rights was widely accepted. Thomas Jefferson for example changed ‘life, liberty, and property’ (John Locke) to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (Declaration of Independence), but the basis behind the idea was the same.
Classical liberals have differed on the role of government in education, public works, the benefits of free trade, etc. The point here is that the classical liberals were not that much different than we are as they argued over many of the same issues we still are, but the difference is that they are not reliant on a subjective moral superiority to debate, sometimes hotly, these issues. If you would like a prime and wonderful example, take John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. From friendship, to antagonism, to reconciliation, they give us a prime example of how this can work, and even work well, if somewhat heated.
Let us take as an example an issue that is also in the news, health care. Many argue that healthcare is a right. They even go so far as to speak of the pursuit of happiness being impossible without healthcare. The reality is that it does not fit our founders understanding of natural rights, so therein lies a conflict. Those who call it a right, using the paradox of tolerance as their guide, declare in a variety of ways that those who do not support a right to healthcare as being intolerant of the poor. This is done because they of course have a moral superiority to defend. Those, like me, who do not see healthcare as a right are then busy trying to explain that it does not mean I do not care, it means that it is not an inherent natural right, and that because of that, the government is under no obligation to provide for it. In fact, the government is not in a position to provide any right, only to protect those rights we already have. This then becomes one of the most distinct differences that exists between classical liberalism in whatever form it takes and those things that have come after, the role of government. While a classical liberal is arguing the role of government from a rational perspective that is based in the fixed belief of natural rights, others are arguing from a place of moral superiority using tolerance, and it’s necessary paradox, as their guide. The disconnect happens of course when reason is denied and shouted down by the moral superiority of the paradox eventually defeating the purpose of tolerance in the first place, which was to be able to argue and discuss rationally. The paradox of tolerance is simply self defeating when one tries to speak from any perspective that is not that which is “morally superior” according to the same said paradox. Reason and the fixed qualities of natural rights that our country was founded upon evaporate in the pressure of a subjective moral superiority driven by public opinion. Is it any wonder we are so splintered?
Next up, the part you have all been waiting for….the end.