115. What is Classical Liberalism?

Over the last several decades, the word “liberalism” has lost its meaning. In fact, it’s often associated with progressives. But before the term got hijacked, what did it really mean? Today, Connor and Brittany explain what “classical liberalism” means.

Definitions:

  • Classical Liberalism: Classical liberals believe in individual liberty, a small government, and believe that people will be ruled mostly by natural law.

Links:

Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
 
Connor: Hey, Brittany.
 
Brittany: Hey, Connor.
 
Connor: Hey, you know, on past episodes we’ve talked about a lot of different isms. We’ve talked about socialism, we’ve talked about, you know, capitalism, and these, isms kind of relate to a set of beliefs, what someone thinks about, you know, the government and politics and individual rights. And one that I wanna talk about on today’s episode is classical liberalism. And we’ve used this term sometimes on past episodes, I think maybe we defined it here or there, but it deserves its own episode because it’s a very important term, and it’s one that is very confusing to a lot of people because liberalism, or calling someone a liberal today, that means something very different than it used to. If I call someone a liberal, you know, if I’m like a conservative or a libertarian, and if I say you’re a liberal, or that person’s a liberal, that’s meant to kind of be an insult in a way, it’s meant to say that. Like they believe in big government and they wanna raise my taxes, and they don’t believe in freedom. And, so that’s what people today understand to be liberal. But it’s kind of a term that has been hijacked or abused because, liberal in the tradition of, you know, FA Hayek, who we’ve talked about, or Ludwig Von Mises or certainly even the founding fathers, they consider themselves or would have considered themselves liberals, because of the root of the word liberty. And so the kind of progressives or people on the quote-unquote left who believe in bigger government and government action, and, you know, doing thing like making taxpayers fund these big projects and big government, right? Those people see themselves as, liberals now. And it’s kind of 180 degrees different, hence the term classical liberal, to distinguish in a way from this kind of neoliberal or new liberal, modern liberal. So, before we, move further, I, wanna unpack this with you a bit. Britney, what are some of your thoughts on this term?
Brittany: Yeah, well, I was really lucky because in college I took every constitutional law and history class they offered. And the professor who taught it, professor Griffin, who is amazing, in fact, he founded, I think it’s the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, where I went to school. So I highly recommend checking him out. But the first day of class, he kind of set out these definitions for us, and he let us know the difference between classical liberalism and liberalism. And I don’t even know if he would consider himself, you know, a libertarian. He would probably consider himself more of a constitutionalist. But he was very, very set on making sure that his students understood the difference because like you said, it’s been hijacked so much and our country was founded on what I like to call, you know, the real liberalism, which is individual liberty property rights, the belief that people can self-govern. In fact, it is, like you mentioned, it’s probably closest today would just be defined as libertarianism. And I think that that probably had to happen just so we could differentiate from like you said, quote-unquote left. But according to the Institute for Humane Studies, which is another great organization, classical liberalism centers on these issues, and I’m gonna give a whole list here, but these are very important. So human dignity, individual freedom, voluntary action, justice toleration, freedom of expression, rule of law, civil society, spontaneous order, which we’ve talked about, intellectual humility, economic freedom, and peaceful solutions. And I love that last one because as, Leonard Reed said, who was the original founder of FEE, who we’ve talked to many people from FEE, you know, he said, anything peaceful, as long as we do anything peaceful, we can have a true liberal society.

Connor: Yeah. The importance of that, that last one, peaceful solutions is critical because as you were reading that list of terms, you know, individual freedom, justice, you know, pluralism, freedom of expression, civil society, today’s liberals, modern liberals would kind of claim for themselves all of those things. Well, yeah, we believe in justice and we believe in human dignity. That’s why we need, you know, $2,000 checks from the government. And that’s why we need socialism because they’re poor people who don’t have dignity because they don’t have all the same gadgets and gizmos and, you know, middle-class things as everyone else. And so they see themselves as championing you know, liberty for the oppressed or justice for the downtrodden. However, there are a few terms that you read, especially that peaceful solutions or voluntary action was another one that you said that totally violates, or rather that the, you know, they totally violate those terms because for the modern liberal, the progressive or left, leaning person, they do not believe in peaceful solutions. They believe in government action, which is inherently, coercive. And what that means is by definition, when you want to do something through the government, when you want to make someone, support your program or participate or do something that you want, the government has to force them to, or at least threaten, you know, coercion, threaten violence. If you, if you know we’re gonna pass this law, making you support this thing, or do you know, you have to do this thing, and if you don’t, you could, you know, go to jail or have your business closed, etcetera. And that is the key difference. A classical liberal, a true liberal who believes in liberty, believes in, you know, peaceful solutions of voluntary action. People should be free to choose, to participate, or not participate. And we should not be coercing people. People. And so you’ve had people in the past like Ludwig Van Mises, who literally wrote a book called Liberalism where he tried to kind of clarify these differences, or, you know, Ron Paul and you mentioned Fee and the Mei Institute and all these people who are carrying on these traditions, today. And there’s this important quote from Mises that I wanna read, and then we will unpack it a little bit. So bear with me as we read this and then we can explain it. He said the greatness of the period, the period of time between Napoleon’s Wars and the First World War consisted in the fact that the social ideal, the idea for society, the social ideal, after the realization of which the most eminent men were striving, that the most important people were pursuing this social ideal, he’s sang, was free trade in a peaceful world of Free nations. It was an age of unprecedented improvement. So a lot of improvement in the standard of living, for a rapidly increasing population. It was the age of liberalism. So what he’s saying is, you had this long period of time, decades passing where people were pursuing peace and free trade cooperation, right? Tolerance, working together, pursuing their own desires. and then he said the standard of living and what that means is, you know, the comforts and the.

Brittany: Like the quality, maybe like our quality of life. yeah.

Connor: Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it. The quality of life rapidly increased for society. And this was liberalism, this was tolerance, this was productivity. and so it’s very important to point out, like, yes, we can look back at the past few decades with technology especially, and wow, the standard of living, the quality of life has greatly increased. But the past few decades, and in fact the past century has been one war after another. It has been big government programs all over the place, heavy taxation. And so, it’s kind of odd in a way where there’s still been a lot of progress. But then I think Brittany if we had true liberalism today, I if we had an ongoing age of liberalism and all the technological innovation, how much further would we be? How many more people would be in the world because they wouldn’t have died in war. How, many more people would have a better standard of living because, you know, they wouldn’t have socialism that was taxing them and, disincentivizing them or rather creating an incentive for them to not work hard and not be entrepreneurial, cuz oh, I’ll just live off of the government, you know, checks. How much better could the world be if we truly had liberalism today?

Brittany: Well, you know, what’s funny about that is I think what we call liberals today, which I hate to say the left, because the left means so many things today, as you know, you have the extreme Antifa and then you have regular old Democrats. Like I would, I would call Joe Biden just kind of a regular old Democrat. But, I don’t think this changing of the term was a accident. This was very intentional because classical liberals, especially after Mises wrote, you know, human action Hayek was coming on the scene with Road to serfdom, classical liberalism was becoming very popular. Yeah. And so, you know, the left had to do something to take it back. So by the 1960s, the word had been completely just stolen, uh, by the people on the left. And Mises was so worried about this that liberalism was almost not even called liberalism. He decided to call it the yeah, the free and prosperous Commonwealth. But then, and, I always say Sassy Mises, that’s like my favorite hashtag he decided last minute, he’s like, you know what, I’m not gonna do this. I’m not gonna give in to what everyone else is saying because liberalism is what it means. We have the right definition. And so he called his book Liberalism and he said this, about it, the usage is imperative, which means very important. And he wrote this in 1966 because there is simply no other term available to us that signifies or shows the great political and intellectual movement that substituted free enterprise. So, you know, the free market and the market economy for the pre-capitalist methods of production. So think like Road to Serfdown, we’ve talked about this. So before the market really took over, and then he says, constitutional representative government for the absolute is of kings, or oligarch like, can’t always say this word, Oligarchies, and freedom of all individuals from slavery, serfdom, and other forms of bondage. So basically liberalism, true classical liberalism took us away from this serfdom which we talked about before these, this terrible almost uncivilized world. And it brought us into the world we have now, which you said Connor is, I mean, look at what we have. Look at the technology we have for as bad as 2020 and 2021 might be. We have so much.

Connor: I think that’s exactly right. And, I’m with you that I think this was intentional in, many ways, you know, this change of the term liberalism happened kind of around the Great Depression. You know, people started blaming capitalism and the free market for the crash of the economy. We’ve talked about the Great Depression on a previous episode, and you had FDR come in and say, oh, it’s all Hoover’s fault, and this kind of laid-back approach, we need more government, bigger government. And so, you know, some liberals, wanted to distance themselves, from all of this. They decided to kind of change the meaning and started, using the government in a way to make the world a better place. But one of my favorite quotes from Ronald Reagan is when he said the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m from the government and I’m here to help. And it’s funny, just, you know, a few months back when Congress was debating how much money to send people for their kind of, COVID-19 stimulus, is it gonna be, you know, 600, is it gonna be 2000? And one of the senators from my state of Utah who ran for, president some years ago, Mitt Romney, he got up in a press conference and he said, almost verbatim, which means word for word almost verbatim. He said, you know, we here in Congress, we’re here to help. And, I posted on Twitter somewhere, I’m like, wait a minute. I thought the most, you know, nine most terrifying words were, I’m from the government and I’m here to help. We should recognize that when the government is trying to help us, here’s money, here’s free money, here’s things to help. That is when we are going to have problems, that is when they’re going to be unintended consequences. And the liberal today, the kind of neoliberal or progressive or leftist or whatever you want to call it, they don’t focus on those unintended consequences. They just say, oh, there’s a problem. Okay, what’s government gonna do about it? And I feel like the classical liberal or libertarian or free market person, part of being a liberal is trying to always think, what is the impact gonna be on the individual? Is this fair? Is this right? or is this going to be unfair for certain people? If we’re paying everyone 2000, well, where’s that money gonna come from? Are our grandchildren gonna pay for it? And it’s the true liberal who thinks about the impact on the liberty of every individual involved.

Brittany: It reminds me of the saying, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Right? This might sound like we’re getting free money right now, but again, we’re actually paying for it in taxes, So it’s, not anything like it sounds like, but liberalism, true liberalism is about a belief in people, right? The belief that people are capable of self-governing when they’re given their, what I believe are God-given rights to life, liberty, and property, and to differentiate what Mises and other great thinkers call liberalism. You know, the name was changed to classical liberalism to make sure the public understood the difference. And there’s been a lot of calls from a lot of people in this freedom space to take the word back, you know, let’s redefine, you know, the word that we created, but it’s so ingrained in our society now is meaning something entirely different. That as much as I would love to take the word back, it seems like it’s kind of too late. Like, we’ve crossed a road we can’t go back to. And so, you know, classical liberalism is what we’ve started calling what used to just be liberalism.

Connor: as we end here, I wanna point out that it’s important, uh, to note that words do kind of change a meaning over time because of things like this. When people start using a term in a way, that it never was before, and then other people kind of adopt that same meaning, they start to almost redefine the word this happens with many different words. And it certainly has happened with, liberal, I would argue it’s also happened with libertarian in a way. Yep. a lot of people understand a libertarian, to be something different than, I believe it is to the point where I kind of like don’t using the term libertarian because

Brittany: I agree.

Connor: when I use it, the other person I’m speaking with immediately has this idea in their mind of what I stand for, what I believe. And they might think, oh, you support abortion, or, oh, you just wanna legalize drugs and get, you know, people get heroin at the 7-Eleven on the corner, like, what are you talking about? Like, not at all. And so choosing our words very carefully is important. I actually call myself a voluntaries, and so we’ll probably do an episode here in the future about Voluntaryism, to talk a little bit about what that is. We got a little taste of it in the Tuttletwins and the faith of the future. In that book, we talked a tiny bit about that concept. And so, it’s very important for us to understand these terms because when people use these terms, they have a specific meaning, and it’s important for us to understand what they are. So liberalism is great, however, today’s liberalism is, means different. And so classical liberalism, it’s worth a Google. It’s worth some study. It’s basically what the founding fathers believed. It’s an important talk topic to do some research on. So we will have a couple links at the show notes page for you guys. If you wanna head to Tuttletwins.com/podcast, go check that out. Thanks as always, for being subscribed. And until next time, Brittany, we’ll talk to you later.

Brittany: Talk to you later.

 

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