Classical Liberalism: Its Proud Past And Positive Prospects

Election years are depressing experiences for friends of freedom. The campaign stump, invariably, brings out even more of the worst in mainstream politicians who make their living by making promises they cannot keep through spending other people’s money. The 2016 presidential election cycle has only magnified this pattern.

Both the Democrat and Republican Party presidential candidates represent variations on the same theme of more government spending, greater intrusion into people’s personal lives, and increased political concentration of power and control over economic and social life. The only real difference in this year’s presidential election compared to previous ones is the degree of the repugnant unattractiveness of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The world, therefore, is going to hell in a handbasket, and those friends of freedom have nothing to cheer about or look forward to. Such pessimism is easily understood, but is really misplaced. If a wider lens is placed on the human condition, there are sufficient reasons for greater optimism than a single election year appears to suggest.

Classical Liberalism: Its Proud Past And Positive Prospects
Photo by johnhain (Pixabay)

Liberalism: True and False

It is only in America that “liberalism” was turned into its opposite of diminished personal, social and economic liberty in the face of growing government control.By a wider lens I mean to think not in terms of the last decade or two, but, instead, in terms of the last two or three hundred years. The most transformative philosophical and ideological force over this longer period of time has been political and economic liberalism.

I do not mean what passes for “liberalism” in modern-day America. For a good part of the last one hundred years those who really are proponents of various forms of “democratic” socialism, interventionism, and welfare statism have twisted the meaning of liberalism.

The liberalism of which I speak is a political and economic philosophy of individualism, free market capitalism, free trade, free human association, and a body of law meant to secure and protect the rights of each and every individual to his life, liberty and honestly acquired property.

This is what liberalism meant throughout most of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, and still generally continues to mean in parts of Europe today. It is only in America that “liberalism” was turned into its opposite of diminished personal, social and economic liberty in the face of growing government control, regulation and planning over everyday human life.

Classical Liberalism and the Improved Human Condition

Let’s look at some general economic data comparing two or three hundred years ago with today.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries life expectancy for most of humanity was in the 20s or 30s. Today, especially in the West and now for a growing number of parts of the world, people can easily expect to live into their 70s and 80s.

In the 1600s and 1700s, infant mortality rates in Great Britain were such that near 20 percent of all newborn children died before their first birthday. Out of every 100 live births, 60 percent, on average, would die before their sixteenth birthday! Today in the United Kingdom, the infant mortality rate is 4.2 out of 1,000 live births.

In no Western developed country in the early twenty-first century is the infant mortality rate above 7 percent out of every 1,000 live births. (In the U.S. the infant mortality rate is 6.5 percent.) Even in the most poverty stricken developing country, nowadays, very few places have anything near an infant mortality rate of 10 percent or above out of 1,000 live births.

Standards of living have equally improved over the last two hundred years.  In 1820, global per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $605 (in 1990 U.S. dollars measured at purchasing power parities). In 2010, worldwide per capita GDP had increased to $7,890. In 1820s Great Britain it was $2,074, while in 2010 it had grown to $23,777. For the United States, 1820 per capita GDP measured at $1,361, compared to $30,491 in 2010.

In 1850s, Japan per capita GDP stood at $681, and in 2010 it was $21,935. In 1820, Argentina’s per capita GDP was only $998; by 2010, it has risen to $10,256.

Individualism and Human Betterment

None of this happened by chance, or fortunate good weather, or due to the micro-managing wisdom of politicians or bureaucrats. It happened because of a radical change in the guiding ideas influencing people’s attitudes and views concerning man, society and government. Most recently, economic historian Deidra McCloskey has summarized the transformative impact of what she calls the bourgeois revolution in virtues, dignity and equality in her massive three-volume work on this theme.

In less than a century and a half, liberalism freed men and women from legal human bondage. Behind it all was a shift in political and economic thinking toward a radical individualism that challenged the collectivist beliefs and policies of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Every individual possessed certain inherent and unalienable “natural rights” that neither private person nor political authority could morally abridge or abrogate. Men of good will, reasoning together, could see the rightness and reasonableness of every human being’s right to his own life, liberty and peacefully acquired property.

This set loose, as McCloskey and others have emphasized, the economic revolution of personal liberty and free markets that served as the avenue and incentives to begin the rise from poverty of growing portions of the human race, as the data above suggests. If these trends were to continue they may very well mean the actual end to abject poverty, worldwide, before the end of the twenty-first century.

Classical Liberalism and Transformative Social Change

We should not forget how revolutionary transformative this political and economic philosophy was, what we now call the principles and policies of classical liberalism.

First of all, it brought about the crusade for the end to human slavery, a social institution that has existed throughout all of the thousands of years of human history. In less than a century and a half, liberalism freed men and women from legal human bondage. If nothing else, this would enduringly be classical liberalism’s most cherished badge of honor.

But classical liberalism did far more. It campaigned and achieved the end to cruel and unusual punishments; it fought for the rule of law with an unbiased equality of civil liberties for all; it tamed arbitrary and arrogant monarchical power through the fight for constitutional restraints and representative government; it abolished or radically reduced government regulations, controls and planning over the economic affairs of the citizenry, including the triumph of freedom of trade and the near freedom of movement of people worldwide. And it argued for limits on the methods and impact of war on both combatants and civilians alike through international agreements on the rules of war.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, friends of human freedom could look back at the hundred years that has passed and be amazed and proud of what the liberal crusade for liberty has succeeded in achieving.

Collectivism’s Counter-Revolution Against Freedom

Unfortunately, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century an intellectual and ideology counter-revolution arose that argued for a return to collectivism and

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