George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

The classical liberal, or libertarian, approach to morality and politics brings together related themes that will be both placed in their historical context and woven together more tightly in the coming modules. In this module, the basic ideas of individual and imprescriptible rights, spontaneous order, and the rule of law are presented and examined. Each of these ideas is implicated in the others: the spontaneous order of the free society is built on a foundation of secure individual rights, and law is intimately connected with liberty, for to be free in society is for all to be equally subjected to the same known law, a law that allows us to coordinate our activities with others and thus to create complex forms of social order. The deep roots of these ideas, reaching back into antiquity, give libertarianism a solidity other political philosophies lack.

Libertarianism draws on a multitude of different sciences, or organized bodies of knowledge, including history, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology, and law. Thus, “The Ideas of Liberty” devotes some attention to the status of the human sciences and to the meaning and importance of the principles of intentionality and methodological individualism in properly grounded social science. In addition to laying bare the scientific misunderstandings and equivocations that lie at the foundation of collectivist thinking, “The Ideas of Liberty” explores the relationships of the individual to the group, of action and design to order, of society to the state, of coercion to persuasion, and of “natural law” to “positive law.” The ideas of natural law, natural rights, and “self‐​proprietorship” are traced through history, from the ancient Greeks to modern times, and used to illuminate the proper relationships between persons and between persons and governments. There is also a careful discussion of the relationship between “rights” thinking and “utilitarianism,” which have been alleged by some philosophers to be mortal enemies. The confusion is eliminated by seeing “utility,” or good consequences, as the goal, and rights as the standard against which policies and practice are judged.

Above all, libertarian ideas are seen as emerging from a long history, rather than as springing full blown from the head of this or that particular philosopher. The treatment of the relationship between the “liberty of the ancients” and “the liberty of the moderns” by Benjamin Constant, included in the readings, is a clear statement of classical liberal thinking and a rebuttal to “communitarian” criticisms of liberal individualism.

Readings to Accompany The Audio

From Libertarianism: A Primer: Chapter 1, “The Coming Libertarian Age,” (pp. 1–26); Chapter 2, “The Roots of Libertarianism” (pp. 27–58).

From The Libertarian Reader: Introduction (pp. xi‐​xviii); Benjamin Constant, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns” (pp. 65–70).

Some Problems to Ponder & Discuss

• What is the difference between “a Liberty for every Man to do what he lists” (Robert Filmer) and “a Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Person, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own” (John Locke)? Is liberty the condition of being under no law whatsoever or the condition of being subject only to law that is equally applicable to all, rather than to the arbitrary will of others?

• What role does historical knowledge play in the grounding of libertarian ideas? How does “the lamp of experience” illuminate complex social, political, economic, and legal orders?

• How can a social science based on the intentionality of human action understand establishments that are the “result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (Adam Ferguson)?

• How can “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (Max Weber) be brought under the rule of law? How useful–and how firm–is the distinction between “society” and the “state”?

• Are the “laws of economics,” for example, that price controls tend to cause shortages and queues, part of the “natural law”?

• Could one defend individual liberty without appealing to the idea of “a property in one’s person”?

• How are the statements “I have a right to do X” (an assertion of “subjective right”) and “It is right that I be allowed to do X” (an assertion of “objective right”) connected?

• What does it mean for a right to be “absolute” and “unconditional”? Does this mean that there are no conceivable circumstances under which it would not apply? Or are rights “contextual” and dependent upon certain conditions?

Suggested Additional Reading

From How the West Grew Rich: Introduction, (pp. 3–36).

Charles Murray, What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation (New York: Broadway Books, 1997). This elegant short book sets out the arguments that convinced a distinguished social scientist to adopt the libertarian perspective.

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). This book changed the thinking of countless people who, through its pages, came to understand the intimate relationship between the free market and personal liberty.

George H. Smith, The System of Liberty (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013). This book is arranged around the conflicts within classical liberalism, and shows the libertarian intellectual traditional not as a monolithic single “school,” but as a big tent of ideas with significant overlap.

For Further Study

Norman Barry, On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987). This accessible little book presents an overview of classical liberal thinking, focusing almost entirely on twentieth century thinkers.

F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960). This sometimes rather challenging book synthesizes Hayek’s thinking on the relationships among individual rights, limited government, the rule of law, and the spontaneous order of a free society. The most interesting—and least dated—chapters are in Parts I and II (pp. 1–252) and the challenging postscript, “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” in which Hayek argues for the principles of liberty as a guide to reform of the political order.

Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce, E. K. Bramsted and K. J. Melhuish, eds. (New York: Longman, 1978). This brilliant collection includes both classical liberal writings and essays by some “revisionist” or “modern” liberal writers, such as T. H. Green and John Maynard Keynes.