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Classical and Modern Liberalism


One frequently hears that liberalism’s commitments to liberty and equality contradict each other.

Which liberalism are you talking about, people want to know, the “classical” form of the “modern” one?

Classical liberalism, in this rendition, is all about respecting private property. Allowing individuals to pursue what they determine to be in their own self-interest. All without the coercive hand of government interfering in their decisions.


Adam Smith


Adam Smith, the Scottish moralist who published The Wealth of Nations in the same year that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, is the philosopher par excellence of classical liberalism.

Were he alive today, many of his followers insist, he would be a champion of Thatcher or Reagan. Most people call these leaders conservatives, but they are better described as libertarians, or advocates of the free-market.

Libertarians, to rely upon a distinction associated with the twentieth-century British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, are advocates of ‘negative’ liberty.


Negative Liberty


The key principles are that freedom consists in the fact that no one can tell me what to do. When I am free to make my own decisions, my success is due to my own efforts. My failures are also my own responsibility.

For those who think this way Classical liberalism is worlds apart from liberalism in the twentieth century. This is because it because it puts freedom first, whereas today equality is more important.


Positive Liberty


Modern liberalism promises equality through what Berlin calls a ‘positive’ conception of liberty. It is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone. I must also have the capacity to realise the goals that I choose for myself.

If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals accept the need for state intervention into the economy. This is to give large numbers of people the control that free market capitalism gives only to the few.

Positive conceptions of liberty hold that human beings ought not to be reduced to their passions or even their interests. They live for some higher purpose than getting and spending. They ought to be able to realise those ideals in the here-and-now through their own collective efforts.


Small differences


Classical and Modern liberalism are not nearly as distinct as those who insist on dividing them maintain. Their aims are in fact both the same. Their disagreements are over the means by which large numbers of individuals can achieve control over their lives, not whether they should.

The requirement of more or less of one kind of liberalism depends on the needs of the time.

Smith was arguing in the eighteenth century. This was a time when the legacies of feudalism fostered dependency that made individuals subservient to their presumed superiors.

He was right to argue that autonomy and equality could both be furthered through the operations of a free market.

Markets provided opportunities for individuals to escape from the ties to which they were bound. They gave them a chance to improve their condition.


Concentrated Capital


In more recent times, the opposite happens. Dependency occurs when people are too poor or too much the objects of discrimination to develop autonomy.

To advocate today what Smith advocated yesterday – a free market unregulated by government – is to foster greater, rather than lesser, dependency. It is also to encourage less, rather than more, equality.

In the contemporary world capitalism is highly organized and concentrated. Removing governments from the market place reduces the freedom of large numbers of people. It stops them becoming entrepreneurs. It stops them setting the terms by which they can live their lives.

Instead it allows firms to reduce their obligations to their employees. Making them more dependent on the vagaries of the market.

At the same time, it increases the gap between the rich and poor. Even if the poor improve their conditions, something they are not always able to do. Then they do so in ways that are unfair compared to the other improvements taking place around them.




Moreover, by ignoring the tendency of employers or other people in authority to prefer people like themselves to those who are different, it sanctions forms or prejudice that keep members of stigmatized groups from reaching their full potential.

You do not give people more control over their lives by reducing their real income; increasing their fears of unemployment; exposing them to greater risk of accident and threatening to take away their health care.

Nor do you do it by lowering how much income they receive relative to societies’ most well off; allowing their talent to be overlooked for purely arbitrary reasons of race and gender and by making them more dependent in their last years.

Liberals recognize that inequality, even if it benefits some people economically; imposes huge costs socially.

Inequality serves the interests of some. Equality is in the interest of all.

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This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Alan Wolfe, particularly his book The Future of Liberalism. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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