link to original reddit post by /u/libertasbella


What is classical liberalism?

And what does it mean to be a classically liberal? 

Classical liberalism refers to the philosophy of individual liberty, property rights, and rule of law that dominated the West from the late 1700s until the mid-1900s.

As history shows, however, words can take new meanings over time. The word liberalism has been in the English lexicon for centuries, but its definition has changed over the course of the 20th century.

In fact, the changes have been so significant that political scientists have to qualify liberalism prior to the twentieth century as classical liberalism. By contrast, they have to refer to its modern variant as liberalism.

Since most people generally understand what liberalism means according to how it is used in America, the classical liberalism definition becomes even more intriguing due to its gradual disuse in everyday speech.

For the sake of preserving classical liberal ideas and the concepts that shape its definition, let’s take a deep dive into the definition of classical liberalism, the philosophy’s history, and how it developed in previous centuries.

What Is a Classical Liberal?

A classical liberal is someone who advocates for private property, economic freedom, the rule of law, free trade, and a republican style of government that protects free speech and freedom of association.

As the late libertarian historian Ralph Raico noted in a piece for American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, “Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism.” Raico continued by observing why classic liberalism must be qualified:

The qualifying ‘classical’ is now usually necessary, in English-speaking countries at least (but not, for instance, in France), because liberalism has come to be associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals.

Due to the embrace of a more activist state, the classic liberals of yesterday would be left scratching their heads at how the classical liberal definition has changed. As is the nature of all political evolutions, which generally see terms and political practices transform form over time.

Classical Liberal Economics

Classical liberal economics tends to be laissez-faire. This characterization holds true when comparing old liberalism to contemporary liberalism.

Although classical liberals do not go as far as libertarians do when it comes to free-market adherence, they still maintain a healthy skepticism towards the government managing economic affairs.

The works of Scottish economist Adam Smith are the fundamental pillars of classical liberal economics and have served as inspirations for libertarianism and anti-state conservatism in subsequent generations

Continue reading Classical Liberalism: A Guide on Its Definition and How It Came to Be on Thought Grenades, the blog on Libertas Bella