What the early Classical Liberals fought for

Murray N. Rothbard was an historian and an expert on the American Revolution as well as an economist, political philosopher, and political activist. In his book “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” Rothbard gives us a little history of the Classical Liberals and the beginnings of the radical libertarians of the early American period. In the beginning of the book he wrote the following:

The libertarian creed emerged from the “classical liberal” movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Western world, specifically, from the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. This radical libertarian movement, even though only partially successful in its birthplace, Great Britain, was still able to usher in the Industrial Revolution there by freeing industry and production from the strangling restrictions of State control and urban government-supported guilds. For the classical liberal movement was, throughout the Western world, a mighty libertarian “revolution” against what we might call the Old Order — the ancien régime — which had dominated its subjects for centuries. This regime had, in the early modern period beginning in the sixteenth century, imposed an absolute central State and a king ruling by divine right on top of an older, restrictive web of feudal land monopolies and urban guild controls and restrictions. The result was a Europe stagnating under a crippling web of controls, taxes, and monopoly privileges to produce and sell conferred by central (and local) governments upon their favorite producers. This alliance of the new bureaucratic, war-making central State with privileged merchants — an alliance to be called “mercantilism” by later historians — and with a class of ruling feudal landlords constituted the Old Order against which the new movement of classical liberals and radicals arose and rebelled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Old Order keep the masses poor and almost everything manufactured was destined for the privileged ruling classes and not the common people. Most people were peasants tied to the land on which they were born and, even if not, would hold jobs to which their parent held. Manufacturing, as it existed in this primitive state, could only be done by those holding special privilege to do so. Trade was also a special privilege. The guilds held a tight rein on who was allowed the peddle their wares. Under the guild system each occupation had its own guild. To be in that occupation you had to be a member as employee or as employer. The guild regulated prices, wages, hours of operation, and product quality. By this system competition was stifled since one shop could not undersell another shop. The result was stasis; lack of any progress. The entire society was strangled by restrictions, special privilege, favoritism, crony-ism and crushing poverty for the masses.

It is almost impossible for the modern American to understand the total lack of mobility and action that these people under the Old Order experienced. The most innovative people might see a better way to do something but they were bound by law, rule, and tradition to do what their task just as their parent had done it. Since the ruling class was uninterested in bettering the welfare of the masses in the first place, any improvements were frowned upon — especially if a commoner came up with the idea. But besides that, there was no economic incentive to search for  improvements anyway due to the economic stasis imposed by the guild.

The classical liberals sought to overturn the Old Order and level the playing field for all people to the extent that they could do so. That meant that the State was to be kept extremely small and its tax revenues were to be kept as small as possible. The classical liberals saw that taxes enabled the State and its tyrannies.

The earliest theoreticians of classical liberalism were the Levelers and John Locke during the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. Locke’s philosophy set forth the idea of natural rights for all humans: for the individual. He held that the individual’s rights were in his person and also his property. John Locke believed that the purpose of government was only to defend these rights of each individual.

In the eighteenth century there were radical followers of Locke who wrote hard-hitting essays for the masses as they worked to popularize Locke’s philosophy. The most famous of these attempts that we read about today were called “Cato’s Letters” which were published in newspapers in the American colonies in the early 1700s. A main theme of these “letters” was that there was a history of conflict between Liberty and Power of Government: government always tended toward destruction of any individual rights. So, obviously, the power of government must be severely limited in order to maintain liberty. Not only that, but eternal vigilance must be used by the masses to make sure that the government stayed within its bounds. In the American colonies, the outcome was the radicalization of the colonists which led to the American Revolution and the enactment of the “Articles of Confederation“.

The ultimate outcome in the Western World was the idea of the laissez-faire market. Even though most countries only had a relatively free market rather than total lack of government interference, this freedom set off the industrial revolution. I posted about this in my earlier piece called: “Classical Liberalism and the miracle of the industrial revolution” where I outlined the explosion that is now called the “industrial revolution”. The tremendous expansion in material wealth for the masses and the unbelievable explosion of new inventions were a result of the Classical Liberals and their fight for liberty.

If you want to see peace, prosperity, and liberty then you should fight in whatever way you can to enact the program of the Classical Liberals as a start.

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2 thoughts on “What the early Classical Liberals fought for

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. Pingback: The American “left-wing” is our real enemy | On the Mark

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