What is Classical Liberalism? – with Emily Chamlee-Wright

Ultimately, through peaceful and voluntary engagement, we are able to achieve this tolerant and pluralistic society. 

Introducing the Core Concepts videos: a series that explains the 12 core concepts of classical liberalism, as identified by the Institute for Humane Studies and Big Think. Each video delves into one of the below topics:

  1. Toleration and Pluralism
  2. Freedom of Expression
  3. The Rule of Law
  4. Peaceful Solutions
  5. Human Dignity
  6. Individual Freedom
  1. Voluntary Action
  2. Justice
  3. Civil Society
  4. Intellectual Humility
  5. Economic Freedom
  6. Spontaneous Order

Before beginning each concept, Institute for Humane Studies CEO Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright provides an overview of these theories in the classical liberal tradition.

“[Liberalism] is built around a core set of ideas. Probably the most important of which is the recognition that all human beings inherently possess dignity and should be respected,” Chamlee-Wright says.

The liberal ideal is the good society—a tolerant and pluralistic society. The liberal society is one in which economic and intellectual progress are the norm because of a kind of radical commitment to openness.

– Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright
Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright
IHS President and CEO, Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright

Individual liberty and human dignity, for example, are essential components of liberalism and influence the notion of justice. It’s important, for both individuals and government, to respect the rights of other people in society. This intersection between the key concepts is critical to understanding classical liberal philosophy.

While these ideas are relevant in a contemporary context, they have a long-standing history. By the end of the eighteenth century, scholars like Adam Smith were intentionally thinking and contributing to this canon of philosophy. They were considering the classical liberal plan and what the good society is.

“The liberal ideal is the good society—a tolerant and pluralistic society,” Chamlee-Wright says. The liberal society is one in which economic and intellectual progress are the norm because of a kind of radical commitment to openness.

But what about community? This is one of the common criticisms of the individual as the focal point.

In response, classical liberalism argues that this focus is a way to achieve what is seen as the good society.

Dr. Chamlee-Wright explains: “Theoretically, yes, within a free society, individuals can wall themselves off from the social world. But it’s highly unlikely in part because we are hard-wired, both from our biological evolution and then through our cultural evolution, to want to be part of the social world.”

Civil Society

We learn from our own experiments, we learn from the experiments of others… But what’s critical is that when we choose to associate with some great visionary or sign on to some common cause, we can also choose to disassociate.

– Dr. Emily Chamlee-Wright

This openness and collaboration with others is what attracts us back into community and allows us to innovate. However, rules are necessary as they allow us to cooperate effectively and fairly.

Dr. Chamlee-Wright concludes that liberalism is built on a system of voluntarism. People have to want to engage.

“We learn from our own experiments, we learn from the experiments of others…,” She says. “But what’s critical is that when we choose to associate with some great visionary or sign on to some common cause, we can also choose to disassociate.”

Ultimately, through peaceful and voluntary engagement, we are able to achieve this tolerant and pluralistic society. In our next video, explore what tolerance and pluralism mean in a classical liberal context.

See more posts: Big ThinkCore ConceptsIdeas 

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