Core Classical Liberal Principles and Ideas

At the Institute for Humane Studies, we believe that ideas within the classical liberal intellectual tradition are a driving force of well-being for all people.

The classical liberal tradition has a rich history, drawing upon a variety of ancient and medieval sources, as well as eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century thinkers. It continues to be developed by scholars today. Like all vibrant intellectual traditions, classical liberal thought includes diverse points of view about important questions regarding the nature of society, the individual, and the relationship between the two. With that said, some principles and ideas, like the ones described below, feature prominently in the classical liberal tradition.

We believe that these ideas are particularly important for understanding and supporting the good society—a pluralistic society in which intellectual and economic progress are the norm, and where individuals flourish in a context of openness, voluntary and peaceful cooperation, and mutual respect.

Each of the principles and ideas we describe below has a rich intellectual tradition of its own that continues to develop. These brief descriptions are intended to serve as a starting point—an invitation to inquiry—that we hope will lead to deeper conversations.

Human Dignity is the foundational principle that every person possesses dignity simply by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. This starting point is a defining principle that grounds other core concepts within the classical liberal tradition. Because every human possesses inherent dignity, for example, every person is deserving of freedom and justice. Within the liberal tradition, slavery is considered morally wrong because it denies the person who is enslaved their status as a person. Similarly, cultural norms that consider women to be inferior to men deny women full personhood, and therefore should be challenged by the norms of liberalism. Importantly, the classical liberal commitment to the principle of human dignity means that we are committed to freedom and justice not just for ourselves but for all others as well.

Individual Freedom

Individual Freedom is the default starting point classical liberals favor, as it leads to patterns of widespread human flourishing. Individual freedom is the primary political value within the classical liberal tradition. Other political traditions consider the individual to be subordinate to the collective. Under socialism and nationalism, for example, the individual’s interests are treated as means to the ends of society, the party, or the state. Classical liberals, on the other hand, see individuals not as mere means, but as ends in themselves, deserving respect and the freedom to exercise agency. Individuals may, of course, voluntarily act in ways that put their family, their community, or the broader society ahead of their own interests, but in so doing, they are exercising their individual freedom. Political coercion that puts the collective ahead of the individual is a violation of that freedom.

This is the nature of human energy; individuals generate it and control it. Each person is self-controlling, and therefore responsible for his acts. Every human being, by his nature is free.
– Rose Wilder Lane

Voluntary Action

Voluntary Action is the presumed standard for how we achieve what classical liberals take to be the social ideal: a society of mutual benefit based on peaceful cooperation. Classical liberals favor constitutional constraints on government power, in part, because such constraints broaden the opportunity for individuals to discover cooperative solutions in which all parties are made better off. How much government coercion is justifiable is a topic of serious debate within the classical liberal tradition. There is no single classical liberal view on where exactly these lines should be drawn, but there is broad agreement within the classical liberal tradition that the good society is one that defaults to voluntary interaction as the best way to achieve mutually beneficial ends.

Justice

Justice in the classical liberal tradition is the principle that the individual rights of all must be respected. Justice requires that government respects the rights of the individual. The principle of justice also governs relationships among individuals. By keeping our commitments to one another (either formal contracts or informal promises), telling the truth, owning our mistakes, and taking responsibility for wrongs we have inflicted on others, we act in a manner consistent with justice. More generally, a just society is one that is based on voluntary consent, not coercion.

Toleration and Pluralism are complementary principles that build upon one another toward the good society. At its most basic level, toleration is the principle that so long as someone is not substantively harming others, their behavior, speech, and views should be legally permitted. This variant of toleration is put in service to defend freedoms of speech and expression. Classical liberals also point out that toleration tends to lead to pluralism. Arguments favoring religious toleration, for example, champion the notion that human beings who believe different things and practice different faiths can nonetheless live peacefully and productively side-by-side. The principle of pluralism says that not only will it be “okay” if people of different backgrounds and faiths live side-by-side, it’s a really good thing to have such a society. Pluralistic societies tend to be dynamic and more amenable to positive social change and better able to realize the benefits of the differences among us. For all these reasons, classical liberals favor toleration and pluralism as social and political ideals.

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of Expression, which affords every person the right to voice his or her own opinion, fearlessly and publicly, ensures that no good idea goes unheard and that no bad idea goes unchallenged. Freedom of speech is a core political value in that it ensures the right of the governed to criticize the government, and therefore serves as an essential check on state power. Further, classical liberals argue that the open marketplace of ideas is essential if the boundaries of knowledge are to expand. Conversations among people who disagree with one another are an essential part of what makes that marketplace robust, in the sense that it is in such contexts that errors are revealed and conclusions can be revised. Even the expression of false claims has value in that engaging those claims tends to sharpen one’s own argument. With that said, freedom of expression does not guarantee that discourse will always be productive. Classical liberals recognize that certain cultural norms of conversation and debate, such as the presumption of good faith, respect for reason and evidence, and intellectual humility, are essential companions to speech freedom if conversation is to lead to learning and discovery.

I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.
–Mary Wollstonecraft

Rule of Law

The Rule of Law is the principle that society must be governed by rules that apply, impartially and equally, to all people. The rule of law principle includes “equality before the law,” meaning that all people within a polity are governed by the same rules, regardless of their race, socio-economic class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and so on. The rule of law also serves as a constraint on state power. In contrast to the “rule of men,” in which particular people who hold state power determine when and where specific rules apply and whether and to what extent they are enforced, the rule of law is aimed at ensuring that all people are accountable and subject to the same rules and sanctions. The rule of law principle is an essential ingredient in the recipe for a peaceful society, as a society in which laws are imposed and enforced arbitrarily and unequally is a society that is prone to conflict. If, for example, police impose greater restrictions or treat unfairly a particular group within society, peace is much less likely to prevail in that context. Importantly, the classical liberal defense of the rule of law does not imply that all laws that currently exist are just. In fact, because the rule of law requires equality before the law, it is generally considered a cornerstone of social movements that have overturned discriminatory laws and procedures.

Civil Society

Civil Society is the sphere of voluntary human action that exists between the individual and the state. Classical liberals recognize that the institutions that constitute civil society—such as the families, religious communities, neighborhood and professional associations, and philanthropic communities—are rich in their potential to address a wide range of social problems. Informed by local knowledge born of close-in ties, civil society can be much more effective than government—which is often hampered by bureaucratic and inflexible rules. As government programs expand, they often crowd out the institutions of civil society and their role in discovering solutions. Recognizing this dynamic, classical liberals often champion the concept of “limited government” not as an end in-and-of-itself but as the best means for civil society to flourish.

The search for liberty is simply part of the greater search for a world where respect for the rule of law and human rights is universal—a world free of dictators, terrorists, warmongers and fanatics, where men and women of all nationalities, races, traditions and creeds can coexist in the culture of freedom, where borders give way to bridges that people cross to reach their goals limited only by free will and respect for one another’s rights. 
– Mario Vargas Llosa

Spontaneous Order

Spontaneous Order is the idea that much of the order within society—widespread social coordination—arises not by virtue of human design, not by top-down rational control, but by bottom-up processes of trial, error, learning, and course correction. Since social coordination is so often assumed to be consciously designed, spontaneous order thinking can be counterintuitive. It’s helpful to recognize that most of the conventions that guide our daily lives—like language, family, and moral codes of appropriate behavior—are not designed and imposed from the top-down, but instead have evolved over time through the bottom-up voluntary interaction of individuals. Markets are another example of an order that emerges not by human intention and design, but through an emergent process in which countless market participants pursue their individual plans and purposes. These interactions generate information-rich signals—market prices—that inform and coordinate the disparate plans of countless market participants. The order that emerges may look as though it has been designed by “experts,” but in fact, the market is an order that has emerged despite the fact that no one is consciously guiding the process.

Intellectual Humility

While classical liberals hold in esteem the power of reason, they also recognize the limits of reason. A classical liberal understanding of the market economy, for example, recognizes that the knowledge required for complex social coordination is fundamentally dispersed across billions of market participants. This means that each of us knows only a small slice of the knowledge that is necessary for overall social coordination. This insight reminds classical liberals how little each of us actually knows, and tempers any hubris of thinking we can bend all complex processes to our will. Classical liberal arguments for free speech also develop a respect for a posture of intellectual humility. Those who favor limiting the speech of others are implicitly making the claim that they “know better”—that they should be trusted to do the thinking for others. Classical liberals see and challenge the arrogance inherent in such a position, and are led instead to the default assumption that something can always be learned by engaging with others, even and perhaps especially engaging those with whom we disagree.

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.
– F.A. Hayek

Economic Freedom

Classical liberals tend to favor public policy grounded in the principle of economic freedom over policies grounded in the principle of economic control. History has shown that when people have the freedom to innovate and the incentive to seek out new solutions, and when they possess secure property rights that allow them to realize the benefits of those efforts, patterns of widespread prosperity and human flourishing follow. Entrepreneurial discovery in the context of market prices is, in other words, an ecosystem that generates creative solutions. Government can play a role in supporting this “ecosystem,” by, for example, providing a legal infrastructure to secure property rights and enforce contracts. That said, public policy that inhibits entrepreneurial discovery and restricts people from engaging in mutually beneficial voluntary exchange impedes the process by which improvements in human well-being unfolds.

Peaceful Solutions

Peaceful solutions are key to fostering a society in which individuals go about their daily affairs in a context of voluntary cooperation and in the absence of violence or war. When it comes to international conflict, classical liberals tend to favor non-interventionist policies. First, despite what may be good intentions to punish wrongdoers, such interventions often violate the freedom of individuals who played no part in perpetrating violence. Further, because they have learned the lesson of how little we can design and control when it comes to complex social orders, classical liberals are skeptical of interventionist policies aimed at nation building. This does not mean, however, that classical liberals are isolationist. Instead, when it comes to international engagement, classical liberals favor the free movement of capital and labor, people, goods, services, and ideas across borders, as the best-known recipe for international cooperation and peace.