Review: Classical Liberalism – A Primer

Posted on Wed 09/09/2015 by


20080408_cline-e_crBy Edward Cline ~

I would recommend that Classical Liberalism – A Primer, by Eamonn Butler, be incorporated into the standard curriculum of any university’s political science or economics course, and be made required reading, qua primer, except I know that in today’s educational environment pigs will fly first class on Kuwait Airways before that ever happens. I would even recommend it be used as a textbook in high schools’ “social studies” courses; however, I realize that is unlikely as roses blooming on Mars, as well, as long as public schools remain in the government’s “public” hands. Public schools and universities are in the tenacious grip of anti-American, anti-Western, anti-freedom, anti-freedom of speech faculties of Marxists, collectivists, feminists, enforcers of politically correct thought and language, and the advocates of tolerance for everything but free inquiry.

20150907_ButlerLiberalism001High school students who survive the dumbing-down of their cognitive powers and the corruption of the evidence of their senses by Common Core, and college students who successfully resist, at the risk of their tenure as students, their incessant political indoctrination in academia, may or may not have difficulty reading Butler’s brief introduction to the subject of classical liberalism. It all depends on their commitment to take their “education” seriously and their willingness to escape or combat the poisonous miasma of contemporary educational philosophy. It all depends on whether they’re satisfied with being the passive receptors of the “received wisdom” of Karl Marx and Howard Zinn and the U.S. Department of Education, or have active minds that are not satisfied or content with the zealous but pat explanations offered by their PC professors.

Butler writes that Classical Liberalism – A Primer is “designed for students and lay readers who may understand the general concepts of social, political and economic freedom, but who would like a systematic presentation of its essential elements.”

Butler is director of the Adam Smith Institute in London, and has written a number of books on the Austrian and other pro-freedom schools of economics. In this new title he painlessly and in plain language introduces the reader to the whole panoply of classical liberal thought throughout the centuries.

As a primer, Classical Liberalism introduces the student or lay reader to some fundamental aspects of this school of economics, such as the upholding of the individual over the group, the primacy of individual choice in terms of economic action over a government’s “command economy” policies, and the long-range destructive consequences of state interference in an individual’s life and in a nation’s economy. What classical liberalism isn’t, is conservatism, which bases its advocacy of individual freedom on religious or traditional argumentation. Stephen Davies, in the Foreword, writes of Classical Liberalism:

It is a wonderfully clear and well set out introduction to what classical liberalism is as a system of thought, whence it came, what it is like now and where it might be going. One valuable feature of the book is the way that it brings out the differences and variety within what nevertheless remains a coherent approach to political [and not merely to economic] thinking and questions of public policy.

Davies explains that classical liberalism is:

…is distinct from socialism and other forms of egalitarian collectivism such as social democracy and social or ‘new’ liberalism. It is also not the same as conservatism, being generally more optimistic, more trusting in reason (as opposed to faith or tradition).

My chief reservation about all the classical liberal thinkers cited and discussed by Butler – beginning with John Locke and ending with Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick but excepting Ayn Rand – is that they all based the moral justification of laissez-faire capitalism and freedom on either an explicit or implicit altruistic tenet: that such freedom benefits society, it is for “the greater good,” it is the “greatest good for the greatest number,” and so on. John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson, and their contemporaries can be excused that failing; to have advocated in a largely Christian culture that man exists for his own reasons and for no other, would have clashed violently with the overriding moral atmosphere of their times, and had them excoriated.

But John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer especially among all the thinkers highlighted by Butler are guilty of having characterized freedom as a utilitarian value, not as one that is derived from man’s nature as a volitional being. That failing continues to be indulged up to the present day. The “practical” values of freedom, reason and capitalism can always be denied by socialists, collectivists who seize the moral “high ground” and declaim that these values have outlived their purpose and assert, as Barack Obama has said, “It’s time to try something new.” Which, in his mind, was the expansion of government powers. Hardly “new.”

Butler, intentionally or not, does credit to his book by not challenging the altruist premises of most of his subjects. Still, the moral foundations of classical liberalism, as presented in the book remain woozy and adumbrate, even though such ideas as natural rights, spontaneous orders, toleration, and the rule of law are treated at length.

I would like to have seen Butler agree with Ayn Rand that laissez-faire capitalism is a primarily a political system, and not just an economic one. He could very well have quoted her from Capitalism: The Unknown idea:

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

The recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force. In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use; thus the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.

This means that the social system is a coercion-free one, except in the circumstance of retaliation, and that the state’s role in it is a subsidiary one. A society governed by a laissez-faire morality could be likened to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel or to any other luxury hotel; such places are not defined or known by how many doormen, valets, and maids they employ.

I would recommend Classical Liberalism – A Primer, but with two major caveats, and one minor one.

The first is that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the Prussian philosopher who never left his home town of Königsberg, was not a “classical liberal,” even though Butler includes him among past thinkers who contributed to the literature of liberty. He wrote far, far fewer words about liberty and governments being restrained in their powers than he wrote on philosophy, that is, on the noumenal and phenomenal worlds and the categorical imperative. He wrote that man cannot know the “real” ideal world, and that our senses inherently distort what we think we know. Kant was a dedicated enemy of the Enlightenment, which he saw as a threat to religion. His categorical imperative is the basis for the notion of “duty,” which let loose the horrors of Nazism and Communism (and, separately, Shintoism for the Imperial Japanese government.) “We’ve got to break eggs and heads to achieve the perfect human society, regardless of reason and the lives we sacrifice.”

Religion was what he wanted to save from the onslaught of reason. He appropriated the term “reason” and then proceeded to eviscerate it of all meaning in two brain-stultifying Critiques. So any scrivenings he may have penned are distracting and utterly irrelevant in any discussion of freedom and liberty, and should be dismissed as a very minor footnote in the history of ideas, if even that. Kant’s Critiquesof Pure Reason and of Judgment – are what he is best known for, and through those works Kant has had a profoundly pernicious and deadly influence on the course of philosophy and politics in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

One wouldn’t call Hitler, Mao, Stalin or Mussolini champions of free enterprise and individual rights just because they happen to have once uttered those words at some point in their murderous political careers. Drafting Kant as an ally of classical liberalism is like consulting an Islamic supremacist on how to fight and defeat ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood.

My second reservation regards an exclusion, which is the glaring and inexplicable omission of Ludwig von Mises from Classical Liberalism in terms of a précis or two of his positions on politics and economics. He is mentioned infrequently, and only incidentally and parenthetically (e.g., p. xvi and p. 25, ), as a kind of “also ran” contributor to the corpus of classical liberal literature throughout Butler’s book. His works are not included in the list of “classical texts.” There is no web link listed to the Mises Institute. In the “classical liberal timeline” (p. 125), an early work of Mises’s, Liberalismus, from 1927, is grudgingly mentioned but not explicated.

By omitting von Mises as a “key classical liberal thinker,” and giving him very short shrift as an economist and innovator in the field, Butler does his book a disservice. Snubbing von Mises, possibly because of doctrinal differences between him and other classical liberals, is tantamount to leaving Victor Hugo out of a serious discussion of the major Romantic novelists of the 19th century. When I read of the differences between the Mises camp and the other camps, I can’t help but recall that tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” I do not know the nature of the animus Butler (and, by implication, the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute) has for Mises. It would be interesting to learn what it is.

My minor reservation concerns the designation of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy is partly but erroneously distilled in the book (p. 105), as a “Russian-American novelist and moralist.” Rand regarded herself as an American, exclusively, who escaped Soviet Russia. A better designation might have emulated that of Hannah Arendt, who is called a “German-born political theorist.” Rand retained all her life a heavy Russian accent, but she would have been the first to protest the hyphenation of her nationality. She came from a Jewish family, but she would also have objected to being called a “Jewish-American novelist”: she was an atheist. The précis affiliates her with libertarianism, which she abhorred. She was also a philosopher, and not a mere “moralist.” Her having written extensively on epistemology, metaphysics, concept-building and the development of philosophical thought over time, eminently qualifies Rand as a bona fide philosopher, and not just as a classical liberal groupie. The skewed distillation of her philosophy makes her sound like a champion of holistic mental health. She advocated egoism and selfishness, not “self-actualization,” as the moral foundations of any political and economic system.

To conclude, I would recommend Classical Liberalism – A Primer as a textbook, but only if I were teaching a course on the subject. That way I could be certain that my students would be cautioned concerning my qualified endorsement. And they are important reservations. A likely alternative text would be Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.

Classical Liberalism – A Primer, by Eamonn Butler. London: the Institute of Economic Affairs, 2015. pp. 132.

Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Edward Cline is the author of the Sparrowhawk series of novels set in England and Virginia in the pre-Revolutionary period, of several detective and suspense novels, and three collections of his commentaries and columns, all available on Amazon Books. His essays, book reviews, and other articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Journal of Information Ethics and other publications. He is a frequent contributor to Rule of Reason, Family Security Matters, Capitalism Magazine and other Web publications.

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