“Classical Liberalism” is a Myth

American conservatives are wont to say that the word “liberal” at one time denoted a person who believed in free markets and limited government, and that the word has only recently been twisted to mean a person who believes in free love and big government. This is false, so far as the United States is concerned, and results from conflation of the history of Europe and the United States.

In nineteenth century Europe there were, essentially, three parties: the conservatives, the liberals, and the radicals. Conservatives sought to defend certain aspects of the old order, most especially the political privileges of the aristocracy, the interests of the landed gentry, and the power and revenue of the established church. Liberals attacked these aspects of the old order by demanding political equality, free trade, and disestablishment. Radicals attacked these aspects of the old order and demanded, in addition, economic equality (and in some cases libertine license).

There were no European-style conservatives in the United States because there was no aristocracy, no landed gentry, and no established church. I am aware that the United States had an “aristocracy” and “landlords,” and that for several decades some states had an “established church,” but none of these were remotely comparable to what existed in Europe. Such conservatives as were present at the founding of the United States were called Tories, and they either emigrated to Canada or England, or learned to hold their tongue.

Setting aside a small (but always growing) radical minority, every American was a political and economic liberal. They may have opposed direct election of senators and supported the tariff, but these were concessions to the realities of a fallen world, and not repudiation of core dogmas. Southern slaveholders defended slavery on the liberal grounds of property rights and constitutional law.

And when everyone is, essentially, a political and economic liberal, there is no need for a word to denote a political and economic liberal. Indeed, when radicalism became a real force with the great immigration wave of the late nineteenth century, Americans used the word American to mean liberal. Beginning around 1880, political and economic liberalism was called Americanism.

In the nineteenth-century United States, the word “liberal” was applied to men whose religious opinions were latitudinarian and whose moral opinions were permissive. In the first part of the century, a “liberal” was a man who was not partial to any protestant sect; by the end of the century, a “liberal” was a man who was not partial to Christianity. He was “free” in his opinions, picking what he saw as the best from every creed, and he was “generous” in his goodwill towards men of opposing (if equally generous) opinion. His moral opposite was the “sectarian,” “fundamentalist,” or “absolutist.” He was seldom a libertine, but his morals were not strict and he was censorious mainly of those whose morals were stricter than his own.

American liberals did not fight to abolish the House of Lords, or the Corn Laws, or Bench of Bishops, since that whole world had been swept away by the Revolution. American liberals fought to destroy what they called “orthodoxy,” and later “fundamentalism.” In other words, in the United States the world “liberal” has always been the name of one side in a culture war. There is no time when it meant a disciple of the Manchester School because every American was, more or less, a disciple of the Manchester School.

In the twentieth century, American liberalism cross-pollenated with radicalism and took up a commitment to economic equality. This of course requires big government, as does any policy that goes against nature. (N.B.: The size of government necessarily correlates with the degree to which a society goes against nature.) The lustrations of latitudinarianism and permissiveness also removed what remained of traditional Christian theology and morality. The result is the weird two-headed monster of liberalism as we now know it.

But this is not my concern here. My concern is to argue that, so far as the United States is concerned, there was never a time when the word “liberal” simply meant a proponent of free markets and limited government. This sort of “classical liberalism” was more or less ubiquitous in the United States, so its proponents were simply called American. So far as the United States is concerned, a liberal has always been a culture warrior, and it is simple paltering with history to pretend otherwise. As a culture warrior, the purpose of the American liberal has always been to loosen, or “liberalize,” religious and moral strictures and disciplines.



11 thoughts on ““Classical Liberalism” is a Myth

  1. Pingback: “Classical Liberalism” is a Myth | Neoreactive

  2. This dovetails nicely with the observation that most Western “conservatives” are actually right-liberals, and the “liberals” are left-liberals: both sides are liberal, but to different degrees.

    At View From the Right, Lawrence Auster discussed and employed the difference, but credited Mark Richardson with creation of the terms.

    • Yes. And “liberal” in the U.S. has always meant a religious and moral liberal. The connection with free trade and republicanism is European (and Canadian, South American, etc.).

  3. Pingback: “Classical Liberalism” is a Myth | Reaction Times

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  6. As I have argued, Libertarianism is only a stage of proto-Liberalism. It is perfectly possible to have a people who are very traditional in their orientation, but governed under non-traditional Libertarian law… however such an arrangement is temporary, as over time the absence of traditional institutions and legal frameworks will lead to the evaporation of the traditional character in man.

    Libertarian critiques of the Modern state are in fact correct, on many levels. However, they can never account for the fact that they once had a Libertarian system and it barely took 150 years to be completely subverted at the behest of the US population in the early 1900s. People wanted FDR. They wanted the big government programs. And they still do today. Ask the Libertarian how he can ever acquire a population which will not, using their voting power, destroy Libertarianism, and he has no answer. He has to begrudgingly support some kind of Libertarian dictatorship! Get him this far, and he’s on the path to becoming a Reactionary.

    One thing is crystal clear, that that is any type of Liberalism, be it ‘Classical’ or ‘Progressive’ has the same attitude towards Christianity. It must never wield institutional authority whether that simply be real authority, or real authority and the title that goes with it. This is the precursor to its erosion, its criminalization, and eventually to its extinction. We have a historical record to prove such things, and so the disestablishmentarian position taken by Liberals is something the Christian must reject. It is a stealth coup by a camouflaged cult, intent on capturing your sons and daughters across a supposedly neutral battlefield. But ask the Liberal Christian why Christianity must be forced to play on a neutral battlefield. Was it not Christian blood spilled defending the Occident from an organized Islamic invasion? Do we not believe that we hold the most complete and accurate revelation given to mankind? Christians who favor neutrality obviously hold our Holy faith as equal to other religions, including the satanic one known as Progress.

    • A libertarian society can function for a couple of generations because the old rules persist as habits, but without the rules the habits break down in the marginal members of the population (i.e. those least able to sustain good habits in the absence of rules). If we abolished all speed limits, for instance, things would at first go on in much the same way, since drivers would be in the habit of traveling down certain types of streets at certain speeds. But over time the roads would become more unruly. It wouldn’t go all the way to Road Warrior because some of the drivers are rational and self-controlled in the way libertarianism demands. But it would go quite a bit of the way to Road Warrior.

      • So, you hypothesize that only Germans can have Autobahns because Germans are particularly good at following inchoate rules?

      • Have you ever driven on the autobahn? Most cars are moving at about, and then suddenly a rocket goes blasting past at 120. It’s fairly alarming when they go past and the shock wave jostles one’s car. My impression on the autobahn is that only a minority take advantage of the liberty to drive as fast as they like. I can think of societies where that minority would be quite a bit larger.

  7. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2016/01/31) – The Reactivity Place


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