Classical Liberalism (Part One)

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The first of two conversations with our own David Ottlinger on Classical Liberalism and American Society.  Here, we go into some depth on what Classical Liberalism is and how it is expressed in the work of its two most foundational thinkers: John Locke and John Stuart Mill.  In our second conversation, we focus on Classical Liberalism in the United States.

Originally aired on the Sophia program, on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BloggingHeads.TV network, January 17, 2017.


  1. Hi guys, this was timely. So timely it catches me while trying to write a piece for EA on the same subject… and worse still, more on the second promised instalment. I’ll now have to wait for that to see how I can shape my essay to remain relevant and new.

    What was laid out here is basically how I learned about/understood classical liberalism. Locke and Mills, though argument can be made for Smith as well.

    What was new…

    1) I had not considered its discontinuity with ancient philosophy. I’m not sure if I agree with the argument made, but I will have to give it more time and study. It seems to me it could be seen as the other side of the coin of what Locke and Mills address. The former being the person’s relation to the society/state they are born into, the latter the state’s relation to the collection of individuals out of which a state is born. I guess one thing I’m curious about for Dan is if the former (ancient) idea is more conducive to a Wittgensteinian outlook? Locke would seem to be taking a person from nowhere approach that would seem impossible (or nonsensical) to positions you’ve argued for Wittgenstein.

    2) I also hadn’t considered the relation between Mill’s ethical theory and his political theory. I didn’t think that analysis was as useful for a discussion about liberalism, that is trying to address how his ethics impacts the political. But it will be hard for me not to consider that comparison when running the analysis the other direction.

    Points of discussion…

    3) I would definitely push back that people carrying or using weapons is inconsistent with liberalism or even a civil society. It all depends on why people are carrying weapons, why they would be used, and how often this is necessary.

    4) While I agree that the US gov’t has broken from classical liberalism, and many (perhaps most) have at the level of the individual citizen, I would definitely disagree that it ended with FDR (I realize none of you argued that, but the position was mentioned). There are arguments that could be made classical liberalism ended well before that… never existing amongst the population at large anyway… or well after. It depends on what aspect of society and state you are talking about.

    Along those lines I think that social “welfare” is not inconsistent with classical liberalism. It seems to me that sort of idea can only be held by those that refuse to view economic institutions as capable of holding/wielding power in the same fashion as political institutions. That might have been viable in pre-industrial and less populated communities. It isn’t any more.

    Economic entities and policies in the modern world can be just as (if not more) powerful organizing forces in individuals’ lives than political ones. I think even some libertarians are starting to wake up to that reality.

    In the future, conversation may be more appropriately focused on relation of individual to locus of control, regardless of entity. This might have the benefit (giving one example) of defining censorship equally between social, economic, and state powers.


  2. Dwayne:

    Yes, classical liberalism is based on a conception of personhood that is very problematic on the later Wittgensteinian view.

    I explained quite clearly why the citizenry carrying weapons around is incompatible with the social contract. I’d have to hear some actual argument — and a strong one, at that — before I could be dissuaded from that view.

    Neither of us think that the New Deal reflects any retreat from classical liberalism, so we have no argument there. We raise it, however, because it is a common argument that many make.


  3. Hi Dan, given your general support for Wittgenstein, did that cause you any difficulties in maintaining a classical liberal stance? Also, how do you deal with any discrepancies between the two positions?

    I understood your argument about weapons v social contract. I did not offer a counterargument yet, just stated I would disagree and the general areas where I think there is wiggle room. I am willing to explore that further, but thought I should wait until the next instalment, unless you think this is a better spot for it?

    On the New Deal, it did seem like you both were okay with it. From conversation at Sophia I think there will be disagreement on if and where the US departed from classical liberalism (at least with David). I agreed in part with the commenter that placed a departure further back with the Progressive era of the late 1800s. But I assume this is something I should wait until your next video to tackle… maybe I’ll be convinced by whatever is said there.

    Hope this generates some commentary here, especially from progressives or conservatives on problems they might have with what you discussed.


  4. dwayne: My commitment to classical liberalism is ultimately pragmatic, rather than philosophical. Just as democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others, so liberalism is the worst political value system, except for all the others.

    You can debate the gun issue at any point that you like. It really doesn’t come up in the second dialogue, and I only mentioned it, because it seemed apropos at the time.


  5. I’m all for reading and trying to understand various thinkers of the past and part of the interest is in seeing to what extent their ideas are still reflected in our institutions and to what extent we can still plausibly share their assumptions etc.. Locke explicitly incorporates religious ideas into his work. This limits its interest for me. I always preferred Hobbes.

    Mill is an interesting case. If I were going to try to interpret his mature ideas, I think I would do it via looking at Wordsworth and the English Romantics. Their ‘religion’ is his religion, I would say.


  6. Hobbes’ relevance to our system of government and liberal ethos is minimal, whereas Locke’s is maximal. And one can make all the Lockean arguments without appeal to any divinity, so it’s not in any way essential to understanding and making use of his political thought.


  7. Hi Dan, interesting. So could it be said that most of your positions in day to day affairs are pragmatic (commonsense realism, classical liberal), while your philosophical positions are radically skeptical?

    I think my reply on weapons v classical liberalism would be pretty long (to work out the nuances). Would you be interested in an essay on that topic?