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12 Key Concepts of Liberty

Key Ideas of Classical Liberalism

The following is a list of 12 key concepts of liberty which have been developed over several hundred years by many authors in the classical liberal, free market and conservative traditions. There is probably no single thinker who who would agree with every aspect of these key concepts. Rather, they are an amalgam taken from the various streams of thinking about individual liberty which have emerged in Western Europe and North America since the early modern period. It is designed to summarize a complex way of thinking about humans and the kind of societies they have created. Links will take you to more detailed reading lists where you can explore these ideas further.

Table of Contents

 

The Key Ideas of Classical Liberalism: Foundations, Processes, and Liberties

 

The Foundations of CL Ideas

The Foundations of CL Thought

The foundations for these beliefs are based upon the following:

  • the basic principles
    • life
    • liberty
    • property
  • the philosophical grounds for these principles
    • natural law (God’s Law) and natural rights
    • utility

 

The Processes for Achieving and Sustaining a Free Society

The Processes for Achieving a Free Society

The processes by which these principles are carried out/put into practice; how people interact with each other

  • the non-aggression principle
  • voluntary cooperation
  • toleration
  • free movement of people, goods, & ideas
  • individual flourishing
  • peaceful coexistence with others
  • arbitration of disputes
  • spontaneous orders

 

Liberty as “the sum of all freedoms”: The Bundles of Freedoms which make up Liberty

The Bundles of Freedoms which make up Liberty

Liberty should be seen as a “bundle” or “cluster” of freedoms which together make up what is “Liberty” (FB quote).

Frédéric Bastiat on LIBERTY as the sum of all freedoms:

And what is liberty, this word that has the power of making all hearts beat faster and causing agitation around the world, if it is not the sum of all freedoms: freedom of conscience, teaching, and association; freedom of the press; freedom to travel, work, and trade; in other words, the free exercise of all inoffensive faculties by all men and, in still other terms, the destruction of all despotic regimes, even legal despotism, and the reduction of the law to its sole rational attribution, which is to regulate the individual law of legitimate defense or to punish injustice. [from The Law (June 1850)]

LIBERTY is compromised of three main bundles of freedoms:

  • political/legal freedoms
    • limited (or no) government
    • the rule of law
    • freedom speech and association (religion)
    • right of exit/entry (movement)
    • right to change a bad govt
  • economic freedoms:
    • domestic free markets
    • international free trade
    • laissez-faire
    • progress
  • social freedoms
    • equality under the law
    • toleration of different ideas and behaviour
    • acts between consenting adults

 


 

A Summary of what CLs were FOR: Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty

I have picked out 12 Concepts from the above mind map which I think are most important to understanding what CL was and is.

  1. Natural Law and Natural Rights
  2. Private Property
  3. Individual Liberty
  4. Idea of Spontaneous Order
  5. Free Markets
  6. Limited Government
  7. Rule of Law
  8. Freedom of Speech & Religion
  9. Free Trade
  10. Peace
  11. Progress
  12. Right of Free Movement (Exit/Entry)

Above is a list of 12 key concepts of liberty which have been developed over several hundred years by many authors in the classical liberal, free market and conservative traditions. There is probably no single thinker who would agree with every aspect of these key concepts. Rather, they are an amalgam or “ideal type” taken from the various streams of thinking about individual liberty which have emerged in Western Europe and North America since the early modern period. It is designed to summarize in a more manageable way a complex way of thinking about the nature of individual liberty.

We have provided links for further reading in the OLL collection as well as The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (Cato, 2008) ["EoL"].

 

(1.) Natural Law and Natural Rights

Key ideas:

  • the world is governed by natural laws which are discoverable by human reason
  • Tom Paine’s “imprescriptible rights”: the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
  • rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it
  • [alternative view of utilitarianism - maximization of happiness or utility]

Topics in the OLL Collection: Natural Law and Natural Rights

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Natural Rights

  • Richard Overton shoots An Arrow against all Tyrants from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever (1646) /quotes/219
  • John Locke on “perfect freedom” in the state of nature (1689) /quotes/317
  • Sidney argues that a People’s liberty is a gift of nature and exists prior to any government (1683) /quotes/298

OLL Reader extracts: Part II: The Basic Principles

 

(2.) Private Property

Key ideas:

  • property rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it (i.e. they are “natural rights” not “artificial rights” (Hodgskin)
  • the right of self-propriety or self-ownership (the Levellers & Locke)
  • the right to create or acquire property titles in unowned resources (Locke)
  • the right to exchange property titles with others (private contracts)
  • the right to enjoy one’s property so long as no aggression is initiated against others (non-aggression axiom)
  • property rights (in one’s person, home, possessions) create an individual, private sphere which must be protected from outside interference (by state, church, other individuals) (Humboldt & Mill)

Topics in the OLL Collection: Property

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Property Rights

  • Gaius states that according to natural reason the first occupier of any previously unowned property becomes the just owner (2nd Century) /quotes/271
  • Captain John Clarke asserts the right of all men to vote in the formation of a new constitution by right of the property they have in themselves (1647) /quotes/212
  • Sir William Blackstone argues that occupancy of previously unowned land creates a natural right to that property which excludes others from it (1753) /quotes/216
  • James Mill on the natural disposition to accumulate property (1808) /quotes/124
  • J.B. Say on the self-evident nature of property rights which is nevertheless violated by the state in taxation and slavery (1817) /quotes/152
  • Thomas Hodgskin argues for a Lockean notion of the right to property (“natural”) and against the Benthamite notion that property rights are created by the state (“artificial”) (1832) /quotes/147
  • Wolowski and Levasseur argue that Property is “the fruit of human liberty” and that Violence and Conquest have done much to disturb this natural order (1884) /quotes/30
  • Lysander Spooner spells out his theory of “mine and thine”, or the science of natural law and justice, which alone can ensure that mankind lives in peace (1882) /quotes/182

OLL Reader extracts:

(3.) Individual Liberty

Key ideas:

  • the dignity of the individual, individual autonomy, sanctity of life
  • an individual, private sphere which is protected from outside interference
  • right of voluntary association among individuals
  • civil society results from voluntary association between individuals with common interests
  • the Law of Equal Freedom (Spencer)

Topics in the OLL Collection:

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Politics & Liberty | Liberty

  • Wilhelm von Humboldt argued that freedom was the “Grand and Indispensable Condition” for individual flourishing (1792) /quotes/62
  • In Percy Shelley’s poem Liberty liberty is compared to a force of nature sweeping the globe, where “tyrants and slaves are like shadows of night” which will disappear in “the van of the morning light” (1824) /quotes/101
  • Harriet Taylor wants to see “freedom and admissibility” in all areas of human activity replace the system of “privilege and exclusion” (1847) /quotes/225
  • J.S. Mill’s great principle was that “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” (1859) /quotes/81
  • J.S. Mill spoke in Parliament in favour of granting women the right to vote, to have “a voice in determining who shall be their rulers” (1866) /quotes/91
  • Lysander Spooner on the idea that laws against “vice” (victimless crimes) are unjust (1875) /quotes/270
  • Lord Acton writes to Bishop Creighton that the same moral standards should be applied to all men, political and religious leaders included, especially since “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” (1887) /quotes/214

OLL Reader extracts: Part V: Individual Liberty

(4.) Idea of Spontaneous Order

Key ideas:

  • institutions emerge spontaneously and evolve over time
  • by pursuing their own selfish interests in a voluntary manner they are led as if by an “invisible hand” (Adam Smith) to promote the welfare of others
  • e.g. language, money, private law, markets

Topics in the OLL Collection: Spontaneous Order

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts:

  • Adam Smith on the natural ordering Tendency of Free Markets, or what he called the “Invisible Hand” (1776) /quotes/249
  • Adam Ferguson observed that social structures of all kinds were not “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (1782) /quotes/104
  • Bernard Mandeville uses a fable about bees to show how prosperity and good order comes about through spontaneous order (1705) /quotes/66
  • Spencer on spontaneous order produced by “the beneficent working of social forces” (1879) /quotes/328

OLL Reader extracts:

(5.) Free Markets

Key ideas:

  • domestic free markets and international free trade (A. Smith, F. Bastiat, L. von Mises)
  • voluntary exchanges are mutually beneficial (ex ante)
  • division of labour
  • freely set market prices (information about supply & demand - Hayek)
  • private ownership of economic assets
  • private contracts for exchange of property
  • legal protection of property rights
  • decentralized decision-making - “I, Pencil” - Hayek’s “problem of knowledge”
  • no regulation outside of legal protection of property rights (tort law for fraud, damages)
  • complete freedom of movement of people (labour), capital, and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
  • minimal/no taxes, balanced government budgets
  • no subsidies or protection for favoured individuals or groups
  • the incentive of profit and the disincentive of losses

Topics in the OLL Collection:

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Free Trade | Economics | Money & Banking | Taxation |

  • Adam Smith on the greater productivity brought about by the division of labor and technological innovation (1760s) /quotes/316
  • Adam Smith argued that the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” was inherent in human nature and gave rise to things such as the division of labour (1776) /quotes/48
  • Nassau Senior objected to any government regulation of factories which meant that a horde of inspectors would interfere with the organization of production (1837) /quotes/169
  • Mises on how price controls lead to socialism (1944) /quotes/320
  • Mises on the gold standard as the symbol of international peace and prosperity (1949) /quotes/338
  • Ludwig von Mises argues that monopolies are the direct result of government intervention and not the product of any inherent tendency within the capitalist system (1949) /quotes/138
  • Ludwig von Mises argues that the division of labor and human cooperation are the two sides of the same coin and are not antagonistic to each other (1949) /quotes/129
  • Kirzner defines economics as the reconciliation of conflicting ends given the existence of inescapable scarcity (1960) /quotes/283

OLL Reader extracts: Part IV: Economic Liberty

(6.) Limited Government

Key ideas:

  • governments rule with the consent of the governed (Locke)
  • strictly defined powers limited by constitution or bill of rights (Jefferson, Madison)
  • right to choose one’s rulers/representatives (elections); elections to periodically remove bad governments (Philosophic Radicals - Mill)
  • checks & balances to limit power of branches of government (Montesquieu, US Constitution)
  • decentralization of power (federalism, states rights, municipal govt.)
  • the problem of defining the limits of govt. power (classical Smithian view, nightwatchman state (JB Say, Bastiat), anarcho-capitalism (Molinari, Spencer, Rothbard)
  • the problem of keeping government limited (Public Choce, "who guards the guardians?)

Topics in the OLL Collection:

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Parties & Elections | Origin of Government | Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots | The State |

  • Edmund Burke asks a key question of political theory: “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (how is one to be defended against the very guardians who have been appointed to guard us?) (1756) /quotes/44
  • James Madison on the need for the “separation of powers” because “men are not angels,” Federalist 51 (1788) /quotes/180
  • Bentham on the proper role of government: “Be Quiet” and “Stand out of my sunshine” (1843) /quotes/294
  • Frédéric Bastiat on the state as the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else (1848) /quotes/196
  • Bastiat asks the fundamental question of political economy: what should be the size of the state? (1850) /quotes/295
  • John Stuart Mill on the need for limited government and political rights to prevent the “king of the vultures” and his “minor harpies” in the government from preying on the people (1859) /quotes/201
  • The Australian radical liberal Bruce Smith lays down some very strict rules which should govern the actions of any legislator (1887) /quotes/65

OLL Reader extracts: Part III: Political Liberty

(7.) Rule of Law

Key ideas:

  • rule of laws not of men
  • law applies equally to all (including agents of the state)
  • common law
  • independent courts
  • common law, trial by jury, right to habeas corpus
  • abolition of “cruel & unusual punishment” (torture, death penalty)

Topics in the OLL Collection: Magna Carta; Law

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Law

  • Sir Edward Coke defends British Liberties and the Idea of Habeas Corpus in the Petition of Right before Parliament (1628) /quotes/16
  • Sir William Blackstone provides a strong defence of personal liberty and concludes that to “secretly hurry” a man to prison is a “dangerous engine of arbitrary government” (1753) /quotes/203
  • The IVth Amendment to the American Constitution states that the people shall be secure in their persons against unreasonable searches and seizures and that no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause (1788) /quotes/134
  • J.S. Mill in a speech before parliament denounced the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the use of flogging in Ireland, saying that those who ordered this “deserved flogging as much as any of those who were flogged by his orders” (1866) /quotes/87
  • Pollock on “our lady” the common law and her devoted servants (1911) /quotes/330

OLL Reader extracts: Part VII: Key Legal and Political Documents

(8.) Freedom of Speech & Religion

Key ideas:

  • freedom of the press
  • the right of assembly and right to engage in peaceful protest
  • no state-enforced religion
  • right to practice the religion of one’s choice
  • liberty of political belief and practice (18th & 19thC, JS Mill)
  • toleration of all unorthodox thought and (non injurious) behaviour

Topics in the OLL Collection: Freedom of Speech

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Freedom of Speech | Religion & Toleration |

  • John Milton opposed censorship for many reasons but one thought sticks in the mind, that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself” (1644) /quotes/97
  • John Locke believed that the magistrate should not punish sin but only violations of natural rights and public peace (1689) /quotes/181
  • Pierre Bayle begins his defence of religious toleration with this appeal that the light of nature, or Reason, should be used to settle religious differences and not coercion (1708) /quotes/93
  • David Hume argues that “love of liberty” in some individuals often attracts the religious inquisitor to persecute them and thereby drive society into a state of “ignorance, corruption, and bondage” (1757) /quotes/223
  • Voltaire notes that where Commerce and Toleration predominate, a Multiplicity of Faiths can live together in Peace and Happiness (1764) /quotes/26
  • Jefferson’s preference for “newspapers without government” over “government without newspapers” (1787) /quotes/302
  • Benjamin Constant and the Freedom of the Press (1815) /quotes/321

OLL Reader extracts: Part III: Political Liberty

(9.) Free Trade

Key ideas:

  • complete freedom of movement of people and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
    domestic free markets and international free trade (A. Smith, F. Bastiat, L. von Mises)
  • natural harmony of interests leads to peace
  • benefits of division of labour, comparative advantage (David Ricardo) exist between households, cities, regions, and “nation states”
  • no subsidies or protection for favoured individuals or groups
  • policy of unilateral free trade is beneficial to consumers

Topics in the OLL Collection: Free Trade

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: Free Trade

  • John Ramsay McCulloch argues that smuggling is “wholly the result of vicious commercial and financial legislation” and that it could be ended immediately by abolishing this legislation (1899) /quotes/204
  • Richard Cobden’s “I have a dream” speech about a world in which free trade is the governing principle (1846) /quotes/326
  • Harriet Martineau condemns tariffs as a “vicious aristocratic principle” designed to harm the ordinary working man and woman (1861) /quotes/137
  • Yves Guyot accuses all those who seek Protection from foreign competition of being “Socialists” (1893) /quotes/272

OLL Reader extracts: Part IV: Economic Liberty

(10.) Peace

Key ideas:

  • non-interference in the affairs of other nations (Washington, Cobden)
  • international arbitration to solve disputes
  • free trade between all nations
  • war leads to higher taxes, debt, growth in size of government
  • opposed taxation, conscription, national debt to fund “standing army” & fight wars
  • favoured local, volunteer militias (US Bill of Rights) - irregular, guerrilla war (Am. Rev)
  • “war is the health of the state” (R. Bourne) & Robert Higgs’ “ratchet effect”
  • modern military is anti-individualistic, command economy (Mises), socialist institution
  • free and open immigration/emigration

Subject Area in the OLL Collection: War and Peace

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts: War & Peace

  • Grotius on Moderation in Despoiling the Country of one’s Enemies (1625) /quotes/315
  • Trenchard on the dangers posed by a standing army (1698) /quotes/292
  • Madison argued that war is the major way by which the executive office increases its power, patronage, and taxing power (1793) /quotes/236
  • George Washington on the Difference between Commercial and Political Relations with other Countries (1796) /quotes/246
  • James Mill likens the expence and economic stagnation brought about by war to a “pestilential wind” which ravages the country (1808) /quotes/323
  • Cobden urges the British Parliament not to be the “Don Quixotes of Europe” using military force to right the wrongs of the world (1854) /quotes/322
  • William Graham Sumner denounced America’s war against Spain and thought that “war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery” would result in imperialism (1898) /quotes/56
  • Ludwig von Mises laments the passing of the Age of Limited Warfare and the coming of Mass Destruction in the Age of Statism and Conquest (1949) /quotes/27

OLL Reader extracts: Part VI: War and Peace

(11.) Progress

Key ideas:

  • through hard work and initiative both individuals and society can be improved indefinitely
  • wealth creation is a product of the free market and trade
  • savings create pool of wealth to benefit current & next generation
  • goal of individual flourishing (Humboldt)

Topics in the OLL Collection: Progress

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts:

  • Voltaire on the Benefits which Trade and Economic Abundance bring to People living in the Present Age (1736) /quotes/20
  • Montesquieu thought that commerce improves manners and cures “the most destructive prejudices” (1748) /quotes/85
  • Condorcet writes about the inevitability of the spread of liberty and prosperity while he was in prison awaiting execution by the Jacobins (1796) /quotes/106
  • Lord Macaulay writes a devastating review of Southey’s Colloquies in which the Poet Laureate’s ignorance of the real condition of the working class in England is exposed (1830) /quotes/149

OLL Reader extracts:

(12.) Right of Free Movement (Exit/Entry)

Key ideas:

  • internal (personal & geographical) - right to free movement within the state (no slavery, being tied to the land (serfs), internal passports & controls)
  • external (personal & geographical) - right to emigrate/immigrate, right to cross political borders
  • internal (govt, leave its “jurisdiction”)
    • right to change one’s government (“throw the bastards out” in free elections, problem of “serial bastardry”)
    • right of rebellion against unjust state, resistance to tyranny
    • the right to secede
    • the right to ignore the state (Spencer)

Topics in the OLL Collection:

EoL articles:

OLL Quotations from Key Texts:

  • Jefferson on the right to change one’s government (1776) /quotes/327
  • Jefferson feared that it would only be a matter of time before the American system of government degenerated into a form of “elective despotism” (1785) /quotes/237
  • Herbert Spencer concludes from his principle of equal freedom that individuals have the Right to Ignore the State (1851) /quotes/154
  • John Stuart Mill on “the sacred right of insurrection” (1862) /quotes/311

OLL Reader extracts:


 

Recommended Reading

See the collection of 501 Quotations about Liberty and Power at the OLL organised by topic:

501 Quotations about Liberty and Power: The Collected Quotations from the Online Library of Liberty (2004–2014) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2015). /titles/2648.

See also The OLL Reader: An Anthology of the Best of the Online Library of Liberty [Updated February 13, 2015 - 72 extracts] /pages/best-of-the-oll. The Reader is divided into the following sections:

General

David M. Hart, “Study Guides on the Classical Liberal Tradition” <davidmhart.com/liberty/Guides/ClassicalLiberalism/index.html>

  • Concept Map showing the key ideas of the Classical Liberal tradition
  • Part 1: Twelve Key Concepts of the Classical Liberal Tradition
  • Part 2: Ideological Movements and Key Political Events
  • Part 3: Quotations from Key Texts Illustrating Classical Liberal Ideas

Key Text: The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, ed. Ronald Hamowy (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008. A Project of the Cato Institute). <https://www.libertarianism.org/encyclopedia>

Anthologies of Primary Sources:

  • The OLL Reader: An Anthology of the Best of the Online Library of Liberty /pages/best-of-the-oll
  • Quotations about Liberty and Power /quotes : a selection of over 500 quotations from the most important texts in the OLL collection arranged by topic.
    • a compilation of 501 quotes in various ebook formats can be downloaded from here /titles/2648.
  • The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Readings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman, ed. David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997).
  • A Libertarian Primer, ed. David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997).
  • Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce, ed. E.K. Bramstead and K.J. Melhuish (London: Longman, 1978).

Histories of the Classical Liberal/Libertarian Movement:

  • Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000-Year History, told through the Lives of Freedom’s greatest Champions (New York: The Free Press, 2000).
  • A Libertarian Primer, ed. David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997).
  • Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007).
  • George Smith, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
    • Liberty Matters online discussion: George H. Smith, “The System of Liberty” (September 2013) /pages/system-of-liberty

History and Theory of Free Market Economics:

  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, ed. David R. Henderson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Also available online at Econlib http://www.econlib.org/library/CEE.html.
  • Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. I Economic Thought before Adam Smith (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006).
  • Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. II Classical Economics (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006).

Articles on Key Concepts from the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Articles from The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (EoL) which are most pertinent to my list of key concepts include the following. The items in bold are particularly important in my view.

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, ed. Ronald Hamowy (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008. A Project of the Cato Institute). <https://www.libertarianism.org/encyclopedia>.

One should begin with Steve Davies’ “General Introduction,” EoL, pp. xxv-xxxvii, which is an excellent survey of the ideas, movements, and key events in the development of liberty, then read as many of the following articles as you can:

 

Last modified November 16, 2017