“Liberalism . . . is based on the conception of civil society as by and large self-regulating when its members are free to act within the very wide bounds of their individual rights. Among these, the right to private property, including freedom of contract and exchange and the free disposition of one’s own labor, is given a high priority. Historically, liberalism has manifested a hostility to state action, which, it insists, should be reduced to a minimum.” —Ralph Raico, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School
The Ideology of Individual Rights
Classical liberalism holds individual liberty and freedom from coercion in esteem. Progressives hold individual liberty in disdain and regularly infringe your civil rights, citing the needs of the collective. Ten principles of classical liberalism are listed below. Compare these principles to those held by the conservatives running for the Republican nomination to see how they compare to America’s Founders:
Liberty is the primary concern. When a political decision is made, the overriding factor is whether the decision expands or reduces individual freedom.
Two: Individual Rights
Individual civil rights are respected over collective coercion, so the Bill of Rights is all-important; it protects each individual from the tyranny of the mob. These rights cannot be canceled at the caprice of any temporary majority. If you go into a business, you have the freedom to turn down jobs you do not want, and customers have the freedom to patronize other businesses. Government coercion, to force a business into selling a service or to force a customer into buying a product, tramples on liberty. Ayn Rand once said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”
Three: Skepticism of State Power
Beware of those who love the state! The state is all about forcing compliance gunpoint. When politicians say they are making a law for your own good, what they are planning is really for their own good. C. S. Lewis once said, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” Classical liberals believe the individual is the best judge of what is good for him or her. Thus, every problem should be solved with the most freedom possible.
Four: Rule of Law
There is no freedom where the rules change abruptly. End-runs, by politicians, around established law, make the world unpredictable. Carefully laid plans are turned topsy-turvy, punishing responsible planners.
Five: Civil Society
Problems are best solved through voluntary actions and associations. Private charities help more flexibly and responsively than central planners. Parent groups make the most relevant suggestions concerning school governance. Neighborhood solutions should come from worship communities or other civil-society groups, before government imposes its own counterproductive measures.
People create spontaneous interactions, free from government. A man can organize a community-watch group, becoming, initially, its de facto leader. A woman might start a worship community or a charity. Many societal institutions have formed in this way. The rules of civil society are traditionally self-structuring and based on common sense.
Six: Private Property
Individuals have the right to private property. The Founders knew that, once government began to confiscate the fruits of your labor, giving them out to those who did nothing to earn them, the culture of incentives would diminish. It was Benjamin Franklin who noted that “the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves . . . [and] the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves. . . .” Voluntary charities should assist the poor, since making public provision would create a bureaucracy which, to keep itself employed, would see to it the poor remained in need. The state must promote private charity, rather than confiscate private wealth in a way that would not allow individuals to self-decide what an affordable donation might be. Once government is given power over what may occur on your property, or with your money, the government becomes a co-owner, and you lose all sovereignty in your private sphere.
Seven: Free Markets
Trade is a voluntary activity between individuals. To mandate such activity entails commandeering private property for a state purpose never intended by its owner. (Remember: Money, too, is property.) Leaving economic interaction to free markets—rather than government-regulated ones—increases prosperity, while reducing income-disparities. Free markets promote wealth creation, which, in turn, grows liberty and opportunity for everyone.
A free people has free markets in order to exercise the freedom of choice that ensures the highest quality at the lowest price. If you are forced to buy a product, then quality must no longer be guaranteed to earn your purchase. If the market be not free, consumers may be legally compelled to pay any unfair price. Market efficiencies are lost, and people are forced to buy fewer goods on the same income as before. Fewer products purchased means fewer businesses can be supported. The ability to sustain a vibrant economy is endangered.
This is the belief that, as long as an action does not infringe anyone else’s rights, it should be permitted. If you are offended, leave the general area or change the discussion topic. “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” are the words of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall. These words show tolerance. Government should never regulate speech, or people will hold their tongues out of fear. Political satire, stand-up comedy, and civil debate all become perilous to exercise, reducing people’s ability to speak freely and honestly. Only government would have a license to problem-solve. Muslim writer and religious critic Salman Rushdie said: “Without the freedom to offend, free speech ceases to exist.”
Nine: Peace through Strength
For peace to be possible, all must honor the principle of free movement of capital, labor, goods, services, and ideas. Without universal respect for this principle, conflicts ensue about how money should be used, what goods and services should be permitted, and which ideas should be allowed into speech or print. Peace can only exist through the projection of the power necessary to enforce the peace. George Washington once said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.”
Ten: Constitutionally-Limited Government
There are few powers that government should be permitted; its main job is to protect life, liberty, and property, according to rule of law. Ronald Reagan said, “Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.” Classical liberalism entails fair play. With a big government—generating many rules daily—then how can any citizen understand the law? By conservative estimates, the average American breaks three federal laws daily, without knowing.
A limited government whose main function is to play referee is essential. Outcomes are never guaranteed. And why should they be? Football scores are outcomes, and they are not guaranteed. Imagine if the best team was kept from winning by rules guaranteeing that, regardless of preparation effort, the less-prepared team could still easily win? Such a policy would encourage less preparation by both teams. Why train hard, if you can win without trying? A culture of high quality would become extinct.
A Roll-Call of Classical Liberals
Classical liberals—often referred to as Constitutional conservatives, libertarians, or “old-school liberals”—advocate civil liberties within a civil society, along with the Jeffersonian notion that the government is best that governs least. Proponents of classical liberalism are well-known: Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, John Kennedy, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Thomas Sowell among them. And anyone else in alignment with the above ten principles may be added to the roll-call of classical liberals.
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