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What Does Classical Liberalism Actually Mean?

What Does Classical Liberalism Mean?
Though the definition of classical liberalism stresses on the freedom of an individual and limited government, one needs to understand that there is more to it than meets the eye. Here we explain what classical liberalism means, whilst stressing on its characteristic traits.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Feb 25, 2019
English philosopher John Locke is widely considered the Father of Classical Liberalism.
Classical liberalism is not new to America. It was in existence when the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were adopted. Those who opposed slavery or supported suffrage were classical liberals. Recently, a hint of this concept is seen in the ideologies of the two major political parties in the United States, the Republicans and Democrats.
What is Classical Liberalism?
Classical liberalism, or old liberalism, is a political philosophy which stresses on securing the freedom of the individual (i.e., the freedom of religion, speech, assembly, etc.), limiting the power of the government, and promoting a free market economy.
In a broad sense, it advocates private property, a free market economic system where prices are determined by competition, the rule of law, and most important of all, the constitutional guarantee of individual freedoms.
Classical liberalism can be traced back to the gradual transition from feudalism to capitalism in the 19th century. The period also marked the decline of absolutism. At times, the term is used in the context of all forms of liberalism that existed before the 20th century.
Principles of Classical Liberalism
In classical liberalism, individualism is given immense importance. It is important for classical liberals to know how the government's actions will affect the freedom of individuals, rather than a group as a whole.
It stems from the belief that individuals are in a better position to judge their interests, and thus, their voluntary actions can help in solving problems. That classical liberalism adopted the Laissez Faire approach shouldn't come as a surprise, considering that it is in favor of individual freedom in economic matters as well.
Adam Smith
Classical liberalism was influenced by the selective ideas of Adam Smith, John Locke, Thomas Malthus, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, Thomas Hobbes, etc.
In fact, Smith's influence on this political philosophy is quite obvious. His opinion was that individuals could pursue their economic interests for the common good, without having the government to tell them why something is good for them. That classical liberals are skeptical about those in power makes sense when we take Smith's idea into consideration.
As for the trio of Malthus, Say, and Ricardo, a hint of their respective works, i.e., Malthus' theories of population, Say's Law, and Ricardo's Iron Law of Wages, can be seen is classical liberalism.
Thomas Hobbes
Then there was Thomas Hobbes, who opined that government was created by individuals to protect themselves from each other.
Unlike Locke, who opined that the government should be disobeyed if it violates your personal rights, Hobbes was of the opinion that a repressive government was better than no government at all.
John Locke
As for the distinction between classical and modern liberalism, there doesn't seem to be much. The transition from classical liberalism to modern liberalism began in the 20th century, as the pursuit of self interest resulted in the failure of the social justice system.
There was a need to create a level playing field, and thus, advocates of modern liberalism spoke in favor of enabling the state to do the needful. Though contradictory to the principles of classical liberalism, this was the need of the hour.
Modern liberals acknowledged the fact that freedom is not about lack of regulation by a police state, as much as it is about developing an environment where opportunities are created to help all the individuals control their own lives.