Thursday, May 22, 2008

Classical Liberalism, Libertarianism, and Individualism

Continuing my research into the philosophy of classical liberalism. Thanks to sewing the seed in this quest courtesy of English philosopher John Locke. Read more from this article here.

Classical Liberals emphasize the importance of individual freedoms of various kinds. We see these as moral rights. There is, however, a great deal of room for disputes about the scope and character of these rights, as in government by consent. We do argue about these rights, which can enliven any gathering of Classical Liberals. We do agree, however, that any government that does exist exists to safeguard or protect the individual rights of its citizens, that is, that is the proper role of government even though we realize that some actual governments don't do that. So we might say that this ought or should be the role of any "legitimate" government.

We also expect that if people's rights are safeguarded and protected, human interaction will generate well-being or happiness for each individual. This is achieved through voluntary market transactions, voluntary mutual aid and charity and, in very limited ways, possibly through government action. We believe that individuals are the best judges of their own interests and that government should be limited in scope and function by what citizens will consent to and by individual rights. So we tend to favor a self-limiting Democratic Republic with a written constitution that guarantees protection of individual rights against a simple majority rule.

Virtually all Classical Liberals agree with the ideal of the rule of law, rather than the rule of men. And the law should be general in character, publicly available, not retrospective, not arbitrary and capricious, but objective and based on a rational foundation. Government should act only on the basis of the law, and not on mere whim or circumstance. Furthermore, the state should be broadly neutral regarding people's concerns, such as with religion for example. While we all agree that law and order in any society is important and it is the government's job to see to this matter through protecting the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, there is some disagreement among Classical Liberals over the matters of national defense and "public goods" such as mail services and other things that people need but that are not provided or are underprovided by the free market.

Classical Liberals also emphasize private property. In fact, many of the early Classical Liberals fostered the idea that individual rights included primarily the rights to life, liberty, and property. In the U.S. Declaration of Independence the right to property was changed to the right to the pursuit of happiness. I happen to agree with this modification because, in my opinion, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are "absolute" rights, whereas, the right to property is not absolute on its face but is derived from the former three and especially the right to the pursuit of happiness, which is a primary right while the right to property is secondary.

By the way, not all Classical Liberals agree with me on this so, as you can see, there are disputes, mostly minor fortunately, among those of us who claim to be Classical Liberals. I see this as positive because it means Classical Liberalism is not simply a dead political philosophy but a living one with many theoretical and practical problems still to be resolved. But the right to property is definitely important to us and your private property should not be interfered with by others, including the state, outside the law. The law should protect justly acquired private property, the only exception being in certain specified emergencies and only then with due process of law.

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