Classical Liberalism

According to this article, classical liberalism advocates for a government that only:

  • protects against foreign invaders;
  • protects citizens from being wronged by other citizens; and
  • provides public institutions/works that the private sector cannot profitably provide.

How does this compare to the roles of government as outlined by the ideologies we've read about so far?

Classical liberalism is a political philosophy committed to limited government, the rule of law, individual liberties, and free markets.


Learning Objective

Define classical liberalism


Key Points

  • Classical liberalism developed over the course of the 18th and 19th century in the United States and Britain, drawing upon Enlightenment sources from the 1700s and 1800s.
  • Classical liberalism was an intellectual response to the Industrial Revolution and the problems associated with urbanization.
  • Among individual liberties, classical liberalism put particular emphasis on property rights.
  • Classical liberalism was based on a theory of human nature that saw humans as egoistic and motivated by self-interest.
  • Classical liberals argue that society is best constituted when it allows individuals to freely pursue their self-interest.
  • Classical liberals believed that free international trade would lead to peaceful, harmonious international order.



  • Classical liberalism: A political ideology that advocates limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, free markets, and individual liberties including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly.
  • Laissez-faire: An economic environment in which transactions between private parties are free from tariffs, government subsidies, and enforced monopolies, with only enough government regulations sufficient to protect property rights against theft and aggression.
  • Free market: Any economic system in which trade is unregulated; an economic system free from government intervention.


Classical Liberalism and the Notion of Freedom

Classical liberalism is a philosophy committed to the ideals of limited government, constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, and liberty of individuals. These liberties include freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets. Classical liberalism developed over the course of the 1800s in the United States and Britain and drew upon Enlightenment sources (particularly the works of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith). It was an intellectual response to the Industrial Revolution and the problems associated with urbanization.


Core Principles

Human Nature

Classical liberalism places a particular emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual and considers property rights an essential component of individual liberty. Later in 19th-century political theory, this would encourage "laissez-faire" public policy that would not heavily interfere in commerce or industry. Most classical liberals argued that humans are calculating, egoistic creatures, motivated solely by pain and pleasure; humans make decisions intended to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, while in the absence of pain or pleasure, they become inert. Hence, classical liberals believed that individuals should be free to pursue their self-interest without societal control or restraint. 

Classical liberalism determined that individuals should be free to obtain work from the highest-paying employers. In a free market, labor and capital would therefore receive the greatest possible reward, while production would be organized efficiently to meet consumer demand. Classical liberals also saw poor urban conditions as inevitable, and therefore opposed any income or wealth redistribution.

The Role of Government

Classical liberals agreed with Adam Smith that government had only three essential functions: protection against foreign invaders, protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens, and the building and maintaining of public institutions and public works that the private sector could not profitably provide. Classical liberals extended protection of the country to protection of overseas markets through armed intervention. Protection of individuals against wrongs normally meant protection of private property. Public works included a stable currency; standard weights and measures; support of roads, canals, harbors, and railways; and postal and other communications services that facilitated urban and industrial development.

World Peace

Additionally, classical liberals believed that unfettered commerce with other nations would eventually eliminate war and imperial conflicts. Through peaceful, harmonious trade relationships established by private merchants and companies without government interference, mutual national interest and prosperity would derive from commercial exchange rather than imperial territorial acquisition (which liberals saw as the root of all wars). World peace, for classical liberals, was a real possibility if national governments would allow interdependent global commercial relationships to form.

Source: Boundless
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Last modified: Wednesday, 30 September 2020, 11:56 AM