Taking Liberties with the Story of Freedom

Taking Liberties with the Story of Freedom
Jerrin Heller via AP

It was about fifteen years ago, I believe, that I first became aware that “classical liberalism” was a term that could be used to describe a contemporary movement of ideas. Up to that point, I had been teaching about classical liberalism only as a moment in Anglo-American political and economic thought extending roughly from John Locke and Adam Smith to the early 20th century. After the 1920s it was drowned in the wave of socialism that had been building in Europe since the revolutions of 1848 and that crossed the Atlantic to America in the 1890s. The socialists and their welfare state had taken over Britain after the Second World War. Misleadingly rebranded in America as “liberalism” (“high liberalism” in the lingo of political scientists), the tide was running in its favor in U.S. politics, too, when the Cold War and the Second Red Scare turned Americans against socialism. In response, a new, modernized strain of liberalism arose, later christened “neo-liberalism” by its enemies, led by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and dedicated to limited government, free markets, and personal liberty. Over several decades, neo-liberalism established political dominance in the West thanks largely to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. 

So when I received an invitation some fifteen years ago from a group of young men at the Harvard Law School to address their Classical Liberal Seminar, I thought they must be a few genial eccentrics, young fogeys with some sort of antiquarian interest in a long-dead tradition. I didn’t realize that they were the advance guard of what became, in the next decade, an important strand of American political opinion. The political philosophy known as classical liberalism now boasts several think-tanks, such as those at the NYU Law School and George Mason University, a number of influential media outlets, ample funding from the Koch Foundation, several politicians (the most prominent was Paul Ryan before his resignation as Speaker of the House), as well as some high-profile public intellectuals like William Kristol, Peter Thiel, Jonah Goldberg, Jordan Peterson, and Bari Weiss—all of whom have been willing at one time or another to wear the label “classical liberal.” 

Part of the appeal of what we might call neo-classical liberalism is the idea that it constitutes the political philosophy par excellence of the West, deeply rooted in a tradition that can be traced back through the American Founding to Renaissance struggles against tyranny, representative parliaments born in the Middle Ages, and ultimately to the Roman republic and Greek democracy. At the same time, its commitment to individual liberty, civil rights, the rule of law and free markets appears to have provided the intellectual oomph behind what looked like, in the late 20th century, an unstoppable rush towards liberal democracy. So it seems not without reason that classical liberals regard their tradition as the finest flower of the Western political tradition. When I was invited to  Harvard Law those many years ago, it was as an expert on Renaissance republicanism: the young men wanted me to polish for them another link in the golden chain of the Western liberal tradition. In the event, I wasn’t able to give them quite what they wanted and spent most of my time trying to explain why the concept of liberty promoted by Italian humanists differed from the kind of freedom espoused by classical liberals.

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