The term classical liberalism is used to designate the philosophy advocating private property, a free market economy, the rule of law, liberty of individuals, and world peace based on free trade. There are various examples of classical liberalism both in history and in present times.
Classical liberalism was a response to the problems associated with the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. Hence, it developed over the course of the 1800s in the United States and Britain and drew upon enlightenment sources from the works of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith. In this article, we will be discussing examples of classical liberalism.
See also: Classical Liberal vs Neoliberal Differences and Similarities
What is classical liberalism?
Classical liberalism is a political and economic philosophy that advocates laissez-faire economics, a free market, and civil liberties under the rule of law with particular emphasis on individual autonomy, economic freedom, limited government, political freedom, and freedom of speech. This branch of liberalism gained full flowering in the early 18th century, building on ideas that stem as far back as the 13th century.
Classical liberals, based on the ideas of Adam Smith, favor the idealogy that individuals should be free to pursue and protect their own economic self-interest free from unwarranted interference by the central government. One of the economic tenants of classical liberalism is that individuals should be free from government or political intervention and allowed to decide how to dispose of the profits gotten from their own effort.
Classical liberal philosophy embraces a society in which economic activities are determined by the decisions of individuals rather than by the actions of a government structure. Hence, they advocated a minimal government and believe that governments are formed by the people for the express purpose of protecting the fundamental rights of the people. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, for instance, is one of the prominent classical liberalism examples.
Classical liberals believe that the primary goal of government is to facilitate an economy in which individuals have the economic freedom to trade freely with others, invent and produce new products and processes and create and maintain wealth. They see economic freedom as the only way to ensure a thriving and prosperous society. Therefore, in politics, classical liberalism rejected the idea of direct democracy because majorities might not always respect personal property rights or economic freedom.
Classical liberal beliefs are contrary to liberal branches like social liberalism. Compared to social liberalism, classical liberalism looks more negatively at the government’s involvement in the lives of individuals, social policies, and taxation. Hence, it advocates deregulation and stipulates that other individuals and governments are to refrain from interfering with the free market. Social liberals oppose these beliefs and assert that individuals have positive rights, such as the right to vote, the right to health care, the right to education, and the right to a living wage.
Classical liberals also believed that unrestricted commerce with other nations would eventually eliminate war and imperial conflicts. They believe that mutual national interest and prosperity could be derived from commercial exchange through the peaceful, harmonious trade relationships created by private merchants and companies without government interference. To classical liberals, world peace was a real possibility if national governments would allow the formation of interdependent global commercial relationships.
Furthermore, one sociological approach to classical liberalism is the principle of spontaneous order. This is the theory that stable social order evolves and is maintained not by government power or human design but by random processes and events seemingly beyond the control or understanding of humans. This concept was referred to as the power of the invisible hand by Adam Smith, in his book- The Wealth of Nations. Classical liberalism sees spontaneous order as the result of allowing entrepreneurs to recognize and provide for the needs of society instead of the governments.
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Examples of classical liberalism
- Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
- Reform Act of 1832
- Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846
- United States Declaration of Independence
- Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829
- Bill of rights
Classical liberal philosophy was the dominant political ideology in Britain from the early 19th century until the First World War. Hence, there are so many examples of classical liberalism victories in Britain such as the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, and the Reform Act of 1832. Let’s look at these and other classical liberalism examples, like the United States Declaration of Independence and the Bill of rights in the United States:
Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
A typical example of classical liberalism is the passage of the poor law amendment act. Classical liberals agreed with Thomas Hobbes on the belief that government had been created by individuals to protect themselves from each other and that government’s purpose should be to minimize conflict between individuals that would arise in a state of nature.
These beliefs were accompanied by a belief that laborers could be best motivated by financial incentives which led to the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 in the United Kingdom. This act limited the provision of social assistance, based on the idealogy that markets are the mechanism that most efficiently leads to wealth.
Classical liberals adopting Thomas Robert Malthus’s population theory saw poor urban conditions as inevitable and believed that population growth would outstrip food production. Hence, they regarded this consequence desirable as starvation would help limit population growth. Therefore, they opposed any wealth or income redistribution, believing it would be wasted or squandered by the lowest orders.
In the UK, the Poor Law (1603) established the responsibility of each local parish for the relief of the poor. However, in 1832, a royal commission was appointed by the government to investigate the workings of the Poor Law and make recommendations for improvement. The commissioners sent out questionnaires and visited parishes to collect information.
Edwin Chadwick, one of the leading commissioners, was convinced that the system needed to be brought under meticulous central control in London. Also, he was of the opinion that the system needed to be reformed in such a way as to put off people from making unnecessary demands on public funds.
The commission’s report and recommendations received wide support in Parliament and were published in 1834. In line with the ideology of classical liberalism, the commissioners came up with an efficient solution for the problem that ensured a minimum of state interference and cost. Hence, the Poor Law Amendment Act was immediately passed by Parliament in 1834, with separate legislation for Ireland and Scotland.
The Poor Law Amendment Act, a major overhaul of the old Poor Law was implemented by adopting all the commission’s main recommendations. This is a classical liberalism example because classical liberal ideas look more negatively at social policies, taxation, and state involvement in the lives of individuals. Therefore, as a result of the amendment act, the financial support (outdoor relief) that was formerly given to the able-bodied was no longer to be available to them in order to compel them to work.
Reform Act of 1832
Classical liberalism began to have an impact with reforms like the First Electoral Reform Act of 1832. This is one of the historical examples of classical liberalism. The Great Reform Act was passed by the parliament in 1832 which changed the British electoral system. It was passed and became law in response to years of criticism of the electoral system from those outside and inside Parliament.
In Britain, elections were neither fair nor representative. For a person to qualify to vote, he had to own property or pay certain taxes, which excluded most working-class people. Also, there were constituencies with several voters that elected two members of parliament (MPs) to parliament, such as Old Sarum in Salisbury. Hence, with few voters and no secret ballot, it was easy for those standing for election to buy votes in those rotten boroughs.
Industrial towns such as Birmingham or Manchester had no Members of Parliament to represent them. Hence, in 1831, the House of Commons passed a Reform Bill, which was defeated by the House of Lords. This resulted in riots and serious disturbances in certain parts of the UK. Later, the reform bill passed in the House of Lords and it became law on June 4, 1832.
The Reform Act reformed the old electoral system of Britain by redistributing seats and changing the conditions of the franchise. About fifty-six English boroughs lost their representation and electoral qualifications were lowered to permit many smaller property holders to vote for the first time. Even though the bill left the large sections of the lower middle classes and the working classes without the vote, it gave the new middle classes a share in responsible government and therefore quieted political agitation.
The Reform Act would pass as one of the classical liberalism examples because it represents political freedom for the middle classes. Political freedom, as one of the classical liberal values, involves both the freedom of the majority to influence and guide policy and the freedom of political minorities to publicly advocate for their positions.
The politics of classical liberalism, spawned by 18th-century thinkers like Adam Smith and John Locke values the freedom of individuals over that of central government officials. Hence, the politics of classical liberalism shifted drastically from the older political systems that placed rule over the people in the hands of monarchs, churches, or totalitarian governments.
The Act of 1832 was, therefore, a conservative measure created to harmonize upper- and middle-class interests while continuing traditional landed influence. Hence, the liberal project of broadening the franchise in Britain succeeded in the Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1884–85.
Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846
Another classical liberalism example is the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The British Corn Laws regulated imported grains and food. This was influenced by both economic and political conditions in Britain and the purpose of the tariff was to keep people from buying foreign corn products, which in turn compelled people to buy domestic corn products. The British Corn Laws were meant to stimulate the economy by enforcing domestic industry practices and also favor the rich landholders who were invested in farmland production.
The Corn Laws did not allow foreign corn into Britain unless domestic corn reached a price of 80 shillings per quarter. These laws gave a significant degree of protection to British cereal producers and they made huge profits from grain production. The landowners seized most of the monetary profit, and also retained much of the political power at the time. This was because the act of voting was reserved for those who owned land.
Hence, in actuality, the beneficiaries of the Corn Laws were the few people that were lucky people to reap the benefits and not the common people who were forced to buy grain at an absurdly high price. Britain’s common people were upset by the increasing price of grain products plus they suffered from starvation, poverty, and unsanitary living conditions. Many even had to quit their jobs as a result either because they were ill or because they needed to take care of family members; while those that earned a wage used a majority of it to buy grain products in order to survive.
Desperate for reform, the middle class wanted representation in their government and didn’t want to suffer like those that were impacted by the Irish in the Irish Potato Famine. Hence, the repeal of the Corn Laws was a motion intended to settle down the middle class by lowering the cost of grain products which in turn progressed to a free market economy. The repeal of the Corn-laws led by Sir Robert Peel was therefore a victory for the middle class.
This victory is definitely one of the historical examples of classical liberalism as it represented the triumph of the free trade movement that sought to lower prices on grain and provided the economy with various trade options. Classical liberals advocate a level of economic freedom that allows individuals to trade freely with others. Free trade is no doubt one of the tenets of classical liberalism, and the repeal of the Corn Laws contributed to ushering in a new era of free trade that characterized British economic policy for the rest of the nineteenth century.
United States Declaration of Independence
The United States Declaration of Independence is an example of classical liberalism. Richard Henry Lee asked the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to consider declaring independence from Great Britain and in response to this, congress appointed a committee of 5 to write the formal declaration. The first draft was written by Thomas Jefferson and a few changes were suggested by other members of the committee such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.
The United States Declaration of Independence was enacted during the American Revolution and explains why the 13 Colonies at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain regarded themselves as 13 independent sovereign states and no longer subject to British colonial rule. With the Declaration, the 13 states took a collective first step in forming the United States and formalized the American Revolutionary War that had been ongoing since April 1775.
The Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 of America’s Founding Fathers and became one of the most circulated and widely reprinted documents in early American history. In writing the declaration, Jefferson drew heavily on the political theories of John Locke’s book On civil government. The Declaration justified the independence of the United States by asserting certain natural and legal rights, including a right of revolution, and listed 27 colonial grievances against King George III.
This is one of the prominent examples of classical liberalism because the Declaration of Independence states three basic ideas that align with classical liberal values. The first one expressed that God made all men equal and gave them the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The others expressed that the main business of government is to protect these rights and the people are free to revolt and to set up a new government if a government tries to withhold these rights.
Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829
From the early 19th century until the First World War, classical liberalism was the dominant political theory in Britain and one of its notable victories was the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Therefore, the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 is one of the historical classical liberalism examples. Classical liberal ideas developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries emphasizing individual economic freedom and the protection of civil liberties under the rule of law. Hence, advocating economic freedom, limited government, and protection of basic human rights.
Catholic Emancipation is a classical liberalism example in British history because it represents the freedom from discrimination and civil disabilities that was granted to the Roman Catholics of Britain and Ireland during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1829, the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed the Catholic Emancipation Act 1829, also known as Catholic Relief Act 1829. It was the high point of the process of Catholic emancipation throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Roman Catholics in Britain had been harassed after the protestant reformation, by numerous restrictions. In Britain, they could not purchase land, inherit property, hold civil or military offices or seats in Parliament, or practice their religion freely without incurring civil penalties. In Ireland, they could not vote in parliamentary elections and could be readily dispossessed of their land by their nearest protestant relative.
Nonetheless, by the late 18th century, Roman Catholics had ceased to be considered the political and social danger that they had represented at the beginning of the Hanoverian succession. In 1823, Daniel O’Connell formed the Catholic Association to campaign for greater political rights and the removal of discrimination against Catholics.
In 1828, he was elected as a member of parliament for County Clare but as a Catholic, he was not allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons. The British Parliament was then forced to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, in order to avoid the risk of an uprising in Ireland. The passage of the Act then allowed Catholics to sit as MPs and take public office; thus enabling O’Connell to take his seat.
Bill of rights
The US Constitution is classically liberal and therefore one of the examples of classical liberalism. The need for the Constitution existed because of problems with the Articles of Confederation. A movement to reform the Articles of Confederation began and invitations were sent to the State legislatures in 1787 to attend a convention in Philadelphia to discuss changes to the Articles. In May of that year, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention quickly began work on drafting a new Constitution for the United States.
James Madison introduced 12 amendments to the First Congress in 1789. Ten of these went on to become what we now consider to be the Bill of Rights. One was never passed, while the other dealing with congressional salaries was not ratified until 1992 when it became the 27th Amendment. The Bill of Rights is the first of 10 Amendments to the Constitution which spells out the rights of Americans in relation to their government.
As one of the typical classical liberalism examples, the bill of rights guarantees civil rights and liberties to an individual such as freedom of speech, religion, and press. Classical liberalism advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with particular emphasis on individual autonomy, economic freedom, limited government, political freedom, and freedom of speech. The Bill of rights is therefore classical liberal as it sets rules for due process of law and retains all powers not delegated to the Federal Government to the people or the States.
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Examples of classical liberalism thinkers and advocates
- John Locke
- Jean-Baptiste Say
- Thomas Malthus
- David Ricardo
- Adam Smith
- Friedrich Hayek
- Milton Friedman
- Ludwig von Mises
- Thomas Sowell
- George Stigler
- Larry Arnhart
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