Written by ‘Classical Liberal’
Classical liberal economists campaigned for several important changes to British and European economic systems. The first put an end to numerous mercantilist and feudal barriers to states’ internal trade and production. The second stopped restrictions and tariffs that governments levied on foreign imports to safeguard domestic manufacturers. Classical economics rejected the government’s regulation of commerce in favour of a faith in the superiority of the self-regulating market. The works of Smith and his 19th century English followers, the economist David Ricardo and the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill, became ever more influential as Britain’s Industrial Revolution created huge wealth and turned Britain into the workshop of the world. It held out the hope that free trade would enable everyone to prosper.
In the economic sphere, as in politics, the cardinal tenet of classical liberalism was an unbending conviction that government’s power should be limited. This view was pithily expounded by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his only advice to government: ‘Be quiet’. Others opined that the best government is that which governs least. Classical liberals openly agreed that the government should provide law enforcement, a postal system, sanitation, education, and other public services that private firms were incapable of providing. However, they tended to argue that, except for these public services, the government should not attempt to provide individuals with what they can provide for themselves.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Bentham, the philosopher James Mill, and his son John Stuart Mill adopted the classical economic theory to the political arena. Applying the concept of utilitarianism – the idea that something is valuable if it promotes happiness or is useful – they proclaimed that the aim of all government legislation should be ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. When assessing what system of government could best achieve these goals, the utilitarians tended to champion representative democracy, arguing that it was the best way that government could promote the interests of the people they governed.
Building upon the concept of a market economy, the utilitarians advocated a political system that would give the people the greatest amount of individual freedom consonant with effective government and the maintenance of social stability. They championed increased education, increased suffrage, and regular elections to make the government accountable to its citizens. Their defence of individual liberties – including freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion – is integral to modern democracy. The classic argument in favour of these freedoms is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), which advocates on utilitarian principles that the government may only control an individual’s actions in cases where others’ interests would be harmed.
Thus, the utilitarians expanded the philosophical base of political liberalism while also articulating a program of particular reformist aims for liberals to champion. The utilitarians’ overarching political philosophy was probably set out best in James Mill’s ‘Government’ (1815).
Liberalism became the main ideological driver of reform in Europe during the 19th century. Of course, its success rate depended upon the history of each state – the power of the sovereign, the strength of the aristocracy, the speed of industrialisation, the route to national unification, and the place of religion. For example, liberalism in catholic states, like France, Italy, and Spain often assumed anti-clerical tones and often advocated laws curtailing the political power and civil authority of the church.
By the middle of the 19th century, the Whigs in Britain had morphed into the Liberal Party, whose programs of reform provided the template for liberals across Europe. Liberals drove the long struggle that abolished Britain’s slave trade in 1807 and slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. The liberal dream of expanding Britain’s electoral franchise resulted in the Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1884-1885. The extensive reforms accomplished by Liberal governments under William Gladstone for fourteen years between 1868 and 1894 signalled the pinnacle of British liberalism.
Liberalism in mainland Europe tended to lack the necessary mix of a strong liberal party and wide popular support that it enjoyed in Britain. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic governments in France followed liberal programs with the abolition of feudalism and the modernisation of the moribund system of the ancient regime. However, following the Bourbon Restoration of 1815, French liberals were embroiled in a long struggle to secure constitutional liberties and an expanded popular role in government under a re-established monarchy, not accomplished until the creation of the Third Republic in 1871.
Across Europe and the Western world, liberalism fired nationalistic desires for the formation of unified, independent, constitutional states with their own parliaments and the rule of law. The most obvious proponents of this liberal attack on authoritarian rule were the Founding Fathers of the US, the revolutionary Simon Bolivar in Latin America, the Italian Risorgimento, and Lajos Kossuth in Hungary. However, the failure of the 1848 revolutions demonstrated the relative weakness of liberalism in mainland Europe. The liberals’ failure to unify the Germanic states in the middle of the 19th century was largely due to the reactionary stance of Austria and the pre-eminent position of a militaristic Prussia. Italian unification did not occur until the 1860s because of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and the armies of Austria and France.
The USA was different, as it did not possess a monarchy, an aristocracy, or an established church that liberalism could rally against. Rather, liberalism was so well embedded in the USA’s political culture, structure, and legal system that there was not an obvious part for a liberal party to play until the 20th century.
Liberalism played a transformative role in Europe during the 19th century. Classical liberalism provided ideological legitimisation for modernisation and industrialisation which brought major changes. Feudalism ended, aristocrats lost their privileges, and monarchs were stripped of absolute power. The static economies of the Middle Ages were supplanted by capitalism, and the middle class was freed to use its energy to expand the means of production and dramatically increase the wealth of society. As liberals curtailed the power of kings, they brought the notion of constitutional government, accountable to the citizenry via elected representatives, into life.
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