July 27, 2015 Print

The modern traditions of free markets, limited government, the rule of law, and peace can be laid squarely at the feet of classical liberal thinkers dating back to the 17th century — and perhaps earlier. U.K.-based Atlas Network partner the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) has published a brand-new book explaining the history and development of these ideas in a format perfect to share with newcomers to the philosophy of freedom.

Classical Liberalism: A Primer is written by Eamonn Butler, director of Atlas Network partner the Adam Smith Institute and author of countless other works in the classical liberal tradition. The book aims to return classical liberal thought to its proper place in the worldwide history of ideas.

“Despite its importance, classical liberalism is today poorly understood, often misrepresented (wilfully so in many cases) and wrongly identified with other ways of thinking, notably conservatism,” wrote IEA Education Director Stephen Davies in the book’s foreword. “Given this, Eamonn Butler’s account is particularly welcome. It is a wonderfully clear and well set out introduction to what classical liberalism is as a system of thought, whence it came, what it is like now and where it might be going. One valuable feature of the book is the way that it brings out the differences and variety within what nevertheless remains a coherent approach to political thinking and questions of public policy.”

IEA summarizes some of the key ideas in Butler’s Classical Liberalism: A Primer in a useful introduction on its website:

  • Classical liberals give priority to individual freedom in social, political and economic life. They recognise that different people’s freedoms may conflict, and disagree on where the limits to freedom lie, but broadly agree that individual freedom should be maximised and the use of force should be minimised.
  • They see the individual as more important than the collective and call for limited, representative government that draws its legitimacy from the people. Governments should themselves be bound by the rule of law, and justice should be dispensed according to accepted principles and processes.
  • Classical liberals disagree about the exact role of the state, but generally wish to limit the use of force, whether by individuals or governments. They call for states that are small and kept in bounds by known rules. The main problem of politics is not how to choose leaders, but how to restrain them once they have power.
  • Classical liberalism is not the same as American liberalism, which values social freedom but gives much economic power to the state. Nor is it an atomistic idea: it sees individuals as members of various overlapping groups, with many family, moral, religious or other allegiances. Such civil society institutions are a useful bulwark against central state power.
  • Free speech and mutual toleration are viewed as essential foundations for peaceful cooperation between free people. Classical liberals argue that such cooperation gives rise to spontaneous social orders (such as markets, customs, culture and language) that are infinitely more complex, efficient and adaptive than anything that could be designed centrally.

Additional summary points are available here, and the entire book is available online in a free PDF copy.

Read IEA’s summary introduction to Classical Liberalism: A Primer.

Read the full PDF copy of Classical Liberalism: A Primer.

Learn more about Dr. Eamonn Butler.