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Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century

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The history of mankind is a history of war, conquest, and oppression. From ancient times to the modern era, peace and freedom have been rare occurrences in the sweep of human events. When peace has prevailed for extended periods of time, it has invariably occurred under the yoke of despotic regimes that have wielded greater military force and internal political power to hold back the threat of rival kings and tyrants and maintain domestic stability.

When men dreamed of a world of peace, they often did so in visions of collectivist and socialist-type societies. Thomas More’s Utopia (1615), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Gerrand Winstanley’s Law of Freedom (1652), Denis Vairasse’s History of the Sevarites (1675), Morelly’s Code of Nature, or the True Spirit of the Laws (1755), and Fontenelle’s Republic of Philosophers (1768) all conceived of a future world without war or conflict in which men would live in harmony and tranquility.

But every one of them portrayed a society in which private property was either abolished or severely restrained — since private ownership, they believed, was the root of selfishness, greed, and the poverty of many for the benefit of the few who could enjoy wealth — and in which a ruling caste of wise, noble, and good men would ensure order and peace through social control and through the planning of virtually every aspect of life for the benefit of the greater community of men.

Only starting in the middle of the 18th century did there emerge a different vision of a society of peace and freedom. It is found in the writings of the French Physiocrats and the Scottish moral philosophers, two of whose leading figures were David Hume and Adam Smith. Their ideas were refined and popularized by the classical economists of the first half of the 19th century.

The ideas of the classical economists became the economic foundation for the classical-liberal revolution that radically changed the course of human events. They argued that private property was not the source of conflict among men but rather the institutional prerequisite for social peace. They reasoned that men have a logical basis for peacefully associating and cooperating with each other to obtain the benefits from the greater productivity and gains from trade that develop through a system of division of labor. They explained that the benefits from a division of labor were ecumenical in their nature, that is, the benefits from specialization and trade between members of the same community or region were no less universally true for all people who might happen to live in different countries.

Though it varied from country to country, it was nonetheless true that by the 1870s, most governments in Western and Central Europe and in North America were more respectful of personal and economic freedom than in any previous time in human history. And there were increasingly internationally promulgated “rules of war” that were meant to restrain and confine the destruction and harm that governments were allowed to visit upon their own citizens and their property as well as on those of enemy nations in the heat of war.

But before the 19th century ended, the classical-liberal ideal of a world of global peace through private market relationships, with governments confined to simply enforcing the “rules of the game,” was prevented from coming to full fruition owing to the rise of nationalism and socialism. The growing ascendancy of these competing ideologies culminated in the First World War in 1914. And out of the Great War came fascism, communism, Nazism, and interventionist-welfare statism in the 1920s and 1930s. These, in turn, created the conditions that resulted in the Second World War.

The total state led to total war, in which the very notion of the innocent civilian lost all meaning. The “enemy” in war was every man, woman, and child on the other side of the battle line. Mass murders of millions of unarmed people, day-and-night fire bombings of entire cities, and even atomic weaponry to terrorize whole nations into surrender were all considered legitimate methods to conquer, destroy, and defeat the enemy.

The second half of the 20th century merely continued this pattern. Under the shadow of the Cold War, communism enslaved tens of millions in the straitjacket of comprehensive social engineering and political terror. On the Western side of the Iron Curtain the model was regulation, intervention, and welfare redistributivism. War and violence remained a tool of political control and conquest on both sides.

In all of the history of mankind, classical liberalism was the first social philosophy to demonstrate how men could live together in peace and freedom for mutual betterment and improvement. The task before us is to renew and restore this vision and ideal, so that they can once again transform the world.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).