The System of Liberty

July 18, 2013

by Jerry O’Driscoll

I have just completed George Smith’s The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism. I recommend it highly to all. It is a tour de force, and an essential read for all those interested in classical liberal ideas. Many of the debates today on the political right have their origin in the debates over classical liberalism.

The book is co-published by the Cato Institute and Cambridge University Press. This is the second book this year jointly published by Cato and Cambridge, and is a coup for Cato. The other one is Richard Timberlake’s Constitutional Money: A Review of the Supreme Court’s Monetary Decisions.

Smith tells us that “’classical liberalism’ refers to a political philosophy in which liberty plays the central role.” A great deal is packed into that definition, and much of the book is devoted to developing and explicating all the issues. These include, among other issues, concepts such as order, justice, rights and freedom. It includes such monumental controversies, some still with us, as natural rights versus utilitarianism.

Quoting Lord Acton in the Introduction, Smith observes that “the true liberal views liberty as an end, not merely as a means; it is a value that is not “exchangeable for any amount, however large of national greatness and glory, of prosperity and wealth, of enlightenment or morality.’” Historically, liberalism developed around concrete issues. “Liberty of conscience” was one such, and was bound up in the struggle for religious freedom. That struggle was played out in Britain, but influenced events in the United States.

Smith takes up many issues or themes, beginning with “Liberalism, Old and New.” What Smith terms the “Lockean paradigm” of natural rights, social contract, consent, property, and the rights of resistance and revolution dominated old liberalism. Even when criticized, the paradigm established the terms of the debate.

I will highlight two chapters. “The Radical Edge of Liberalism” is quite important. In it, he examines the key language of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration articulates the rights of resistance and revolution embodied in the Lockean paradigm. Smith asks of that paradigm: “Who has the right to judge when revolution is justified?” Locke answered: “’ The People shall be Judge.’”

It is no wonder that liberalism engendered conflicts, even within the tradition. Natural rights were seen as too radical by some, like Jeremy Bentham, and utilitarianism was the outcome. In “Conflicts in Classical Liberalism,” Smith notes that, prior to Bentham, traditional thinking saw no conflict between utility and natural rights. “Thus if social utility is the general goal of legislation, natural rights are the standard, or rule, which must be followed if this goal is to be achieved.” As noted by Smith, “Bentham broke with this venerable tradition.” He made “social utility serve as both the goal and standard of political activity.”
Smith is scrupulously fair to all thinkers, including critics of classical liberalism.

In Bentham’s case, however, he reveals Bentham to be a confused thinker who ultimately failed to make sense of his hedonic calculus. As Bentham came to admit, it was impossible to add up happiness across individuals. That is not to say that utilitarianism as developed by other thinkers was subject to criticisms leveled against the Benthamite calculus. But the problem is that utilitarianism, by undermining natural rights, undermined classical liberalism.

There is a great deal more to this book, and I hope many will read it. Smith is an exceptionally good writer. But the ideas he examines are deep, and the book is not an easy read. Smith does not skip lightly over topics. I have a few quibbles with some of what he writes, but very few. Decide for yourself.

3 Responses to “The System of Liberty”

  1. Some Links Says:

    […] Gerald O’Driscoll has just finished reading George Smith’s new book, The System of Liberty.  Gerry likes it. […]


  2. […] The System of Liberty (thinkmarkets.wordpress.com) […]


  3. Thanks for the “heads up” regarding the availability of this new study — I just put in an order for it.

    I’ll be especially interested in Smith’s discussion of how Bentham’s utilitarianism led to the demise of the natural rights’ underpinning of classical liberalism.

    What are the implications as to how we proceed today?


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