Teaching Classical Liberalism

August 28, 2010

by Mario Rizzo  

Classical Liberalism 2010 

I have been involved in teaching a course in classical liberalism at NYU for almost two decades. For most of this time I have taught an Honors Seminar for first-semester freshmen. More recently, I have been teaching a version for NYU law students (now cross-listed at the Columbia Law School). I am posting the syllabus for the law course with active links for those who may be interested. (Unfortunately, I cannot provide access to any readings that do not have the publicly-available links.)  

This course is multidisciplinary. One of the problems created by approaching classical liberalism from the economics perspective alone is that students get an incomplete and impoverished view of the philosophy (dare I say “ideology”). Worse still, when the economics is presented from a neoclassical perspective, there is the danger that students will get the idea that classical liberalism elevates something called Efficiency or Wealth Maximization to the status of a god – or, at least, an ultimate normative standard. 

As you can easily see from the syllabus, there is much more going on. There are moral foundations – and not all of these foundations stem from the same intellectual tradition. Liberalism has been affected deeply by utilitarianism, natural law, and indirect (rule-following) consequentialism. There are important disagreements across these perspectives.  

Furthermore, the liberal traditions firmly reject conservatism insofar as the latter wishes to use the state to impose cultural, religious or moral values (exclusive of “justice” in the sense of David Hume and Adam Smith). Some years ago, I coined the term “moral dirigisme” to reflect the similarity between economic planning and moral planning. Liberals are opposed to “making men moral” in the words of the title of a book by the conservative Robert P. George.  

The practical accommodation that one sees between classical liberals and conservatives in today’s American politics begins to seem quite odd the more one looks at the intellectual history of each ideology. As F. A. Hayek pointed out in his “Why I am Not a Conservative” much of the American political tradition is liberal and so to “conserve” it is to appear conservative. But this is the artifact of a particular history. It does not go to the essence of the liberal idea. A fundamental commitment to liberty does not spare the particular state under which one lives.  

My main regret in constructing this syllabus is that I had to leave out the section on foreign policy that appeared in the version I gave in the Freshman Honors Seminar. Work on contemporary jurisprudence is more important in the context of a law school course. And yet the connection between interventionist foreign policy, growth of the state and the decline of civil liberties is part of the liberal analysis.  

If I had to choose the key liberal idea I would have to say it is the principle of spontaneous order. Closely related to this is the recognition that any complex society is characterized by a vast decentralization of knowledge. The task of social institutions is to mobilize this effectively for social use.  

I post the syllabus in the spirit of sharing with readers some of my ideas about how to tell the intellectual story of classical liberalism to more mature students. I have sometimes used readings that are abridged or are secondary treatments simply as a concession to the exigencies of presenting a big story in a short period of time.

16 Responses to “Teaching Classical Liberalism”


  1. Thanks to Mario for the post and the course. I have not yet looked at the syllabus.

    Mario hit the most important points on classical liberalism. The moral dimension is especially important.

    Organized religion has frequently allied with the state to advance its goals. That has often put liberalism in opposition to religion tout court. In Italy, the liberals allied with the communists against the Christian Democrats because they both hated the Catholic Church. Liberalism has never succeeded, succeeded, when it opposed religion.

    At the end of WWII, Hayek believed the center-right Christian Democrat parties would be the bulwark against communism. He founded the Mont Pelerin Society to end the conflict by uniting liberals and conservatives. (It was supposed to be called the Acton/DeToqueville Society, after the two great Catholic liberals.)

    The genius of the founding fathers in the US was to avoid the conflict by keeping the central government neutral on religion. At the federal level, there would be no established religion but religious competition. Religious competition is why the US became such a religious country. (It did not start that way.)

    Meanwhile in the US there was no systematic conflict bewteen religion and liberty in the 19th century. And they frequently made common cause.

    Progressivism sought to unite religion and the state in moral crusades against liquor, drugs, food, and in war. That undid the genius of the American system.

    At the end of WWII, William Buckley and Frank Meyer wanted to unite conservatives and classical liberals. They did so through fusionism. Reagan adhered to that strategy and that helped create his big tent coalition.

  2. chidemkurdas Says:

    I’m surprised to see Cicero figure prominently on this reading list. He’s a mixed bag in terms of classical liberalism, as was the ancient Roman republic. But certainly he’s influenced people, including some of the founders of the USA.

  3. Mario Rizzo Says:

    In the first case, Cicero is there because of his famous statement of the nature of natural law:It is the same everywhere for all people. He doesn’t give it any specific content, however.

    In the second case, he discusses when it is proper for a seller to withhold information from a buyer. One of the fact-patterns to which he refers is repeatedly discussed over a couple of thousand years by Aquinas and then the US Supreme Court. I chose the Cicero excerpt to trace the different treatments of the same set of facts.

    Of course, I do not mean to imply that Cicero was a classical liberal — although for his time he wasn’t too bad.

  4. Bill Stepp Says:

    How about Rothbard, “Justice and Property Rights,” and “The Anatomy of the State”–just to stir up a bit of debate?
    Jerry is right about established religion vs. religious competition, and the growth of religion. Roger Finke and Rodney Starke show how a free market encouraged the growth of religion in their great book The Churching of America.
    In old Europe, the Catholic church was either aligned with the State. or more likely to stamp its imprimatur on the State’s policies. In the U.S. the separation of church and state made for a more dynamic and heterogenous development of religious institutions.
    The progressives aligned with mainline Protestant churches and other “drys” to promote their crusades against liquor, etc., in opposition generally to Catholics and other “wets.”

  5. Eric Hosemann Says:

    One of the ideas rattling around in my brain since FEE this summer and while reading Human Action has been the idea that there are only two ways to understand human behavior the social context: it is either the result of persuasion by the extended order or coercion by lawlessness or government. I am pretty sure Mises says as much somewhere in the first 200 pages of Human Action but I forget where.
    In any case I think you are right to criticize the conservative’s moral dirigisme but I would add however that the modern liberal’s economic dirigisme is in fact really of the moral variety; i.e. once goverment conquers the problem of scarcity man will be able to achieve his real potential and the eschaton will be immanentized. Absent economic constraints man will act as he should have all along.
    I don’t mean to detract from your observation but to add that conservatives and modern liberals are in reality both conservative: they each harbor romantic notions of old, and sometimes disproven kinds of dirigisme.

    I don’t mean to detract from your criticism

  6. Troy Camplin Says:

    You should recommend they read the publications at http://www.studiesinemergentorder.com to get some of the most recent spontaneous order research.

  7. Gene Callahan Says:

    Mario, I think there are two very important assumptions in your view of Cicero, and I want to question both:

    1) “I do not mean to imply that Cicero was a classical liberal — although for his time he wasn’t too bad.”

    This assumes a progressive view of history. “For his time”? Well, a lot of bad things went on in his time, but there was no Armenian genocide, no Holocaust, no killing fields, no Gulag, no fire-bombing of Dresden, no Hiroshima, no Nagasaki. Both his time and our time have had a lot of awfulness. Oakeshott and one points writes that the most we can hope for is that the “ship of society” is kept afloat without to many men overboard (I paraphrase), and while that might seem pessimistic, I think it’s rather realistic. And that brings us to:

    2) When I began studying Roman history, I thought Cicero and Cato were “the good guys.” But after a lot of study, I think they meant well, but were foolish. By 50 BCE (perhaps even by the reforms of Sulla in 80 BCE, or maybe even earlier) the Roman Republic was well dead. The BEST that could have been hoped for was Caesar — an autocrat, but an affable one, who actually forgave his foes and gave them high posts in his regime.

    Which they used to kill him. Which brought on the reign of Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian, who proscribed (condemned to death) all of their political opponents, as well as many others whose property they merely wanted to seize. And which led to the principate under Octavian (Augustus).

    Political judgment should be guided by what is desirable and possible, not merely by what is desirable. Prudence is a virtue.

  8. Gene Callahan Says:

    “Oakeshott and one points writes”

    Aargh! “at one point writes”

  9. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Gene,

    I am definitely not a subscriber to the “progressive view of history.”

    All I meant was that classical liberalism had not yet be discovered or invented at his time. Cicero the person (politician) is not at issue. I am using his writing — in these two brief instances — as a tool to teach or make some points. I want to show that the idea of natural law is old (older than Cicero even) through a compact and rather memorably stated paragraph! And the other reading is just about contracts and info disclosure.

    However, it is hard, at one and the same time, to believe that a certain political philosophy is best without looking at history through that belief structure.

  10. Troy Camplin Says:

    One doesn’t have to believe in progressive history to understand that ideas have an origin, and that people build on those ideas. Indeed, an idea can come about that puts a culture on a different track than it had been so that the culture is now less complex, more tyrannical, etc. than it was before. Depending on one’s perspective, this is a setback or a move forward.

    There may be a notion of “progress”, though, that takes into account increasing social complexity and the necessary consequences of that. For example, more social complexity probably means our brains have to complexify in response to deal with the more complex society. This is bound to affect thinking.

  11. Richard Schulman Says:

    There are many profound thoughts embedded in Jerry O’Driscoll’s comments above — indeed, food for a book or a department’s worth of dissertations.

    More immediately, I’d like to suggest that we’re far from the wisdom of fusionism and the Reagan Big Tent when David Boaz and most of Cato are stridently pushing gay marriage while the National Review no less stridently argues for abortion restrictionism and U.S. military engagements devoid of strategic rationale.

  12. Richard Schulman Says:

    The classical liberalism syllabus is excellent. Thanks for posting. I look forward to reading the many essays that I haven’t read.

    As an offshoot, I hope we’ll have some follow up discussion here in ensuing months over how economists’ foundational values (natural law, utilitarianism, consequentialism) affect their economics, for better or worse.

  13. Richard Schulman Says:

    A propos the subject of values covertly embedded within economics, this excellent piece by Uwe Reinhardt that criticizes the Kaldor-Hicks criterion:

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/27/when-value-judgments-masquerade-as-science/

    or equivalently http://tinyurl.com/22vycxm

    (hat tip: Greg Mankiw’s blog)

  14. Troy Camplin Says:

    I second Schulman on his recommendation for followup discussions. I know that in my case, evolutionary biology, free market economics, chaos theory, complex adaptive systems, self-organization/spontaneous order, information theory, cognitive science, emergence theory, beauty, Aristotlean virtue ethics, Nietzsche’s philosophy, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, bios theory, literary theory/hermeneutics, primatology, cultural anthropology, cosmic evolution, J.T. Fraser’s emergentist theory of time, Clare Grave’s emergentist theory of psychological and social evolution, tragedy, and Frederick Turner’s natural classical artistic theory have all worked in cycles of feedback loops to form and inform each other in me to bring me to support classical liberalism in general and Austrian economics in particular. But that’s just me.

  15. Hume Says:

    Professor Rizzo,

    The course looks amazing! I am currently in the LLM program in Legal Theory. Unfortunately, your course conflicts with Professor Murphy’s Modern Legal Philosophy Seminar. I really wish I could take both!

  16. Shruti Says:

    Love the course outline!!! Wish I were there this semester itself!


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