by Mario Rizzo
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.