The Ideas That Saved Humanity

For nearly all of recorded history, there have been people who have hoped for and dreamed about a world without want or worry, a world in which cruelty and corruption did not darken the societies in which human beings lived. Power and plunder, indeed, have been the hallmarks of virtually every community of men through the ages. But these dreamers wondered if there was not a better way.

The liberation of humanity from poverty and tyranny only began in any meaningful way a little over three hundred years ago with the rise of what has become known as classical liberalism. A political philosophy of individualism began to take form that challenged and began a process of overthrowing the presumptions and practices of hereditary monarchies, religious rationales for governmental absolutism, and the stranglehold of mercantilist regulations, restrictions and controls over almost every facet of economic life in such nation-states as Imperial Great Britain and Royal France.

Classical liberals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the opponents of imperialism and war.

We should take a moment to recall the actual achievements of this earlier classical liberalism, especially in the nineteenth century. It campaigned for and brought about the abolition of the institution of human slavery, first in the West and then throughout much of the rest of the world. It spearheaded legal reforms that moved society toward a greater degree of impartial rule of law, and an equality of civil rights for growing numbers of citizens in the form of freedom of speech, the press, religion, and peaceful association. It also brought an end to the pervasive practice of cruel and unusual punishments by the agents of law enforcement.

Classical liberalism reined in the powers and prerogatives of kings and princes by transforming political absolutism into either constitutionally-restrained monarchies or by replacing them with republican forms of representative government; and in both, over time, more and more members of these societies were extended the voting franchise until the principle of universal suffrage became the rule.

Classical Liberals Against War and for Rules of War

In international affairs, classical liberals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the opponents of imperialism and war. They emphasized that kings and even parliaments may wax eloquent about national greatness, manifest destinies, and white man’s burdens, but it was the subjects and citizens of the imperial and colonial mother countries who had to fight the wars, suffer the human losses and bear the fiscal burdens of conquering and colonizing faraway parts of the globe. In the same process, they said, imperial adventures equally imposed hardships and foreign rule on those people in faraway lands who did not wish for foreign masters dictating and directing their destinies.

One other accomplishment of that earlier era of classical liberalism was the fostering through international treaty of a variety of formal “rules of war.” Nations at war were required to provide humane treatment for captured enemy prisoners; an occupying power was expected to respect the life and property of foreign, civilian non-combatants under their control due to the conflict; and there were to be restraints on the types and uses of weaponry permissible among “civilized” nations at war with each other to limit the death and destruction from combat, itself. 

Classical Liberalism Freed the Marketplace for Prosperity

Finally, classical liberalism ushered in a never-seen-before epoch of rising material human betterment for all in society, and no longer just for a small privileged few around the monarch or among the privileged religious orders. Modern free market capitalism was set free from the spider’s web of mercantilist economic planning and control. Individuals were declared to have individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property as the means to a pursuit of personal happiness.

Respected individual rights, private property, and free markets enabled the beginning of a new dawn for humanity

Classical economists like Adam Smith explained that for there to be wealth and prosperity for the general population all that was needed is “system of natural liberty” under which each individual is free to follow his own self-interest in peaceful associative exchange in an open, competitive marketplace. With an emerging interdependent system of division of labor, the only way to improve one’s own circumstances is to apply one’s talents and abilities to producing and offering on the market those things that others want and desire as the peaceful means of earning the financial wherewithal to, reciprocally, purchase from those others the goods and services desired for one’s own goals and purposes.

Respected individual rights, private property, and free markets enabled the beginning of a new dawn for humanity: mass production for the mass of mankind, brought about by the profit-motive as each individual, in their own self-interest, had to devise ways to make new, better and less expensive goods in the peaceful rivalry of market competition. The entrepreneurial spirit was set free from the dead hand of state control. And the economic revolution that has resulted in so much of the economic plenty and prosperity that we so easily take for granted was set in motion.

Of course, the transitional process from general poverty to widening prosperity in the nineteenth century occurred slowly over time in the West, with not everyone simultaneously experiencing the improvements or to the same degree. Rising prosperity and the potential for even more plenty existed side-by-side with highly visible remaining poverty along with those whom the capitalist engine of betterment had not yet noticeably touched.

As a number of historians and others have observed, never do the imperfections in the human condition and the circumstances of society arouse so much indignation and impatience with the pace of improvement as when those imperfections are, in fact, beginning to be widely diminished. Thus emerged one of the appeals for an alternative, socialist way. For more on this, see my article, “Before Modern Collectivism: The Rise and Fall of Classical Liberalism.”

Based on a presentation delivered as the John W. Pope Lecture sponsored by the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University on March 1, 2017.