The Classical Liberal Tradition - A History of Ideas and Movements over 400 Years

[Created: December 17, 2011]
[Updated: January 15, 2017]


Concept Map of Classical Liberalism




  1. an examination of the tradition of political and economic thought which came to be known as “classical liberalism”/libertarianism
    • what CLs for for: Twelve Key Concepts of the Classical Liberal Tradition (CLT)
    • what CLs were against
  2. a brief survey of the history of the Classical Liberal movement over the past 375 years (1640–2015). Key movements and people:
    • 1640s: the English Civil War/Revolution
    • 1750–1790: the American and French Revolutions
    • the long liberal century 1815–1914
    • the post-WW2 liberal renaissance
  3. a discussion of the theory and history of the spread of Classical Liberal ideas
    • ideas and interests
    • the production, dissemination and consumption of ideas: the role of producers, investors, entrepreneurs, salespeople, and consumers of ideas
    • the nature and speed of ideological change

Some definitions of liberty and classical liberalism:

  • “human liberty subject to as few constraints and restraints imposed by others as possible” (David Conway)
  • “The “nonaggression axiom” where aggression is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else” (Rothbard)
  • “the advocacy of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government rooted in a commitment to self-ownership, imprescriptible rights, and the moral autonomy of the individual” (David Boaz)
  • Herbert Spencer’s “the law of equal liberty”: “every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man”

Different liberal theories about the proper functions of the state:

  • the “classical” classical liberal state (Smith, Mill, Hayek)
  • the “minarchist state” (Mises, Rand, Nozick)
  • the “ultra-minarchist state” (Say, Bastiat, Molinari II)
  • the fully “voluntarist state” (Spencer, Molinari I, Rothbard)


  • is classical liberalism/libertarianism “conservative” or “revolutionary”?
  • when did CLs become self-conscious that they were advocating a consistent worldview which could be articulated in one volume?

Recommended Reading


  • David M. Hart, “Study Guides on the Classical Liberal Tradition” <>
  • The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, (EoL) ed. Ronald Hamowy (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008. A Project of the Cato Institute).
    • especially the survey by Steve Davies’ “General Introduction,” pp. xxv-xxxvii.

Anthologies of Primary Sources:

Histories of the Classical Liberal/Libertarian Movement:

  • Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000-Year History, told through the Lives of Freedom’s greatest Champions (New York: The Free Press, 2000).
  • Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007).
  • George Smith, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

History and Theory of Free Market Economics:

  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, ed. David R. Henderson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Also available online at Econlib
  • Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. I Economic Thought before Adam Smith (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006).
  • Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. II Classical Economics (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006).

Key Movements and People in the CLT: see the list of relevant articles on this topic in the EoL

What the Classical Liberals were AGAINST

By historical period:

  • The Early Modern Period (17th and 18th Centuries): Throne, Altar, Barracks, Mercantilism (Cronyism), Serfdom
  • The 19th Century: Conservatism, Militarism, Protectionism, Imperialism, Socialism
  • The 20th Century to the Present: Socialism, Bolshevism/Communism, Fascism, Keynesianism, Welfare/Warfare State, Surveillance State

A Summary of What CLs were Against

  • arbitrary political power
  • arbitrary religious power
  • slavery & serfdom
  • war & conscription
  • taxation
  • national debt
  • tariffs & other trade protection
  • subsidies & monopolies to favoured industries
  • central bank & fiat money
  • empire & colonies
  • censorship
  • torture, arbitrary arrest & imprisonment, execution

What Classical Liberals were FOR

Periods of intense Classical Liberal activity

  • The English Civil Wars/Revolutions of the mid 17th century (1640–1688)
  • The 18thC Enlightenment/Revolutions in Europe and North America (1750–1790)
  • 19th century Classical Liberalism (1815–1914)
  • Post-World War 2 Liberal Renaissance

A Summary of what CLs were for:

  • the foundations of belief in liberty
    • grounds: natural rights or utility
    • basic principles: life, liberty, property
  • processes for achieving liberty
    • toleration; spontaneous orders; free movement of people, goods, and ideas
    • individual flourishing; peace co-existence with others
    • non-aggression principle, arbitation of disputes
  • bundles of liberties
    • political/legal freedoms
    • economic freedoms
    • social freedoms

Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty:

  1. Natural Law and Natural Rights
  2. Private Property
  3. Individual Liberty
  4. Idea of Spontaneous Order
  5. Free Markets
  6. Limited Government
  7. Rule of Law
  8. Freedom of Speech & Religion
  9. Free Trade
  10. Peace
  11. Progress
  12. Right of Free Movement (Exit/Entry)

Recommended Reading

Discussion Group: The Theory and History of the spread of Classical Liberal ideas

Questions to consider about how societies change, and the role which ideas and individuals play in bringing about that change:

  • how are ideas about liberty developed and how do they spread?
  • what role does new technology play in this process?
  • what role do individuals play? (great thinkers, charismatic leaders, ordinary people in the street)
  • who are the vested interests who oppose change in a pro-liberty direction?
    • how effectively do they control what can and cannot be discussed?
    • how do they maintain “cultural hegemony”?
  • what groups are interested in change in a pro-liberty direction?
  • what role do institutions play in protecting the old order?
    • creating the foundation for a new order?
  • what role has violent revolution played in achieving a freer society?
  • what role has gradual evolution played in bringing about a freer society?
  • what is the relationship between changing ideas and changing politics?
    • how long does it take for new and radical ideas to go from conception to inception?
  • what role do institutional crises (wars, economic depressions) play in hastening or hindering change in a pro-liberty direction?
  • is Marx/Lenin correct in arguing that revolutionary change requires both suitable “objective conditions” (political, economic crisis) as well as suitable “subjective conditions” (change in ideas and values)?
    - for classical liberals what are the required objective and subjective conditions for successful change?
  • are there any common characteristics which define a “successful” pro-liberty movement?
    • what are they and can they be replicated?

Recommended Reading

The Online Library of Liberty’s “Liberty Matters: An Online Discussion Forum” (March, 2015) on “The Spread of Classical Liberal Ideas”: