The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism

Liberalism as a political doctrine has had an enormous amount written about it over the years, mainly by philosophers. Surprisingly, historians, and particularly historians of thought, have had much less to say. There are only a handful of general histories of liberalism as a body of ideas and all of them have certain problems. Some, such as the classic works by Ruggiero and Mises are old and while fine works inevitably dated. Others, such as the ones by Arblaster and Laski are written by authors who are hostile to the basic ideas – this means that while they often have insights that come from an adversarial posture they also engage in critique at the expense of exposition or understanding. The main problem however is that most of the accounts that we do have are written by people who while undoubtedly liberals identify with the collectivist and government friendly version of the ideas. (Mises’ Liberalism is the only real exception). This means that individualist or classical liberalism loses out. Its main ideas and arguments are either ignored or presented as the early and simple forms of a way of thinking that have now been supplanted by later, more sophisticated argument. This means that classical liberalism, the liberalism of Locke, Spencer, and  J. S. Mill (but also of Mises and  Hayek) is seen as a relic, an old way of thinking, rather than as a continuing tradition of thought, while the ideas of the thinkers themselves are often misunderstood and caricatured.

George Smith has now produced a work that goes a long way to redressing that deficiency. The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism is a slim book but is packed with a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and insight, all set out in clear and elegant prose. As the subtitle suggests, this is not a simple narrative work, although there is an implicit narrative, which traces liberalism back to the seventeenth century and to the British Isles and the Low Countries in particular. Rather it is a thematic work, which looks at key ideas for classical liberals, explains the way they were understood by key thinkers in the tradition and examines the debates and divisions that came about from using these ideas to understand everyday politics. Among the topics covered are ‘Liberalism, Old and New’, ‘Liberalism and the Public Good’, ‘Liberal Ideology and Political Philosophy’, ‘The Idea of Freedom’, and ‘Conflicts in Classical Liberalism’.  What Smith explains very clearly is the radicalism of the classical liberals and the degree to which this was and remains an ideology of radical opposition to establishments and power. He also highlights and explains aspects of classical liberals’ thinking that are often overlooked or forgotten such as their theory of class and exploitation and the way their thinking from Locke onwards combined a deep concern for the public good with an understanding of that notion that restricted the role and scope of power, particularly institutionalised power.

The book is so rich in insights and in exposition of little known material that one hardly knows where to start in terms of recommending particular parts. Two in particular caught my eye. The first was  Smith’s account of the forgotten tradition of educational voluntaryism or opposition to the very idea of state education, as propounded by people such as J. S. Mill and the Leeds manufacturer and newspaperman Edward Baines – this is both interesting in itself and also raises the very interesting question of why so many staunch classical liberals such as Richard Cobden supported state education, something that should give us an insight into some of the divisions and tensions within the ideology that Smith explores. The second is the question of whether an adequate defence of liberal ideas needs polymathic scholars rather than specialised experts, which he appends to a powerful and moving critique of the ideal of academic specialisation by J. S. Mill. There are others though, such as his account of the nature and meaning of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence as a succinct statement of classical liberal ideas about rights, government and the rights of resistance and rebellion.

This is a book that has been needed for a long time and now that it is here we can be sure that it will soon acquire the status of a classic. Like all good books it has much that sympathetic readers will challenge (such as its views on utilitarianism for example) and even more that will hopefully stimulate future scholarship and research. For anyone interested in the ideas of classical liberalism this is a book that you must read.

The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, by George H. Smith, is published by Cambridge University Press (2013).

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