I would recommend that Classical Liberalism – A Primer, by Eamonn Butler, be incorporated
into the standard curriculum of any university’s political science or economics
course, and be made required reading, qua
primer, except I know that in today’s educational environment pigs will fly
first class on Kuwait Airways before that ever happens. I would even recommend it be used as a textbook
in high schools’ “social studies” courses; however, I realize that is as unlikely as
roses blooming on Mars, as well, as long as public schools remain in the
government’s “public” hands. Public schools and universities are in the tenacious
grip of anti-American, anti-Western, anti-freedom, anti-freedom of speech faculties
of Marxists, collectivists, feminists, enforcers of politically correct thought
and language, and the advocates of tolerance for everything but free inquiry.
High school students who survive the dumbing-down
of their cognitive powers and the corruption of the evidence of their senses by
Common Core, and college students who successfully resist, at the risk of their
tenure as students, their incessant political indoctrination in academia, may
or may not have difficulty reading Butler’s brief introduction to the subject
of classical liberalism. It all depends on their commitment to take their
“education” seriously and their willingness to escape or combat the poisonous miasma
of contemporary educational philosophy. It all depends on whether they’re
satisfied with being the passive receptors of the “received wisdom” of Karl
Marx and Howard Zinn and the U.S. Department of Education, or have active minds
that are not satisfied or content with the zealous but pat explanations offered
by their PC professors.
Butler writes that Classical Liberalism – A Primer is “designed for students and lay
readers who may understand the general concepts of social, political and
economic freedom, but who would like a systematic presentation of its essential
Butler is director of
the Adam Smith Institute in London, and has written a number of books on the
Austrian and other pro-freedom schools of economics. In this new title he
painlessly and in plain language introduces the reader to the whole panoply of
classical liberal thought throughout the centuries.
As a primer, Classical
introduces the student or lay reader to some fundamental aspects
of this school of economics, such as the upholding of the individual over the group,
the primacy of individual choice in terms of economic action over a government’s
“command economy” policies, and the long-range destructive consequences of
state interference in an individual’s life and in a nation’s economy. What classical
liberalism isn’t, is conservatism,
which bases its advocacy of individual freedom on religious or traditional
argumentation. Stephen Davies, in the Foreword, writes of Classical Liberalism:
is a wonderfully clear and well set out introduction to what classical
liberalism is as a system of thought, whence it came, what it is like now and
where it might be going. One valuable feature of the book is the way that it
brings out the differences and variety within what nevertheless remains a
coherent approach to political [and not merely to economic] thinking and
questions of public policy.
Davies explains that classical liberalism is:
distinct from socialism and other forms of egalitarian collectivism such as
social democracy and social or ‘new’ liberalism. It is also not the same as
conservatism, being generally more optimistic, more trusting in reason (as
opposed to faith or tradition).
My chief reservation about all the classical liberal thinkers cited and discussed by Butler – beginning
with John Locke and ending with Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick but excepting
Ayn Rand – is that they all based the moral justification of laissez-faire
capitalism and freedom on either an explicit or implicit altruistic tenet: that
such freedom benefits society, it is for “the greater good,” it is the “greatest
good for the greatest number,” and so on. John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas
Jefferson, and their contemporaries can be excused that failing; to have advocated
in a largely Christian culture that man exists for his own reasons and for no
other, would have clashed violently with the overriding moral atmosphere of
their times, and had them excoriated.
But John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer especially
among all the thinkers highlighted by Butler are guilty of having characterized
freedom as a utilitarian value, not as
one that is derived from man’s nature as a volitional being. That failing
continues to be indulged up to the present day. The “practical” values of freedom,
reason and capitalism can always be denied by socialists, collectivists who
seize the moral “high ground” and declaim that these values have outlived their
purpose and assert, as Barack Obama has said, “It’s
time to try something new.”
Which, in his mind, was the expansion of government
powers. Hardly “new.”
Butler, intentionally or not, does credit to his
book by not challenging the altruist premises of most of his subjects. Still,
the moral foundations of classical liberalism, as presented in the book remain
woozy and adumbrate, even though such ideas as natural rights, spontaneous
orders, toleration, and the rule of law are treated at length.  
I would like to have seen Butler agree with Ayn
Rand that laissez-faire capitalism is a primarily a political system, and not
just an economic one. He could very well have quoted her from Capitalism: The
Unknown idea:
is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property
rights, in which all property is privately owned.
recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from
human relationships: basically, rights can be violated only by means of force.
In a capitalist society, no man or group may initiate the use of
physical force against others. The only function of the government, in such a
society, is the task of protecting man’s rights, i.e., the task of protecting
him from physical force; the government acts as the agent of man’s right of
self-defense, and may use force only in retaliation and only against those who
initiate its use; thus the government is the means of placing the retaliatory
use of force under objective control.
This means that the social system is a coercion-free
one, except in the circumstance of retaliation, and that the state’s role in it
is a subsidiary one. A society governed by a laissez-faire morality could be likened
to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel or to any other luxury hotel; such places are not
defined or known by how many doormen, valets, and maids they employ.
I would recommend Classical Liberalism – A Primer, but with two major caveats, and
one minor one.
The first is that Immanuel Kant
(1724-1804), the Prussian philosopher who never left his home town of
Königsberg, was not a “classical liberal,” even though Butler includes him among
past thinkers who contributed to the literature of liberty. He wrote far, far
fewer words about liberty and governments being restrained in their powers than
he wrote on philosophy, that is, on the noumenal
and phenomenal
worlds and the categorical imperative. He wrote that man
cannot know the “real” ideal world, and that our senses inherently distort what
we think we know. Kant was a dedicated enemy of the Enlightenment, which he saw
as a threat to religion. His categorical imperative is the basis for the notion
of “duty,” which let loose the horrors of Nazism and Communism (and, separately,
Shintoism for the Imperial Japanese government). “We’ve got to break eggs and
heads to achieve the perfect human society, regardless of reason and the lives
we sacrifice.”
Religion was what he wanted to save from the
onslaught of reason. He appropriated the term “reason” and then proceeded to
eviscerate it of all meaning in two brain-stultifying Critiques.
So any scrivenings he may have penned are distracting and utterly irrelevant in
any discussion of freedom and liberty, and should be dismissed as a very minor
footnote in the history of ideas, if even that. Kant’s Critiquesof Pure Reason
and of Judgment – are what he is best
known for, and through those works Kant has had a profoundly pernicious and
deadly influence on the course of philosophy and politics in the 19th, 20th and
21st centuries.
One wouldn’t call Hitler, Mao, Stalin or Mussolini
champions of free enterprise and individual rights just because they happen to
have once uttered those words at some point in their murderous political
careers. Drafting Kant as an ally of classical liberalism is like consulting an
Islamic supremacist on how to fight and defeat ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood.
My second reservation regards an exclusion, which
is the glaring and inexplicable omission of Ludwig von Mises from
Classical Liberalism in terms of a précis or two of
his positions on politics and economics. He is mentioned infrequently, and only
incidentally and parenthetically (e.g., p. xvi and p. 25, ), as a kind of “also
ran” contributor to the corpus of classical liberal literature throughout
Butler’s book. His works are not included in the list of “classical texts.”
There is no web link listed to the Mises Institute.
In the “classical liberal timeline” (p. 125), an early work of Mises’s, Liberalismus, from 1927, is grudgingly
mentioned but not explicated.
By omitting von Mises as a “key classical liberal
thinker,” and giving him very short shrift as an economist and innovator in the
field, Butler does his book a disservice. Snubbing von Mises, possibly because
of doctrinal
between him and other classical liberals, is tantamount to leaving
Victor Hugo out of a serious discussion of the major Romantic novelists of the
19th century. When I read of the differences between the Mises camp and the
other camps, I can’t help but recall that tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing
.” I do not know the nature of the animus Butler (and, by implication,
the IEA and the Adam Smith Institute) has for Mises. It would be interesting to
learn what it is.
My minor reservation concerns the designation of
Ayn Rand, whose philosophy is partly but erroneously distilled in the book (p.
105), as a “Russian-American novelist and moralist.” Rand regarded herself as
an American, exclusively, who escaped Soviet Russia. A better designation might
have emulated that of Hannah
, who is called a “German-born political theorist.” Rand retained all
her life a heavy Russian accent, but she would have been the first to protest
the hyphenation of her nationality. She came from a Jewish family, but she
would also have objected to being called a “Jewish-American novelist”: she was
an atheist. The précis affiliates her with libertarianism, which she abhorred. She
was also a philosopher, and not a mere “moralist.” Her having written
extensively on epistemology, metaphysics, concept-building and the development of
philosophical thought over time, eminently qualifies Rand as a bona fide philosopher,
and not just as a classical liberal groupie. The skewed distillation of her
philosophy makes her sound like a champion of holistic mental health. She advocated
egoism and selfishness, not “self-actualization,” as the moral foundations of
any political and economic system.
To conclude, I would recommend Classical Liberalism – A Primer as a textbook, but only if I were teaching a course on the subject.
That way I could be certain that my students would be cautioned concerning my
qualified endorsement. And they are important reservations. A likely
alternative text would be Capitalism:
The Unknown Ideal
Liberalism – A Primer
, by Eamonn Butler. London: the Institute of
Economic Affairs, 2015. pp. 132.