The System of Liberty


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I should like to write a review of George H. Smith’s The System of Liberty – Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism (2013 Cambridge). But I think it is more realistic that I should just go at it occasionally in this thread, getting up at least some windows, and we can begin discussion.

Ayn Rand is not mentioned in this text. There is no treatment of the ways in which her political philosophy and her view of human nature behind it overlaps or departs from classical liberalism and its arguments. That is good work for this thread and for future publications.*

There is sparse mention of twentieth-century thinkers in this work. I notice L. von Mises, Hayek, Schumpter, M. Friedman, and Popper. That sparseness is appropriate to the scope of this work’s aim, which is the development of positions and arguments of classical liberalism extending forward so far as the nineteenth century, but not the twentieth. If one has learned arguments on various political issues from libertarian writings from the last century and this century, then in George’s book, one can find their genesis and early development. That story is interesting of itself, and it occasions one to reflect on those issues of political philosophy today. I have found that in modern science, too, a good way to learn the ideas is by learning their history, their layers.

In my library is The Evolution of Liberalism (1962) by Harry Girvetz. Part 1 is on classical liberalism, Part 2 on contemporary liberalism. Listed both in the Index to that work and in George’s Index are thinkers pertinent to theory of classical liberalism from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century: Hobbes and Locke; Montesquieu, Hume, Rousseau, A. Smith, Burke, and Paley; Paine, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton; Bentham, Tocqueville, J. & J.S. Mill, Spencer, and Marx.

A writer important to the history of classical liberalism in America—missing from both of these works—is Emerson. He goes more perhaps to the soul and popularization of American individualism and liberalism than to theory. Look into Emerson’s Liberalism (2009) by Neal Dolan. As with Emerson’s contribution, Rand’s is not only to theory, but to inspiration.

Two things strike me about the names appearing in the indices of Smith 2013 and Girvetz 1962. George has many more philosophers, extending from Plato to Hegel. That will be icing on the cake for some.* George’s includes some thinkers tending heavily to anarchism, such as Auberon Herbert and Lysander Spooner. Surprised?

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I'm extremely surprised.


say it ain't so, George!


In The System of Liberty, I mention Auberon Herbert and Lysander Spooner only in passing, as examples of radical Lockeans who are typically overlooked in histories of political thought and who deserve more consideration. I discuss "anarchy" in the context of many critics of Locke and other defenders of natural rights and consent theory, according to whom Lockean principles, if consistently applied, will undercut the authority and legitimacy of all governments. What I call "the anarchy game" was a major motif in political theory throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but it is often overlooked by modern commentators. There are some exceptions, of course, such as A. John Simmons in On the Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society.


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An summary of the view of Emerson defended by Dolan in his book is here.

There are chapters in this book titled as follows (with some of the more famous source works of Emerson in parentheses):




(“Nature” & “Experience”)

Property, Culture

(“The Divinity School Address” & “Compensation”)

Limited Government

(“Man the Reformer” & “The Transcendentalist”)

Natural Rights, Civil Society

(“Emancipation of the Negroes in the British West Indies”)


(Representative Men)

Liberty, Commerce

(English Traits)

I’ve had this book a while, but have not yet gotten to read it. I’ll try to assimilate it along with George’s book. Hopefully, Dolan’s book will get me better informed on liberalism in Emerson and in his America. I’ll try to include the result of that study in future comments on George’s book.

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In this work, Smith traces intellectual lineage of liberal political philosophy insofar as it contributes to a political philosophy in which individual liberty is the paramount political value and insofar as that liberty is conceived as uniform freedom of individuals from social override of their own self-direction. That is to say, he traces the strands of classical liberalism and its libertarian subspecies within the history of liberalism. Then too, he displays the connections and frictions of classical liberalism among its intellectual parties and with the larger intellectual assembly of liberalism (SL 7–11, 49–55).

Smith maintains that not until the early seventeenth century does freedom of the individual, in the stated sense, become the primary value, regulative principle, and unifying theme of an integrated intellectual system of ethics, political philosophy, and social science (including economics). I mentioned Smith’s selection of self-direction as the value defended by the system of liberty he is concerned to highlight. More often, he uses self-sovereignty to name that value.

The doctrine that a person has moral jurisdiction over his own body, faculties, labor, and the fruits thereof was expressed by various scholastic philosophers during the sixteenth century, but it was principally from Grotius that many seventeenth-century Protestant writers picked up the idea. As he put it, “A Man’s Life is his own by Nature (not indeed to destroy, but to preserve it) and so is his Body, his Limbs, his reputation, his Honour, and his Actions.” A century later, Gershorn Carmichael explicitly linked this broad conception of ownership to the right of self-determination: “Everyone is naturally the owner of his own liberty, or the right of determining his own actions.”

If these and similar notions of self-sovereignty had a radical edge that threatened to cut into the sovereignty of the state, this edge was easily blunted by the stipulation that individuals possessed this moral autonomy only in a state of nature—a condition, whether real or hypothetical, that existed prior to the establishment of a civil society under the jurisdiction of a government. Libertarian conclusions flowed from the premise of self-sovereignty only when the latter managed to survive relatively unscathed through the denuding process of the social contract—and this depended on a number of factors, such as the precise nature of the social contract and whether certain rights were deemed “inalienable.” (SL 87)

In our time, individual autonomy has been a principal if not sole value in liberal political philosophy and jurisprudence. So far as I see, Smith’s self-sovereignty is individual autonomy. Rand did not use either term, though she spoke of man’s “sovereign rational mind,” whose free function in all individuals, each being an end in himself, she took to be the value secured by a political constitution devoted only to protecting individual rights. I expect Smith would count Rand as a classical liberal in political philosophy. Beyond that, does Rand have an integrated system of ethics, political philosophy, and economics in which individual freedom is the “primary value, regulative principle, and unifying theme”? Such a system, Smith calls a liberal ideology. It would seem Rand should not be counted as having a liberal ideology in that sense. Rather, she has a life-of-man ideology.

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Well said, Stephen! I agree with almost all of what you said. I mainly want to look a little more carefully at your last three sentences.

Rand's ethics was certainly much broader and richer and fundamentally grounded than, say, Rothard's "ethics of liberty" which posited liberty or non-initiation of force as the basic social value. Rand, of course, held that all the Objectivist virtues apply to one's social dealings. However, I think it's also clear that she held that the basic requirement for a "moral society" in the general sense (not the narrower sense pertaining if all were consistently rational and self-interested) and a flourishing, pro-life economy as a whole (which would allow for businessmen and workers to try to behave dishonestly or without integrity, for instance) was freedom of action defended by a social structure that enforced the principle of non-initiation of force.

Rand was defending rights and the government of the United States c. 1789 as the way to secure the great potential value of living together in society: "peaceful, orderly, voluntary co-existence of individuals." Beyond this, peaceful, orderly, rights-respecting individuals could be more or less rational in their productivity and dealings with others, more or less just in the price or effort or pay they were willing to offer others, etc. But all of this would work out for the better in a free society and economy, and the less rational would prosper less, the more rational more. On a "level playing field," rationality &c wins out.

But such a system has to be properly defended from serious attacks, and the U.S. had an Achilles heel in its failure to understand and refute the ethics of altruism, which was the Trojan horse that eventually undermined our liberties to the point that we are a pale shadow, socially and economically, of what we were 200 years ago. (There are important exceptions: eliminating slavery are extending full rights to women and minorities are two ways in which we are significantly better off. But the advance of altruism and collectivism have even infected and corrupted these improvements.)

In this respect, more of Rand's rational ethics was needed to secure our social well-being than just individual rights and the non-initiation of force. We need to unflinchingly and calmly uphold a rational, adult view of "selfishness," in the face of all those who use that very word against us as a smear attack, when we reject the altruist role of sacrificial animal in our critique of invasive government, taxation, and regulation. There is no way to win by sugar-coating our position, when people are using the "S" word to accuse us of being anti-social, inhuman, and uncaring.

So, yes, Rand has a life-of-man ethics at the root of her social philosophy, but that social philosophy is clearly also a species of "liberal ideology," insofar as the "primary value, regulative principle, and unifying them" of the kind of bare minimum government and economy she wants is one that is rooted in non-initiation of force. Thus, I think it would be clarifying to regard Rand's social-economic-political philosophy as the most rational, pro-life version (to date) of liberal ideology. Life-of-man ethics is the solidest foundation for liberal ideology.


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Rand was defending rights and the government of the United States c. 1789 as the way to secure the great potential value of living together in society: "peaceful, orderly, voluntary co-existence of individuals."

Slavery was alive and well in the United States in 1789 and remained so until 1865. The country was well equipped with hot and cold running Negro slaves from Africa and a Fugitive Slave Act legal and enforced in every state of the Union. After the invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney slavery only got worse.. Some "peaceful, orderly, voluntary co-existence of individuals"

The British, as backward as they were got rid of slavery in 1831. It took the U.S. another 34 years to catch up. That is an entire generation.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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Thanks, Roger.

I was mistaking George’s conception of a liberal ideology because I was leaving out one of its specifications. He had defined an ideology as “an integrated system of ideas that are connected, directly or indirectly, to a primary value commitment” (SL 54). By an integrated system, he meant : “An organized structure of diverse ideas, which are shaped into a self-contained unity according to their common relationship to a regulatory principle. The system is functional; in other words, the parts contribute to the same overall end. The primary value, in the case of an ideology, is the regulatory principle and unifying theme” (54).

George’s choice of the term self-contained may have been coming off stronger to this reader than he intended. As applied to mathematics or physics, the former is more self-contained and is the more likely of the two to be what we would call self-contained at all. There are degrees. A better analogy perhaps for his purpose would be the self-containment of an automobile, which is in the same degree as the self-containment of a helicopter. (Although, the shared function of the two types of machine are readily understood, whereas the analogous shared function of a liberal ideology and a communist ideology would be harder to get at.)

The specification I was overlooking, or anyway not able to assimilate with what else he was saying, was the full specification he was giving to primary value commitment in his definition of ideology. He meant a value held for fundamental “within a given cognitive sphere (religion, ethics, politics, etc.). In a liberal ideology, individual freedom is the primary value commitment in the sphere of political theory” (54). So George is restricting the primary value commitment of liberal ideology to primary value commitment in the sphere of political theory, even though the integrated system of the ideology draws from ethics, political philosophy, and economics (and other social sciences).

His historical claim is, to recap from the earlier post: liberal ideology in this sense did not appear before early in the seventeenth century. He is not conceiving of (classical) liberal ideology as setting individual freedom as the sole purpose of and commitment in each of its intellectual tributaries. In particular he is not setting it as the sole or even the paramount purpose and commitment of an ethics amenable to supporting liberal ideology.

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  • 2 weeks later...

There's a new review up by Brian Doherty of Reason Magazine:

I still haven't finished it. As I've been reading it I've been thinking about writing an Amazon review. For now I'll just say it's really really good.

It's on Kindle now, only $16.46!

Sure it's more expensive, but so is a Filet Mignon at a 5 star steakhouse. I'm talking prime grade, dry aged, and worth it.

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