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Classical liberalism in the 21st century

April 5th, 2011 Posted in Liberal Philosophy by

Classical liberalism is often associated with the ‘night watchman State’: the government of the day defends the liberty of the people by ensuring defences are effective and crime is kept under control. Giving the way our society is structured with strong public welfare provisions and active government many wonder if it is at all possible, or desirable, to return to the night watch.

The attempt to go back to such a situation would lead to a cruel paradox. The State would have to be active in the extreme to change things. Given the classical liberal view that one individual cannot make decisions for many because they do not have enough information, how could such a step change work in practice without unintended consequences?

Perhaps the best way to start is to look at the distortions that have emerged from such unintended consequences. Jock Coats has discussed at length his idea of ‘rigorous liberalism‘. In brief, Jock argues that when government wants to tackle a problem it should not immediately legislate but look at what has caused the problem and remove the legislative obstacle. While the government is active it is active in freeing people from legislative restrictions.

The next step would be to create enough space for liberalism to flourish. This means making sure that policies enable people to control their own lives and make decisions for themselves. This is perhaps the trickiest area for modern liberals as they deal with the dilemma of level-playing fields and so on. Some believe the State has to intervene to ensure equal of opportunity either because that is a good in itself or because the State has previously caused unequal opportunity.

Then there is the question of poverty that I recently wrote about.

There are no easy answers to these issues.

It is highly unlikely though that one could ever return to a ‘night watchman State’. Instead a classical liberal needs to encourage a State that lays out the framework for voluntary engagement and then stands back. While doing that it also needs to remove distortions and perverse incentives that stops people from running their lives.

7 Responses to “Classical liberalism in the 21st century”

  1. Roger Thornhill Says:


    In search of “level playing fields”, Jock has the idea all along – remove legislative boundaries.

    If you want to find a massive fleet of unintended consequences, trying to make opportunities equal for all is a great place to start!

    Just imagine how could the State proactively try and level. It cannot level up without levelling others down or tax people further, and how does that serve liberty?

    Ensuring everyone is taught to read, write clearly and reason, taught to be numerate (including mental arithmetic) is still desperately needed, yet people still tinker with all manner of fluff in education.

    Fluff is fine if voluntary, but if the State is determined to take wealth from people by force, it should make sure it is used to teach these basics first and foremost, to enable the young to defend themselves from fraud. Once this is done, then a very powerful argument needs to be represented as to why further coercion is needed to fund WIBNIs.

  2. Jock Says:

    Thanks for the link. I’d also commend a recent post by Sam Bowman from ASI (but in a personal capacity) essentially picking up the “rigorous liberalism” theme by starting to look at the ways in which the state prosecutes a “war on the poor” with its interventions.

    I think it is, carefully presented, a narrative that could resonate with both “left” and “right” and if it could get taken up by, say, both ASI and someone like IPPR or New Economics Foundation together might gain a lot of traction.

  3. Simon Goldie Says:

    My pleasure.

    And thanks for flagging up Sam’s post.

  4. Oranjepan Says:

    intervention is a complex beast – it works both ways.

    you can intervene to iron out a problem, but if the intervention itself is the problem you still need to intervene against the intervention.

    so unless you’re happy to make exceptions it becomes impossible to draw a line.

    the libertarian theory that all intervention is bad is therefore self-defeating – it’s far simpler and quicker to pick and choose each case on its merit.

  5. Simon Goldie Says:


    That was rather my point: that one might need to remove previous interventions and that is in itself an intervention. Perhaps the way to approach this to be be clear why one is intervening and what one is trying to achieve.


  6. Oranjepan Says:

    yes, I like that.

    But in the end because ‘intervene’ has received such a bad press the discussion can get stuck on whether or not it is an intervention and the real point of what you’re trying to achieve can get lost.

    I mean, peoople judge according to results, not principles or processes.

    So to be clear, my vision of liberalism is ideological only in so far as pragmatism is an ideology.

  7. Simon Goldie Says:

    I agree. Perhaps a different way of expressing it is needed.