Fundamental Ideas in a Philosophy of Liberty
I was recently asked to attempt a formulation of ten crucial principles of classical liberalism, the worldview which animated the American Revolution, the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the libertarian revival of free-market thought in the mid-to-late twentieth century. Classical liberalism – even when it is not explicitly espoused – still has considerable residual influence on the political and economic institutions of the Western world and is having an increasing impact outside the West as well. I see the principles of classical liberalism as primarily forward-looking. These ideas need not only characterize aspects of humanity’s past. They can also guide and ameliorate our future.
The following ten principles are not exhaustive, and they have been formulated broadly to account for differences in opinion on particulars within classical liberal circles. Although different people may apply and interpret these principles in somewhat different ways, a general agreement on even these ideas would go a long way toward advancing liberty, prosperity, and peace in the world.
Principle 1. The life of each individual is an absolute and universal moral value. No non-aggressive individual’s life, liberty, or property may be legitimately sacrificed for any goal.
Principle 2. Every individual owns his body, his mind, and the labor thereof, including the physical objects legitimately obtained through such labor.
Principle 3. Every individual has the right to pursue activities for the betterment of his life – including its material, intellectual, and emotional aspects – by using his own body and property, as well as the property of consenting others.
Principle 4. The rights of an individual to life, liberty, and property are inherent to that individual’s nature. They are not granted by other human beings, and they cannot be taken away by any entity.
Principle 5. The initiation of physical force, the threat of such force, or fraud against any individual is never permissible – irrespective of the position and character of the initiator. However, proportionate force may be used to retaliate and defend against aggression.
Principle 6. The sole fundamental purpose of government is to protect the rights of individuals by engaging in actions specifically delegated to the government by its constituents. Government is not the same as society, nor is the government entitled to sacrifice some non-aggressive individuals to advance the well-being of others.
Principle 7. Every individual has the absolute right to think and express any ideas. Thought and speech are never equivalent to force or violence and ought never to be restricted or to be subject to coercive penalties. Specifically, coercion and censorship on the basis of religious or political ideas are not acceptable under any circumstances.
Principle 8. Commerce, technology, and science are desirable, liberating forces that are capable of alleviating historic ills, improving the quality of human life, and morally elevating human beings. The complete freedom of trade, innovation, and thought should be preserved and supported for all human beings in the world.
Principle 9. Accidents of birth, geography, or ancestry do not define an individual and should not result in manmade restrictions of that individual’s rights or opportunities. Every individual should be judged purely on his or her personal qualities, including accomplishments, character, and knowledge.
Principle 10. There are no “natural” or desirable limits to human potential for good, and there is no substantive problem that is necessarily unsolvable by present or future human knowledge, effort, and technology. It is a moral imperative for humans to expand their mastery of the universe indefinitely and in such a manner as will reinforce the survival and flourishing of all non-aggressive individuals.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXVI.