SMITH, GEORGE H. – The System Of Liberty


Theme in the History of Classical Liberalism

Cambridge – 2013, Pagine 225

Saggi sulla storia del liberalismo classico (in inglese)


COD: 018-1435 Categorie: ,


Liberal individualism, or ‘classical liberalism’ as it is often called, refers to a political philosophy in which liberty plays the central role. This book demonstrates a conceptual unity within the manifestations of classical liberalism by tracing the history of several interrelated and reinforcing themes. Concepts such as order, justice, rights and freedom have imparted unity to this diverse political ideology by integrating context and meaning. However, they have also sparked conflict, as classical liberals split on a number of issues, such as legitimate exceptions to the ‘presumption of liberty’, the meaning of ‘the public good’, natural rights versus utilitarianism, the role of the state in education, and the rights of resistance and revolution. This book explores these conflicts and their implications for contemporary liberal and libertarian thought.

1 recensione per SMITH, GEORGE H. – The System Of Liberty

  1. Libreria del Ponte

    Review by Mike Mertens

    I really enjoyed George H. Smith’s The System of Liberty and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of ideas generally and classical liberalism specifically.

    The book is very well written and is truly an intellectual page turner. The ideas it covers are very relevant in many of today’s political/intellectual discussions and there are several sections of the book that I re-read in order to think the ideas through more thoroughly.

    The book covers “Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism” and it has chapters that cover: “Liberalism, Old and New”, “Liberalism and the Public Good”, “Liberal Ideology and Political Philosophy”, “The Idea of Freedom”, and “Conflicts in Classical Liberalism” among other topics. I learned a lot in each chapter but there are 3 chapters that I want to focus in on in this review.

    The chapter on “Liberalism and the Public Good” covers some key ideas related to natural rights, utilitarianism and the public welfare. John Locke and the early liberals believed in the compatibility of natural rights and the public good. Smith explains 4 roles that the public good plays in John Locke’s political philosophy and he makes the key point that “Locke indicated that concern for the public good restricts what a government may do.” He then proceeds to cover the early utilitarians by discussing the ideas of Joseph Priestley. He concludes the chapter with a discussion on the vagueness of the concept of the public good including an insightful discussion of the US Constitution and the general welfare clause.

    The chapter on “The Radical Edge of Liberalism” is my favorite chapter in the book. It discusses the radical edge of natural rights liberalism by doing a detailed analysis of the second paragraph of The Declaration of Independence. I found Smith’s discussion of alienable versus inalienable rights very helpful especially when combined with his discussion of why Jefferson did not include property along with “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. He then moves on to the right of revolution (as distinct from the right of resistance) and shows that this is tied to violations of inalienable rights (and these violations must be as matter of policy rather than isolated incidents).

    The chapter on the “Idea of Freedom” distinguishes between negative and positive views of freedom as well as the difference between a mechanistic conception of freedom (Hobbes) versus the social conception of freedom found in Locke. He notes Locke’s view that “the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom.” The chapter includes discussions on the pairing of fraud and violence, natural liberty and social contract theory.

    Smith concludes that the decline of classical liberalism was due in part to a deficiency in the definition and clarity of its principles. Additionally, the utilitarian move to “social utility” versus “natural rights” undercut the moral foundation that was important in limiting the growth of state power. He notes the recent revival of classical liberalism over the past few decades.

    Smith’s work is subtitled “Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism”. I hope the book gains a wide readership and enables those of us interested in freedom and liberty to learn from the themes he discusses as we work to further develop, communicate and defend the moral and theoretical ideas needed to address the challenges we face now and in the future.

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