Individual Freedom is the fundamental and underlying principle supporting the core values of classical liberalism. Liberalism as a political philosophy begins with empowering individuals by placing explicit trust in them to make rational and responsible decisions for themselves. John Stuart Mill, one of classical liberalism’s most influential thinkers, declared “over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign.”
According to classical liberalism, the rights of the individual supersede those of the collective. The individual may choose to put the needs of others such as family or community ahead of one’s own, but such actions remain in the domain of individual freedom to make one’s own choices. This ideal also precludes government from trespassing on those rights through legal coercion or deterrence. This extends even so far as the right to make decisions that may not be in the individual’s best interest, but the right to choose supersedes the question of whether it will prove to be beneficial, and whether government has the right to legislate that choice.
Freedom of Expression
Building on the principle of individual freedom, Freedom of Expression is a natural next step. Classical liberalism holds that the individual, a responsible human being, should be free to make his or her own choices, and so those choices invariably extend toward speech and expression. Not only should individuals be free to express their opinions, they should be free from any repercussions or fear of suppression in doing so. By extension, others have the freedom to choose to hear or to ignore such thoughts or beliefs by an individual.
The government, which is tasked with protecting the rights of the individual, is also expected to protect the individual (author or speaker) as well as the audience from reprisal by other citizens or by the government itself with regards to expressed rhetoric. This is not to say that a person should not be held accountable for expressing controversial beliefs. Quite the contrary: classical liberalism also protects the rights of an individual who wishes to respond, disagree, and counter those ideas. By protecting the freedom of all in regards to the exercise of free expression, liberalism encourages and supports civil discourse and intellectual engagement. This in turn enriches and helps develop a healthy civil society, where all ideas are free to be promoted as well as challenged.
Rule of Law
Hand-in-hand with classical liberalism’s foundational values of individual freedom and freedom of expression comes the core value of the Rule of Law. A free society should be governed by a set of rules that are known to all individuals so they can make choices and take actions while informed of the principles and mechanisms by which conflicts are resolved. The rule of law is not meant to restrict freedom; rather it is a set of rules acting as guidelines to support the individual’s choices toward successful actions.
What maintains an individual’s freedom and liberty in a society governed by the rule of law is the structure within which the government must operate. A critical restriction around the rule of law is that it outlines what the government may not do to its citizens. Another essential tenet of the rule of law is that all individuals, even those who enforce the law, must be held accountable to its dictates, thus ensuring that a free society is ruled by law and not by the arbitrary whims of men.
Recognizing that Pluralism is the natural condition of modern free societies necessitates the active practice of tolerance to ensure the preservation and ongoing existence of these societies. In classical liberalism, this concept comes from understanding that people groups deeply disagree about many things and embrace very different ways of life. One of the goals in exercising toleration is to reciprocally recognize and accept that others may find our own views distasteful or possibly immoral.
To deal with these differences without having to resort to subjugation or oppression of diverse people groups, successful societies have been able to develop “norms of toleration” which allow space for the accommodation of these differences. This is in stark contrast with having the need to reconcile differences for agreement and cultural homogenization. Practiced in conditions of pluralism, toleration compels the understanding of opposing points of view rather than encourages the action of violence in response to that which offends us. In the long run, it establishes a strong framework for a truly good pluralistic society.
Civil Society refers to the way in which people associate when they’re not buying and selling goods or services on the market, and they’re not interacting with the state or participating in the political process. These direct associations between people are categorized in three areas, depending on the level of participation: primary, tertiary, and secondary. Associations between family members and close friends are considered to be primary. Tertiary associations are with groups to which you belong or support in some manner, but you do not necessarily connect directly with other members of those groups. Secondary associations are all the other relationships in which people connect and that are not based on familial relations or on business exchanges.
A robust civil society is most dependent on secondary associations and their role of limiting the power of government through efficiency and morality. The idea of efficiency argues that government is too big to know what people need, and therefore too big to help people in the way they need it. The morality argument is focused on the idea of coercion. That means that even if a person disagrees with how government is handling any particular situation, that person will be coerced into accepting government’s approach. There is no freedom for an individual to exit this relationship with government.
Secondary associations to allow an individual the freedom to move freely between relationships that meet a wide variety of needs, and they also give the individual more freedom to dissent without being coerced into any particular actions. Relying on secondary associations allows people the flexibility to find the relationships that best meet their needs, and this is a hallmark of civil society
Public policy based on organizing the economy around a framework of individual liberty rather than one of economic control is an important component of classical liberalism. Stated simply, Economic Freedom is actualized by allowing individuals to make their own economic decisions rather than outside organizations or government entities doing so. A review of human history with an acknowledgement of the times in which societies flourished and were most prosperous will show that these were not random occurrences, but rather they were periods during which people were free to invent and innovate, and they were encouraged to develop solutions to the challenges of their times. Further, they were incentivized by the guarantee of property rights and the ownership of their ideas and the fruits of their labor.
While it is possible and even appropriate for government to play a role in the maintenance of the economic environment, government’s active participation should be limited. Milton Friedman stated that economic freedom is a prerequisite to political freedom. If public policy defines and drives an economy that inhibits the entrepreneurial impulse, society’s vitality will suffer as surely as if political freedom was inhibited by force.