Traditionalism vs. Classical Liberalism on Liberties

One of the continuing trends of agrument, in the insular intellectual cage match which is the political Catholic blogsphere, is whether classical liberalism (of the sort seen in the Scottish Enlightenment and among the founders of the US) is an individualist ideology which is unacceptable from a Catholic point of view.

Something which it strikes me as reasonable to consider in this regard is that classical liberalism, with it’s definition of individual rights, was in many ways a reaction to new trends in Monarchy. The 1600s and 1700s had seen the restraints which tradition, the Church and simple lack of communication and resources had traditionally placed monarchies fade away. Through much of Europe, monarchies became more centralized and absolute, less traditional. In Britain, this (combined with economic and religious tensions) let to the English Civil War, and by the early 1700s English monarchy had been successfully limited and existed essentially at the sufference of Parliament and the liberties of the unwritten English constitution. On the continent, however, the drive towards absolutism continued.

The early British theorists of classical liberalism were both seeking to justify the “glorious revolution” and looking across the Channel at France’s increasing absolutism. But it would be simplistic to see their formulation of the ideas of “rights” and “liberties” as being wholly an invention. While ennumerating explicit rights was in some ways new thing (though not wholly so, by any stretch, pace the Magna Carta) there was also a clear sense in which the liberties being ennumerated were an attempt not to invent a new “individualism” but to provide an explicit justification for the sort of liberty which had resulted from lack of scrutiny in a more traditional time when lack of resources and communication had forced monarchs to de facto concede most local authority to local decision making bodies.

Social and political progress were erasing the old liberties of neglect, and those who believed that those liberties were not an accidental artifact of a previous time but rather a way that things ought to be sought to formulate an explicit justification for rights and liberties.

To this extent, one should not see the idea of liberties as being wholly new, nor should one see the more authoritarian elements of the ancien regime as traditional.

6 Responses to Traditionalism vs. Classical Liberalism on Liberties

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    Good post Darwin, and you are right.

    The rights of Englishmen that were asserted by the American colonists dated back to the Magna Carta, if not further, before even the Norman Conquest. And Jefferson did not “copy” John Locke in writing the Declaration, as so many seem to think. He may well have been influenced by Catholic political thought!

  2. Art Deco says:

    Diane Moczar’s summary of the medieval political order:

    “Authority from above, democracy from below”.

    You had the communal governance of open-field villages, chartered boroughs, merchant republics, provincial estates & estates-general and a considerable body of customary law. Within the Church, you had the general chapters of religious orders. Conciliar, deliberative, and elective institutions were not a modern innovation, and the Church co-existed with them for centuries.

  3. jonathanjones02 says:

    It is interesting to note how much the civic republicanism of the Romans impacted the American founding. We don’t discuss this much by comparison to the French enlightenment and the British thinkers.

    Razib Khan recently had an enlightening post related to this in the context of the American founding:

    I’ve always thought American colonists could be generalized by three strands: Enlightenment thought, moralistic therapeutic diesm (the South used to be paganistic by comparison to the Protestant orthodox North!), and Roman civic republicanism.

  4. Zippy says:

    That is a pretty interesting take on it, Darwin.

  5. Joe Hargrave says:


    Have you been reading and stealing my ideas!?


    I’ve been saying pretty much the exact same thing, only I’ve put it down as liberalism, classical republicanism, and Christianity – so as not to weigh down the terms too much. But essentially we agree.

  6. I agree that “classical liberalism, with it’s definition of individual rights, was in many ways a reaction to new trends in Monarchy.”

    But I don’t think that’s so much the issue. Rather, it’s that the overarching conceptual framework of the natural law was lost in liberalism’s project. Even in the case of those scholars who take issue with classical liberalism’s philosophy of rights tout courte (e.g. Rowland), the broader issue remains the either absent or denuded concept of natural law.

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