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The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism Paperback – July 4, 2013
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--Randy E. Barnett, author of The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of Law
"This is a lucid, concise, but at the same time a deep overview of the origins and structure of classical liberal thought. With a fluid and engaging style, Smith corrects many of our modern misconceptions about how early liberals understood themselves and the terms on which they debated. Anyone interested in liberal thought, whether in its 'classical', modern 'high liberal', or libertarian forms, will find this a valuable resource. Even critics of classical liberalism will find, thanks to Smith, that classical liberal thought contains a great deal of forgotten wisdom."
--Jason Brennan, author of Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know
"George H. Smith is an independent scholar who for many decades has lectured and written about the history of classical liberal and libertarian ideas. The System of Liberty is his first extended take on this history to be published by a high-level academic press-a tribute both to Smith's dogged scholarship and to the rise in the respectability of the libertarian tradition he explains and espouses...the information and analysis are always interesting." -Brian Doherty, Reason Magazine
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
The book also provides a public service by correcting popular misconceptions of liberal thinkers. While Herbert Spencer used the term "survival of the fittest" in his writings, he was no social Darwinist. He explicitly rejected that term and what it stands for. He used "fit" to mean "fitted to one's environment," without any of the normative implications his opponents so eagerly ascribed to him. There is also a valuable discussion of why individualism does not imply atomism, but rather the opposite.
Smith has packed a lot of knowledge into a short volume (225 pages). This is the kind of book where multiple readings would continue to pay dividends. Highly recommended.
(Edited to correct a minor grammatical error.)
Smith points out that classical liberals start out with natural and equal rights (the general welfare) as the premise, and society (utility) as the conclusion. (For example, my right in property gives me the freedom to sell my TV to whomever wants to buy it. The resulting utility is that I receive much needed money, and the buyer now has a medium for entertainment. We both benefit from freedom of conducting the transaction).
In contrast, modern liberals start out with the premise of society as the utility (means) to achieve equality of rights (the general welfare). Obviously, as Smith points out, this conclusion leads modern liberals to demand equality of income as well.
Overall, Smith does exceptional work of pointing out the errors of utilitarians in their use of the general welfare as an end, since government will use this vague expectation of results to abuse and increase its power. In addition, Smith clarifies some misconceptions about classical liberalism, specifically that they are atomists who do not place importance in the concept of social relations. In reality, classical liberals affirm that society is an ever-changing process that allows individuals to cooperate in achieving their particular goals.
George H. Smith gives a libertarian survey of liberalism's origin, growth, and, what he sees as its decay into progressivism. Utilitarian thinking emerges as the poison that moved supposedly liberalism in a conservative, authoritarian direction, embracing what Spencer labelled "the expediency philosophy" at the expense of the older rights-based approach. While such a common narrative works, I propose dividing liberalism into three phases -- classical liberalism, democratic liberalism, modern liberalism -- which should make the rise of progressivism look internal, evolutionary, and organic.
Rights! Resistance! Revolution! Liberalism, from its beginnings, has been about change. Absolutism solved the problem of decades upon decades of terrorism in Europe (called "anarchy" in that period) by centralizing power in the hands of a final arbiter of disputes. Yet this provided no answers if, how, and when to update a government that is behaving unreasonably.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Anybody committed to the idea of liberty needs to read this book. It caused me to deep-dive into ideas that I hadn't really considered before. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Pat Petrini
George Smith is one of the all time best libertarian writers and thinkers. I highly recommend this book for a more in depth understanding of the meaning, and origin of individual... Read morePublished 18 months ago by Steven Vandervelde
George H. Smith has provided us with a magnificent history of the ideas that created the modern world by introducing the concept of individualism, human rights, and laissez faire. Read morePublished 19 months ago by JoeCobb
It's been a while since I've read George H. Smith's The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, but I thought it was pretty terrific. Read morePublished 20 months ago by Billie Pritchett
No one knows the intellectual history of classical liberalism better than George Smith, and this is a splendid introduction to its major themes.Published on August 13, 2013 by Timothy A. Starr