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The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism Paperback – July 4, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"George Smith's lectures on classical liberalism had a profound effect on my thinking. Now, at long last, others may profit from his prodigious learning in this absolutely 'must read' book for anyone interested in modern libertarianism and its historical roots. Clear, accessible, balanced, and powerfully reasoned."
--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

Book Description

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.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 231 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (April 22, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521182093
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521182096
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #836,334 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Most works of political philosophy stick to the big names - Locke, Hobbes, Bentham and Mill, and the like. This book offers fresh insights into these important thinkers, which alone makes it a worthy contribution to the literature. But for this reader, the real value of this book was an introduction to unfamiliar names such as Thomas Hodgskin, William Graham Sumner, and Georg Simmel.

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.)
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
George Smith does an incredible and necessary task of discovering the origins between classical liberalism (Libertarianism) and modern liberalism (welfare state/socialism). Smith explains that proponents of the limited state, such as John Locke and the U.S. Founders, defended individual liberty on the basis of natural rights and the social contract. On the other hand, proponents of state intervention to promote the general welfare, such and Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, defended individual liberty on the basis of utilitarianism--the greatest good for the greatest number.

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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In the second half of the twentieth century, two camps announced themselves as the rightful heir to the old liberal throne: one group calling themselves "libertarians," and a much larger movement resurrecting the old "progressive" label. This immediately calls for an explanation. Why are there two liberalisms? What do they have in common, and how did they end up with distinct philosophies? Each liberalism explains its suitability to combat liberalism's traditional opponent, conservatism, and how the other liberalism lost its way. Progressives, for example, explain the libertarians as full-bore reactionaries, trapped in an agrarian mindset, fighting socialist boogeymen that no longer exist while giving free rein to forces that corrupt democracy.

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.
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