Classical Liberalism & The Dangers of the Left-Right Paradigm

In the present day socio-political climate, there is an increasingly urgent need for a shift away from a left-right political axis. One need only converse with their peers, especially those encountered at university or in the workplace, in order for this to become patently clear. Students of government, political science, and in fact most with a keen interest in politics, often lack the understanding that one’s political ideology cannot be accurately gauged along a horizontal axis. Often resulting from their lack of awareness that there exist libertarian modes of thinking on both the left and the right, they resort to mapping political ideologies along one axis. As a result, it is not uncommon to find those on the left bewildered at the fact that somebody they would define as conservative might advocate the complete legalisation of drugs, or, not be opposed to marriage equality. This is evidently resultant of the manner in which they map political ideologies, and certainly also derived from a level of shallowness in their own understanding of political philosophy. Ideologies are perverted and often those of us, particularly on the libertarian right, find ourselves immediately having to divorce ourselves from positions we do not even maintain. This is one of the reasons why this reductionist approach to political philosophy is dangerous and counterproductive with regards to its effect on dialogue and debate.


Nevertheless, the central purpose of this piece is to introduce, where possible, some of the basic tenets of the political philosophy of classical liberalism, whilst concomitantly outlining the very valuable answers provided by classical liberalism to many issues. As readers, you must keep in mind that politics is living in the sense that definitions are subject to change and appropriation by other groups. Consider the term “liberal,” which has lost its classical meaning. In the past, this term was used to denote those who believed in the freedom of the individual, which naturally also entailed the individual’s responsibility for his or her actions as well. Among other things, classical liberals believe in those enlightenment values that western society what it is today. These include ideas like government of defined and limited power, the rule of the law, equality before the law, separation of powers, property rights, separation of church and state, and of course, freedom of expression.


Perhaps the simplest distinction that can be made between classical liberals and those who today describe themselves as “liberals” is that classical liberals advocate limited government control, that is to say, minimal government interference in the lives of citizens. This is, after all, the basic tenet of liberalism and liberty itself. The name of the Liberal Party of Australia, for example, bears testament to classical liberal values and the freedom of the individual, chosen for “its associations with progressive nineteenth century free enterprise and social equality.”[1] According to classical liberalism, the function of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property of the people. It is the position of those on the libertarian right, namely, those who often identify as liberal in the classical sense of the word, that government is the enemy of liberty. Consider the example of the so called “lock-out laws,” instituted by then “Liberal” Premier Mike Baird. One does not need to be personally affected by these laws to see the gross overreach of the government into the lives of citizens and the destructive effects that this law has had on business. On grounds of principle, however, this level of government control is frankly absurd. The state government evidently holds a rather pessimistic view of its own citizens. This becomes clearer and more disappointing, when viewed against the backdrop of party founder Sir Robert Menzies’ own words, that “We believe in the individual, in his freedom, in his ambition, in his dignity.”[2] Individuals should have the maximum freedom to pursue their own objectives, insofar as they don’t interfere with the rights of others to do the same thing.


Although many oppose sentiments like the above, they are shared by quite a number of people, especially at a student level. The sort of common sense, fact-informed solutions often provided by classical liberalism and its emphasis on the freedom of the individual means that many, especially students, are amenable to some of positions held along classical liberal lines. What they lack is an understanding of the political philosophy that underpins this mode of thinking. The first step towards solving this issue is, as this piece has attempted to outline, the shift away from the left-right paradigm, and an understanding that schools of political thought can and must be mapped on a quadrant. This understanding would certainly provide the avenue for greater understanding of some of modes of thinking located across the board and lay the foundation for more informed dialogue and debate.


[2] R.G. Menzies, ‘Joint Policy Speech Election 1954’ in Graeme Starr, The Liberal Party of Australia: A Documentary History, (1980) 199-201.

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