[This review of Dwight Murphey’s monograph The Principles of Classical Liberalism, written by Ron Robinson, appeared in the July-August 1973 issue of New Guard, the national magazine of Young Americans for Freedom.] 


A Look at Classical Liberalism 

By Ron Robinson


            Private property, the free market and their advocates are subjects which have received considerable coverage in conservative literature.  It is difficult to imagine a tersely worded monograph adding new insights to these topics.  Dr. Murphey’s new work accomplishes this with a review of the principles of classical liberalism and their relevance in today’s world.

            A study of contemporary conservatism is always incomplete without a historical review of the development of classical liberalism.  Dr. Murphey elaborates on this connection and also provides us with an analysis of why welfare state liberalism became so detached from classical liberalism.  Hubert Humphrey and Eric Goldman may cite some still existing relationship, but you will be hard pressed to find any modern day liberals praising Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat or any other classical liberal.  It is worth noting, however, that contemporary liberals will not concede that liberal tradition has been carried into modern day conservative philosophy.  The relationship of classical liberalism and contemporary conservatism belies the caricature of the latter being a determined foe of liberty.  But clearly, both modern liberalism and leftist ideology couldn’t be much further removed from the maximizing of individual freedom and the building of parameters of a limited state which marks the classical liberal philosophy.  In popular parlance, Dr. Murphey claims, we would call a classical liberal a “conservative.” 

Moral Order 

            The classical liberal considers the greatest difficulty in life to be the denial of individual liberty.  He will look upon an individual’s own energies as the readiest way out of his difficulties.  He will not, like a religious fanatic of earlier centuries or a gnostic, in Voegelin’s terminology, feel a compulsion to save the other man’s soul.  He will entertain an active concern for his individual freedom.  He envisions a society which is voluntaristic, “unplanned” and open to the continuing changes of each person’s free will.  At the same time, he appreciates virtue and will seek an omnipresent net of subtle cultural patterns or mores.  Because he wants to assure all men the same right to do as they please, he favors a guarded state.  Dr. Murphey writes that some young libertarians, in attempting to emulate classical liberals, tend to lack the appreciation of a moral order.

            From this dual perspective of a pro-market economy position and a recognition of the proper role of government, Dr. Murphey expands on the potential of the “new liberalism.”  He suggests that it may be more fruitful to call for the voucher plan than to oppose all tax supported education.  He calls for a Hayek-type Rule of Law in the governing of the monetary system rather than a complete hands off attitude.  He does not assert there is no problem of monopoly but suggests less ambiguous and arbitrary anti-trust laws.  Viewed in this light he can justifiably write that America is not far removed from classical liberalism.

            The author doesn’t simply review the principles of classical liberalism; he also writes of its major theorists of past and present.  Frederic Bastiat, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Ropke and F. A. Hayek are all given due credit for their contributions.  Dr. Murphey also discusses philosophers such as Ayn Rand, Bernard Mandeville, Lord Acton and Jose Ortega y Gasset to place classical liberalism in a wide and useful context.  The Principles of Classical Liberalism hopefully is a beginning of many more writings from Dwight Murphey, but already it serves as an excellent point of departure in any study of free economics.

            Politically it has become easier for national leaders to abandon free market principles.  This became clear even when the foremost conservative spokesmen acquiesced to Nixon’s wage and price controls.  This state of affairs became possible through the intellectual void in the defense of the principles of classical liberalism.  This monograph begins to fill that void.