Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
“Classical liberalism” refers to that tradition of ethical, political, legal, and economic thought that places the freedom of the individual at the center of political concern and that sees that freedom as, in John Locke’s language, each person’s enjoyment of a “Liberty to dispose, and order, as he lists, his Persons, Actions, Possessions, and his whole Property, within the Allowance of those Laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary Will of another, but freely follow his own.”
Many different streams of thought have contributed to that tradition. They have drawn on a variety of religious and philosophical ideas. Steve Scalet and David Schmidtz note that,
as the variety of classical liberalism’s philosophical sources may suggest, classical liberalism is not itself a foundational philosophical theory. The heart of classical liberalism is a simple policy prescription: Nurture voluntary associations. Limit the size and, more importantly, the scope of government. So long as the state provides a basic rule of law that steers people away from destructive or parasitic ways of life and in the direction of productive ways of life, society runs itself. If you want people to flourish, let them run their own lives.