Lord Acton on true liberalism
Religion & Liberty Online

Lord Acton on true liberalism

Early last month there was a great debate over the question “What is Liberalism?” on the Free Thoughts Podcast. The debate was between Helena Rosenblatt, professor of history at City University of New York and Daniel Klein, professor of economics at George Mason University.

Klein’s work has been mentioned on the PowerBlog before and I referenced his insightful scholarship in my talk, “Lord Acton, Liberty, Conscience, and the Social Order” at this year’s Acton University. Rosenblatt’s recent book, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty First Century, has been widely reviewed and has many great insights but I share the reservations Nathan Schlueter expressed in his review.

While Rosenblatt is correct that in early liberalism morals, politics, and economics were conjoined I believe she fails to recognize Smith’s role in that synthesis which Klein brings to the fore. Lord Acton himself posits that the beginnings of a fully developed authentic liberalism are to be found in the 1770s. This liberalism is an evolution and break from British Whiggism as Gertrude Himmelfarb argues in Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics:

The Whigs could not be ethically in the right if they preferred the realities of practical politics to the ideals of morality, and it was more than an accident that the great patriarchs of the party should have been ‘the most infamous of men’. In any event, Acton was certain that by 1770 whatever little virtue the Whigs had had was exhausted. The next great impetus to progress came not from the realistic, worldly-wise English, but from the immature, idealistic Americans.

Liberalism thus finds in the American Founding the sort of reintegration of morals, politics, and economics which Adam Smith advised concurrently to the American Revolution in The Wealth of Nations. It is in 1776 in North America, Acton argues, that true Liberalism as an ideal first enters the world of history:

The Whig governed by compromise. The Liberal begins the reign of ideas… One is practical, gradual, ready for compromise. The other works out a principle philosophically. One is a policy aiming at a philosophy. The other is a philosophy seeking a policy.

The debate between Rosenblatt and Klein is really illuminating and I would highly recommend giving it a listen.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.