One of the charges sometimes leveled against classical liberal thought is that it opposes all authority; that it seeks to reduce society to an amalgamation of atomized individuals, eliminating the role of religion, community, and vibrant social institutions.
Historian Ralph Raico seeks to argue the very opposite in his dissertation, The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. The work has been republished for the first time by the Mises Institute. (A particularly interesting note is that the chair of Raico’s dissertation committee was none other than F.A. Hayek).
Raico argues that these classical liberal thinkers did not, by any stretch, subscribe to the secularist views of some of their liberal contemporaries. Instead, they found compelling religious justifications for liberty. Contrary to the assertions of some critics of classical liberalism, they also did not oppose all authority: They recognized the essential value of family, church, and other vibrant and flourishing social institutions. These possess what I would venture to call a “natural authority,” a kind of authority and social standing that naturally arises from the workings of a free society (as distinct from the coercive authority of a government or state). Human beings congregate in these groups precisely because we are social animals, and because we identify these institutions as conducive to our flourishing.
As Acton University faculty member Jeffrey Tucker notes:
What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren’t many at the time. It was during this period that Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation. He hit the target with an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).
All three were distinguished for
- consistent antistatism,
- appreciation for modernity and commerce,
- love of liberty and its identification with human rights,
- a conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and
- a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end.
[….] Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition […] Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.
As the case for liberty continues to be made, it is important never to neglect this extremely fruitful tradition in classical liberal thought.
Update: I stumbled across a Lord Acton quote that helps illustrate the distinction between the “natural” authority of voluntary institutions in civil society and the authority of the state:
“Authority that does not exist for Liberty is not authority but force.” – Lord Acton