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Traditions of Liberalism: Essays on John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill

Liberalism is a notoriously ambiguous concept. More than anything, this has led to persistent historical contests for the idea. Thus, while the label is young, the thing in itself has been pursued across every epoch back to ancient Greece. The result has been not only a plurality of liberal traditions but also a general invocation of the past. What begins as a historical search for liberalism’s identity or, worse, ‘definition’, too often proceeds through a supposed sharing of the ‘insights’ of the past, to a barely disguised prescriptive use of that past.

Against this background, it makes perfect sense to ask half a dozen distinguished colleagues to ponder the ‘liberal tradition’ through the works of Locke, Smith and Mill, knowing full well that the implied notion of liberalism is a nineteenth-century construct. It makes equal sense for the outcome to be labelled ‘liberal traditions’. Whether the authors’ maps of the diffusion of concepts indicated by this label are accurate is a further question to be answered by the reader. To ask the original question is, I submit, not only a liberal, but a legitimate tradition.

— Knud Haakonssen

Traditions of Liberalism: Essays on John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill – Foreword

Liberalism is a notoriously ambiguous concept. More than anything, this has led to persistent historical contests for the idea.

In the preface of his On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism, Norman P. Barry observes:

Despite many similarities in policy prescription the prominent classical liberals differed greatly over the fundamental theoretical premises on which these policies were founded… Furthermore, the differences that are easily detectable in their works reflect some of the oldest and deepest problems in the history of political thought. (p. ix)

This passage succinctly summarises the problem that prompted the appearance of this book: namely, that the ‘liberal tradition’ quickly dissolves under analysis into a variety of strands of thought based on diverse and sometimes mutually exclusive antagonistic assumptions. But the matter is even more complicated than that. Each of those contributory strands is itself open to a variety of conflicting interpretations. And what exactly is the thing they contribute to? Should we dispense with the idea of a single liberal tradition? Or as the title of this volume suggests, characterise liberalism in terms of several coexisting traditions? Or is the very idea of a ‘tradition’ of thought a misleading fiction that imposes on a group of thinkers a common focus of concern that they could not themselves have intended or recognised?

These are the issues that this volume addresses. Thus, it does not offer a simple exposition of the thought of the three key figures in the history of liberalism. It does not present liberalism as some convenient combination of Locke’s theory of natural rights. Smith’s account of the sector self correcting mechanism of the free market, and Mills is advocacy of personal liberty and individuality. Instead, three specialists consider each thinker from the standpoint of a putative liberal tradition. The result is a collection that throws much new light on all three thinkers, but renders somewhat controversial, their hitherto secure status as ‘liberals’.

Not that there is necessarily any unanimity among the contributors on the correct interpretation of their respective subjects of inquiry. Thus, the more familiar pictures of Locke and mill, as clear advocates of liberal conceptions of freedom are vigorously and freshly painted by Alan Ryan and C.L. Ten. But we are also offered new and unfamiliar versions surely lead with claims that Locke was no friend of the rule of law, the doctrine that requires us to observe general rules of conduct so that we can all safely pursue our individual self chosen goals. Since he thought we were obliged to carry out God’s purpose as made clear through natural law. John Gray goes beyond the commonplace observation that mill toyed with semi socialist schemes to claim that his entire liberal doctrine was flawed by an excessive faith in reason, and by the divorce he postulated between production and distribution. These gave birth to a ‘revisionist’ liberalism, that in the present century has largely displaced the skeptical, cautious ‘classical’ liberalism of Smith and his school. So such provocative interpretations are unlikely to become the received ones, at least in the foreseeable future. But they raise doubts about the coherence and even the existence of any such thing as a ‘liberal tradition’.

This issue is most explicitly treated in the papers on Smith. William Letwin and Donald Winch argue that Smith’s politics, unlike his economics, were hardly liberal. But Winch goes on to insist that asking whether Smith was ‘really’ a liberal risks falling into some bad intellectual habits, rather than trying to recruit the 18th century Smith into what emerged self consciously as a tradition only in the 19th century, which recommends the ‘recovery’ of the real Smith, by establishing the intellectual and linguistic context in which he wrote and deriving from that some understanding of the intentions he might have had in writing what he did.

The soundness of this essentially historical approach to the study of political theory, need not, however, rule out the validity of the intellectual construct of the ‘tradition’ of ideas in his introduction to the volume, Knut Haakonssen urges historians of ideas, to recognise a ‘methodological pluralism’ that legitimises the division of labor in the way they approach this subject. Kenneth Minogue’s concluding chapter certainly demonstrates that a successful characterisation of a tradition of thought combines the historian sense of nuance and diversity with the philosopher’s grasp of logic and coherence. While recognising that identities are elusive, and can never be completely encapsulated in words Minogue finally settles on this formulation: “The liberal tradition is a political practice in which reason is brought to bear upon political and social arrangements, so they can be continuously modified according to what individuals judge ought to be done.” (pp 195-6). This is a highly formal definition, but Minogue is confident that it succeeds both in distinguishing the liberal tradition from its conservative and socialist rivals, and in accommodating the diversity of foundations that liberals themselves have proposed for their beliefs.

— Michael James

The attached pdf has been manually scanned from the original printed book.


  1. John Locke: Liberalism and Natural Law – Shirley Robin Letwin
  2. Locke on Freedom: Some Second Thoughts – Alan Ryan
  3. Comments on Shirley Robin Letwin and Alan Ryan – Lauchlan Chipman
  4. Was Adam Smith a Liberal? – William Letwin
  5. Adam Smith and the Liberal Tradition – Donald Winch
  6. Jurisprudence and Politics in Adam Smith – Knud Haakonssen
  7. Mill’s and Other Liberalisms – John Gray
  8. Mills’s Defence of Liberty – C.L. Ten
  9. Liberalism and its Defence: A Lesson from J.S. Mill – Philip Pettit
  10. Theorising Liberalism and Liberalising Theory – Kenneth Minogue