Gene Callahan on Early Liberalism

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    Dr. J, could you comment on this blog post by Gene Callahan, where he claims that there were no (classical) liberals before the 1820s? His main piece of evidence is that it was “a fundamental Whig assumption” that “[c]ommunity interests are superior to individual interests.” In the comments, Callahan also claims Adam Smith cannot be considered a liberal because he was interested in the “Wealth of Nations” as opposed to the wealth of individuals. In short, Callahan seems to assume that liberals must be individualists.

    Whether or not he is ultimately correct, I think his premise is false. Some 19th-century liberals were utilitarians, and utilitarians are interested in overall social happiness (such as the wealth of an entire nation) rather than individual happiness (except insofar as the latter contributes to social happiness). And favoring community interests over individual interests will usually produce “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Do you agree?

    Jason Jewell

    As you hint at above, everything in this debate hinges on definition. Certainly it’s possible to define “liberal” in such a way as to exclude people like Smith, but I don’t really see the usefulness of doing so. Also, if you read works like Milton’s “Areopagitica,” you see arguments for things like freedom of the press that do not seem to appeal to community interests.

    Also, your point about utilitarians is a good one.

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