Paul Marshall on Classical Liberalism

File:Adam and Eve (UK CIA P-1947-LF-77).jpg

Paul Marshall, British investor and one-time MP candidate for the SDP/Liberal Alliance, has provided a spirited defence of classical liberalism over at Unherd.

The title of Marshall’s article, “Progressives have sacrificed liberalism”, gives one the false impression that this is purely a pugilistic piece pointed at an imprecisely defined progressivism. This notion is wrong on three counts: 

  • first, the argument is positive and constructive as well as apologetic 
  • second, insofar as the author’s aim is pugilistic (which it undoubtedly is), he targets three rival ideologies: not only progressivism but post-liberalism and libertarianism. (In fact, he takes aim at a further philosophy which lies behind progressivism and libertarianism: the 18th century so-called Enlightenment).
  • And third, on progressivism, the author carefully defines this creed as the conceit that humankind’s moral and epistemological progress is “on a perpetual upward curve in parallel with technological progress”.  

The author’s main contention, in many ways complementary to John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism, is that classical liberalism has “lost its moorings”. More specifically (and unlike Gray), he contends that classical liberalism has lost its deep Christian (more particularly still its Protestant) faith revealed in an assumed anthropology (a shared understanding of human nature wherein we possess inherent dignity but are also fallen creatures), a common epistemology (theory of human knowledge where, because of our fallenness we empirically test our hypotheses), and ethics, wherein we pursue virtue and good in light of God’s decrees. 

1689 is ground-zero for Anglophone liberalism. Marshall lists a catalogue of 17th century liberal achievements which, he contends, were “anchored in a shared understanding of meaning, knowledge and virtue”. These include: the movement towards toleration of non-Anglicans and Jews in the Act of Toleration in 1689; Milton’s Areopagitica, a defence of freedom of speech against the new Licensing Order of 1643 which would have the publication of any work depend on parliamentary approval; de Tocqueville’s reflections in Democracy in America on the “spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty” that were integral to the Founding Fathers and Anglo-American civilisation; as well as the eradication of the slave trade, democratic franchise, free trade economics and major educational reform. 

With the Enlightenment, classical liberalism begins to unravel. While Marshall aims his guns at post-liberalism, libertarianism and progressivism, in fact, his main target is the Enlightenment, which, with its rival anthropology, epistemology and ethics, represents for him a “Fall” for classical liberalism. Man is no longer assumed to be broken. Thus, we get Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness. Man is perfectible and his rationality unhindered and so he pursues infinite Progress by any means, including technology.1 And man pursues his notion of the good without reference to God, leading to the moral calculus of Benthamite Utilitarianism.  

Against Libertarianism, classical liberalism offers a more robust definition of human liberty: liberty is tempered by fallen human experience, and requires institutions and community for it to aim at something truly good. And against Progressivism, classical liberalism holds out a better understanding of progress: real advancement of the human lot tempered by human fallibility rather than inexorable progress by man through technological advancement.2 

Finally, Marshall is clear that to recover classical liberalism poses a challenge to post-liberals (that ill-defined group that sees the “pursuit of liberal individualism…to be in conflict with ideas of community”).3 At a personal level, Marshall’s piece compounds my own doubts concerning a full-fledged identification with forms of post-liberalism that would abandon the liberal heritage altogether. I much prefer the work of post-liberals who seek to redress the excesses of liberal economics and liberal social policy. 

Yet if Marshall is right, then these excesses stem from the Enlightenment version of liberalism rather than the true philosophy itself. Classical liberalism needs recovering, then, not abandoning. “Meanwhile, to those who do embrace the term ‘post-liberal’, and believe it applies to our new era, I would just say this: be careful what you wish for.” Them’s fighting words! 


1 Scientism, the evil twin of good science, comes in for particular criticism, especially as applied to the curtailment of natural freedoms with Covid-19. Scientism married with technocracy (rule of experts) has failed to “understand the nature of risk and uncertainty” and “the difference between observable evidence and predictions of an uncertain and hypothetical future”.

2 In other words, progress within a Christian framework is worth pursuing but within particular limits set by human nature (among other things). The second part of this formulation challenges progressivism but the first part might challenge certain expressions of small c-conservatism. Is the denial of the need for and possibility of reform perhaps an oversight of small c-conservatism (particularly acute when divorced from the Christian faith)? That is, without God in all his fullness, is the small c-conservative not doomed to pursue the status quo?

3 See my interviews with Giles Fraser and Mary Harrington for more on post-liberalism as it might intersect with the Christian faith. 

Image Credit: Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve (1526; from Courtauld Institute of Art. Source: Wikimedia)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.