” The classical liberal, or libertarian, approach to morality and politics brings together related themes that will be both placed in their historical context and woven together more tightly in the coming modules. In this module, the basic ideas of individual and imprescriptible rights, spontaneous order, and the rule of law are presented and examined. Each of these ideas is implicated in the others: the spontaneous order of the free society is built on a foundation of secure individual rights, and law is intimately connected with liberty, for to be free in society is for all to be equally subjected to the same known law, a law that allows us to coordinate our activities with others and thus to create complex forms of social order. The deep roots of these ideas, reaching back into antiquity, give libertarianism a solidity other political philosophies lack.
Libertarianism draws on a multitude of different sciences, or organized bodies of knowledge, including history, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology, and law. Thus, “The Ideas of Liberty” devotes some attention to the status of the human sciences and to the meaning and importance of the principles of intentionality and methodological individualism in properly grounded social science. In addition to laying bare the scientific misunderstandings and equivocations that lie at the foundation of collectivist thinking, “The Ideas of Liberty” explores the relationships of the individual to the group, of action and design to order, of society to the state, of coercion to persuasion, and of “natural law” to “positive law.” The ideas of natural law, natural rights, and “self-proprietorship” are traced through history, from the ancient Greeks to modern times, and used to illuminate the proper relationships between persons and between persons and governments. There is also a careful discussion of the relationship between “rights” thinking and “utilitarianism,” which have been alleged by some philosophers to be mortal enemies. The confusion is eliminated by seeing “utility,” or good consequences, as the goal, and rights as the standard against which policies and practice are judged.
Above all, libertarian ideas are seen as emerging from a long history, rather than as springing full blown from the head of this or that particular philosopher. The treatment of the relationship between the “liberty of the ancients” and “the liberty of the moderns” by Benjamin Constant, included in the readings, is a clear statement of classical liberal thinking and a rebuttal to “communitarian” criticisms of liberal individualism.”