Too liberal a dose

July 21, 2000

Alan Ryan does not believe that "liberalism was ever more than contingently connected to laissez-faire in economics" ("A history of hostility to power", Books, THES, June 23).

It would probably be more accurate to see classical liberalism as one ideology and modern liberalism as another.

Classical liberalism (or libertarianism) is about people being socially free to do as they wish with what is theirs (as long as they do not proactively impose on others). Modern liberalism (not "defined in Mill's essay" but perhaps begun there) involves the partial separation of personal liberty and property liberty. It prefers egalitarianism and licence to the latter - at its worst in political correctness.

Ryan's confusion is illustrated by being most impressed by "publicly provided sewerage schemes". As all consistent classical liberals realise, only state ownership of the streets had impeded the private provision of a solution long since (as with all so-called public goods, private property allows the various owners to create and sell competing solutions to such problems). And "chief executive officers and the multinationals they head" do not have "power" (to proactively impose), as political figures unfortunately do, but merely have great means to offer employment and products.

J. C. Lester

Centre for Practical Philosophy

Middlesex University

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