The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 1 – Natural Law Traditions in Great Britain)


Given that terms like these—liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, et cetera—are thrown out all the time, it is important to have some understanding of where these terms come from. My goal for this and its subsequent topical posts is to condense this history into an abridged narrative. Please keep in mind that the history of ideas is so abundantly rich and diverse that a blog cannot do its full intricacies justice. Indeed, full series could be written on the topics I hope to summarize in a series of blog posts. I hope my readers will give me the grace to necessarily avoid the full exploration of nuances that come up constantly in the history of terms and ideas.

The Enlightenment & the Divine Right of Kings

In that similar vein of clarification, there is no possible way to satisfactorily address the vastness of the Enlightenment. As the Middle Ages led into the Renaissance, and the Renaissance into the Enlightenment during the 1600 and 1700s, many old ideas, anchored in Europe since the Dark Ages, were beginning to be challenged, some for better and some for worse. And although the ideas fostered during the Enlightenment could be quite different depending on the person and area studied, this refusal to follow the entrenched ideas of the Middle Ages were a common feature throughout. The supremacy of the Catholic Church was being challenged (where it had not already been overthrown by the Reformation Wars). The old beliefs about human nature—taught generally consistently by the Catholic Church as being inherently sinful in the Christian tradition—were being challenged. The old hierarchies were being challenged. For the sake of brevity, I couldn’t possibly exhaust the list, and most readers will find the list a mix of good and harmful ideas.

Of particular note in our story, the old idea of the Divine Right of Kings was being challenged, as well. This idea, supported by the ecclesiastical coronations from Charlemagne onward throughout the Middle Ages in numerous European kingdoms, was the idea that the monarch of a country had a divine right to rule because they had been appointed to the position by God and confirmed by the Pope (or the Archbishop of the Anglican Church after King Henry V of England pulled England away from the Catholic Church because the Pope refused to let him divorce his wife).

The implication of this idea was that the king was above the law; he had absolute power because, in essence, he was the law. In France, kings would rule with increasingly centralized power and capitalize on this idea of absolutism. In England, the story was a bit different.

King John IV signs the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

The Struggle in England

Though I cannot relay the full story here, England had localized democratic traditions going back prior to the Norman (people from the Northern French region of Normandy) takeover of the country by William the Conqueror in 1066. Some of these persisted, and after a series of kings attempted to establish themselves as absolute dictators in the Norman and French tradition, the English Parliament, in 1215, forced King John IV to sign the Magna Carta – the “Great Charter” – providing some limits on his power and Parliamentary control over taxation, as well as habeas corpus for all free men in England.

Mixed results followed for some centuries, and the struggle between Parliament and the King of England came to a head in the English Civil War of 1642-1649, followed by a decade of quasi or real military rule by Oliver Cromwell, followed by a return to the monarchical line until 1688. In that year, Parliament went over the head of King James II and invited his daughter and her Dutch husband (who was king of Holland at the time) to come rule in England on condition that Parliament’s demands in the English Bill of Rights be honored by the new monarchs. In a remarkable event known as the Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution, King James II quietly retired (after all, his dad had been decapitated by the Parliament’s allies in the civil war) as William and Mary took his place and submitted a great deal more power to Parliament.

Samuel Rutherford

The English & Scottish Traditions of Natural Law

At the same time as many of these events, a number of English (and Scottish) Enlightenment writers were publishing their ideas. Scottish writer Samuel Rutherford published Lex Rex in 1644, a book emphasizing the supremacy of law over kings, a direct attack on absolutism and Divine Right. This helped influence a young Englishman, John Locke, who would later publish his own political philosophy laying out a case for limited government and a clear defense of natural law.

(I don’t have time to distinguish between the various Scottish vs. English influences on natural law, but they certainly had extensive mutually-influential impact, such as Rutherford’s influence on Locke. Readers can explore that further, if they like. For our purposes, we’re going to somewhat loosely categorize them together.)

The basic idea of natural law was, as John Locke would put in the clearest terms, the individual’s right to life, liberty and property. Samuel Rutherford, a Presbyterian (the more formal Scottish version of Anglicanism), approached these ideas from a reformation-based background, arguing much of his case on the basis of Scripture. John Locke, whose spiritual views amounted to a vague deistic worldview, argued for the right to life, liberty and property on a more secular basis. Though others certainly had influence in English and western tradition, the impact their ideas had on Great Britain (the greater England, Wales and Scotland Island) and the United States can hardly be understated. Thomas Jefferson, directly drawing on Locke’s language, would attempt greater inspiration with the words, “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence.

John Locke


Locke’s major political work, Two Treatises of Government

Still, we must understand that these were not entirely new ideas. That Parliament had forced the signing of the Magna Carta as far back as 1215 testified to the importance of some limitations on the Divine Right idea, and while it wasn’t a full codification of natural law, its grant of habeas corpus to all free men was a significant step in affirming a key part of natural law: a promise of the protection of a person’s rights in the courts (and protection against being held without charge). By modern standards, Parliament members were not particularly prodigal in their ideas that all people had extensive individual rights, but there was a distinctly growing tradition in England, going back centuries, that gave all Englishmen a strong sense of natural law, to some extent or another, and that the king’s power should be limited by Parliament or law was both a product of this tradition and helped fertilize it. This formed a basis for what was known as English Common Law, a tradition of upholding property rights, allowing for jury trials, and various other elements built into the legal system that helped protect some individual liberties, especially for those among the upper classes and the large-landholder aristocrats (this point will be important going forward, so keep it in mind).

This background will help to provide key context as we begin to explore, first, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism as they emerged in England. As we proceed, I’ll also clarify how this contrasted with views on the same terms in Continental Europe especially with the advancement of socialism in the late 1800s, but will spend more time looking at how these, and terms like progressivism and libertarianism developed and impacted ideas in the United States. It’s a complicated world exploring ideas like this, but I hope to lend a bit of light to such a complex subject.

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The Reality of Collectivism

In his recent book, The Problem With Socialism, author and professor Thomas DiLorenzo directs the reader’s attention to “Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a clergyman who is also an economic writer and speaker,” who “points out that anything made by God, whether it be humans or stones (which can range from small pebbles to glittering diamonds of infinite variety) is unique; while things made by man, like bricks, can be made uniform” (page 32).

I’ll address that quote again at the end.

A few posts ago, I discussed the issue of individualism (“Individualism: Good or Bad?”). In that post, I defined individualism as the idea that each person is responsible for their own actions and the consequences of those actions.

That reality is premised on the truth that only individuals can act. Only individuals can think. Only individuals can make decisions.

Groups—or collectives— cannot act, think or make decisions. Basic logic lends itself to this understanding. (“But Lukas, what about group-think, or mob-mentality?” I’ll address that at the end of this post.)

Sometimes for convenience, sometimes with political or social agenda, we are prone to use broad sweeping terms that suggest that a collective acts. As a social studies teacher, it’s much easier to say, “the United States went to war with Japan.” Clearly, this is a misnomer. The United States is not an entity that can act. What we really mean by saying something like that is that individuals in the United States made certain decisions that resulted in the American soldiers going to war with Japanese soldiers.

Merriam-Webster offers this definition of collectivism: “emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity.”

By no means a recent phenomenon, there are powerful societal and political movements that seek to act on behalf of some group or some collective, whether it is women, the poor, blacks, immigrants, et cetera. We call this identity politics, and it is predicated on the idea of collectivism.

Collectivism, by suggesting that groups can think, act and make decisions, readily places the group above the individual. In social terms, this means that we are happy pursuing a “collectivist” agenda at the expense of any particular individual. In economic terms, this premises the pursuit of egalitarianism, the pursuit of material equality in a society. Ayn Rand put it this way: “Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group–whether to a race, class or state does not matter.”

Let me leave you with a few key points:

First, collectivism, insofar as it suggests that groups can act, think and make decisions, is a self-inherent falsehood. This is a logical fallacy. Only individuals act, think and make decisions.

And this is not to entirely abandon the idea that a sort of “mob-mentality” can have a powerful effect on members within a group. History provides an abundance of examples. Take Nazi Germany. Or the Rwandan genocide. Place large groups of individuals with lots of anger and/or passion, and those individuals in that group can begin to behave in ways that they might not otherwise have if left alone. But still, the principle of individualism is not lost because of the powerful influence of what individuals in a large group can have on each other. Human nature is quite prone to atrocities committed as groups. Still, the individual cannot submit as his scapegoat, “I am not responsible for the murder I committed because we were all caught up in the passion to kill.” A court of true justice will never let this person off the hook.

On that same note, the fallacy of collectivism means that groups are not victims of other groups. This one will not particularly sit well with some readers, but it is the logical extension of the principle of individualism and that only individuals act. I am not, by collectivist default, any more guilty of racism because I am white than my wife is the victim of sexism because she’s a woman. Likewise, it is not incumbent upon some “groups” to repay some wrong to some other “group” committed by people of their same “group” in the past. Individuals can be victims of other individuals, because only individuals act, but groups cannot be victims of groups. (And when this is the case, the guilty individuals should, obviously, be held accountable.)

Second, collectivist thinking lends itself, logically and bolstered by historic reality, to great danger. The rhetoric was common in Stalin’s Soviet Union: a few eggs are always broken in the process of making an omelet. The pursuit of some “group-agenda,” such as the biological purification pursued by the Nazis, has had incredible consequences on hundreds of thousands of individuals. Indeed, socialism itself is predicated on some form of collectivist ideology (we must violate individual rights of some for the betterment of all society), and socialist regimes killed more than 100 million people in the 20th Century*. We can track this back even further, to such turbulent and violent events as the French Revolution.

On a more benign level, even collectivist political, social and domestic agendas can end up hurting those they intend to benefit because the individual is forgotten for the group. As I will lay out in blogs to come, many policies meant to help some “group,” such as women or minorities, have negative consequences on individuals in those and other groups.

Additionally, collectivist victim hood can (and often does) lead to the violation of individuals’ rights as one “group” seeks out revenge or compensation from some other “group,” regardless of whether or not individuals being held to blame had any part in real or alleged abuses. An example of this is the demand that the wealthy (the collective), because they must inherently be greedy, therefore are required to account for their alleged “greed” through higher taxes, et cetera. Another purely hypothetical example would be if modern-day Irish-Americans demanded that white Americans pay recompense for the ill-treatment of the 19th Century Irish immigrants. (And please keep in mind that my principles hold in reverse: collectivist thinking was just as damaging to the Irish immigrants of the early 1800s, or to the Africans of the early American slave trade. These examples only bolster my point.)

Third and finally, I will refer back to the quote at the beginning. All that which is made by God is unique. Individuals are unique. Individuals have varying backgrounds, personalities, talents, abilities, et cetera. The collectivist, to some extent or another, abandons this truth in their thinking and either treats all in a group as identified first by their group identity, or pursues some egalitarian end in an attempt to make all the individuals in a group as “bricks.”

Rather, this blog’s author would passionately advocate that we recognize that only the individual acts, thinks and makes decisions. And we ought to couple this with the understanding that each individual is unique. I do not care to distinguish a person based on some collectivist identity first and foremost, but rather much prefer to see each individual as an individual, unique to every other. To treat the individual as primarily “one in a more important collective” is a gross dishonor. All men and women should be treated as unique individuals with dignity, respect and honor.

*DiLorenzo, Thomas. The Problem With Socialism. Copyright 2016.