Greening Out Interview #23 – Sean Gabb on Classical Liberalism (2015)

Sean Gabb joins Caity and Dan for a third time for a fascinating conversation around the topic of classical liberalism.

We begin by discussing classical liberal ideas going back to ancient Greece and being hard-wired into western European thought and how this can be shown in fairy and folk tales that are quite unique to western Europe.

We chat about John Locke, the social contract and theories about how governments emerged. How the Victorian age seems like a golden age for libertarians until you look closer, the Whigs, the Liberal Party of the 19th century: how it was formed and how they may have laid the groundwork for the political system we now find ourselves in in the UK.

We also chat about the dangers of governments turning our vices into crimes, the mental deficiency act and other eugenics legislation. We get into social liberalism vs. classical liberalism, socialism in the UK, the NHS and how doctors see themselves in the UK.

We go on to discuss whether the Liberal Party of the 19th century was moved more by utilitarianism or desire for control. If the conservatives were more libertarian in the 19th century than the Liberal Party and why politicians want to control what we do.


  1. A very interesting discussion. One technical quibble; everyone’s audio levels were different, with Sean the loudest and Caity the quietest, such that it was difficult to find a volume level comfortable to hear all. I think my neighbours probably ended up hearing most of Sean’s part so that I could also hear the others, hopefully they learned something and tomorrow they’ll be round demanding libertarian literature 🙂

    One other little thing; the folk tale about the grandfather I first heard as a Chinese folk tale in which the grandfather is to be put in a basket and thrown in the river; the punchline being the son saying to the father, “remember to bring back the basket, so I can use it when it’s your turn”. I don’t however know the original origin of the story- it might have been Orientalised recently as a fake Chinese folk tale, or something.

    Also nice to hear some references to The Puritan Hypothesis. I’d be happy to give Dan and Caity a more social and religious history angle on that if they’re interested 😉

    • Yeah, we messed up the levels on this one, sounded ok in our headphones at the time but we realised the mistake afterwards, tried to fix it in post but it ended up messing with the quality so we just left it. Not a mistake we’ll make again.

      In terms of your offer of social and religious history angle we are very interested, drop us an email or get in touch via Facebook and we’ll chat.

  2. We begin by discussing classical liberal ideas going back to ancient Greece and being hard-wired into western European thought…

    Ideas being hardwired into thought is an image worthy of the Guardian.

    We go on to discuss whether the Liberal Party of the 19th century was moved more by utilitarianism or desire for control. If the conservatives were more libertarian in the 19th century than the Liberal Party and why politicians want to control what we do.

    It’s clearly because they’ve abandoned the deep respect for individual liberty that is at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

    Professor Monroe Freedman of Hofstra University died last week […] Freedman was the first executive director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. […] Freedman may be gone, but his ghost lingers in more than just the tacky 1-800 lawyer commercials fat people see while watching Judge Judy. Back in 1988, Monroe Freedman hatched an idea: Would it be possible to draft a constitutionally-acceptable law banning speech that offends racial, religious, and ethnic minorities? A law that would restrict “hate speech” in general, and Holocaust revisionism specifically. […] At a conference in April 1988, a “model statute” was selected, written for Freedman by then-law student Joseph Ribakoff (who has since been disbarred for a variety of criminal offences). The statute was tested in a moot court with Columbia Law School Vice Dean (and former Director-Counsel of the NAACP) Jack Greenberg acting as prosecutor, and Alan Dershowitz acting for the defense. The judges were Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Amalya Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

    The statute was upheld in moot court. It passed the test, just as Freedman had hoped. […]

    Since 1988, Freedman’s model statute has influenced countless European anti-speech laws with its unique concept of “group defamation.” In the U.S., it’s dormant at the moment. I doubt it will remain so forever. Think of it as lurking in the shadows, waiting for its moment. Read the statute for yourself, understand the ramifications of what it’s intended to do to our most basic, fundamental freedom, and remember Lucius’ admonition in Titus Andronicus: “This is our doom.”

    Judeo-Christianity in action

  3. The support of human liberty from Lycophron in ancient Greece to people like Senator Rand Paul today – a vast subject, but with some common themes.

    In every age there are threats to human liberty – and also opportunities to expand liberty and roll back both statism and chaos (bandits and raiders are just as much a threat to right liberty as the state – at least in some ages).

    There are also disputes over what “liberty” or “freedom” mean.

    Take two people engaged in public affairs at the same time – the early 1920s.

    President Warren Harding (perhaps the most libelled President in American history – which says a lot about the intellectual establishment) of the United States and “Lenin” of the new Soviet Russia.

    President Harding released political prisoners (those imprisoned by Woodrow Wilson) even when he despised their politics, campaigned against lynching (the killing of people without due process of law – mostly black people), and massively reduced taxation and government spending – in line with his belief in private property based liberty.

    “Lenin” was the opposite. He imprisoned those who did not agree with his political opinions, he had vast numbers of people brutally murdered (either by his new state – or by local “activists”, savage thugs), he also (as a central part of his philosophy) stole property (land, factories and so on) in the “means of production, distribution and exchange”.

    Both men (opposites in their politics) claimed to be supporting liberty.

    Which was correct?

    Is liberty-freedom the defence of non aggression principle based private property – or is liberty-freedom the attack upon it?

    When someone says they are “freedom fighter” they are usually using the definition of “freedom” that “Lenin” used – to someone of the other point of view they are literally freedom fighters, in that they fight against freedom.

    Sometimes the differences are less stark – after all “Lenin” was a beast (it could be argued that I am rigging the argument by including this vile creature).

    But what of Thomas Paine versus Edmund Burke.

    Both were nice people (although Burke had an Irish temper – which some people discovered), and both claimed to be supporting liberty-freedom. Yet they were political enemies.

    Which was correct? Paine who defined liberty (mostly) as the right to vote and help choose one’s government – and supported the government giving various benefits to the people (in education, old age provision and so on), or Burke who defined liberty (mostly) as limiting the power of government to attack non aggression principle based (Civil Society based) property (as such Burke was a foe of slavery – which, as Salmon P. Chase was to explain, is a series of Common Law crimes, assault, false imprisonment and so on), and campaigned for lower taxation and for an end to regulations attacking business such as the laws against “engrossing and forestalling”.

    Who was correct?

    To me a libertarian does not just support Warren Harding against “Lenin” – a libertarian also supports Burke against Paine. After all Thomas Paine started out claiming that his new benefits could be paid for without higher taxes – just by getting rid of the King and hangers-on, but ended up (when it was pointed out to him that King George III lived in a rather small house and that the hangers-on actually did not cost very much) supporting taxes of 100% on the larger estates (and even that would not have been enough for all his benefits, not in the long term – as the modern world is discovering).

    And supporting Burke against Paine (and Harding against “Lenin” – and on and on) includes, if need be, using the “Sword” against the foes of Civil Society property (whether owned by individuals or voluntary organisations such as Churches) both foreign and domestic. Sometimes those who would use the “Sword” against property can only be countered by the “Sword” – and it is too late to wait till they attack this country directly, if one allows them to forcibly take all the resources of Europe (and the world) into their hands.

  4. As for British liberals – I have written enough on them over the last couple of days.

    Although I would like to see Dr Gabb’s doctoral thesis on the matter – and the thesis of the late Dr Tame.

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