Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism | Book Review

In this book, George H. Smith asks and answers a standard question raised by critics about classical liberalism or libertarianism: “How can justice be maintained in a society if most of its members lack the social virtues essential to a free society?” (emphasis in original).

The assumption underlying the critics’ question seems to be that if we act in our self-interest, as classical liberalism affirms, we will only act virtuously if “we deem voluntary interaction conducive to our own ends” or if “we fear the legal consequences of aggression.” According to the critics’ assumption, classical liberalism is little more than “atomized individualism.”

Smith refutes this assumption by surveying the arguments of classical liberal philosophers in the English tradition, such as David Hume, Joseph Butler, Frances Hutcheson, and Adam Smith. These writers affirm the self-interested character of human action but deny that its motivation can be reduced to “psychological egoism,” which they called “the selfish system.” They also affirm other motivations for human action, including benevolence.

The distinction between self-interest and psychological egoism, together with the recognition of other motivators for human action, means that classical liberalism can explain the fundamental drive for social order without reference to the supervening hand of the state. This doesn’t mean that the state plays no role, of course. In classical liberalism, the state’s most fundamental role is to “enforce the rules of justice.” What classical liberalism calls into question is the notion that the state need to do more than enforce justice in order to promulgate social order. According to classical liberalism individuals and civil society have sufficient resources apart from the state to do that.

Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism is a short but valuable read in the history of classical liberal ideas.

Book Reviewed
George H. Smith, Self-Interest and Social Order in Classical Liberalism (Washington DC: Cato Institute, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.


The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, May 2, 2011

Obama bin Laden is dead. Here’s President Obama’s statement. He was, apparently, given an Islamic burial at sea.

Pope John Paul II is one step closer to sainthood.

Remembering David Wilkerson.

San Francisco wants to outlaw male circumcision. I’m sure rabbis will soon declare SF non-kosher.

Seven urban legends preachers should avoid using as sermon illustrations.

Your soul lives online long after you’re dead.

Check out David Hume’s non-religious defense of traditional marriage against polygamy and loose divorce laws.

What a misleading article in The Nation can teach evangelicals about adoption. asks, “Is it ever OK to lie?” The blog post analyzes the debate over Live Action’s use of undercover reporters to expose abuses at Planned Parenthood. There are good links to primary and secondary sources in the post. reports on why Beijing’s largest house church refuses to stop meeting outdoors. Reading this reminds me that religious freedom is truly the first freedom.

Mathew N. Schmalz thinks “the royal family needs religion,” though not for the obvious reasons—you know, sin and salvation. Hint: The need has something to do with “buttressing its legacy.”

Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead, has this to say about Calvinism and Christian liberalism: “Contrary to entrenched assumption, contrary to the conventional associations made with the words Calvinist and Puritan, and despite the fact that certain fairly austere communities can claim a heritage in Reformed culture and history, Calvinism is uniquely the fons et origo of Christian liberalism in the modern period, that is, in the period since the Reformation.” I don’t think she means by liberalism what most people mean, however.