Summary: Comparing and Contrasting Responses to Classical Liberalism


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In the 1800s, various reactions to classical liberalism occurred. The Luddites, who were mainly British weavers and textile workers, were in total opposition to the classical liberalist movement. They destroyed machines in protest of their recent unemployment and robbing of their livelihood. The Luddites thought that they were halting the industrial revolution when in reality, they were actually worsening the crisis by causing food shortages and being excessively violent in general. The Luddites had a conservative mindset so they can be compared to Edmund Burke and traditionalists in general, as both groups were resistant to change in their ideologies and their actions. Edmund Burke was a traditional conservative, so he wanted to uphold tradition and maintain the class systems in order to create a civil society where the government has major controlling power. Burke was an Aristocrat and therefore wanted to maintain his status within society. Burke believed that the common peoples did not hold the capability to make rational, intelligent decisions. Burke had an authoritarian approach to government as he believed in hierarchy, order, and conservatism and he strongly advanced the belief that religion is at the core of a society.

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Conversely, in complete opposition with traditional conservatism, Adam Smith was known as the father of modern capitalism and a supporter of a classical liberalism economic system. Smith advocated for a Laissez-Faire type system, where taxation was encouraged and the role of government intervention was minimized. Smith believed that governments should have the smallest amount of control economically, socially or otherwise. He believed that the economy would fix itself naturally and that the government should just be an “invisible hand” in the background. An opposing philosopher to Smith’s, in government involvement in economics, is Karl Marx. Marx was a German socialist who advocated for more government control. He wanted the government to have complete power over resources so that there would be equal distribution of goods and services. Therefore, the means of production would also be in the hands of the state. However, both Smith and Marx were not huge advocates of the class systems. Adam Smith believed that if a lower class member wanted to work through the class levels to reach a certain standing, there was no downside to society for that person to do so. Marx believed that the class systems should be abolished all together and that the lower class should overthrow the upper class.

In the late 1800s, labor unions who also advocated for the lower class, were a socialist-like movement where middle class workers tried to win their right to better wages and conditions. Classical liberalists tried to keep the wages lower because they didn’t want inflation to occur and so the unsafe working environments for workers became more extreme and little to no benefits continued. Labor unions or trade unions wanted to solve these issues, so they used modes of protest such as strikes against their employers in order to urge them to make some changes. The Chartists had similar beliefs to that of the labor unions. The Chartists, who were also in opposition to the classical liberalists, advocated for workers rights and believed that men had a rightful place in government. The group of individuals wanted equal rights in general, but specifically the ability to vote, just like the Suffragettes that followed. They hoped to lessen the divide between the lower class and the higher class. They wanted secret ballots, equal electoral districts, and annual elections for parliament. The Suffragettes, who also shared some socialist beliefs, were a group of women that were also tired of the non-action in government, but their displeasure was directly aimed towards women’s inability and lack of right to vote. They were frustrated because many women had respectable jobs (such as being on school boards), many were educated women, and lastly they paid taxes and obeyed laws just like everyone else, however they were still denied the right to vote. Many strikes and protests took place and a lot of them turned violent, resulting in the movement’s first martyr. Finally, after the women’s significant contributions to the WW1 effort, the Suffragettes, and women in general won the right to vote in 1918.

The last response to classical liberalism in the 19th century was the movement of the Utopian Socialists. The movement was based off of socialist and some communist ideas. This division strongly advocated for the sharing of goods, services, income, etc. within one society. They wanted to abolish the class systems all together, like Marx, but instead of overthrowing the higher class, they wanted every individual to work together for the greater good of all. Robert Owen was the founding father of this cooperative movement and he believed in the equalization and distribution of wealth. He is best known for his efforts to improve the working conditions of his factory workers, just like the Chartists, an, the Labour Unions tried to do. Even though there might not be one type of economic system, movement, or ideology that meets the needs of all citizens, exploring the historical responses to classical liberalism can impede us from repeating the same mistakes of our predecessors, and aid us in advancing from the foundations that they have built.  

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