Thick classical liberalism and the decay of political debate

I have been asked to reflect upon the future of classical liberalism. Among the many challenges classical liberals face, I decided to focus on only one; what classical liberals can do about the contemporary political debate. Naturally, my choice entails the questions whether there is a problem with contemporary political debate and, if so, whether classical liberalism can provide normative guidance with regards to it. Both are interesting in themselves.

Classical liberalism unquestionably provides guidance in politics. However, that is not the same as providing guidance in political debate. Debating is something that consenting adults engage in privately. What does classical liberalism have to do with such private matters?

And, from a classical liberal point of view, it is not obvious that there is something wrong with the political debate. It would be a problem if someone’s rights were violated while that someone was debating, but although that surely happens occasionally it is likely not a widespread phenomenon.

The way I think of it is as follows. From a classical liberal point of view, public debate is under decay. However, that can only be asserted if one adheres to a certain form of classical liberalism that provides guidance in the private sphere of society. Therefore, in this text, I will do three things.

First, I will show that it is not obvious that classical liberalism is a theory only of political matters. Second, I will argue that freedom of speech does not only deliver the goods promised by classical liberal theory, but also some evils. Third, I will argue that these are evils from a classical liberal point of view, and introduce three moral principles grounded in classical liberalism to counteract them. The text is also structured accordingly.

I may not convince everyone that there is a problem with today’s political debate. Neither will everyone find my suggestions to what classical liberals should do about it persuasive. However, the reader of this text should gain a richer understanding of classical liberalism as a normative theory, and an idea of how it can provide normative guidance for political activists. With regards to what I have been asked to do, I would be fully satisfied with only that.


The core of classical liberalism consists of normative propositions regarding liberty and justice, and a set of beliefs about how human beings and their social world function. Most important for the present purposes, classical liberals view human beings as capable of rational self-determination and effective cooperation, and as equally entitled to freely pursue their interests as they choose. Classical liberalism is a theory that provides normative guidance on at least three levels of political inquiry.

First, it establishes the constitutional theory of an individualist democracy driven by the market economy and governed by the rule of law. It is the dominating constitutional theory today, and its implementation is the main reason why the West grew prosperous in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Second, classical liberalism supports policy-making under the constitutional conditions of the first level. It provides normative guidance for politicians, activists, writers, and others, when carrying out their daily tasks.

According to some, the scope of classical liberalism ends there. The first two levels, the argument goes, is all there is to political inquiry. Other things in society, such as business, civil organizations, personal morality, i.e., the private sphere, is subject to non-political theorizing. I call this view the thin view of classical liberalism (1), to be contrasted with the thick view spelled out and defended below.

Those who adhere to the thin view tend to refrain from passing judgment on private issues qua classical liberals. They may, for instance, say of a bar that only serves caucasians that its owner is a racist whose business should be boycotted, apologetically adding that those are ”personal opinions”. Thin classical liberalism only grants the view that the state is not allowed to force bar owners to serve all who wish to be served. Personal opinions require moral support independent from classical liberalism.

Thin classical liberalism is usually justified as follows. Politics—the two levels of political inquiry introduced above—rests on the monopoly on violence, that is, the legitimate use of violent force. The main problem for political theory is to determine when the use of violence is legitimate. That problem is ultimately reducible to the question of which actions are allowed and disallowed. The discriminating feature between ”allowed and disallowed” is best expressed through the language of negative individual rights, in addition to which individuals have no enforceable entitlements. All interactions in the private sphere of society are voluntary, or within the rights of people. Consequently, the private sphere of society is not a matter for political theory.

I think that it is a mistake to begin the analysis with the notion that politics rests on the monopoly on violence. The notion itself is not mistaken; using it as a starting point is. The argument begins with the postulate that politics is about the legitimate use of violent force, and ends with that non-violent activities are not subject to politics. Its conclusion is an uninformative truism.

Likewise, it is only naïvely true that the question of which actions are allowed and disallowed is central to classical liberalism. It entails an understatement of the richness of classical liberalism as a normative theory.

My view is that classical liberalism can provide normative guidance also in the private sphere of society. Thus, I adhere to a thick view of classical liberalism. To repeat the above, the core of classical liberalism contains normative propositions and beliefs about how human beings and their social world function. These propositions and beliefs are substantial.

There is simply no reason to believe that the theory is fruitless to employ beyond the first two levels of political inquiry.

The thick view was natural to classical liberals such as Adam Smith, whose behavioral theory explains both economic and sympathetic conduct (2), and John Stuart Mill, whose political theory builds on the ingenuity of free human beings (3). Limiting the scope of classical liberalism is a fairly recent idea belonging to an overdue 20th century paradigm. The idea of applying classical liberalism as a Grand Social Theory should be revived.

Thus, I argue thirdly that classical liberalism provides normative guidance in the private sphere of society. That is, and I will elaborate on this below, it supports certain norms governing behavior in addition to questions of what is morally allowed and disallowed. Fourth, I believe that classical liberalism can provide guidance regarding what sorts of persons we ought to be, though it is beyond the limits of this short text to develop that belief further.


I have here treated different levels of ”political inquiry” while maintaining that classical liberalism provides normative guidance in the private sphere of society. Is it not an oxymoron to think of private matters as subject to political inquiry? The question is very much appropriate.

The private sphere of society is greater and far more important than the political. It is where humans form loving relationships and express most of their joys. The political sphere is merely something peripheral. At best, it is a relatively stable institutional framework within which people lead their day-to-day lives. Politically speaking, the most praiseworthy attitude regarding the private sphere of society is that politicians should keep their hands off of it.

Nonetheless, many private activities do have political implications. For instance, widespread disbelief in liberty, or rapidly declining social trust, may have significant effects on policy. Private activities that influence such matters are at least indirectly political. Therefore, the opinion that politicians should keep their hands off of the private sphere of society is consistent with the view that it is yet in some sense a matter of political inquiry.

Thick classical liberalism provides normative guidance in such matters. I wish to keep this text short and will therefore only touch upon one topic of political inquiry in the private sphere of society: political debate.

The principle of freedom of speech is one of the most important ideas in classical liberal theory. In a liberal democracy, the people are at liberty to openly advocate their ideas and criticize their leaders and government’s policies without fear of retribution, civil or public. Not only that, classical liberals also believe that the freedom to openly discuss controversial issues leads to a better society. A free exchange of ideas renders ideas better. John Stuart Mill wrote (4):

… the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Among other things, the classical liberal support of freedom of speech entails that the state is mandated to punish wrongdoers who, for instance, threaten to inflict harm to their political opponents. However, there are other issues than violence or the threat thereof relating to freedom of speech—perhaps most notably so in the digital age.

Under freedom of speech one is legally entitled to, for instance, cherry-pick bits of information to create a biased impression. For example, a journalist could choose to report of the tragic death of a young and promising student, intentionally leaving out the fact that the deceased was an activist who trespassed on dangerous grounds with the aim of conveying a political message. Thereby, the journalist could successfully bring about certain sympathies, set the tone for further reports, and stimulate public discourse on some chosen topic rather than another. She is a ”director” of public debate.

Directing political debate has always been a possibility in the modern world, at least for the rich. It is not uncommon, and not always a bad thing. When states do it we call it propaganda. In the digital age, the possibilities to influence public discourse accordingly has been multiplied countlessly. With very limited means, some people and organizations manage to achieve positions as powerful directors of public debate.

Thin classical liberalism cannot pass moral judgment on the activities of directors of public debate. It cannot distinguish good from bad, or call for action for or against them. ”Those are personal opinions.” Thick classical liberalism, on the other hand, does not remain silent.


The recent rise of Western right-wing populism has been accompanied by the rise of directors of public debate. Having managed to establish the view of mainstream media as governed by a ”politically correct elite,” they have undermined the public’s trust in traditional news outlets. Among other things, this has facilitated anti-liberal migration policies, relativist whataboutism that may in the future affect foreign policies, and islamophobia that stigmatizes large groups of the population and creates divisions among people.

One might wish to claim that freedom of speech has failed to deliver the goods promised by classical liberal theory, though that would be false. Still, it is evident that freedom of speech has brought about unforeseen evils.

It is not the case that the classical liberal analysis of free speech has been wrong; it has instead been underexplored. The belief that a free exchange of ideas renders ideas better is only conditionally true.

Here, in the spirit of hypothetical philosophizing, I present three phenomena that pose a challenge to the classical liberal belief in the benefits of freedom of speech. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and I am fully aware of that each part of it is severely underdeveloped in terms of empirical support.

First, the context in which the exchange of ideas takes place is fundamentally different from that of classical liberal theorists such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. To them, and perhaps to everyone prior to the digital revolution, it was unthinkable that a civil person or organization could achieve an impact even remotely comparable to modern directors of public debate.

An updated classical liberal analysis of freedom of speech must take into account the fact that the modern arena of public debate is unequal, in the sense that the power—in terms of impact—of some players is immense while that of others is insignificant. The truth is often simply overrun by the mere quantity of false information and the force of its proponents.

Second, the strategy of many directors makes rational exchange of ideas impossible. One strategy, for example, is to distort information by overemphasizing some aspect of it. The image that directors manage to establish of a case may deviate from reality to a degree that makes the truth completely unrecognizable. They create irrational narratives that influence behavior.

These irrational narratives are stories of what is going on in society, how it should be interpreted, who the major actors are, and so on. The stories are nonsensical, yet they dominate much of the public’s mindset. When ordinary people assess political propositions their frames of references are skewed. They are unable to make rational political judgments.

Third, the analysis has yet failed to appreciate the importance of social status in ordinary people’s appraisal of ideas. Ideas are often adopted not because of their merits, but because they are advocated by a certain kind of people. Sometimes that is the right thing to do. For instance, I do not assess the arguments for and against minor details in string theory in theoretical physics. I could not even if I tried! It is more rational of me to assess the trustworthiness of the proponents for and against, especially if decisions must be made when time is scarce. The same applies in politics.

However, the arena of political debate is deeply infected by, among other things, negative campaigning, public image control, and directors’ influences. Thereby, many of us are unable to make real character assessments. We cannot effectively tell who is trustworthy and who is not.

In the words of John Stuart Mill (4), ”the opportunity of exchanging error for truth” does not arise. People do not enjoy the ”clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Thus, there are at least three phenomena—inequality of influence, the creation of irrational narratives, and a general inability to make real character assessments—present today that both individually and jointly have a significantly negative impact on the quality of public debate, and may pose a serious problem for classical liberalism. Classical liberals must adapt to this development without committing to state intervention.


As stated in the first section, classical liberals view human beings as capable of rational self-determination and effective voluntary cooperation. The hypothesis has now been introduced that these views are threatened by the development of political debate in the digital age. However, I insist on that classical liberalism provides normative guidance here.

Building on the core of classical liberalism, principles to govern behavior in the private sphere of society can be stipulated. Such principles are not intended to be politicized or made into law. My ambition is merely to stimulate the development of certain desirable social norms, and to supply classical liberals with a conceptual apparatus that enables them to morally appraise the conduct of their peers in political debate.

Effective cooperation presumes rational conduct. Therefore, classical liberalism provides normative reasons to counteract players who contribute to irrational narratives in political debate.

It is fundamental to rational debate that all participants are available to criticism. Some directors of public debate have mastered the art of disguising demagogical innuendos as open questions or as propositions with dual interpretations. It would take tens of hours and copious pages to decipher the actual message of only short pieces of text and make it explicit, while new such texts can be written in the dozens per day. In practice, many directors’ products are as inaccessible to criticism as non-falsifiable statements are.

Classical liberals should demand clarity. Vague and ambiguous propositions are inaccessible to criticism, and players who systematically declare vague or ambiguous opinions are untrustworthy. They contribute to the irrationality of debate and thereby counteract effective cooperation. Therefore, in one aspect, their conduct is anti-liberal. Classical liberals should call them out. Call this the principle of rational exchange of ideas.

Setting aside the effects of a dysfunctional public debate, freedom of speech is a matter of liberty and justice also in the private sphere.

Liberty is based on the idea of human beings as capable of rational self-determination. On the first two levels of political inquiry liberty should be negatively understood, that is, as the freedom to act any way one sees fit so long as one respects the equal liberty of others. In the private sphere of society, classical liberals should welcome also liberty positively understood.

In one sense, that implies that everyone is obligated to sustain everyone else. However, there is more to positive liberty than an individual’s right to others’ attention; there are also analytical insights into the notion of self-determination. Being self-determined includes being guided by one’s own desires rather than someone else’s, to be socially powerful enough to have a reasonable chance to achieve one’s objectives, and to live by one’s own standards. The freedom of a negatively free person is more valuable if the person is capable of self-determination, i.e., if he or she is autonomous.

The status of public discourse today threatens the autonomy of many free people. In debate, many people are met as representatives of some group rather than as individual beings. For instance, unlike others, politically active Muslims must often demonstrate that they do not have a hidden extremist agenda. To their political opponents, Muslims’ identities are often more important than their arguments. Thereby, they are not autonomous participants in the public debate. Classical liberals should be engaged in making everyone’s liberty more valuable. In political debate, not least by refraining from restricting the autonomy of their opponents. Call this the principle of liberal autonomy.

The liberal umbrella collects several theories of justice, most famously Rawls’s, Nozick’s, and Walzer’s. However, following Schmidtz, the basic idea is that questions of justice are questions about what people are due (5). In the context of public debate, justice includes questions about how people deserve to be publicly portrayed. Criminals, corrupt politicians, immoral businessmen, and so on, sometimes deserve being exposed to the public. The critique they receive, and the image created of them, is just.

However, powerful directors of public debate succeed in stigmatizing groups of morally blameless people. The negative image they create is undue. It is, for instance, not uncommon that left-wing social activists are unjustly portrayed as over-sensitive, illogical alarmists (6). Classical liberals should strive to thwart such injustices. Call this the principle of justice in portrayal.

Closing remarks

As I see things, political debate in the digital age is a challenge to classical liberalism. First and foremost, it puts to test the theory that a free exchange of ideas renders ideas better. It should be agreed that the theory is only conditionally true.

The analysis of freedom of speech uncovers other issues that classical liberals should take into serious consideration. I have accounted for some of them here, although I am sure that there are many more of which I am yet unaware. I have also suggested partial solutions to some of those problems.

The principle of rational exchange of ideas, the principle of liberal autonomy, and the principle of justice in portrayal all have their roots in the core of classical liberalism (7). They have analytical and normative value both individually and in conjunction. Everyone has reason to embrace them.

Embracing them implies that one must also accept the view that classical liberalism provides normative guidance in the private sphere of society. That view is not obviously true. However, it is not obviously false either. I do not see why classical liberalism—the intellectually richest political theory I know of, and the most successful political theory in the history of mankind—should be impotent beyond the two first levels of political inquiry. Quite the opposite.


(1) See e.g. Gerard Casey, who writes that misunderstandings regarding libertarianism can arise ”from a failure to recognize [its] severely limited ethical scope” (Libertarian Anarchy, p. 55). However, the thin view is not foreign to anyone who is reasonably acquainted with verbal libertarian/classical liberal debate.

(2) According to Vernon L. Smith, Adam Smith ”had but one behavioral axiom, ’the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,’ where the objects of trade [include] ’generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem’” (The Two Faces of Adam Smith, Southern Economic Journal 65:1, p. 3). This single behavioral axiom ”is sufficient to characterize a major portion of the human social and cultural enterprise. It explains why human nature appears to be simultaneously self-regarding and other-regarding” (ibid).

(3) On Liberty.

(4) On Liberty, Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.

(5) See David Schmidtz, The Elements of Justice, Cambridge University Press.

(6) A feminist note of interest: these are familiarly negative characteristics of female stereotypes.

(7) This does not mean that they are necessarily exclusive to classical liberalism.