Though I become more and more convinced—daily, if not hourly, and, sometimes, by the minute—of the inability of the political state to accomplish anything well, anything humanely, anything merely decently, or even anything without ultimately destroying the non-political spheres of life, I do think the finest possible state and political form of governance for a classical liberal is a constitutional republic.
What we’ve seen work in the past, after all, can and should inform how we think about society today.
Learning from History
Indeed, the main currents of thought and proponents of the classical liberal tradition, especially as expressed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have embraced the idea of a republic, especially if it secured natural rights (rights that are inherent and do not require government or law to bestow them).
Historically, one can also state that the American founding period (1761 through roughly 1806) represents one of the finest attempts in the history of the world to allow classical liberalism to flourish at any level beyond something particularly local.
Not that the United States of America was perfect. Far from it. Its sins and failings are as powerful and as depressing as the sins and failings of any political entity in history. And yet, while the mistakes the United States (as a government and as a people) has made are atrocious, the successes of the republic are equally strong.
Common Trends Among a Diverse Group of People
Opinions and viewpoints of the individuals who lived during the founding period varied, of course, as the American founders were a diverse and non-conformist lot. Within that founding period, one might just as easily encounter a conservative John Dickinson as a radical Mercy Otis Warren. Despite their differences, however, they had much in common, and those commonalities could inform our vision of society and government today.
For the American founders, a republic, properly understood and demanded four things—ideas that should be at the foundation for what any self-professed modern libertarian believes:
First, as good students of the Roman republicans—especially Cicero, Cato the Younger, Tacitus, and Livy—the founders embraced the idea that a person must be self-governing should she or he ever hope to be free but that freedom was the best means by which to govern the self. Freedom would make self-restraint necessary, they reasoned. This would be restraint from harm to self (abuse of some worldly good) as well as restraint from harm to another.
The word that the founders threw around without any trepidation was virtue (Latin for a “humanly power”). And, being western men, they embraced the traditional virtues of the Greco-Roman-English tradition: prudence; justice; temperance; and fortitude.
Second, the only way to practice such virtue—of restraint or discovery—was if one had his natural right to property secured. For the founding generation, property was the most important of the natural rights as it applied to our very humanity. If you did not own yourself, you were less than human. No God or government had the right to interfere with the right to property (meaning, YOU) without your consent.
In the modern world, we think of this as the right to barter and trade, but to the founding generation, the right to barter and trade was merely a part (granted, a vital part) of something else: the right to associate. One had the right to association in terms of forming churches, family, education, clubs, and businesses. Nowhere in the founding period is this expressed more blatantly than in Article 2 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787:
And in the just preservation of rights and property, it is understood and declared that no law ought ever be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall, in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements, bona fide, and without fraud.”]
Third, founding-era thinkers believed that a person must not only have the right to defend himself (or herself) through force of arms, but this might actually be a duty according to the natural law. Regardless of public opinion in 2016, the Second Amendment was meant to be taken quite literally by the founding generation. In general, they feared and despised the idea of a standing army. In their minds, the only real solution to be found in a free society was for each person to be able and willing to defend himself, his family, his community, and his faith. Losing such individuals would mean losing society itself.
Fourth, members of the founding generation embraced the idea of government that was radically different from our understanding today. They believed that government’s job was to secure and protect liberty for individuals, but it had no real rights (or duties) beyond this.
So while government had the right to engage in political activity, it did not have the right to be expansionistic and imperialistic. Even the most expansionist of American founders, Alexander Hamilton, feared an unwieldy government, one that would make its own means. One of only six signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution, James Wilson (later a Supreme Court Justice) gave a two-semester series of lectures, 1790-1791, at what is now the University of Pennsylvania, on the meaning of the founding. In his lecture on natural rights, Wilson said:
Government, in my humble opinion, should be formed to secure and to enlarge the exercise of the natural rights of its members; and every government, which has not this in view, as its principal object, is not a government of the legitimate kind.”]
Certainly, no modern libertarian has said this better.