Category Archives: People

William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone was a British politician and true classical liberal.  He was an ardent supporter of free markets, fiscal discipline, low taxes, and peaceful relations between nations.

His political career spanned many decades, starting in Parliament, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer (roughly equivalent to Secretary of the Treasury) twice for a total of roughly ten years, and serving as Prime Minister four times for a total of roughly thirteen years.  (Having a career public servant serve as Secretary of the Treasury is certainly not the pattern the United States has followed for the last few decades, as these are in general picked from the financial world, rather than the public sector.)

One of his early aims as Prime Minister was to abolish the income tax.  An early strategy to this end was to expand the income tax to lower income brackets, thinking that this would provoke such a popular uproar that the income tax would no doubt be abolished.  Unfortunately, in this naive perspective he was disappointed, as though it was an unpopular move, it never lead to a complete abolishment of the income tax.  In fact, during times of crisis or military conflict, he temporarily raised the income tax in the name of fiscal discipline and balancing the budget.  One of his great statements, uttered during the Crimean conflict in the 1850s is this: “The expenses of a war are the moral check which it has pleased the Almighty to impose on the ambition and the lust of conquest that are inherent in so many nations.”  Note, for one, the direct and shameless reference to God.  Also note the emphasis on fiscal discipline; at approximately the same time, the United States of America inflated and borrowed to finance the Civil War.

He was a powerful orator, an impressive communicator, even when discussing tame subjects such as the budget.  His career had many small accomplishments such as outlawing a centuries-long practice of flogging citizens during times of peace, as well as large and significant moves which aimed at improving relations between the British Empire and other countries such as Ireland and France.

Late in life, while serving as Prime Minister, he stood in opposition to the members of the Cabinet, all of whom favored an increase in Navy expenses.  He believed that this ran counter to his entire career, and more importantly, the principles of freedom.  In January 1894 Gladstone wrote that he would not “break to pieces the continuous action of my political life, nor trample on the tradition received from every colleague who has ever been my teacher” by supporting naval rearmament.

Like John Lilburne and many others, William Ewart Gladstone is a titanic historical liberal figure that modern-day liberals (and conservatives and libertarians and those of all stripes) would do well to look to.

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Filed under fiscal policy, foreign policy, People, politics, role of government, War

John Lilburne, Libertarian Hero

One of my heroes who fought unceasingly for liberty and freedom his entire life is John Lilburne.  As we study individuals like him, we gain a better appreciation for what we have and gain a better understanding of what we should do to spread principles and ideas of freedom.

One of his greatest legacies is the notion of rights that all individuals are born with.  At his time in England, there was a class structure (there still is, to some extent).  Royalty was at the top, followed by lords and gentlemen.  Commoners or peasants were at the bottom.  John was part of the middle-class.  Of course, those born into royalty or lordships were treated differently because of their perceived social status.  On the other end of the spectrum, peasants were looked down upon by nearly everyone.  There was this idea that rights were correlated with social or class status.  Royalty had more rights than lords and gentlemen, for instance, who had more rights than the middle-classes, who had more rights than peasants and commoners.

The idea of freeborn rights was revolutionary: all people are born with certain rights, regardless, (so the implication went) of social status.  Similarly, John fought for equality before the law, regardless of social status, increased voting rights, and religious tolerance.

John fought for his individual rights in remarkable ways.  For instance, early in his life, he smuggled in literature which went against licensing laws, a prime example of civil disobedience.  He was brought before the Star Chamber, a high court in England.  He demanded to know the charges brought against him in English, as the court spoke French in those days.  Thus began a series of trials and imprisonments which lasted nearly his whole life.

He was also revolutionary in writing proposed Constitutions for England.  Prior to this time, the idea of a constitution was much different than our conception; the English constitution was what constituted the body of English judicial, executive, and legislative tradition and legal history.  There was no such thing as a written Constitution; the concept was not even in the minds of Englishmen.  John Lilburne’s two attempts to write Constitutions for England were again revolutionary and paved the way for the founding of our nation, founded, as it were, by a written Constitution, which, in the minds of the Framers, bound the government by chains and fetters to enable a system based on individual liberty.

As we study the lives of people like John Lilburne, we better understand what we can do to further the cause of freedom; we are enlightened, enriched, and encouraged by his example.  In examining history, we see so much of growth of government, tyranny, and the shrinking of liberty.  But there are also shining lights which give us hope in greater liberty and freedom.  John Lilburne is one of those lights.

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