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Contributions to liberal theory

(Redirected from List of liberal thinkers)

This is an (partial) overview of individuals that contributed to the development of liberal theory on a worldwide scale and therefore are strongly associated with the liberal tradition and instrumental in the exposition of political liberalism as a philosophy. The contributors are listed in approximately chronological order, beginning from the roots of realism, rationalism and humanism in the Renaissance: Niccolo Machiavelli, Desiderius Erasmus and Baruch Spinoza through the Age of Reason's English philosopher John Locke and the Frenchman Voltaire to the Americans Ronald Dworkin, Richard Rorty and Francis Fukuyama as well as the Indian Amartya Sen and the Peruvian Hernando do Soto. Some of these people moved away from liberalism, while others espoused other ideologies before turning to liberalism. There are many different views of what constitute liberalism, and some liberals would feel that some of the people on this list were not true liberals. It is intended to be suggestive rather than exhaustive. Theorist whose ideas were mainly typical for one country should be listed at that country section of liberalism worldwide. Generally only thinkers are listed, politicians are only listed when they beside their active political work also made substantial contributions to liberal theory.

It is the intention to add one or two lines of information on the theorists explaining why they are on the list with reference to the works important in this matter. More comprehensive articles can be found by clicking on the thinkers name.

The list is divided in five sections:

The following people are included:


Proto-liberal contributors

Niccolò Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (Florence, 1469-1527), best known for his Il Principe was the founder of realist political philosophy, advocated republican government, citizen armies, division of power, protection of personal property, and restraint of government expenditure as being necessary to the liberties of a republic. He wrote extensively on the need for individual initiative - virtu - as an essential characteristic of stable government. He argued that liberty was the central good which government should protect, and that "good people" would make good laws, where as people who had lost their virtu could maintain their liberties only with difficulty.

Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus (Netherlands, 1466-1536) was an advocate of the doctrine now known as humanism, critic of entrenched interests, irrationality and superstition. Erasmusian societies formed across Europe, to some extent in response to the turbulence of the Reformation. He dealt with the freedom of the will, a crucial point. In his De libero arbitrio diatribe sive collatio (1524), he analyzes with great cleverness and good humour the Lutheran exaggeration of the obvious limitations on human freedom.

  • Contributing literature

Hugo Grotius

Hugo Grotius or Hugo de Groot (Netherlands, 1583-1645), laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law, in his book Mare Liberum (Free Seas) formulated the new principle that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade, and in De jure belli ac pacis libri tres (Of laws of war and peace) presented a theory of just war and argued that all nations are bound by the principles of natural law.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (England, 1588-1679) theorized that government is the result of individual actions and human traits, and that it was motivated primarily by "interest", a term which would become crucial in the development of a liberal theory of government and political economy, since it is the foundation of the idea that individuals can be self-governing and self-regulating. His work Leviathan, did not advocate this viewpoint, but instead that only a strong government could restrain unchecked interest. Though one can doubt that Hobbes himself had liberal ideas, his work was influential on Locke, Hamiton, Jefferson and Madison, however, and many concepts found in these thinkers are rooted in Hobbesian thought, but evolved in a liberal way.

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza (Netherlands, 1632-1677) is in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and Tractatus Politicus a proto-liberal defending the value of separation of church and state as well as forms of democracy. In the first mentioned book, Spinoza expresses an early criticism of religious intolerance and a defense of secular government. Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity. For him, even human behaviour is fully determined, freedom being our capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. So freedom is not the possibility to say "no" to what happens to us but the possibility to say "yes" and fully understand why things should necessarily happen that way.

From Locke to Mill

John Locke

The notions of John Locke (England, 1632-1704) of a "government with the consent of the governed" and man's natural rightslife, liberty, and estate (property) as well on tolerance, as laid down in A letter concerning toleration and Two treatises of government —had an enormous influence on the development of liberalism. Developed a theory of property resting on the actions of individuals, rather than on descent or nobility. One could argue that liberal theory starts with Locke, influenced by the proto-liberal contributions listed above.

Charles de Montesquieu

Charles de Montesquieu (France, 1689-1755)

  • Some literature:
    • De l'esprit des lois,1748 (The Spirit of the Laws ) [6])


Voltaire (France, 1694-1778)

  • Some literature:
    • Philosophical Dictionary

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (United States, 1706-1790) was an inventor, scientist, writer, entrepreneur, diplomat and statesman was an advocate for free trade and the end of mercantilism, industrialization, abolition of slavery, free public libraries, democratic government and national unity. His Autobiography is also a seminal work on the life of a free individual who is self-governing in his pursuit of accomplishment, without need for an over-arching state, allegiance or religion to force adherence to basic moral and ethical principles.

David Hume

David Hume (United Kingdom, 1711-1776)

  • Some literature:
    • An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (France, 1712-1778) promulgated the idea that men were naturally free, but had to be educated to live in society, but that this did not represent an argument for absolutism, but instead for a natural liberty and a "national will" which could be directed to improvement of the society. He is famous for the quote "men are born free, but are everywhere in chains", and urging that Europeans throw off the restrictions that they lived under, and substitute, instead, a self-governing moral basis.

Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot (France, 1713-1784)

Anders Chydenius

Anders Chydenius (Finland, 1729-1803)

  • Some literature:
    • Den Nationnale Winsten, 1765 (The National Gain)[9])

Adam Smith

Adam Smith (United Kingdom, 1723-1790)

William Blackstone

Sir William Blackstone (England 1723-1780)

  • Some literature:
    • Commentaries on the Laws of England

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (Germany, 1724-1804)

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (United Kingdom 1729-1797) classical liberalism / conservatism by a practising politician.

August Ludwig Schloezer

August Ludwig Schloezer (Germany, 1735-1809)

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (United Kingdom/United States, 1737-1809)

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (United States, 1743-1826) was the third President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. He also wrote Notes on the State of Virginia .

Marquis de Condorcet

Marquis de Condorcet (France, 1743-1794)

  • Some literature:
    • Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrés de l'esprit humain, 1795 (Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind)

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham (United Kingdom, 1748-1832)

Emmanuel Sieyès

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (France, 1748-1836)

James Madison

James Madison (United States, 1751-1836) was co-Author, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of The Federalist Papers, and one of the architects of both the American Constitution of 1787, as well as the Bill of Rights (1789). Later President of the United States (1809-1817).

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (United States, 1755-1804)

Benjamin Constant

Benjamin Constant (France, 1767-1830)

  • Some literature:
    • De l'esprit de conquête et l'usurpation (On the spirit of conquest and on usurpation), 1814

Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt (Germany, 1767-1835)

  • Some literature:
    • Ideen zu einem Versuch, die Grenzen der Wirksamkeit des Staats zu bestimmen, 1792 (On the Limits of State Action)

David Ricardo

David Ricardo (United Kingdom, 1772-1823)

James Mill

James Mill (United Kingdom, 1773-1836)

  • Some literature:
    • Elements of Political Economy, 1821

Johan Rudolf Thorbecke

The Dutch statesman Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (Netherlands, 1798-1872) was the main theorist of Dutch liberalism in the nineteenth century, outlining a more or less democratic alternative to the absolute monarchy. His main theoretical work was Over het hedendaagsche staatsburgerschap (1844). He became prime minister in 1848, thus starting numerous reforms in Dutch politics.

Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat (France, 1801-1850)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson (United States, 1803-1882) was an American philosopher who argued that the basic principles of government were mutable, and that government is required only in so far as people are not self-governing. Proponent of Democracy, and of the idea that a democratic people must have a democratic ethics.

  • Some literature:
    • Self-Reliance
    • Circles
    • Politics
    • The Nominalist and the Realist

Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (France, 1805-1859)

Mill and further, the development of (international) liberalism

See for the somehwat different development of a American liberalism after World War II the section on American liberal theory. American liberal theorists who also had influence on liberalism outside the United States are included in this section.

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill (United Kingdom, 1806-1873) is one of the first champions of modern "liberalism" as such, his work on political economy and logic helped lay the foundation for advancements in emprical science and public policy based on verifiable improvements. Strongly influenced by Bentham's utilitarianism, he disagrees with Kant's intuitive notion o f right and formulates the "highest normative principle" of morals as: Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.

  • Some literature:

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (United States, 1809-1865) is best known as the President of the United States from 1861-1865. He argued for the theory of political equality and the supremacy of natural law over present political arrangements. Most famous for his debates with Stephen Douglas, Second Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation - which converted the American Civil War into a struggle to end slavery.

Jakob Burkhardt

Jakob Burkhardt (Switzerland, 1818-1897) State as derived from cultural and economic life

  • Some literature:
    • The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (United Kingdom, 1820-1903)

  • Some literature:
    • The Man versus the State, 1884

Thomas Hill Green

Thomas Hill Green (United Kingdom, 1836-1882)

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (United States, 1841-1935) was a jurist and writer. He wrote the influential book on legal theory The Common Law, which traced the creation of individual rights from familial rights common under Roman and Feudal law, and presented the "objective" theory of judicial interpretation. Specifically that the standard for intent and culpability should be that of the "reasonable man", and that individuals can be said to objectively intend the reasonable consequences of their actions.

Lujo Brentano

Ludwig Joseph Brentano (Germany, 1844-1931)

Tomás Masaryk

TomᚠGarrigue Masaryk (Czechoslovakia, 1850-1937)

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson (United States, 1856-1924)

Friedrich Naumann

Friedrich Naumann (Germany, 1860-1919)

Max Weber

Max Weber (Germany, 1864-1920) was a theorist of state power, the relationship of culture to economics and founder of what is now called "sociology". Argued that there was a moral component to capitalism rooted in "protestant" values. Weber was along with Friedrich Naumann active in the National Social Union and later in the German Democratic Party.

Leonard Hobhouse

Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (United Kingdom, 1864-1929)

  • Some literature:
    • Liberalism, 1911 [21]

Benedetto Croce

Benedetto Croce (Italy, 1866-1952)

  • Some literature:
    • Che cosa è il liberalismo, 1943

Walther Rathenau

Walther Rathenau (Germany, 1867-1922)

William Beveridge

William Beveridge (United Kingdom, 1879-1973)

  • Some literature:
    • Full Employment in a Free Society, 1944
    • Why I am a liberal, 1945

John Maynard Keynes

The economist John Maynard Keynes (United Kingdom, 1883-1946) is best known for his work on monetary theory and macroeconomics, which was an attempt to restructure private sector capitalist economies in the wake of the lessons of World War I and The Great Depression. He proposed policies which included short term intervention in the market, statistical econometrics as an important instrument of social policy, and an active use of government power. He was sharply critical of using economics for purely nationalist goals, or economic punishment as a means of attaining political ends, as well as the architect of the Bretton-Woods system. Keynes was an active member of the British Liberal Party.

José Ortega y Gasset

José Ortega y Gasset (Spain, 1883-1955)

  • Some literature:
    • La rebelión de las masas, 1930 (The Rebellion of the Masses)

Salvador de Madariaga

Salvador de Madariaga (Spain, 1886-1978)

Wilhelm Röpke

Wilhelm Röpke (Germany, 1899-1966)

Bertil Ohlin

Bertil Ohlin (Sweden, 1899-1979)

Friedrich Hayek

Friedrich Hayek (Austria, 1899-1992)

  • Some literature:
    • The Road to Serfdom, 1944 [23]
    • The Constitution of Liberty, 1960
    • Law, Legislation and Liberty, three parts, 1973, 1976 and 1979

Karl Popper

Karl Raimund Popper (Austria/United Kingdom, 1902-1994)

Alan Paton

Alan Paton (South Africa, 1903-1988) contributed with his book Cry, The beloved country to a clear anti-apartheid stand of South African liberalism. His party, the South African Liberal Party was banned by the apartheid government.

  • Some literature:
    • Cry, The Beloved Country, 1948

John Hicks

John Hicks (United Kingdom, 1904-1989) is known for his work in macro-economics and social choice theory. His macro-economic work produced the ISLM model of macro-economics, which would be the basis for much theory since then, including the work of Paul Krugman and Robert Mundell. In the area of social choice he for the necessity of placing freedom of choice in balanace against social welfare to produce the best practical outcomes.

Raymond Aron

Raymond Aron (France, 1905-1983)

  • Some literature:
    • Essais sur les libertés, 1965
    • Démocratie et totalitarisme, 1965

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir (France 1908-1986) argued in her book The Second Sex that women were treated as legal and social inferiors, and that this was morally untenable. She was influential in the Women's Liberation movement.

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin (Latvia/United Kingdom, 1909-1997)

  • Some literature:
    • Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958
    • Four Essays on Liberty, 1969

John Rawls

John Rawls (United States, 1921-2002)

Ralf Dahrendorf

Ralf Dahrendorf (Germany/United Kingdom, 1929- )

  • Some literature:
    • Die Chancen der Krise: über die Zukunft des Liberalismus, 1983
    • Fragmente eines neuen Liberalismus, 1987

Karl-Hermann Flach

The journalist Karl-Hermann Flach (Germany, 1929-1973) was in his book Noch eine Chance für die Liberalen one of the main theorist of the new social liberal principles of the Free Democratic Party (Germany). He places liberalism clearly as the opposite of conservatism and opened the road for a government coalition with the social democrats.

Joseph Raz

Joseph Raz (United Kingdom)

  • Some literature:
    • The Morality of Freedom

Ronald Dworkin

Ronald Dworkin (United States, 1931- )

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (United States, 1931- )

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen (India, 1933- ) is an economist whose early work was based on Kenneth Arrow's General Possibility Theorum, and on the impossibility of both complete pareto optimality and solely procedural based rights. Won Nobel Prize in economics for his work on famine, welfare economics and social choice theory. Advocate of rationality as the fundamental safe guard of freedom and justice.

  • Some literature:
    • Development as Freedom

Hernando de Soto

The economist Hernando de Soto (Peru, 1941- ) is an advocate of transparency and private property rights, arguing that intransparent government leads to property not being given proper title, and therefore being "dead capital" which cannot be used as the basis of credit. Argues that laws which allocate property to those most able to use them for economic growth, so called "squatter's rights", are an important innovation.

Bruce Ackerman

Bruce Ackerman (United States)

  • Some literature:
    • We, The People

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum (United States, 1947- ) elaborates the Ralwsian Theory of Justice. For her, Rawls's Liberty Principle is only meaningful if viewed in terms of substantial freedoms, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. Likewise, inequality in the Difference Principle has to be clarified in terms of capabilities.

Dirk Verhofstadt

In his book Het menselijk liberalisme Dirk Verhofstadt (Belgium, 1955- ) outlines a social liberal response to anti-globalism. Dirk Verhofstadt is brother of Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and member of the Flemish Liberals and Democrats.

Will Kymlicka

Will Kymlicka (Canada, 1962- ) tries in his philosophy to determine if forms of ethnic or minority nationalism are compatible with liberal-democratic principles of individual freedom, social equality and political democracy. In his book Multicultural Citizenship. A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights he argues that certain "collective rights" of minority cultures can be consistent with these liberal-democratic principles.

Theorist influential to American liberalism in modern times

Theorists who also had influence on liberalism outside the United States, like Rawls, Rothband, Dworkin, Rorty, Ackerman, Fukuyama and Nozick are listed above. Modern Classical liberal theorists are listed below.

Louis Brandeis

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)

Thorstein Veblen

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1926) is best known as the author of Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen was influential to a generation of American liberalism searching for a rational basis for the economy beyond corporate consolidation and "cut throat competition". Veblen's central argument was that individuals require sufficient non-economic time to become educated citizens. He caustically attacked pure material consumption for its own sake, and the idea that utility equalled conspicuous consumption.

John Dewey

John Dewey (United States, 1859-1952)

  • Some literature:
    • Liberalism and Social Action, 1935
    • Democracy and Education [24]

Upton Sinclair

While Upton Sinclair (United States, 1878-1968) himself was a socialist, his novels and writings attacking the excesses of corporations and industrialization, particularly The Jungle would have a tremendous influence towards persuading the public and political classes that regulation of products and labor standards was essential.

Will Durant

Will Durant 1885-1981 with Ariel Durant 1898-1981

Adolf Berle

Adolf Berle (United States, 1895-1971) was author of The Modern Corporation and Private Property, detailing the importance of differentiating between the management of corporations and the share holders who are the owners. Influential in the theory of New Deal policy.

  • Some literature with Gardiner Means :
    • The Modern Corporation and Private Property

John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith (Canadian who worked in the United States, 1908- )

  • Some literature:
    • The Affluent Society, 1958
    • The Liberal Hour, 1960

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (United States, 1917- ) is an historian and philosopher of history, who chronicled the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and theorized on the importance of progressive moments in advancing liberalism.

  • Some literature:
    • The Age of Roosevelt
    • The Cycles in American History

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal (United States, 1925- )

Noam Chomsky

The work of Noam Chomsky (United States, 1928 - ) work on "Universal Grammar" was seen as the first significant challenge to the behaviorist school of thought in psychology, which argued that all behaviors were merely the result of punishment and reward. Chomsky argued that the mind is cognitive, and therefore contains mental states and awareness, linking him to the liberal tradition of the dignity and uniqueness of the individual above and beyond environmental influences. In addition to his theories on linguistics he has also become well known for his books and lectures that are critical of American foreign policy, such as the unwavering support it gives to Israel.

Joseph Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz (United States, 1943- )

Between liberalism and libertarianism

Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises (Austria, 1881-1973) is regarded as the founder of Austrian economics. He was born in Austria and taught economics in the University of Vienna. Due to the turmoil caused by the Nazis, Mises left Austria for Geneva, and later the United States. He wrote extensively about various ecomomic issues, such as socialism and Keynesian economics, arguing strongly against both. He was an advocate of minimal, or no, government intervention in the economy and personal life. His influence is invaluable to the libertarian movement, and the Mises Institute was set up in his memory.

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman (United States, 1912- )

James Buchanan

James M. Buchanan (United States, 1919- )

Murray Newton Rothbard

Murray Rothbard (United States, 1926-1995) was one of the foremost advocators of liberty and freedom in the late 20th Century. He has been associated with many different movements throughout his life, notably with Ayn Rand and, later, The Libertarian Party. For the most part, Rothbard preached Austrian Economics, arguing against government involvement in both the economy and in personal life. His influence is felt strongly today in the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist movements, aswell right wing organisations in general.

Robert Nozick

Robert Nozick (United States, 1938-2002)

Francis Fukuyama

Francis Fukuyama (United States, 1952- )

Last updated: 05-13-2005 21:11:35
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04