James Madison and the Simple Truths of Classical Liberalism

Perhaps it is because liberty is an intuitive concept and because the state is foreign to human nature that the precepts of (classical) liberalism can be described succinctly. Whatever the reason, one need only spend a matter of a few hours to read and understand the fundamental tenets of liberalism.

Leonard Read aptly illustrates the spontaneous order of the market, despite its complexity, and the impossibility of effective central planning in a matter of only a few pages in his wonderful essay “I, Pencil.” Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, first published as a pamphlet in 1848, fully sets forth the case for liberty and limited government, and examines the means by which the law and the state unchecked can be transformed into instruments that plunder the liberty of man.

These are but two examples that immediately come to mind. The library of liberty is filled with works of brevity and power.

For one searching to read an exposition on liberty with only five minutes to spare, an obvious recommendation is an essay titled “Property,” by James Madison, published in the March 29, 1792, issue of the National Gazette. Especially in the infancy of the United States, Madison was a powerful defender of liberty. In a length no greater than this article, Madison set forth the critical principles of freedom. This essay, which is reprinted in most collections of Madison’s writings, is powerful and deserves to be cited often.

Madison explains that property extends from land to opinions, from money to faculties, from conscience to free time. Property, understood in its broad scope, is the foundation of all liberty, and “as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may equally be said to have a property in his rights.” He writes that property “embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which he leaves to every one else the like advantage.” Because liberty, held equally by each individual, is based in property, it includes the right to exclude others, individuals and the state, from trespassing on that liberty. Liberty, as much as a man’s wallet, belongs to the man.

It is on this principle of exclusion that Madison sets his attack on what today can be characterized as welfare “rights.” He writes that a government is unjust when it effectuates “arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest.” He states that a man was meant to “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow” and not “spared from the supply of his necessities” through taxation of ot ers for his private benefit. “Keenness and competitions of want” must remain the “spur[s] to labor” if property is to be secure. With these words, Madison attacks the redistributive programs so frequently infringing property rights today. The fruits of man’s labor, growing out of his faculties, belong to him as his property; and this property is a personal claim, to the exclusion of all others.

For the same reasons, Madison attacks the means by which redistribution is accomplished — taxation. For Madison, taxation must be equal and small; progressive taxation is unjust. He defends these propositions when he writes, “A just security to property is not afforded by that government under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species; where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor.”

Not only does Madison denounce the expropriation of the fruits of man’s labor, he also proclaims that government-instituted obstacles to obtaining such fruits are themselves violations of liberty. In Madison’s words, “That is not a just government . . . where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property so strictly called.” From this, it seems more than reasonable to presume Madison would take issue with most contemporary licensing schemes and permitting requirements.

The government ought not to create barriers to market entry, or, as Madison put it in an April 9, 1789, speech to the First Congress in which he praised the spontaneous order of the market and the specialization it engenders, “commercial shackles are generally unjust.”

Protection of Liberty Paramount

In all, Madison endorsed a limited government in which liberty’s protection was paramount. In his short essay on property, Madison proclaims that “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort. . . . This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” Despite how far the United States has strayed from these principles today, this concise summary of governmental obligation should offer a sound guide to our policies.

Madison’s words on liberty are particularly worthy of attention because of his influence on the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Both as a drafter of that document and an author of its most influential interpretive tool, The Federalist, Madison’s essay on property should be considered a liberal work of supreme importance.

Madison himself underscored the importance of understanding the scope of liberty when he stated in another essay in the National Gazette (January 19, 1792) that, “Every word of [the Constitution] decides a question between power and liberty.” Too often, these constitutional questions have been answered in favor of power. Resurrecting the government of limited and enumerated powers designed at the Founding is required if we are to fully protect the liberty Madison describes.