The Levellers: The First Libertarians
The first-ever libertarians were the Levellers, an English political movement active in the seventeenth century. The Levellers contributed to the elaboration of the methodological and political paradigm of individualism, and they are at the origin of the radical strand of classical liberalism. While the Levellers are often characterized as a quasi-socialist movement, closer examination shows that the Levellers had much more in common with advocates for free markets than with socialists.
This interpretation of the Levellers is supported, among others, by Murray N. Rothbard who considers them as “the world’s first self-consciously libertarian movement.” Rothbard notes that “[i]n a series of notable debates within the Republican Army—notably between the Cromwellians and the Levellers — the Levellers led by John Lilburne, Richard Overton and William Walwyn, worked out a remarkably consistent libertarian doctrine, upholding the rights of self-ownership, private property, religious freedom for the individual, and minimal government interference in society. The rights of each individual to his person and property, furthermore, were natural, that is, they were derived from the nature of man.”
One of the most important of the Levellers’ contributions to the theoretical foundation of the libertarian doctrine was, according to Rothbard, that they, “transformed the rather vague and holistic notions of natural law into the clear cut, firmly individualistic concepts of natural rights of every individual human being,” including fundamental tenets of libertarianism. This included the right to self-ownership, methodological individualism, individual natural rights theory, sound property rights, and economic freedom.
Lilburne defended natural law as “Nature and reason” and “the grounds of all just laws” and that “therefore against this Law, prescriptions, statutes, not customs may not prevail. And if any be brought in against it, they be no prescriptions, statutes nor customs, but things void, and against justice…”
In 1646 while Lilburne was imprisoned for high treason, Overton wrote "A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, and other Free-Born People of England, to their own House of Commons," urging that Lilburne be freed. The "Remonstrance" became a great Leveller manifesto.
“We are well assured, yet cannot forget, that the cause of our choosing you to be Parliament-men, was to to preserve the Commonwealth in peace and happiness,” Overton wrote. “But you are to remember, this was only of us but a power of trust, which is ever revokable. ... We are your principals, and you our agents.”
Overton advocated religious tolerance, even for the much-reviled English Catholics, and also denounced the practice of impressing men into the army and navy as a form of enslavement.
Moreover, the Levellers advocated property rights and the freedom to contract and trade, as against monopolies and privileges guaranteed by the state. They celebrated the benefits of economic freedom to society and opposed the government taxes, customs, excises, and regulations that inhibited competition.
In May 1652, Walwyn presented to the Committee for Trade and Foreign Affairs a defense of free trade against the Levant Company, urging the abolition of monopolies and trade restrictions by the government. In Walwyns Conceptions; For a Free Trade, the author vindicates free trade as a common right conductive to common good. More than a century before Adam Smith, Walwyn directly linked freedom of trading to the public good. Exalting the benefits of competition, he holds that the results of free trade and competition are more and better goods, lower prices, more ships, plenty of men becoming useful members of the community, and more wealth for active and creative people.
Walwyn explored the question of whether leaving foreign trade “equally free to all Englishmen would be most profitable for the Common wealth,” and he concluded “that for foreign trade to be universally free to all English men alike, would be the most advantageous to the Common wealth.”
Walwyn criticized Parliament for carrying on the oppressions of the monarchy by maintaining all the monopolies and the privileges granted by the Crown in the field of trade. The right to trade freely, Walwyn maintained, is an ancient, natural, claimed right of all Englishmen and it is much more profitable than any government restrictions and privileges.
Continuing his analysis of competition, Walwyn notes that, “the numerousness of merchants will occasion a strife and emulation among them, who shall produce the best ordered goods.” And he underlines the advantages for the laborers, pointing out that the competition will produce, “greater price for work; whereas merchants in Companyes have noe need of such diligence . .. and workmen must worke at what rate they please.”
Walwyn, as well as Overton and Lilburne, attributed lamentably low wages to monopolies, hampered trade, and excise taxes.
The Levellers were concerned with economic rights and these economic rights were a direct consequence of the right to self-ownership and included individual property rights, freedom to produce, sell, buy and trade, and to do all this without license, monopolies, regulations and arbitrary taxation. That is to say, they advocated a free-market economy. The right to trade freely was considered a natural right by Lilburne, or a “native liberty” as in Overton’s “Remonstrance.”
Arguing from the theoretical supremacy of natural rights, Lilburne rejects any form of regulation of trade. Elizabeth I abolished some monopolies, but by the time the Levellers were writing, the old monopolies had been restored to support the economic and fiscal desires of the crown. Lilburne considers such trade restrictions illegal from an ethical standpoint. Moreover they created state privileges for bankers, aristocrats, chartered companies, and corporations.
Charles I created new monopolies and privileged concessions under the name of licenses. The Long Parliament, and subsequently Cromwell, reconfirmed the most relevant monopolies such as the right to export woolen cloth, the privileges of the Merchant Adventurers, and the privileges of chartered companies such as the Levant Company would be protected.In turn, Lilburne protested against the monopolies of coal, soap, and woolen clothes.
The economic concessions by public authorities paved the way to the creation of privileged positions of supremacy in public institutions and to the violation of the individual birth rights to equal opportunity to compete freely. Lilburne realized that the opposite of competition is privilege.
By the eighteenth century, what is now known as classical liberalism would draw heavily upon the work of the Levellers and their support for individual natural rights theory, property rights, economic freedom, and free trade, and the Levellers’ libertarian opposition to government privilege, government monopoly and the suppression of free trade remains as instructive today and as it was in the seventeenth century.