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SHENG Hong: Distinguishing the Two Types of Liberalism
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by SHENG Hong, Director of Unirule Institute of Economics
Translated by MA Junjie, Researcher, Unirule Institute of Economics


This is Professor SHENG Hong’s comment on the occasion of an interdisciplinary seminar on “History and Institution Innovation Theoretical Advancement” held on June 25th and June 26th, 2016.


It is a shame that we don't have more time, but I thought the three previous presentations were very enlightening. Therefore, I would like to share my understanding of the issues raised earlier.


Firstly, as for Professor REN Jiantao’s remarks, the three models he mentioned earlier, namely, the British, the French and the German model, I think this distinction was addressed by European thinkers in modern times and somehow overlooked by Chinese intellectuals, especially the British model and the French model. I mentioned yesterday that Hayek had a similar categorisation, but Chinese intellectuals tend to overlook it. Hayek distinguished the two types of liberalism, the British liberalism that is common law-based empirical liberalism, and the French liberalism that is based on human reasoning. Of course, Hayek leaned towards the British liberalism, and he lamented how its significance waned over time, and how French liberalism flourished and was cherished by intellectuals around the world thanks to the ink shed for it generously.


This distinction is very important. However, putting it in a longer time period, what Professor REN Jiantao said lacks clarity if we put it against the modern standard, which is based on the British Model. From another perspective, Britain was a rather late established state, as the centre of the European civilisation was mainly on the European continent, in Eastern Europe. At first it was in Greece, then Italy, and till a very late era, France. Therefore, the European civilisation has a longer history and development to a rather mature stage. What I have in mind regarding Europe is just a hypothesis. Europe matured too early. The European civilisation had very matured laws brought by Christians, and it also formed a very matured Roman law system based on the Greek culture. Comparatively speaking, Britain was lagging behind as its common system only matured and developed in the 13-16th century.


During the development of the common law system, Britain was constantly under huge pressure from the Roman law system. “Why do we reject the Roman law system, and why do we adopt the common law system?” Common law is a British tradition, and a rather less-developed system compared to the Roman law system and the pressing European culture, as conceived by many British. However, many other British have been stressing the advantage of the common law system with countless works, including those of the famous thinker, Sir Edward Kirk. What they believed was a purely philosophical idea: we don’t trust those expressive legal clauses and moral regulations, what we trust is our experience. This is the essence of the common law system.

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