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Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism: Is There a Difference?

From Think Markets by Mario Rizzo:

I consider myself both a libertarian and a classical liberal. I have been teaching a seminar in classical liberalism at the NYU Law School for six semesters. I am always asked about the difference.  My answer is basically this. Classical liberalism is the philosophy of political liberty from the perspective of a vast history of thought. Libertarianism is the philosophy of liberty from the perspective of its modern revival from the late sixties-early seventies on.

The philosophy of liberty has always admitted of gradations or degrees. Consider that in the nineteenth century there were such thinkers as Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, and Benjamin Tucker. These thinkers are sometimes called “individualist anarchists.” Clearly, they espouse a political philosophy that would anathema to most who call themselves “classical liberals.” Yet they do begin from many of the same premises as mainline liberals. They disagree with those who advocated a limited state insofar as they believed that a completely voluntary order based on private property was possible and morally desirable. They elevated the individual to the primary place in their analysis just like the rest of the classical liberal tradition. 

Of course, a completely voluntary society might not work. It might degenerate into anarchy in the bad sense or into authoritarian government. If this is true, then of course the perspective is seriously deficient.

In the nineteenth century there was also Herbert Spencer. Although he was, at least later in life, an advocate of limited government, he did not have much on his agenda for government to do. He cast a critical eye on even things like municipal sanitation rules. But as one reads his Principles of Ethics, for example, it easy to see how he builds up a system individualism and extremely limited government based on ideas he shared with many other classical liberals of his day.

There was also the John Stuart Mill of On Liberty and his earlier (and better) inspiration Wilhelm von Humboldt. Von Humboldt wrote his famous treatise The Limits of State Power at the close of the eighteenth century. He was clearly opposed to the government provision of positive welfare and thought the state’s role should be confined to the so-called negative liberties. And yet he made an exception for the government provision of (limited) education. People needed education to become autonomous human beings.

In the late nineteenth century when liberal ideals were perceived as being under attack by the expanding suffrage, “unlimited democracy,” labor movement and so forth, the historian William H. Lecky sometimes sounded like a “conservative” in his defense of the traditional British political system and the House of Lords. The conflict between liberty and democracy, as he saw it, was of a piece with the views of the framers of the U.S. Consititution, John Stuart Mill’s views of representative government, and Herbert Spencer’s idea of political liberty as simply a fallible means to protect fundamental liberties rather than an end in itself.

In the early twentieth century, the classical liberal position was vigorously defended by the economist Ludwig von Mises at a time when it was dying across Europe and the U.S. Mises’s liberalism was in the tradition of Spencer, and earlier of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John-Baptiste Say, which saw economic liberty and international peace (anti-imperialism) as intimately connected. The warfare state destroys liberalism.  Friedrich Hayek largely followed Mises’s lead, especially in his critique of socialism, but at least in The Constitution of Liberty, was much more sympathetic to the welfare state than Mises.


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