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What Is the Difference Between Hardcore Libertarians and Classical Liberals?

What do you think of Richard A. Epstein's column today at Defining Ideas, "My Rand Paul Problem"?

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February 4, 2014 - 9:00 am

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A must-read article today makes the case for “Why classical liberalism is superior to hard-core libertarianism.”

The name of my Defining Ideas column is “The Libertarian.” The title of my recent book on constitutional law is “The Classical Liberal Constitution.” Clearly, I consider myself a proponent of limited government. So does Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has moved the term “libertarian” to the fore of our national political debates. In a recent New York Times analysis, “Rand Paul’s Mixed Inheritance,” Sam Tanenhaus and Jim Rutenberg treat him as today’s exemplar of libertarian thought. But Paul’s ideology is a far cry from classical liberalism, which is conceptually and politically superior to hard-line libertarianism.

Libertarians and Holdouts

Libertarians fall into two distinct groups: strict libertarians like Rand Paul and classical liberals such as myself. “Classical liberal” is not a term that rolls off of the tongue. Consequently, “libertarian” is the choice term in popular discourse when discussing policies that favor limited government. Libertarians of all stripes oppose President Obama’s endless attacks on market institutions and the rich. The umbrella term comfortably embraces both strands of libertarian theory vis-à-vis a common intellectual foe.

The renewed attention to Paul exposes the critical tension between hard-line libertarians and classical liberals. The latter are comfortable with a larger government than hard-core libertarians because they take into account three issues that libertarians like Paul tend to downplay: (1) coordination problems; (2) uncertainty; (3) and matters of institutional design. None of this is at all evident from Tanenhaus and Rutenberg’s unfair caricature of the “mixed inheritance” among the “libertarian faithful,” which to them includes, “antitax activists and war protestors, John Birch Society members, and a smatter of truthers who suspect the government’s hand in the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

This unfortunate list mixes libertarians of all stripes into a convention of unthinking kooks. A more accurate rendition of the various strands of libertarian thought would hearken back to such great thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Madison. Their incisive contributions concerned the relationship between individual liberty and the social order.

It is important to understand the differences in views between the strong libertarian and classical liberal position. Serious hard-line libertarian thinkers include Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess. Rothbard believes nonaggression is the sole requirement of a just social order. For Hess, “libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit.” There are large kernels of truth in both propositions. It is quite impossible to see how any social order could be maintained if there were no limitations against the use, or threatened use, of force to enslave or butcher other people, which Hess’s proposition of absolute self-ownership strongly counteracts.

Yet the overarching question is how does a group of people move from the Hobbesian “war of all against all” toward a peaceful society? Hess claims that stable institutions are created by “voluntary association and cooperation.” Again, strong libertarians are on solid ground in defending (most) private contracts against government interference, which is why Lochner v. New York (1905), reviled as it is by most constitutional thinkers, was right in striking down New York’s sixty hours per week maximum labor statute. Yet the hard-line libertarian position badly misfires in assuming that any set of voluntary contracts can solve the far larger problem of social order, which, as Rothbard notes, in practice requires each and every citizen to relinquish the use force against all others. Voluntary cooperation cannot secure unanimous consent, because the one violent holdout could upset the peace and tranquility of all others.

Read the whole thing and share your thoughts in the comments. Which side are you on? Who are the best libertarian thinkers in your view?

Every week day a book excerpt, video, news story or some combination thereof to provoke spirited debate on controversial subjects. Have an idea you'd like to offer up for discussion? Email PJ Lifestyle's editor Dave Swindle: DaveSwindlePJM [@] Gmail.com

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All Comments   (5)
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The entire thing turns on the (implicit, alas) idea that a "radical libertarian" is an *anarchist*.

Anarchism is not a theory of government, it is a default on that problem - a cop-out. Certain epistemological glitches (specifically a collection of hierarchy errors in and around their concept of what exactly "force" is) make the problem of how to constitute a government insuperable for them, so they just give up and declare all government bad.

If "radical libertarians" are anarchists, Epstein is (basically) right.

If, however, "radical libertarians" is meant to include someone like Ayn Rand, he's wrong. Rand certainly considered taxation to be theft, and that coercion/force were not only unnecessary to civilized society, their absence was what *defined* "civilized" - but was most certainly not an anarchist.

You can't have serious discussions about anything without defining your terms, and Epstein, to his severe discredit, doesn't.
33 weeks ago
33 weeks ago Link To Comment
Epstein is a brilliant and accomplished fellow, but his article conflates value judgments with political principles, ignores a goodly amount of historical evidence, and includes several subtle slanders as well. For example, I'd bet heavily that he knows not one John Birch Society member, nor is he knowledgeable about the organization's nature, principles, and agenda.

There are arguments for and against both the classical-liberal and the "pure" libertarian approaches that are much better than those Epstein presents. Jonah Goldberg has done some impressive work in that area. I'll return to this anon.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm no expert on political philosophy, but I've often identified myself as a "small government conservative;" perhaps that's closest to Classical Liberal. What I call "Big L" libertarians carry the emphasis on individual liberty so far that I think they leave reality behind -- anarcho-capitalists, for example. I want a federal government that's strong and active, but limited to those areas assigned to it under the Constitution or that fall best under its purview: national defense, foreign affairs, the currency, interstate commercial, criminal and infrastructural matters, &c. But, since the New Deal, a right-sized or maybe undersized federal government has become Leviathan and sorely needs trimming back.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
Both "libertarian" and "classical liberal" have problems.
JS Mill was a classical liberal. Rothbard was a libertarian. I don't want to be associated with either of them.
Locke and Hayek identified as Whigs, so Whig will do for me. (Though i am more interested in their analysis than in their prescriptions.)

Still, there are at least a couple of self-identified liberals whom i admire: Tocqueville and Spencer; and at least one self-identified libertarian i've read with much interest: David D. Friedman.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
I agree with him.
In particular:

"None of this is at all evident from Tanenhaus and Rutenberg’s unfair caricature of the “mixed inheritance” among the “libertarian faithful,” which to them includes, “antitax activists and war protestors, John Birch Society members, and a smatter of truthers who suspect the government’s hand in the 2001 terrorist attacks.”

This unfortunate list mixes libertarians of all stripes into a convention of unthinking kooks."

I ranted about that a few months back. (Though it doesn't include disingenuous dominionists, anarcho-capitalists, and ordinary weed-heads in the mix as I did.)
Just as the term "liberal" was usurped by the Marxists then turned into "progressive" whose definition was warped, the "liberal" to "libertarian" continuum has been warped beyond use by that "convention of unthinking kooks" so as to make it utterly useless for any discussion of what people believe.

Richard Epstein prefers to default back to "classical liberalism".
I prefer to go South Park and define myself as a "flippity-floppity-floop-iterian".
Same base for theory and same general beliefs; different word choice in the face of outside usurpations of the language.
34 weeks ago
34 weeks ago Link To Comment
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