Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism: Is There a Difference?


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.

The general point is that classical liberalism or libertarianism is a broad philosophy, united in elevating property, freedom of contract, and individual autonomy to the center of normative (and positive) analysis. All liberals and libertarians view the state as the central threat to liberty today.

Among those who hold to a philosophy of liberty there can be two types of issues that separate them. The first (and in my view less important) are the philosophical or issues of principle. As I teach my students, some forms of classical liberalism are grounded in natural law, others in utilitarianism – both direct and indirect, others in contractarianism, and so forth. The more one studies these the more it becomes clear that the differences are often, although not always, marginal in practice.   The second are differences in empirical assessments. For example, to what extent can public goods be provided privately? Clearly, shopping malls are a way of providing certain public goods as are gated housing communities. Clearly, arbitration of disputes need not be provided by the state. How far can this go?

I do not meet classical liberals who object, on principle, to the shrinking of the state with regard to its “traditional” function when they can be reliably provided privately. The argument is generally over empirical assessments and practicality.

On issues of foreign policy and homeland defense there are differences across the classical liberal and libertarian spectrum. But it is a set of differences with the philosophy of liberty for a long time. Are these empirical or philosophical differences? Sometimes empirical differences have a way of being transformed into differences of principle if the participants in a debate see the issue as having very broad implications and if the empirical differences are difficult to resolve.

In 1899 the liberal William Graham Sumner vehemently decried the Spanish-American War as a threat to American liberty. This tradition of non-intervention, interrupted by the Second World War, was the norm. In the postwar world it was reaffirmed by Senator Robert A. Taft. But the threat of communism seemed to warrant a different philosophy to some like William F. Buckley, Jr. Many of his followers, however, were more disaffected communists than they were liberals or libertarians. Nevertheless, with the fall of communism the split on this subject between various kinds of classical liberals was reborn.

As the recent NSA revelations have made clear we have classical liberals on different sides. This issue is not divorced from a broader position of foreign policy. Some liberals contend that the terrorism problem is blowback from an interventionist foreign policy. So how to defend a liberal order (or a relatively liberal order) from outside aggression without destroying its liberal character is the common issue.

So there are important differences among liberals and libertarians but I view these are differences along a spectrum. Some are principled (“Never, ever, initiate the use of force”) and some are empirical (“Many public goods can be provided privately”) and some are hard to classify (“The NSA should not collect masses of meta data”). Some people will want to take these differences and harden them into different political philosophies with different names and so forth. But I suggest that libertarians and classical liberals have too much in common for any divorce. I see the important differences in various positions. I am much more sympathetic to some than to others.

So my answer is simple: Classical liberalism is a spectrum of thought. There are differences regarding the proper philosophical grounding of first principles, the strength of the presumption of these principles, as well as differences of an empirical nature. I prefer the term “classical liberal” because it evokes a long history of intellectual work and because I stubbornly believe that progressives have no right to the term “liberal.”