Monday, 30 November 2009

Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism

Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. (Genesis 11:9)

I like clarity. I like to know what people are talking about, and what they mean when they use a word. Therefore I like definitions. Some might say that I am obsessive about them. But I have observed that the language of all the earth is confused, and even speakers of English have a difficult time understanding each other. And I don’t just refer to the confusion between those in the USA and those in the UK. Hence my efforts to define libertarianism.

The question that is exercising me at the moment is the relationship between libertarianism and classical liberalism. (This is because of a comment left on the last post by Mr. Phil Walker: “I'm not really libertarian, although I would define myself as classically liberal so I'm something of a political cousin.”) And since I find that pictures are often worth several hundred words, I found this picture useful.

What you will notice is that minarchist libertarianism is not marked on it. So clearly it is time to play “spot the ball”. (Do people still play it?) My guess is that minarchism is roughly where the words “Classical liberals” appear. Or possibly just above it, but below the line. After all, we minarchists differ from anarcho-capitalists in that we believe in do not believe in the elimination of the state, we merely believe in minimising it. (I am assuming that the horizontal line in the diagram is the dividing line between those who believe in eliminating the state and those who don’t.) But why doesn’t minarchism appear in the picture? Is it because the man who drew the diagram (Jesús Huerta de Soto) believed that minarchism was basically the same as classical liberalism?

So, is there a difference between minarchism and classical liberalism? And if so, what is it?

Raimondo Cubeddu of the Department of Political Science of the University of Pisa says
It is often difficult to distinguish between 'libertarianism' and 'classical liberalism'. Those two labels are used almost interchangeably by those we may call libertarians of a 'minarchist' persuasion—scholars who, following Locke and Nozick, believe a state is needed in order to achieve effective protection of property rights.
However Walter Block (an anarcho-capitalist) saysAdam Smith should be seen as a moderate free enterpriser who appreciated markets but made many, many exceptions. He allowed government all over the place.” (For example, Adam Smith supported public roads, canals and bridges. However, he favoured that these goods should be paid proportionally to their consumption - e.g., putting a toll).

And Alan Ryan, professor of Political Science at Princeton University, argues that the claim from
...contemporary libertarians...that they are classical not wholly true. There is at least one strain of libertarian thought represented by Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia that advocates the decriminalisation of 'victimless crimes' such as prostitution, drug-taking and unorthodox sexual activities. There is nothing of that in John Locke or Adam Smith.
Wikipedia says
While minarchists oppose all government intervention except for defense and dispute resolution, classical liberals make more exceptions and allow state intervention and provision of extraneous public goods such as public transportation and utilities. Therefore, we can claim that minarchism is not the same as classical liberalism because while classical liberals support additional macroeconomic intervention, minarchists only see preventing aggression as the role of the state.
But it also says
However, arguments over the similarities are made difficult by the large number of factions in both classical liberalism and libertarianism. For example, minarchist libertarians are not necessarily in favour of complete economic deregulation in the first place and often support tax-funded provision of a select few public goods.

1) It seems to me that there is clear blue water between anarcho-capitalism and minarchist libertarianism. It also seems to me that minarchist libertarianism is actually much closer to classical liberalism, than to anarcho-capitalism. Minarchism and classical liberalism are so close, that they almost run into each other. But they are not quite the same. The basic difference is that classical liberalism allows state macroeconomic intervention and does not believe in the decriminalisation of 'victimless crimes.'

2) It seems slightly curious that minarchism and anarcho-capitalism are often lumped together as libertarianism, when classical liberalism is excluded, considering that minarchism actually is much closer to classical liberalism - so close that some treat them as synonymous.

3) It also seems to me that the manifesto of the LPUK is actually somewhere between classical liberalism and minarchist libertarianism. It does allow macroeconomic intervention, albeit somewhat reluctantly. The result is that a lot of anarcho-capitalists will join the party enthusiastically, and then become rather disillusioned.


Ray said...

A nice analysis, and I agree with all three of your numbered conclusions. Especially the reason why AC supporters get disillusioned with the LPUK. There is a similar effect with those who lean a bit towards the top left of that diagram.

As for myself, I am idealogically AC in that I think that would be the best basis for a civil society - however from a practical point of view a sudden transition to AC (or perhaps even an AC enclave in a statist world)would not work (i.e. be impractical). So Libertarian minarchism is both the best we can hope for within my lifetime (maybe not even that soon), and/or a staging point towards something more voluntaryist.

I am still thinking about it!

Young Mr. Brown said...

A nice analysis

Well, I've just looked up 'nice' in my trusty copy of Chambers 20th Century Dictionary.

nice nĩs, adj. foolishly simple (obs.)wanton(Shak.): coy (Milt.): over-particular: . . .

I kid you not! Talk about confused language.

I'm going to have to get less obsessive about definitions. :-)

(Thanks for the comment, Ray. Much appreciated. Really.)

Rob said... coincidence, I was perusing the same sources a few days ago, trying to work out whether I was really a libertarian or a classical liberal, and what the main differences actually were.

Thanks for the analysis - very er...un-nice! And for the record, I think I'm a classical liberal rather than a libertarian, although I will definitely be voting for LPUK (the only other party I'd consider voting for is UKIP).

Anonymous said...

"The result is that a lot of anarcho-capitalists will join the party enthusiastically, and then become rather disillusioned."

There are a lot of anarcho-capitalists?

"I'm going to have to get less obsessive about definitions"

Indeed you should viz Karl Popper:

'Never let yourself be goaded into taking seriously, problems about words and their meanings. What must be taken seriously are questions of fact, and assertions about facts: theories and hypotheses; the problems they solve and the problems they raise... The ad hoc method of dealing with problems of clarity or precision as the need arises might be called dialysis, in order to distinguish it from analysis: from the idea that language analysis as such may solve problems, or create an armory for future use. Dialysis cannot solve problems. It cannot do so any more than definitions or explication or language analysis can: problems can only be solved with the help of new ideas.'

Unended Quest, section 7.

"I was perusing the same sources a few days ago, trying to work out whether I was really a libertarian or a classical liberal"

Rather you should concern yourself with whether your views are right and true or not - the label is merely incidental and can come afterwards.

You would all do well to give up this essentialist error.

Young Mr. Brown said...

There are a lot of anarcho-capitalists?

If you move in LPUK circles, three is a lot of people.


Anonymous said...

//If you move in LPUK circles, three is a lot of people.//

LOL, and if you get three libertarians together, they will form four different social groups.