Is classical liberalism the same as libertarianism?

Classical liberalism is a big tent with many entrances. Libertarianism is but one.

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© Dave DuBay

YouTube talk show host Dave Rubin likes to ask what, if any, is the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism. The most common answer is that there is none.

Classical liberalism used to be called just plain old liberalism. But while modern American liberals favor individual freedom in the social sphere, they are often anti-capitalist. Besides, the left today seems to increasingly favor the term “progressive,” which is more straightforward. Meanwhile, conservatives are stronger on economic freedom but weak on civil liberties. But libertarians favor both laissez-faire capitalism and a high degree of personal freedom.

Classical liberalism, like democracy, human rights, and capitalism, resulted from the Enlightenment’s focus on individuality, science, and reason. At its core, classical liberalism is the belief that individual rights are the basis of universal human rights.

After all, if I don’t support human rights for others then I have no reason to expect others to support my human rights. From this it follows that everyone—regardless of identity group or demographic profile—must be equal under the law.

Further, the things I have a right to are things that inherently belong to me. My life, my identity, my speech, my religion and beliefs, my innocence, and so on. Rights, then, restrict government from telling us that we can’t say certain things, that we can’t worship a certain god (or that we must worship a god), that we’re guilty without due process or a fair trial, and so on. But of course, government can restrict us from doing things that deprive others of their rights.

In other words, rights are about what government can’t do, not what government must provide. But this doesn’t prohibit government from providing certain things.

Checks and balances—mechanisms for each branch of government to override the others—also limit governmental power. And decentralization is important. Something should be up to the individual if it’s best handled by the individual. If a municipality can best handle something then the state or province should step back. And the national government shouldn’t intervene if the state or province can handle it.

This freedom extends to free enterprise. But how limited should government involvement in the economy be? Short of anarcho-capitalism most would agree that some government involvement is necessary. Libertarians limit this to property protection. But I think some government regulation of externalities—such as environmental protection; and the provision of a social safety net for the most vulnerable—such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities—is ideal.

This is not a libertarian position. But it’s still within the framework of classical liberalism.

Skeptic Magazine editor Michael Shermer writes for Quillette that “the prevailing emphasis on the group over the individual” departs from classical liberalism. The left categorizes people as oppressed or oppressors based on the intersection of identity groups they belong to. And the right “sort[s] people into collectivities according to religion and national origin.” This “self-factionalizing into groups” encourages “increasingly militant political and ideological movements rooted in personal identity.” Because they are so entrenched in identity politics, neither Democrats nor Republicans are liberals in the classical sense.

Shermer lists the essentials of classical liberalism as:

  • Democracy with voting rights for all adult citizens
  • Rule of law
  • Protection of civil rights and civil liberties
  • Police and military protection
  • Property rights and a secure monetary system
  • Free internal movement for all
  • Freedom of the press, speech, and association
  • Education available to all

To this he adds “adequate public spending to help the needy,” noting that he didn’t support this in his younger, libertarian days. But with a middle-age perspective he sees this as essential to a society that enables the individual to flourish.

Another example of a non-libertarian classical liberal is New York Times columnist David Brooks. A former Republican, he lends his support to the centrist Modern Whig Party. Brooks writes, “If progressives generally believe in expanding government to enhance equality, and libertarians try to reduce government to expand freedom, Whigs seek to use limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility.”

The original Whig Party collapsed in the early 1800s over the abolition of slavery. Whether Modern Whigs will become a political force remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

Whether the classical liberalism of Democrats like Bill Maher will prevail over progressive identity politics remains to be seen (but I doubt it).

But perhaps the biggest question of all is the future of the Republican Party. Young people avoid the GOP. But the large majority of millennials who remain don’t support President Donald Trump—the exact opposite of their elders. Millennial Republicans are also more supportive of marriage equality and legalizing marijuana. Will millennials root out right-wing identity politics? Maybe.

 

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