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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Libertarianism and Classical Liberalism: A Short Introduction

It may be summarized as person, property, and consent, the individual’s dominion that others are presumptively not to mess with.

Liberty is central to libertarians and classical liberals. It may be summarized as person, property, and consent, the individual’s dominion that others are presumptively not to mess with.

Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished. Suppose your neighbor asserts that he is to get 25 percent of your income and brandishes a gun to show that he means business. Or, suppose he says you are not to employ people for less than a certain wage, or that you can hire only plumbers on his own special list of plumbers. We’d consider such a neighbor to be criminal in initiating such coercions. Libertarians and classical liberals say it’s coercion when done by government, too.

Yes, government is a special sort of player in society; its coercions differ than those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass. But, say libertarians, they are still initiations of coercion.

That is important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against government coercions, a presumption of liberty. Libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.


Thus libertarians and classical liberals favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association. It differentiates the libertarian from both the leftist who favors “economic” restrictions and the conservative who favors “moral” restrictions.

So libertarians can be moderate or radical, directional or destinational. They can bargain, or they can challenge.  Libertarians and classical liberals favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, libertarians don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects. They favor school-choice reforms and lean against redistribution and the welfare state.

Libertarians can be radicals, believing in liberty as a sort of logos and axiom. Some ponder a pure-liberty destination. But libertarian is also suitable to describe an attitude that respects the status quo and yet looks to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate.  So libertarians can be moderate or radical, directional or destinational. They can bargain, or they can challenge.  

Overall Liberty

Most libertarians and classical liberals recognize that sometimes liberty must be sacrificed for the sake of liberty. A policy that reduces liberty directly might augment liberty overall. Areas of contention among libertarians include immigration, foreign policy, weapons policy, pollution, and financial doings for which the taxpayer is on the hook.

Here, we might have a way to interpret some of the differences between libertarians and conservatives who also cherish liberty: Libertarians think conservatives overstate disagreement between direct and overall liberty, and conservatives think libertarians overstate agreement. Conservatives are often more favorable than libertarians to, say, restricting immigration or enhancing military spending.

Another important difference between libertarians and conservatives is that the word conservative functions widely as code for Republican. Conservatives feel more involved in the contest for power. Libertarians sometimes come across as theoreticians who don’t concern themselves with the struggle for power and the process of actually making reforms. They are accused of being content to espouse liberalization yet failing to help bring them about. Libertarians respond by saying that insight and understanding are preconditions to reform, and that careful research and learning are crucial to wise leadership.

The principle of liberty has its holes, gray areas, and exceptions; it does not speak to all important issues of government; and it is not self-justifying. Despite the limitations, however, it remains cogent and gives backbone to libertarian and classical liberal thought.

Liberalism Unrelinquished

The first political meaning of the word liberal was launched in the 1770s, most notably by Adam Smith. But in the period 1880 to 1940, many English words lost or changed meanings, including the political term liberal. In the postwar period, classical liberal ideas enjoyed some reinvigoration, led by such figures as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, now sometimes fashioned as libertarian, notably by Murray Rothbard, who offered up a sort of paradigm of libertarianism.

But, again, the term libertarian functions as signification both for the more formulaic thinking of Murray Rothbard and for the less formulaic thinking of Hayek, Friedman, Richard Epstein, Deirdre McCloskey, and organizations such as the Foundation for Economic Education, Cato Institute, Reason, and several units at George Mason University.

America has an election system in which third parties are damaging to their own cause—that is, a two-party system. For this reason, many libertarians and classical liberals do not support the Libertarian Party. The smallness of the Libertarian Party should not be taken to mark the extent of libertarian sentiment.

Many libertarian sympathizers do not vote at all, vote Republican, or vote Democratic. Most libertarians think that Republicans are less bad than Democrats, but some libertarians think the opposite.

  • Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm). At GMU he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and editor of Econ Journal Watch.