The intent of this essay is to explain how and why I came about rejecting the term “Libertarian” in favor of “Classical Liberal.” It is not a purely observational essay, but one which seeks to lay forth the reasoning for my judgement and to convince you, the reader, to come to my way of thinking.
I should note that this essay will use the word “Liberalism” as a synonym for “Classical Liberalism,” both for efficiency’s sake and in a vain hope of reclaiming the name.
This essay’s central logic is based on what have been identified as the three main considerations for justification in political philosophy: the intent, the means, and the ends. Both liberalism and libertarianism support some form of personal liberty as their intent, although many liberals add in the notion of general welfare or utilitarian concerns (as J.S. Mill did, and as I do in my Virtue Political Theory).
It’s clear that libertarians, especially considering the more extreme factions that are prevalent in libertarianism, usually value the ends of policy more than the means. It is important to note that it is not an ends-based maximization of wealth or happiness longed for, but an ends-based state of greater human freedom. From the stateless society that many libertarians advocate, to the policies of Ron Paul (the means of which would likely involve a substantial period of economic recession), to Minarchy, to the neo-Thomist Misesian tradition of Austrian economics (which, despite being consequentialist in name, utilities a strict framework that makes any government intervention a self-evident wrong), to Hoppean and neoreactionary capitalism (both of which are so focused on an end goal of Liberty that they often sacrifice reasonable policy on immigration, tolerance, and even republican government in their means), Libertarianism is focused on the end goal of liberty more than it is on the means by which liberty is achieved.
Now, for the sake of argument, I will make the claim that liberalism focuses more on the means. Since classical liberalism has not been distinct from libertarianism for much of modern time, it is less so that I am pointing out empirical examples of modern classical liberals to support my conjecture and moreso that I’m assigning significance to this conjecture and identifying the historical implications of it. In other words, by clearly defining the two sides of the modern divide, I can identify a greater historical divide (the extension of which into the intellectual circle of the Austrian School has been touched upon by some recent scholarship).
Liberalism’s focus on the means of policy implementation is important. It implies a more Kantian vein of understanding of both the individual and law, even if any given liberal is a utilitarian, consequentialist, or Lockean natural-rights theorist. To liberals, it is much more important that a structure founded in and conducive to liberty is kept, and that policy (whether the policy is undesirable or pro-liberty) is implemented using liberal means.
This division has a profound effect, both historically and in a modern sense. While people like Ludwig Von Mises, Frédéric Bastiat, and Robert Nozick are difficult to place in one category or the other, most scholars thought of as liberty-minded can be divided between Libertarians and (Classical) Liberals in their focus on the ends or on the means, and in whether or not their desired intent of policy contains utilitarian or democratic caveats to liberty. I shall not attempt to provide an exhaustive or comprehensive list of categorized names here, as I feel lists are perhaps overdone, but I will note the differences between two scholars who I believe exemplify the differences between their respective sides: for liberalism, F. A. Hayek, and for libertarianism, H. H. Hoppe.
Hayek’s political philosophy rests largely upon the fact that he concedes an active role of government in enhancing the wellbeing of individuals through redistribution (what with his belief in the failure of countercyclical policy tempered with his positive view of the UMI/GMI/BIG, health subsidies, and public funding for education), and focuses strongly on how to keep legislation and law in the scope of liberal government. He directly appealed to the left with his generous welfare ideas, perhaps hoping that Fabian socialists or Keynesians (having already won substantial following in Fusionist and Old-Right circles) might consider his market ideas if they were sufficiently checked by redistribution. Hayek’s best work was written in defense of all liberalism (including those who he disagreed with, like Keynes) so as to warn humanity of the “Road to Serfdom” that is socialism.
Meanwhile, Hoppe is vastly more concerned with the end goal of a libertarian society than he is with the means of achieving it. He has even expressed distaste for classical liberalism in some interviews, calling instead for a libertarian ideological re-invigoration based on argumentation and new-Thomist deontological ethics. His ideal end is one of small, close-knit covenant communities that maximize trust; however, he goes so far as to endorse (rather than simply concede) the foundation of such communities on socio-economic, sexual, and racial discrimination. His pragmatic end of a “self-sustaining” liberty-minded nation state is one whose suggested means has inspired a libertarian neoreactionary and libertarian alt-right to flourish. After all, Hoppe expresses support for closed borders, European culture, scientific evaluation of ethnic groups for the consideration of immigration, nationalism, Islamophobia, and traditionalism as means of preserving a liberty-minded nation state (Llewyn Rockwell goes much further, advocating for the displacement of homeless, militarization of police, and government purging of/control over universities). Hoppe is fundamentally looking for liberty of greater magnitude than Hayek, but he also downplays the means of obtaining his desired policies, believing said means to be politically, socially, and historically irrelevant.
In terms of the modern day, the impact of this distinction is more pronounced, and it is my genuine hope that this essay might swing some libertarian moderates toward (classical) liberalism, even if in spirit rather than in name. The Western world today faces a threat, both internally (with the nationalistic and ignoble Trump about as frightening as the anti-individualist microagression-culture progressive left) and externally (considering the rise of Russia and China as autocratic, would-be technocratic governments imbued with the political-economic structure desired by many behavioral and post-capitalist economists).
While to a certain extent both libertarians and liberals wish to restore the values and ideas of the Western Enlightenment to their rightful position, it is my opinion that only through the liberal’s defense of the means of liberty can this fight be won. Libertarianism simply takes too partisan an approach to have lasting effect, with the ends too extreme and the means so downplayed as to make liberty itself discredited as impractical, dangerous, and callous.
The vast majority of Americans, right and left, Republican and Democrat, are in our hearts, liberals. We value life, property, individual sovereignty, republican government, constitutional rights, equality under law, justice, and liberty. Through a liberal defense of the structure of the American Constitutional Republic, the long-run cause of liberty might be saved. It is for this reason why I often allow myself to concede Keynesian policy in the short run, or the welfare state, or school vouchers, housing vouchers, health savings accounts, subsidies for green energy or carbon taxation or vocational training, Federal Reserve policy, and even countercyclical high government spending. I would much rather have Bernie Sanders advocate for guaranteed payment of medical fees by government or an expansive negative income tax or a large higher-education voucher than for Nationalized Single-Payer Healthcare or a Bureau of Economic Equity or state-run free college. By pushing the allocation of funds to the most individual level possible, by maximizing the degree of choice someone has, by emphasizing the need for these programs to act on an individual basis, the means by which liberty survives is saved even if the ends at any given point in the near present aren’t ideal. The libertarian calls to ensure “self-sufficient” liberty only serve as artillery for the progressive left to use as proof that ‘capitalism always leads to fascism’ or that ‘capitalism requires control of the worker’ or that ‘capitalism is bigoted.’ By instead calling for bipartisan return to a structure of liberty, liberalism can ensure the framework of the Enlightenment lives on further into the future. The structure of liberty is more important than the results of policy because of how incidental any one policy might be in the grand scheme of political thought, and because how the structure of liberty does and will continue to last beyond the short run. By conceding short-run specifics while work-hardening the commitment of all Western political ideologies to a liberal baseline, we apply to the armor of liberty a heat-treatment to last far beyond that fateful generation that might achieve the ends we all desire.