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“Libertarian” Is Just Another Word for (Classical) Liberal

The term "liberalism" is a victim of what historian Ralph Raico has called "conceptual mayhem." From its original use to describe the ideology of private property and freedom for individuals, the term eventually came to describe ideologies of an entirely different sort. By the mid-twentieth century, "liberal" was being used to describe a wide variety ...

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The term "liberalism" is a victim of what historian Ralph Raico has called "conceptual mayhem."

From its original use to describe the ideology of private property and freedom for individuals, the term eventually came to describe ideologies of an entirely different sort. By the mid-twentieth century, "liberal" was being used to describe a wide variety of social democrats and other supporters of government-managed and government-planned economies.

According to Raico, liberalism properly understood is:

The ideology that holds civil society — understood as society minus the state — by and large runs itself within the bounds of the principle of private property.

"Society minus the state," of course, is no simple matter. It is a complex array of civil, religious, social, familial, and market institutions. And according to the liberals, these institutions, if organized according to principles respectful of the principle of private property, could function, mostly in a state of cooperative peace.

In this view, however, the state is an institution separate from the others because it relies on coercion and taxation, unlike the voluntary institutions that otherwise comprise society.

The political economy of these liberals therefore then came to reflect a skepticism toward the state, and a preference for a society dominated by non-state institutions like markets, families, and churches. Liberals sought to minimize state power, and to devise political institutions that might limit its abuse.

Historically speaking, this view of liberalism well describes the theorists commonly regarded as liberals throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and even into the twentieth.

Liberal theorists such as Lord Acton, Gustave de Molinari, Frédéric Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, Benjamin Constant, Richard Cobden, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Adam Smith, and the Marquis de Condorcet, among others all certainly fall within this general description of liberals.

Certainly, these theorists often diverged as to the extent of their radicalism. But the fact that these theorists varied in their radicalism only shows the broad historical, geographical, and intellectual breadth of liberalism as it gained influence throughout much of western Europe and the Americas.

But there were limits. Removed from the core commitment to private property and economic freedom, liberalism ceases to be liberalism. For example, in later times, Raico notes, the term "liberalism" suffered as historians attempted to place more and more theorists of widely diverse views under its banner; theorists such as John Rawls, Karl Popper, John Maynard Keynes, and John Stuart Mill.

But, if theorists such as these are liberals to be placed alongside men like Molinari, then the term "liberalism" ceases to have any useful meaning.

Much of the confusion stems from the fact that historians have often attempted to classify liberals based on their views in regard to subjects outside matters of political economy. It's true ersatz liberals like Mill and Keynes were in favor of freedom when the idea fostered personal expression through certain religious or sexual practices. But Mill and Keynes were notably less liberal when it came to larger issues of taxation, trade, war, and labor issues. Similarly, historians have tried to classify liberalism based on criteria divorced from economic and personal freedom altogether. Instead they grant the title of liberal to those who maintain certain views about the meaning of life or utilitarian ethics. The result was often a defintion of "liberal" that had nothing to do with the private-property-oriented political economy that had dominated liberalism from the beginning.

In other words, it may be easy to make the case that, say, both liberal historian Augustin Thierry and social democrat John Maynard Keynes were skeptical of the idea of organized religion. To conclude that both were therefore necessarily liberals, however, requires one to ignore the prevalence of private property in the views of influential liberals such as Bastiat and Cobden throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.

After all, if a liberal is defined primarily by hostility to traditional Christianity, then how to classify a practicing Catholic and liberal such as Lord Acton? One strategy used has been to arbitrarily re-classify men like Acton as conservatives. Another strategy has been to simply re-define the pro-private property position itself as "conservative," as Raico noted in one especially egregious case:

Helio Jaguaribe, evidently a star of Brazilian political science, describes Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises ... as “extremely conservative.” David Spitz likewise refers to the three thinkers as “conservatives,” though what he could understand of their views is unclear, considering  that he believes that Herbert Spencer was their “patron saint.”1

The punchline here is that by virtually any measure, Herbert Spencer was so un-conservative that the suggestion he was was the chief intellectual influence on supposedly "extremely conservative" theorists like Mises and Hayek renders the claim rather absurd.

Te Relationship Between Libertarianism and Liberalism

If we use the principle of private property as a central tenet of liberalism, as Raico sugests, then we do find a quite plausible foundation for classifying liberals properly.

Not surprisingly then, Raico regards what we now call "libertarianism" to be nothing other than liberalism. Mark Thornton recalls an exchange with Raico on the matter:

Ralph stepped forward and began to explain ... that the word libertarian was relatively new. He said that the term classical liberalism was also used to describe libertarianism. However, he explained, the phrase classical liberalism was also a modern invention. And then he went on to explain why we should be using the word liberalism to describe the true philosophy of individualism.

For Raico, there was no clear distinction between liberalism and libertarianism. Nor does the fact libertarianism might denote a rather more radical strain of liberalism make it somehow non-liberal. After all, by today's standards, the thinking of Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari were all quite radical. Yet few dispute both were liberals.

Some historians have attempted to differentiate libertarians from liberals based on minor policy differences, but these attempts fail. Raico notes, for example:

Grappling with this issue causes even as accomplished a historian of ideas as Alan Ryan [author of The Making of Modern Liberalism] to flounder. Ryan concedes a place to Hayek within the category of contemporary liberals, but denies that libertarianism can be a variety of liberalism on the grounds that even classical liberals did not favor decriminalizing victimless crimes. But not only is this libertarian position clearly implied by, for example, Herbert Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom; it is also the stated view of Ludwig von Mises.2

For his part, Murray Rothbard considered libertarianism to be merely a variety of liberalism, and that the history of this ideology extended back at least to the seventeenth century. In For a New Liberty, he writes:

The object of the classical liberals was to bring about individual liberty in all of its interrelated aspects. In the economy, taxes were to be drastically reduced, controls and regulations eliminated, and human energy, enterprise, and markets set free to create and produce in exchanges that would benefit everyone and the mass of consumers.

The earliest theoreticians of libertarian classical liberalism were the Levelers during the English Revolution and the philosopher John Locke in the late seventeenth century, followed by the "True Whig" or radical libertarian opposition to the "Whig Settlement" — the regime of eighteenth-century Britain.

Moreover, Rothbard considered the American Revolution to be a thoroughly libertarian revolution, and an outgrowth of earlier liberal political and intellectual movements. As with liberalism in general, at the center of the conflict was the matter of private property:

[T]here need be no dichotomy between liberty and property, between defense of the rights of property in one's person and in one's material possessions. Defense of rights is logically unitary in all spheres of action. And what is more, the American revolutionaries certainly acted on these very assumptions, as revealed by their essential adherence to libertarian thought, to political and economic rights, and always to "Liberty and Property." The men of the 18th century saw no dichotomy between personal and economic freedom, between rights to liberty and to property; these artificial distinctions were left for later ages to construct.

Also illustrative of the liberal-libertarian convergence is the case of Ludwig von Mises. Mises always self-identified as a liberal, and he was clearly a liberal within his own social and political milieu in Austria. He wasn't a socialist, and he certainly wasn't an adherent of conservatism, which in nineteenth century Austria was, as Ronald Hamowy trenchantly put it, the ideology of "the rack, the thumbscrew, the whip, and the firing squad." Indeed Mises's views, outlined in detail in his 1927 book Liberalism, supported political freedom and almost complete laissez-faire in both domestic markets and in international trade. He opposed war, generally supported free migration, and pushed for political decentralization.

These views are what we might call "textbook liberalism," and Mises's student Hayek held similar views, albeit to a far more mild extent. Notably, both Mises and Hayek are today routinely referred to as both liberals and libertarians.

Liberalism's Legacy

To say that the effect of liberalism on the world has been profound would be an understatement.

In English-speaking countries, of course, liberal political movements pushed policy rapidly in a liberal direction throughout the nineteenth century, and then served as a much needed-brake on social democratic movements in the twentieth century.

In France and elsewhere in Europe, liberalism served as a crucial counterbalance to the march of socialists and totalitarians. While liberalism has never dominated French politics, for example, the success liberals have had there has not been without effect. Without the liberals, France may very well have succumbed to outright socialism in the nineteenth or twentieth century.

For the past two hundred years, liberal activists like Cobden, and liberal intellectuals like Ludwig von Mises have remained the voice of reason in the face of relentless competition from socialists, mercantilists, fascists, and warmongers of every stripe.

Some critics of liberalism often harrumph that liberalism (i.e., libertarianism) is irrelevant because socialists and social democrats continue to be popular in various times and places.

But rest assured, Lew Rockwell reminds us, things could be far worse "were it not for the efforts of a relative handful of intellectuals who have fought against socialist theory for more than a century. It might have been 99% in support of socialist tyranny. So there is no sense in saying that these intellectual efforts are wasted."

Moreover, the success of liberalism is demonstrated in the fact that non-liberals have long attempted to steal the mantle of liberalism for themselves. In the English speaking world, it is no mere accident of history that social democrats and other non-liberal groups often insist on calling themselves liberal. The effort to expropriate the term "liberal" in the twentieth century was a matter of political expediency. Liberalism was a popular and influential ideology throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. So it only made sense to attempt to apply the term to non-liberal ideologies and coast on liberalism's past success.3

Today, we continue to see the legacy of liberalism worldwide in discussions over human rights, in efforts to increase freedom in trade, and greater autonomy from state intervention.  The fact that socialists and other types of interventionists win victories proves nothing about the irrelevance of liberalism. They only remind us how much worse things would be were it not for liberalism's occasional successes. Moreover, efforts by governments to co-opt liberal vocabulary for purposes of building state power are to be expected. We see this often in the call for government managed "human rights" efforts and in calls for globally managed "free trade." These measures aren't liberal, but governments know saying liberal things and professing to pursue liberal goals makes for great PR.

Meanwhile, the answer to gains made by social democrats and socialists lies in strengthening the intellectual movement that is liberalism, which over time translates into political action. If liberalism is eclipsed today by other ideologies, the fault lies with us who have done too little, and with the defeatists who declare intellectual fights to be irrelevant to real life, or not worth the trouble.

Liberalism — that is libertarianism — has a long and impressive history that is all too often neglected. But it is, as Raico contended, an indispensable part of "our own civilization." We'd do well to know more about its history.

  • 1. Raico, Ralph, Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn AL, 2012) p. 72.
  • 2. Ibid. p. 75.
  • 3. Raico also notes that in some cases liberal political parties simply abandoned liberalism in response to competition among democratic constituencies. For lack of a better term, liberal politicians found they needed to "buy votes" and acted accordingly. See his Mises University lecture from 2008: https://mises.org/library/liberalism-1
Ryan McMaken
Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Austrian. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014.

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