What Is Libertarianism/Classical Liberalism?

For the simple reason that we’ve been getting some new traffic from people who are curious about libertarianism recently, I thought I’d post a few lines on what libertarianism is.

On the webpage of the Liberty & Society Program (which I encourage all young persons in Australia interested in the ideas of freedom to attend), there’s a section entitled what is classical liberalism. They have, what I think are some good quotes there:

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
‘The heart of liberalism is the absence of coercion by others; consequently, the liberal state’s commitment to protecting liberty is, essentially, the job of ensuring that citizens do not coerce each other without compelling justification.’

The Libertarian Reader edited by David Boaz (Free Press, 1997)
‘It is easier to define libertarian ideas than to agree on a proper name for those ideas. The advocacy of individual liberty against state power has gone by many names over the century . . . In the first years of the 19th century the term liberalism came into widespread use in France and Spain and it soon spread, but by the end of that century the meaning had undergone a remarkable change. From the leave us alone philosophy, it had come to stand for advocacy of substantial government intervention in the marketplace. Eventually people began to call the philosophy of individual rights, free markets and limited government – the philosophies of Locke, Smith and Jefferson – classical liberalism.

For classical liberals, liberty and private property are intimately related. From the eighteenth century up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live their life – including employing their labour and their capital – as they see fit.’

What it means to be a Libertarian by Charles Murray (Broadway Books, 1997)
‘The American Founders created a society based on the belief that human happiness is intimately connected with personal freedom and responsibility. The twin pillars of the system they created were limits on the power of the central government and protection of individual rights . . . We believe that human happiness requires freedom and that freedom requires limited government.
The correct word for my view of the world is liberal. “Liberal” is the simplest anglicization of the Latin liber, and freedom is what classical liberalism is all about. The writers of the nineteenth century who expounded on this view were called liberals. In Continental Europe they still are . . . . But the words mean what people think they mean, and in the United States the unmodified term liberal now refers to the politics of an expansive government and the welfare state. The contemporary alternative is libertarian . . .’

Social Justice: Fraud or Fair Go? edited by Marlene Goldsmith, chapter by Andrew Norton (Menzies Research Centre, 1998)
‘Classical liberals have a strong commitment to individual freedom. This commitment has, I believe, two sources. First there is commitment to freedom as an intrinsic value, as something important in itself. One idea here, an idea that finds support in the psychological literature, is that well-being is associated with a sense of being in control of one’s life. Being coerced to do something, even if it is something you would do anyway if you had a choice, is bad for your well-being.

The second source of classical liberalism’s commitment to individual freedom comes from its recognition of freedom as an instrumental value, as a value that leads to well-being even if it does not of itself provide it. This is mostly an argument about institutions, and especially the claim that the market, a device which coordinates action by facilitating voluntary interaction, has enormous power to enhance well-being. …’

On Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism by Norman Barry (Macmillan, 1986)
‘The classical liberals, from Hume and Smith through to Hayek, are concerned with the construction of a social order in which individual liberty can be maximised; social order and liberty do indeed develop conterminously. Principles and processes emerge (almost accidentally) from individual action but the individual is never abstracted from social processes, whether as a rights-bearer or, even, as a utility-bearer.’

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman (Penguin Books, 1981)
‘Our society is what we make it. We can shape our institutions. Physical and human characteristics limit the alternatives available to us. But none prevent us, if we will, from building a society that relies primarily on voluntary cooperation to organise both economic and other activity, a society that preserves and expands human freedom, that keeps government in its place, keeping it our servant and not letting it become our master.’

Another good definition I found some time ago was from Murray Rothbard:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the nonaggression axiom. Aggression is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.

If no man may aggress against another; if, in short, everyone has the absolute right to be free from aggression, then this at once implies that the libertarian stands foursquare for what are generally known as civil liberties: the freedom to speak, publish, assemble, and to engage in such victimless crimes as pornography, sexual deviation, and prostitution (which the libertarian does not regard as crimes at all, since he defines a crime as violent invasion of someone elses person or property).

This position is now considered leftist on the contemporary ideological scale. On the other hand, since the libertarian also opposes invasion of the rights of private property, this also means that he just as emphatically opposes government interference with property rights or with the free-market economy through controls, regulations, subsidies, or prohibitions. For if every individual has the right to his own property without having to suffer aggressive depredation, then he also has the right to give away his property (bequest and inheritance) and to exchange it for the property of others (free contract and the free market economy) without interference. The libertarian favors the right to unrestricted private property and free exchange; hence, a system of laissez- faire capitalism.

In current terminology again, the libertarian position on property and economics would be called extreme right wing. But the libertarian sees no inconsistency in being leftist on some issues and rightist on others. On the contrary, he sees his own position as virtually the only consistent one, consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual. For how can the leftist be opposed to the violence of war and conscription while at the same time supporting the violence of taxation and government control?

And how can the rightist trumpet his devotion to private property and free enterprise while at the same time favoring war, conscription, and the outlawing of noninvasive activities and practices that he deems immoral? And how can the rightist favor a free market while seeing nothing amiss in the vast subsidies, distortions, and unproductive inefficiencies involved in the military- industrial complex?


Take, for example, the institution of taxation, which statists have claimed is in some sense really voluntary. Anyone who truly believes in the voluntary nature of taxation is invited to refuse to pay taxes and to see what then happens to him. If we analyse taxation, we find that, among all the persons and institutions in society, only the government acquires its revenues through coercive violence. Everyone else in society acquires income either through voluntary gift (lodge, charitable society, chess club) or through the sale of goods or services voluntarily purchased by consumers. If anyone but the government proceeded to tax, this would clearly be considered coercion and thinly disguised banditry. Yet the mystical trappings of sovereignty have so veiled the process that only libertarians are prepared to call taxation what it is: legalized and organized theft on a grand scale.

ALS is obviously a very broad community encompassing not only classical liberals & libertarians, but also anarcho-capitalists, objectivists, Austrian economists and so on. So feel free to add to this in comments!

7 thoughts on “What Is Libertarianism/Classical Liberalism?

  1. Some good descriptions, particularly Friedman’s explanation of left vs right.

    Though some people (e.g. whoever put the political compass website together) define right and left wing on a purely economic sense, which would mean we libertarians are right wingers for our support of free markets.

    Also the word ‘liberal’ has to be one of the most misued terms in politics. it can mean anything from a scoial conservative to a big governmnent socialist.

    Only trouble is that it these descriptions of Libertarianism can get a bit dry and tredious – freedom should be fun and interesting. I disagree philosophically with pretty much everything Karl Marx wrote, but he did have some catchy slogans.

  2. You’re not an Austrian, therefore you’re a conservative. You don’t believe fiat money is going to bring a monetary apocalypse, you’re a conservative.

    Sorry Humphreys, you old conservative.

  3. BTW

    I am sick and bloody tired of these economists, some of them quite good, and their fever swamp hangers on pushing this absolutely ridiculous idea that bank leverage causes the business cycle.

    Mises.org do good work. The authors who attach themselves to this crank monetary theory first proposed by Rothbard are doing the discipline and libertarianism no bloody good.

  4. People really need to become much more vocal in critiquing these leftists who are currently propagandising a split boo-harrah liberalism: “Economic liberalism” BOO! “Social liberalism” HURRAH! The things leftists call “social” liberalism are nothing of the sort. As Friedman notes, legalised prostitution, pornography, free speech, and so on are INDIVIDUAL liberties. Ironically, “economic” liberalism has a greater claim to be conceptualised as “social”. After all, what more social institution can there be than market exchanges?

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