The Volokh Conspiracy

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Libertarianism vs. Classical Liberalism: Is there a Difference?

It is hard to tell whether these are genuinely different ideologies or two words for the same thing.


My biggest project this week was finalizing the draft submission of my chapter on land-use regulation for the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Classical Liberalism, edited by Richard Epstein, Liya Palagashvili, and Mario Rizzo. It so happens I was also a contributor to the Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism, edited by Jason Brennan, Bas van der Vossen, and David Schmidtz, and the Cambridge Handbook of Classical Liberal Thought, edited by M. Todd Henderson.

As a contributor to these three volumes, I should perhaps have a detailed understanding of  libertarianism and classical liberalism and how they differ. But I'd be lying if I said I truly have a definitive grasp of the difference between the two!

I've long thought that these are different terms for essentially the same thing (the branch of liberalism advocating very tight limits on government power across the board), and that the difference between them is primarily aesthetic. Thus, I've always preferred "libertarian" because it's easier to say and remember, sounds better, and is more widely known. But there are a wide range of theories about the difference between the two. And it's hard for me to say for sure which (if any) are correct.

Here are some possibilities:

1. Classical liberalism is a more moderate version of libertarianism. For example, classical liberals may be open to a wider range of government interventions than libertarians (though both favor far less than modern liberals do). Could be true. But note that some of the most prominent thinkers who call themselves "classical liberals" are not moderate, even as compared to many self-described libertarians. NYU law professor Richard Epstein is probably the most famous and distinguished scholar who calls himself a classical liberal (he is also the director of the Classical Liberal Institute, possibly the most prestigious intellectual organization that labels itself "classical liberal"). Moderate he is not—even by comparison with many who call themselves libertarians. CLI co-director Mario Rizzo, a prominent economist (and leading critic of paternalism) is also not particularly moderate.

2. Calling yourself a "classical liberal" is a way to disassociate from awful, toxic people who call themselves libertarians (racists, xenophobes, etc.). Such trolls are especially common on Twitter. But there are awful people who try to associate themselves with virtually any widely used ideological designation (conservatism, progressivism, socialism, etc.). If "classical liberal" avoids this problem, it's mainly because few people know the term.

3. "Classical liberal" thought is more closely connected with the great liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment and the 19th century (John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, etc.), while libertarians take their bearings from more modern thinkers (F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, etc.). The obvious problem here is that the latter group of thinkers are pretty obviously building on the former in many ways. Also, plenty of self-described libertarians are interested in the older thinkers, too, and many self-described classical liberals are interested in the modern ones.

4. Using "classical liberal" instead of "libertarian" signals greater intellectual sophistication. This may well be true, as only people with extensive knowledge of political theory are likely to know what the former means. But I'm not convinced this is the main reason most self-described classical liberals use the phrase. That said, I myself use "libertarian" in part because the term is better-known and therefore less likely to confuse non-experts.

5. I sometimes see it argued that libertarianism requires adherence to one specific core principle, such as self-ownershp or the "non-aggression principle," while classical liberalism is open to a wider range of justifications for strict limits on government power. But, in truth, there are important differences on core principles between libertarian thinkers. Some justify the theory on the basis of deontological rights-based arguments (e.g.—Robert Nozick), some on utilitarian consequentialist grounds (e.g.—many prominent economists), and some (myself included) on a combination of the two. Among those who fall in the rights-based camp, there are disagreements over the exact nature and basis of the rights in question.

6. Maybe it's all just a matter of self-definition. If you call yourself a "libertarian," then you are one! Ditto for "classical liberal." The problem with this idea is that it destroys the value of the terms. If there are no substantive constraints on what qualifies as a"libertarian" (or "classical liberal") view, then labeling a person or an idea with these words tells us nothing of value. To maintain the usefulness of the term, I want to be able to say that people who, e.g., support nationalism, socialism, or racism, are not true libertarians, regardless of whether they call themselves that. To be sure, there will always be gray areas where it's debatable whether a particular person (or policy) is genuinely libertarian or not. But there are also going to be cases that clearly fall on one side of the line or the other. See here for an explanation of why such insistence on boundaries doesn't run afoul of the so-called "No True Scotsman Fallacy."

I think 1 and 2 above are the most common motivations for the use of "classical liberal" by those who embrace it. But perhaps I have that wrong.

All of the above is an attempt to consider how the terms "libertarian" and "classical liberal" are used today. But it's obviously possible that their meaning will drift over time—as has that of "liberal," "conservative," and "progressive." Those whom we call progressives today are very different from the early 20th century movement that first popularized the term (e.g.—the latter had a strong racist streak, while the former does not).

For the moment, I tentatively still think there isn't much substantive difference between "libertarianism" and "classical liberalism," or at the very least that the overlap between the two is far greater than any divergence. But that could potentially change.