A few years ago I tried to explain why I felt more comfortable with the label ‘classical liberal’ than ‘libertarian’. The Australian political identity survey can help see if the distinctions I was trying to make hold up.
One of my claims was that libertarians tend towards a rights-based view of politics. Consistent with this, 59% of the 184 libertarians in the survey supported either a constitutional bill of rights or a statutory charter of rights. By contrast, 52% of the 256 classical liberals preferred leaving the protection of individual freedoms to the democratic system, which among other things allows broader considerations to be taken into account. (Charts containing classical liberal and libertarian views compared, and further analysis can be found here.) However, a large minority of classical liberals want freedoms to be protected by the courts, and a large minority of libertarians preferred the democratic system.
Across most issues, there was a pattern of classical liberals and libertarians being on the same side of a broad debate but with libertarians taking the more radical stance. For example, while 40% of classical liberals chose the most radical option of cutting tax as a proportion of GDP to 20% or less, 57% of libertarians chose that option. While 46% of classical liberals thought that minimum wage laws should be repealed, 59% of libertarians took that view. While 50% of classical liberals would legalise marijuana entirely, 65% of libertarians would do so. As I said in 2006, ‘if libertarianism and classical liberalism are not identical twins they are at least first cousins, which is why classical liberals can end up appearing like “moderate” libertarians.’
As these numbers indicate, while general knowledge of the pro-freedom, pro-market ideologies of classical liberalism and libertarianism lets us predict what side of an issue most respondents will be on, for many issues significant numbers of respondents do not take their ideological logic to its most extreme conclusion. Many take a more ‘moderate’ view, and on some issues surprisingly large minorities take an opposing view.
For example, 38% of classical liberals and 27% of libertarians support a state or national curriculum. A government monopoly to indoctrinate young people sounds like an improbable conclusion from classical liberal or libertarian first principles. Yet even narrowing the sample to strong supporters only, still 25% of classical liberals and 17% of libertarians supported monopoly curriculum. Very large minorities of both groups also support compulsory voting.
While classical liberals and libertarians appear divided on a number of issues, these divisions can be as much within the groups as between. For example, there are no majority views on climate change. While the pure ‘denialist’ view is 10% or less in both groups, those who believe it is happening are divided between natural and human causes (with slightly more supporting the latter general consensus view). Similarly, none of the three options for responding (nothing, carbon trading, carbon tax) received majority support from either group.
ACCC review of company mergers causes debate in classical liberal and libertarian circles, and there were supporters of both the for and against the ACCC view in both groups. Though larger numbers in both groups favoured ACCC intervention where a merger would substantially lessen competition, it was a 39-percentage point margin for classical liberals but only a 2-percentage point margin for libertarians.
Though generally libertarians are radical classical liberals, on quite a few issues the responses of the two groups were near identical. They hold the same unfavourable views on benefits for families capable of self-reliance, the same favourable views on privatisation of government assets, nearly the same levels of support for the idea that government should fund but not deliver school education and health services, the same attitudes to abortion (legal in the first 24 weeks was the most popular option), both in almost equal proportions think that penalty rates should be decided by negotiation rather than by government, and their views on the effects of phasing out tariffs are the same.
Tthe survey provides no evidence of the religious influence sometimes claimed by critics on the left. 62% of classical liberals and 72% of libertarians say that they are either agnostics or atheists. Their pro-abortion views and overwhelming support for either improved legal recognition of gay relationships or marriage being a matter of private contract are consistent with this strong secular stance.
In my methodology post, I noted the low proportion of female respondents. I checked to see whether male and female responses differed. On most questions, males and females took the same side of the debate, but on a number of questions, female classical liberal respondents preferred different options to male respondents. These were unfair dismissal laws (females preferring application to larger companies rather than abolition), marijuana use (females preferring legalisation for personal use only), minimum wage laws (females preferring them, while recognising effects on employment) and compulsory voting (females in favour, males against). It’s hard to know whether these women were representative of classical liberal women more generally, but overall there is little reason to believe that more women would have substantially altered the results.
In general, the survey is consistent with the impressions I had of the differences between the two groups, though it did not ask questions on deeper philosophical points and could not measure intellectual style. Classical liberals and libertarians are on the same side of the political debates covered in this survey, with libertarians tending to be more radical. However, there are substantial differences of opinion within both groups, including sometimes large minorities holding views apparently inconsistent with their broader ideological commitments.