Are classical liberals and libertarians the same?

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 While 46% of classical liberals thought that minimum wage laws should be repealed, 59% of libertarians took that view.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.

72 thoughts on “Are classical liberals and libertarians the same?

  1. Sinclair, I’m not a pacifist, as you would have known if you had
    read anything about foreign policy from Cato, Independent or Mises. So Mises’ quote doesn’t apply to me. It applies to pacifists, of which I am not one.

    I’m asking you to demonstrate that you have some SOURCES for your allegedly libertarian views. You are not the authority on what libertarianism is and is not. You need sources to back your arguments up.

    Allow me to demonstrate. You can find on the this website dozens of book-length defenses of anti-war libertarianism, written by libertarians. Please reciprocate, so I know you’re not making things up on the fly.

    Mises’ chapter in Human Action is just that – a brief chapter. And he agrees with me anyway. You can email someone who has spent their life studying Mises, like Robert Higgs or Walter Block, to confirm this. CC me into the email if you do.


  2. The difference bw liberals and libertarians is that liberals had a conservative theory of human nature linked to a working theory of modern social structure. Whereas libertarians have no theory of human nature and a worthless theory of post-modern social structure.

    Classical liberals are what I call “modernist liberals”, who base their social model on a theory of human nature that at least allows for heritable characteristics. Thus the framers of the US constitution assumed the worst about human nature and power, hence checks and balances.

    They also generally recognised that religion helped to keep the lower orders in check. This is an outrageously snobbish and sectarian attitude which unfortunately has proven to be true. Just check out how British youth are now without religion to mind their manners. (Ladettes and Lads.)

    Libertarians are “post-modernist liberals”, following post-sixties fashions in social theory. They have no real theory of human nature beyond the Blank Slate of homo economicus. (Thats slowly changing now with Psychological Economics.)

    Left-libertarians (Abby Hoffman on drug liberalisation) thought that there would be no problem deregulating drug usage amongst indigenes and urban NESBs. Every one assumed that rational self-interest would prevent a drug epidemic. How did that work out?

    And Right-libertarians (Black-Scholes on derivative trading) assumed that market self-regulating function would control asset-pricing. Everyone assumed that rational self-interest would prevent a bubble. How did that work out?

    But libertarians saved the best till last when they combined Right- and Left-libertarian social policies. Combining financial liberalisation (abolishing regulations on securitisation) with cultural liberalisation (abolishing red-lining of neighborhoods). That gave us the “debtquity and diversity” recession.

    Wall Street got caught napping when sub-prime loans started to foreclose at a phenomenal rate. Hey that wasnt supposed to happen according to our nice smooth Gaussian functions.

    Apparently not all loans are equal.


  3. Sukrit – if you knew anything about libertarianism you’d know that there are no pro-war libertarians, let alone books on the subject. We are discussing your argument that the defining criteria for libertarianism is being anti-war in all shapes and sizes. We want to know how to respond to foreign aggressors in your viewpoint. We have good authority (von Mises) that war to defeat aggressors is consistent with libertarianism. What do you have to support your pacificism? (I’ve been reading Mises and Hayek since before you were born, so I’m not going to email anyone.)


  4. Sinc – Your starting assumption appears to be that “Sukrit is a pacifist”. That was the wrong assumption. Therefore, since the initial assumption was wrong, the Mises quotes you have provided don’t apply to me. I fully agree that retaliation in self-defense is permissible for a country. The point is, that even if you apply this criteria of self-defense, very few wars in history have been justified. The Iraq war certainly wasn’t about self-defense. Whose territory was threatened? Not ours, not the Brits, not the Americans.
    Now, back to the main point. War is the defining issue for libertarians, in the sense that it separates those who are libertarian from those who aren’t. I have sources for this claim. Read this article by Robert Higgs. Then listen to this speech by Walter Block. Then read “War, Peace and the State” by Murray Rothbard. This is just for starters. Now, it’s perfectly legitimate for you to disagree that the principles of libertarianism don’t lead the conclusion of non-intervention in foreign affairs. But then you should write an article about it, disputing the well-established consensus among libertarians, and see if others agree with you (unlikely, but possible). Maybe something for the Journal of Libertarian Studies?
    Finally, let the record show that Professor Sinclair Davidson was unable to provide me with a single reference disputing the well established consensus among libertarians that “War is the health of the State”, and that non-intervention (not pacifism) in foreign affairs is the logical conclusion of libertarian principles.


  5. And for the record, I don’t think John Humphreys is a warmonger. He understands that war brings heavy, often hidden, costs.


  6. Sukrit, I think you’re taking a page from the Tim Lambert school of blogging. I have provided references to Mises who supports military action against aggressors and explicitly rejects pacifism – an ideology that you claim to be the linchpin of libertarianism.


  7. I take mass murder by government seriously, Sinclair. Naturally, I have a lot more humour offline.

    But everyone needs motivation for their work, and i find much inspiration in ensuring people don’t spread a version of libertarianism that is totally at odds with the evidence.


  8. How many times do I have to repeat that I’m not a pacifist? Have you even read the Wikipedia article about non-intervention? Take that as your starting point.


  9. just who is the Australian govt mass murdering Sukrit?

    Foreign policy is a 50th order issue. Our very modest deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq did not substantially blow out the size of government in Australia like it did in the US. There are far more important drivers of government in Australia. The Ruddster has been on a bad policy roll lately and you spend your time being the poor, poor, poor man’s Noam Chomsky. Perhaps consider moving to the US if you want your monomania to be more relevant.


  10. The American dropped two atomic bombs that historians have shown were totally unnecessary to defeat Japan. The Australians lost 60,000 during WWI, a war that had nothing to do with Australian national security but was only fought because of the British empire. The Brits have a long colonial past that reeks of mass murder and abuse.
    WWI and II vastly expanded the scope of government in Australia, in case you didn’t notice Jason. My honours thesis next year is on this topic, but I don’t expect you’ll read it or pay attention.


  11. For a really vivid text-book example of what post-modernist liberailsm (libertarianism) can do when unleashed on an unsuspecting population I give you post-Soviet Russia. Here we have the full monty of libertarianism:

    – financial libertarianism: deregulation and privatisation, low flat taxes, banks running amok, tax evasion through off shore accounts,

    – cultural libertarianism: porn, drugs gangs, full-on abortion on demand, disrespect towards elderly, irreligion, drunkeness, prostitution

    Absolutely one can blame much of the dissipation of social capital on Bolshevism’s attacks on the upper, middle and peasant classes and their respective institutions. But to Bolshevism’s knavery we can add po-mo liberalisms follies.

    And this willy-nilly liberalism is having the following effect on Russia, a foundational nation of the Occident: auto-genocide. Nicholas Eberstadt traces the sl-mo catastrophe:

    The mass deaths associated with the Communist era may be history, but another sort of mass death may have only just begun, as Russians practice what amounts to an ethnic self-cleansing.

    The current Russian depopulation—which began in 1992 and shows no signs of abating—was, like the previous episodes, also precipitated by events of momentous political significance: the final dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist Party rule.

    But it differs in three important respects. First, it is by far the longest period of population decline in modern Russian history, having persisted for over twice as long as the decline that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, and well over three times as long as the terrifying depopulation Russia experienced during and immediately after World War II.

    Second, unlike all the previous depopulations in Russia, this one has been taking place under what are, within the Russian context, basically orderly social and political circumstances. Terror and war are not the engines for the depopulation Russia is experiencing today, as they have been in the past.

    And finally, whereas Russia’s previous depopulations resulted from wild and terrible social paroxysms, they were also clearly temporary in nature. The current crisis, on the other hand, is proceeding gradually and routinely, and thus it is impossible to predict when, or whether, it will finally come to an end.

    Also the katastroika is decimating the population of young people who are supposed to be the future of Russia, you know virile and fertile. Instead they are self-destructing on alcohol abuse and STDs:

    The upsurge of illness and mortality, furthermore, has been disproportionately concentrated among men and women of working age—meaning that Russia’s labor force has been shrinking more rapidly than the population overall.

    The end-game is in sight and it is appalling. Russsia as a country with Third World living standards atop a First World military arsenal:

    In the United Nations Development Program’s annually tabulated “Human Development Index,” which uses health as well as economic data to measure a country’s living standards as they affect quality of life, Russia was number 73 out of 179. A country of virtually universal literacy and quite respectable general educational attainment, with a scientific cadre that mastered nuclear fission over half a century ago and launches orbital spacecraft and interplanetary probes today, finds itself ranked on this metric between Mauritius and Ecuador.

    The historic nation of Russia is disappearing before our very eyes and no one gives a damn. How ho-hum nothing to see here, just routine social process, move along folks.

    In fact, I am sure I detect some grim satisfaction amongst commentators who have bothered to notice Russia’s plunge into the abyss.

    Muggeridge published his “Great Liberal Death Wish” article a generation ago. He had the First World nations, in their infatuation with the Soviet experiment. Its probable that Muggeridge would not be surprised that Russia looks like being the first nation of modernity to succumb to liberalism’s self-destructive urge.


  12. Jack,
    you are still suffering ethnic paranoia. Most states in the world have more than one ethic group, including some of the worst and the best places to live. Some places get great benefits from having multiple ethnic groups (e.g., Australia, everywhere the Greeks went after the fall of Constantinople) and sometimes it leads to a mess (e.g., modern day Sri Lanka). In addition, having one ethnic group doesn’t mean you will have either prosperity or that people won’t think of some way to fight amongst themselves. Just look at Thailand now.
    I also find your examples biased (and the Russian one, just silly). Some of the best places to live in the world have the most libertarian policies, like the Netherlands and the US (despite the people themselves being relatively conservative), and other things, which you claim are libertarian, such as not respecting your elders (!), have little to do with it.


  13. Conrad, reinforcing your point, the problem in Sir Lanka was not the racial mix but affirmative action (racist and discriminatory in the worst sense). A typical pattern as noted by Sowell

    Jack, the full monte of classical liberalism includes protection of property rights, the rule of law and a decent moral framework, so don’t blame that kind of liberalism for the debacle in the USSR.


  14. # 63 conrad April 14th, 2009 14:25

    Jack, you are still suffering ethnic paranoia. Most states in the world have more than one ethic group, including some of the worst and the best places to live. Some places get great benefits from having multiple ethnic groups (e.g., Australia, everywhere the Greeks went after the fall of Constantinople) and sometimes it leads to a mess (e.g., modern day Sri Lanka). In addition, having one ethnic group doesn’t mean you will have either prosperity or that people won’t think of some way to fight amongst themselves. Just look at Thailand now.


    Please try and go through the motions of rational debate before doing hatchet-jobs on flimsy strawmen. Your wild swings are giving the air a good thrashing but are irrelevant to substantive issues.

    You seem to be confusing “ethnicity” with what I am concerned with, which is a toxic combinations in cultural values. One can be an Italian ethnic and be a filthy rich gun-toting mafiosi in a tight-knit Napolitan clan or a Classics professor in Florence. Do you see the difference?

    I am not “suffering ethnic paranoia”. If anything I am a big fan of high-IQ ethnic immigration esp Chinese and Indians. Someone will have to do the hard yards in sci-tech to keep this middle-aging baby boomer whitey off the Zimmer frames.

    Although I will go along with William Burroughs and acknowledge that “a paranoid man is one in full possession of the facts”. I am simply pointing out inconvenient cultural facts that spoil the libertarian fairy tale.

    I have not argued that AUS should be a mono-ethnic state. (I said above that NESB immigrants are “hard-working and law-abiding”)

    I have not denied that AUS has derived benefits from participating in diverse ethnic cultures. (eg As a part-Italian I can hardly be against Mediterranean restaurants.)

    I have not denied that some multi-ethnic states are “the best places to live”. Switzerland for example. Although it is noticeable that multi-ethnic jurisdictions with the most cultural distance between ethnicities tend to have the most, shall we say,…interesting times.

    What I have said is that in Anglomorphic jurisdictions over the past generation the libertarian push has unleashed “toxic currents within multiculturalism and subculturalism…confluenc[ing]…in the first generation”.

    You gloss over this point because it is the gorilla in the living room of libertarianism. See the history of urban decay and unruliness in the USA 1965-95 and likewise in AUS over comparable periods. The whole process obviously caused enormous political angst amongst the white middle class eg Wallace-Nixon in the USA and Hanson-Howard in AUS.

    The cultural crisis was alleviated over the past decade or so, once there was a roll-back of libertarianism by Right-wing politicians ie in the US, three strikes you are out, ending welfare as we know it, the prison building boom, pervasive CCTV. In AUS, mutual obligation, successes in the war on drugs, law and order state govts. etc

    And one can only imagine how much worse this back-lash would be if a replay of libertarianism was offered, only this time upping the ante with massive accumulations of residential and intellectual capital at stake. Already there are major signs of “white flight” in NSW and VIC.

    Perhaps it might be a good idea to learn from this. Instead of mindlessly parotting the liberal mantras one picked up in ones under-graduate days right through to one’s under-taking day.

    conrad says:

    I also find your examples biased (and the Russian one, just silly). Some of the best places to live in the world have the most libertarian policies, like the Netherlands and the US (despite the people themselves being relatively conservative), and other things, which you claim are libertarian, such as not respecting your elders (!), have little to do with it.

    The financial restructuring of Russia under Yeltsin was universally recognized as an experiment in libertarian economic policy. So you are blatantly false on that score.

    Whether the cultural restructuring of Russia can be described as libertarian is perhaps more contentious. It certainly looks like a replay of the anomie that occurs when cultural inhibitions are relaxed, eg San Francisco and remote indigenous communities.

    Free access to grog, porn and a collapse of generational control over sexual interactions. Leading to substance abuse and STD plagues. A Darwinian auto-destruct.

    Also your citation of the Netherlands as an example of happy-clappy, arty-farty, touch-feely libertarianism has a kind of faded, sepia look about it. The Dutch have had their experiment and it failed. Here is WaPo covering the change of heart by the Dutch. Its been going on since the early noughties as its governing parties swung to the Cultural Right:

    The Netherlands is going through the same racial, ethnic and religious metamorphosis as the rest of Western Europe: Large influxes of black, Arab and Muslim immigrants are changing the social complexion of an overwhelmingly white, Christian nation struggling with its loss of homogeneity.

    But here those anxieties are exacerbated by alarm over the international crime organizations that have infiltrated the country’s prostitution and drug trades, the increasing prevalence of trafficking in women and children across its borders, and dismay over the Netherlands’ image as an international tourist destination for drugs and sexual debauchery.

    “People in high political circles are saying it can’t be good to have a society so liberal that everything is allowed,” said Kranendonk, editor of Reformist Daily and an increasingly influential voice that resonates in the shifting mainstream of Dutch public opinion. “People are saying we should have values; people are asking for more and more rules in society.”

    The rise of the Cultural Right has been underway in the EU for most of the noughties. But it appears to have passed under the radar screen of head-in-the-clouds libertarians like conrad.

    Since the 2005 German elections…Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria and France have all experienced a right-wing swingin their national governments. It should come as no surprise then that Italy has rejected Romano Prodi’s left-wing administration in favor of Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing coalition.

    None of these Cultural Right wing governments are proposing to liberalise anything. Quite the opposite.

    You libertarians had your chance. And you blew it.


  15. Jack, I think that most of the racial and social tension that you have identified is either caused by (a) social welfare-related policies that attracted people from diverse cultures to share the welfare benefits of the host nation [to reap where they had not sown] or (b) government intervention of various kinds that is perceived to favour particular races, genders or subgroups of various kinds.
    The left-right spectrum as popularly used simply obscures or makes invisible the position of classical liberalism.


  16. We have two social conflicts running in parallel.

    – Class War, fought on largely economic grounds:

    Old Left (poor, workers)
    New Right (rich, capitalists) .

    – Culture War, fought on largely ethnic grounds:

    New Left (women, coloreds, gays, atheists)
    Old Right (Caucasians, atraights, Christians, monarchists)

    Its possible to run the Class War and preserve a semblance of social peace eg fifties

    Its possible to run the Culture War and preserve a semblance of social peace eg nineties

    But when you try and run a Class War and Culture War at the same time it gets pretty dicey eg Germany in the thirties and France in the sixties.

    Thats when government become overloaded and you get some sort of backlash. The popularity of Howard is largely a function of backlash against an excessive entitlement culture.


  17. Oh god Andrew. What have you done? This place reads like Catallaxy. I don’t think I’ll bother weighing in on either of the two main debates and instead address the topic.

    As for the difference between the libertarians and liberals I think Mick Sutcliffe got it spot on:
    “Classical liberals want to appear moderate, balanced, articulate and sophisticated. That’s why they call themselves classical liberals instead of ‘moderate libertarian’ or ‘Liberal Party libertarian’.”

    To me the difference is mostly one of image. People identify as “classical liberal” if they want to be seen as reformist, moderate and reasoned. People identify as “libertarian” if they want to be seen as revolutionary, radical and on the moral high ground. Most people aren’t entirely at either extreme- there is a trade off. I struggle between defining myself as libertarian or classical liberal simply because I want to be seen as a reasoned radical.

    I think the biggest criticism of classical liberals if that they compromise too much.

    I think the biggest criticism of libertarians is that they don’t compromise enough.

    The party affiliation, in my opinion, is one of the most important questions here. As Terje asks over at ALS, though, is the party affiliation distinction based on policy (gun policy springs to mind as a potential difference), willingness to compromise or is it purely an image thing?

    I think another important question would go something like “on the whole would you say the Howard government improved things in Australia, or made them worse?”

    I think levels of optimism about the current state of the country might come into play here, too. I’d wager that classical liberals are by and large happy/ content with the current state of the country but hope for more liberalisation. Whereas libertarians are probably far less content and want to move countries/ change the government.


  18. ‘People identify as “classical liberal” if they want to be seen as reformist, moderate and reasoned. ‘

    Shem, I don’t just want to ‘be seen as’ reformist and reasoned, I want to be reformist and reasoned. I want to be in real policy debates, and offer ideas that are carefully thought through to achieve the intended goals. I will compromise to achieve goals – democratic politics is about better and worse, not meeting ideal outcomes.


  19. Part of me agrees. But part of me thinks that civil unions, or even gay marriage are cop outs when the government shouldn’t even be involved in marriage.

    Part of me would be happy with gradual deregulation of schools and part of me can’t stand to see another pass by with the current lack of school autonomy.

    Part of me understands that people want more money from the government and part of me despises every new middle-class welfare measure introduced by government.

    I can see merit in both approaches. But at the end of the day I think the compromise offered by the Liberal Party is too much for me, or at least it was under Howard. I can’t dilute my values that much. I don’t know if that makes me a libertarian or a classical liberal. But given a choice between worse and even worse I’d rather choose neither and find another way.

    Think tanks usually do a good job, because even their reformist policy initiatives are moving in the right direction. But too often the major parties are moving AWAY from liberty rather than towards it. I don’t mind if government only ever moves slowly and incrementally towards freedom, but it has to be at least facing in the right direction!


  20. Well the girlie has left and I have time to read Jack’s post (No. 30).

    But I don’t want to. It is dumb and silly.

    However, I will posit this article from the Age as evidence we should allowed medicalised dosage of drugs.

    Bye Jack, I don’t think I will bother reading any more of your thoughts.


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