How Should a Classical Liberal Society Count the Beliefs and Values of People Who Are Not Classical Liberals?

I have long been a libertarian, although the type of libertarianism that I follow has changed over time. Initially, I was a natural rights libertarian of the Nozickian type, but over time I became a consequentialist influenced by Friedrick Hayek and Richard Epstein. Over time, I also became more moderate moving from night watchmen state conception to a classical liberal position.

All of these positions more or less fall within the libertarian tradition broadly understood. But there is one issue where I believe that the tradition has not adequately taken matters into account. What does one do when others do not agree with libertarianism? Suppose that one is within a country with nonlibertarians. How should one live together?

The initial answer given by libertarians is that the people of differing views should live together and respect one another’s rights. In such a world, individual liberty allows everyone to pursue their values, and it is not necessary for one person to impose their values on others. While I find that convincing, let’s suppose that someone else does not accept the argument. They have a different understanding about the facts and/or values. They believe that free markets harm the poor and therefore should be restricted. Or they believe that people should be required to help the worse off, even if they do not want to.

The traditional libertarian response is to say to such people, “You are wrong to coerce others, and I will not let you do so, if I can stop you.” While this is a correct response from a narrow libertarian perspective, it is not clear that it is right from the broader perspective of social morality.

I look at the issue from the perspective of a welfare consequentialist (that is, a kind of utilitarian). Under that approach, people with nonlibertarian factual beliefs or values affect what the optimal institutions should be. Imagine, as I believe, that classical liberal institutions are the optimal ones from a welfare consequentialist perspective. They produce the greatest liberty and wealth for people in the society (and other goodies as well, but I shall ignore those in this post). So, for a society of classical liberals, those institutions would clearly be the best ones.

But now introduce a significant number of modern liberals (sometimes called welfare liberals), who believe in larger government and more redistribution than classical liberals do. How does that change the analysis of the optimal institutions?

From a welfare consequentialist perspective, there are at least two important consequences of the existence of welfare liberals. First, if welfare liberals strongly dislike the classical liberal institutions, then they are far less likely to support the system. In particular, if we assume that the constitution embodies these classical liberal principles, then the welfare liberals may become alienated from the polity. A polity needs its citizens to support its institutions and if the citizens strongly oppose the policy, they may not exhibit the necessary degree of support. Thus, additional support for the laws and constitution may be derived if there is a compromise between classical liberal and modern liberal institutions.

Second, if welfare liberals strongly dislike the classical liberal institutions, this will reduce their utility from the polity. The disutility of living under institutions that one does not like counts as part of citizen welfare. And this is true even if the disliked institutions are better at generating freedom and wealth. The classical liberals may believe that the views of modern liberals are based on mistakes about how the classical liberal institutions function. Or they may believe the modern liberals are wrong about the society’s obligations to the poor. But, whatever the cause, the modern liberals will be unhappy to a certain extent.

These factors – the reduced support for the institutions modern liberals and the disutility experienced by them – are relevant to a welfare consequentialist analysis of institutions. They suggest that the optimal institutions will less classically liberal, even if we assume that classical liberal institutions objectively produce the greatest liberty and wealth.

To generalize the point, there are two sets of considerations that one should attend to in designing optimal institutions. First, one should consider whether the institutions actually produce liberty and wealth. Second, one should consider how much support they enjoy from the people who they govern. While classical liberal institutions will, in my opinion, be the best under the first consideration, that will not be the case under the second consideration if a significant percentage of the public are not classical liberals.

Some people treat this second consideration as a compromise to political legitimacy as compared to moral legitimacy. But under my consequentialist analysis here, the argument is one of moral legitimacy. Or to put the point differently, an appropriate moral analysis treats considerations that might seem to be relevant to political legitimacy as matters of moral legitimacy.