My old friend Mario Rizzo has a great post up on classical liberalism and libertarianism. The post discusses how to distinguish the two different political theories. Interestingly, Mario does not follow the more common distinction – for example adopted by Richard Epstein – that classical liberalism is more moderate than libertarianism, because the former accepts the need for government to promote public goods. Mario notes that the “philosophy of liberty has always admitted of gradations or degrees” and that classical liberals such as Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, and Benjamin Tucker were radicals.
Instead, Mario argues that “Classical liberalism is the philosophy of political liberty from the perspective of a vast history of thought. Libertarianism is the philosophy of liberty from the perspective of its modern revival from the late sixties-early seventies on.” Thus, classical liberalism and libertarianism are really one philosophy looked at from different perspectives. As Mario notes “All [classical] liberals and libertarians view the state as the central threat to liberty today.”
Mario notes two differences between classical liberals and libertarians today: philosophical issues and empirical assessments. The the former involves questions, such as whether to found one’s view on approaches such as natural rights or consequentialism, but Mario believes this is less important than the latter question. That question – the empirical assessments – turns on how the world works. As an example, Mario notes the question “to what extent can public goods be provided privately? . . . Clearly, arbitration of disputes need not be provided by the state. How far can this go.”
I am very sympathetic to Mario’s point here. I have long believed that the most important issues involve the facts – not merely differences between different classical liberals and libertarians, but also between differences between large parts of the political spectrum. After all, I highly doubt that welfare state socialists would endorse their view of the state if they had my understanding of how it operates.
In the end, Mario ends with a call to cooperation, if not unity:
So there are important differences among liberals and libertarians but I view these differences along a spectrum. Some are principled (“Never, ever, initiate the use of force”) and some are empirical (“Many public goods can be provided privately”) and some are hard to classify (“The NSA should not collect masses of meta data”). Some people will want to take these differences and harden them into different political philosophies with different names and so forth. But I suggest that libertarians and classical liberals have too much in common for any divorce. I see the important differences in various positions. I am much more sympathetic to some than to others.