Persons who call themselves libertarians or classical liberals are loathe to relinquish their claim to liberalism, even though the word has a acquired a justifiably foul odor because of its long association with leftist statism. What is liberalism, and why should self-styled libertarians and classical liberals want to align themselves with it?
The following discussion, from “Liberalism” at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, shows a decided lack of consensus about the principles of liberalism, even of the so-called classical or libertarian strain:
Liberal political theory … fractures over the conception of liberty. But a more important division concerns the place of private property and the market order. For classical liberals — sometimes called the ‘old’ liberalism — liberty and private property are intimately related. From the eighteenth century right up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty, allowing each to live his life — including employing his labor and her capital — as he sees fit. Indeed, classical liberals and libertarians have often asserted that in some way liberty and property are really the same thing; it has been argued, for example, that all rights, including liberty rights, are forms of property; others have maintained that property is itself a form of freedom…. A market order based on private property is thus seen as an embodiment of freedom…. Unless people are free to make contracts and to sell their labour, or unless they are free to save their incomes and then invest them as they see fit, or unless they are free to run enterprises when they have obtained the capital, they are not really free.
Classical liberals employ a second argument connecting liberty and private property. Rather than insisting that the freedom to obtain and employ private property is simply one aspect of people’s liberty, this second argument insists that private property is the only effective means for the protection of liberty. Here the idea is that the dispersion of power that results from a free market economy based on private property protects the liberty of subjects against encroachments by the state. As F.A. Hayek argues, “There can be no freedom of press if the instruments of printing are under government control, no freedom of assembly if the needed rooms are so controlled, no freedom of movement if the means of transport are a government monopoly”….
Although classical liberals agree on the fundamental importance of private property to a free society, the classical liberal tradition itself refracts into a spectrum of views, from near-anarchist to those that attribute a significant role to the state in economic and social policy…. Towards the most extreme ‘libertarian’ end of the classical liberal spectrum are views of justified states as legitimate monopolies that may with justice charge for their necessary rights-protection services: taxation is legitimate so long as it is necessary to protect liberty and property rights. As we go further ‘leftward’ we encounter classical liberal views that allow taxation for (other) public goods and social infrastructure and, moving yet further ‘left’, some classical liberal views allow for a modest social minimum…. Although today classical liberalism is often associated with extreme forms of libertarianism [e.g., anarcho-capitalism], the classical liberal tradition was centrally concerned with bettering the lot of the working class. The aim, as Bentham put it, was to make the poor richer, not the rich poorer…. Consequently, classical liberals reject the redistribution of wealth as a legitimate aim of government.
All of that is more or less opposed to
[w]hat has come to be known as ‘new’, ‘revisionist’, ‘welfare state’, or perhaps best, ‘social justice’, liberalism challenges this intimate connection between personal liberty and a private property based market order…. Three factors help explain the rise of this revisionist theory. First, the new liberalism arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period in which the ability of a free market to sustain what Lord Beveridge … called a ‘prosperous equilibrium’ was being questioned. Believing that a private property based market tended to be unstable, or could, as Keynes argued … , get stuck in an equilibrium with high unemployment, new liberals came to doubt that it was an adequate foundation for a stable, free society. Here the second factor comes into play: just as the new liberals were losing faith in the market, their faith in government as a means of supervising economic life was increasing. This was partly due to the experiences of the First World War, in which government attempts at economic planning seemed to succeed (Dewey, 1929: 551-60); more importantly, this reevaluation of the state was spurred by the democratization of western states, and the conviction that, for the first time, elected officials could truly be, in J.A. Hobson’s phrase ‘representatives of the community’…. As D.G. Ritchie proclaimed:
be it observed that arguments used against ‘government’ action, where the government is entirely or mainly in the hands of a ruling class or caste, exercising wisely or unwisely a paternal or grandmotherly authority — such arguments lose their force just in proportion as the government becomes more and more genuinely the government of the people by the people themselves….
The third factor underlying the development of the new liberalism was probably the most fundamental: a growing conviction that, so far from being ‘the guardian of every other right’ … , property rights generated an unjust inequality of power that led to a less-than-equal liberty (typically, ‘positive liberty’) for the working class. This theme is central to what is usually called ‘liberalism’ in American politics, combining a strong endorsement of civil and personal liberties with, at best, an indifference, and often enough an antipathy, to private ownership. The seeds of this newer liberalism can be found in Mill’s On Liberty….
I won’t rehearse my arguments against On Liberty and the “new” liberalism, which you can find in many posts (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). My concern here is with the limitations of classical liberalism, which is a superficial political philosophy.
Take religion, for example, which remains a vital force in the lives of millions of Americans, but which is overtly attacked by modern liberals (a.k.a. progressives) and subtly attacked by many classical liberals. Here, for example, is Kevin Vallier — a philosopher who seems to take a classical liberal stance — in “A Genuinely Liberal Approach to Religion in Politics” (Cato Unbound, October 6, 2014):
Conservatives regularly attempt to legally define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that conservatives have both successful (but not indubitable) natural law arguments that explain why heterosexual marriage is the only morally permissible form of conjugal union and successful (but not indubitable) theological arguments that only a man and a woman can count as married in God’s eyes. On the theory I advance, these arguments cannot justify restricting marriage to a man and a woman given that such laws force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them. This is because many people, religious and secular, can reasonably reject even good conservative arguments.
On the other hand, legalizing gay marriage without religious exemptions disrespects sincere citizens of faith by forcing them to provide benefits to gay couples whose unions they reasonably believe are morally and theologically invalid. Thus, my approach either requires the abolition of government marriage, or as a second best policy, the legalization of gay marriage with extensive religious exemptions. These two policies are the only way to respect the diverse reasoning of all concerned parties.
Classical liberalism, in Vallier’s rendition of it, effectively removes legal standing from religious norms — even long-standing ones, such as the prohibition of murder. But religious norms are just social norms that have been embedded in religious doctrines. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. The prohibition of murder, for example, is a religious norm that is also a widely accepted and almost universally practiced social norm. Or perhaps it was a social norm that was adopted as a religious one. At any rate, it’s fair to call it a social-religious norm of ancient provenance.
Should government allow homosexual “marriage” despite a long-standing social-religious norm that forbids it? If so, why shouldn’t government allow murder despite a long-standing social-religious norm against it? Both norms serve vital social functions, it’s just that the function served by the prohibition of murder is more obvious than the one served by the prohibition of homosexual “marriage.” As I say here,
Marriage — despite its imperfections and the state’s involvement (e.g., licensing, separation proceedings, divorce decrees) — remains a bulwark of civil society, or of the remnants of civil society that have survived usurpation and negation by the state. Therefore, the proponents of state-imposed same-sex “marriage” bear the burden of proving that the expansion of marriage to include homosexual partnerships will redound to the benefit of civil society. Saying that opposition to same-sex marriage amounts to bigotry is no kind of proof.
This leads me to ask whether (1) state-imposed homosexual “marriage” would be deleterious to civil society in the long run, and (2) if marriage loses its traditional definition, any institution of civil society is immune from the depradations of the state.
On the question of the long-run effects of state-imposed homosexual “marriage,” I turn to Jennifer Roback Morse’s “Marriage and the Limits of Contract” (Policy Review, April & May 2005):
It is clear that a free society needs traditional, heterosexual marriage, which — as Morse explains — is a primary civilizing force. As if in answer to that truth, the proponents of same-sex “marriage” aver that its recognition by the state will not undermine the societal benefits of traditional marriage. They aver, rather, that it will extend those benefits to encompass those homosexuals who choose “marriage,” and their biological or adopted children.
Is there really a “win-win” argument for same-sex “marriage”? The answer, in a word, is “no.” The recognition of homosexual “marriage” by the state — though innocuous to many, and an article of faith among most libertarians and liberals — is another step down the slippery slope of societal disintegration. The disintegration began in earnest in the 1930s, when Americans began to place their trust in chimerical, one-size-fits-all “solutions” offered by power-hungry, economically illiterate politicians and their “intellectual” enablers and apologists. In this instance, the state will recognize homosexual “marriage,” then bestow equal benefits on homosexual “partners,” and then require private entities (businesses, churches, etc.) to grant equal benefits to homosexual “partnerships.” Individuals and businesses who demur will be brought to heel through the use of affirmative action and hate-crime legislation to penalize those who dare to speak against homosexual “marriage,” the privileges that flow from it, and the economic damage wrought by those privileges.
Vallier suggests two options. The first one is to privatize marriage. It’s a course that I favor, but it’s an unlikely one. Vallier’s second option — his second-best policy — is the legalization of same-sex “marriage” with extensive religious exemptions. But as Roback Morse and I argue, no number of religious exemptions can forestall the social damage that will result from the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage.”
In any event, Vallier’s case for the legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” with religious exemptions, rests on the assumption that the failure of government to recognize same-sex “marriage” would “force many organizations to deny benefits to gay couples that would otherwise offer them.” Private organizations are free to offer benefits to whomever they wish to offer them; they just have to pay for the benefits and try to recoup the costs from customers or donors. But that’s always true; for example, employer-provided health-insurance isn’t “free” to employees, it really comes out of employees’ wages and must be covered by employers’ revenues.
It’s probably true that the refusal of government to recognize same-sex “marriage” would mean the denial of spousal benefits to the homosexual partners of government employees. But it’s also true that government budgets are limited — despite massive debt — and government doesn’t provide a lot of benefits that various groups would like to enjoy.
As a taxpayer, I would prefer fewer government benefits, not more. I would argue, for example, that the tax code should be absolutely neutral with respect to marital status and number of dependents; those are personal “lifestyle” choices that shouldn’t be encouraged by government and subsidized by single taxpayers with no dependents.
Further, how would Vallier exempt taxpaying religious objectors from subsidizing the spousal benefits to homosexual partners of government employees? If he cannot find a way to do that — and I don’t see how he can — his “neutral” solution — recognition of same-sex “marriage” with lots of exemptions for objectors — is no solution at all.
Why have I given so much space to the issue of same-sex “marriage” and a classical liberal treatment of it? To illustrate the glibness of the “liberal” worldview. Wordsmiths like Vallier try to weave their way around social norms by resorting to simplistic concepts that seem to promise liberty but cannot deliver it. In that regard, Vallier is in company with J.S. Mill, whose harm principle is an intellectually fraudulent attack on social norms.
For more about Mill, “liberalism,” and liberty, see these posts:
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative