Liberalism and libertarianism

As the editor of the English categories Liberalism and Libertarianism of the Open Directory Project (DMOZ), to which among others the Google Directory is based on, I frequently receive feedback from American libertarians complaining, that libertarianism should not be classified as a subcategory of liberalism. The historical reasons why libertarianism is listed under liberalism are summarised here, but as I noticed that in the Globalization Institute Blog there were an article by Alex Singleton touching on the same subject, I decided to treat it a bit more thoroughly, as well.

Alex Singleton referred to the article written by Matthew Yglesias in his weblog, where he expresses his astonishment over the fact that The Daily Times of Pakistan describes Cato Institute as "a leading liberal think tank". Singleton then argues, that the term "liberal" is misused by the Americans, and refers to a story of The Economist, where the difference of the use of the term "liberalism" in the United States and in continental Europe is explained, and then real liberals are urged to reclaim the word.

I would like to add, that on its own website, Cato Institute advises how to label it:

Finally, "liberal" may well be the perfect word in most of the world -- the liberals in societies from China to Iran to South Africa to Argentina are supporters of human rights and free markets -- but its meaning has clearly been corrupted by contemporary American liberals.

The Jeffersonian philosophy that animates Cato's work has increasingly come to be called "libertarianism" or "market liberalism."

Pakistan clearly is one of the countries where "liberal" is the perfect word to describe Cato Institute. As for the Economist, generally described as "conservative" in the United States, here's how its editor Bill Emmot described it just few years ago:

Because the Economist's philosophy has always been liberal, not conservative.

The fact is, that the term liberalism is used in a different meaning in North America and the rest of the of the world. The North American "liberals" would elsewhere be called leftists, ranging from social liberals to social democrats to socialists. Those who are called "liberals" elsewhere, would in North America be called libertarians, in the broadest sense of the word. There is some alteration in the use of the word, though, for instance in France "liberal" many times refers to a supporter of free markets in general, regardless of whether s/he supports personal liberty and human rights or not.

[To be fair, I must add, that many so called "liberal parties" in Europe support human rights and free markets only occasionally. But because of the European political system, where the political parties generally have to seek for allies and make compromises, that's the nature of the European political parties in general; even the socialist parties can't be trusted to always advocate socialist ideas. And of course as we all know, power does corrupt, and it also attracts power-thirsty opportunists like honey attracts flies. The names of the parties can be misleading, too. The Social Democrat Party of Portugal, for instance, is actually a conservative party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia is a nationalist-populist party.

The true liberals can usually be found outside the political parties. As
Ludwig von Mises put it in his book Liberalism, The Classical Tradition (Liberalismus, 1927), "There can be no more grievous misunderstanding of the meaning and nature of liberalism than to think that it would be possible to secure the victory of liberal ideas by resorting to the methods employed today by the other political parties." -- On the other hand, as Pericles put it, "Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you", so I'm afraid we can't trust politics in the hands of conservatives and socialists only, and concentrate on something more pleasant.]

Likewise, the term libertarianism is used in different meaning in different places. In North America "libertarian" means what we would call a "liberal" in the most other parts of the world. In British Isles, Benelux and Nordic Countries "libertarian" means what would be called a "hardcore libertarian" in the North America. [Addendum: While the British organisations called "libertarian" seem to be libertarian in this sense, in the common language, and even in the British media, it seems that "libertarian" often refers to anybody who supports full personal liberty regardless to what kind of economic policy that person supports, or vice versa, a person who supports full economic liberty regardless to what kind of policy that person supports regarding the personal liberty.] In other European countries, like France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the term "libertarian" in general refers to an anarcho-socialist.

How did this happen? Those familiar to the history of ideas know, that the word "liberal" derives from the Latin word liber; free, independent, and the word "libertarian" from the Latin word libertas; freedom, liberty. So both words actually refer to a supporter of freedom. Originally "liberal" was used everywhere to mean a supporter of human rights and free markets. Today we usually refer to these historical advocates of liberty, such as John Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant and Frédéric Bastiat, just to name a few, as "classical liberals".

Probably the first person to use the word "liberalism" in a different meaning was Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882), who in his lectures "Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation" and "Prologema to Ethics", delivered in Oxford in 1879, reserved a wider role for the state in regard to the individual than classical liberalism, and thus included some socialist elements into his liberalism. By that means he laid the theoretical ground for the so called "new liberalism", which became prevalent in British Liberal Party in the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century. Herbert Spencer (who incidentally worked as a sub-editor of the Economist) could just lament this development in his book "The Man Versus the State":

As we have seen, Toryism and Liberalism originally emerged, the one from militancy and the other from industrialism. The one stood for the régime of status and the other for the régime of contract -- the one for that system of compulsory cooperation which accompanies the legal inequality of classes, and the other for that voluntary cooperation which accompanies their legal equality; and beyond all question the early acts of the two parties were respectively for the maintenance of agencies which effect this compulsory cooperation, and for the weakening or curbing of them. Manifestly the implication is that, in so far as it has been extending the system of compulsion, what is now called Liberalism is a new form of Toryism.

Even today the majority of the Liberal Democrats, the heir of the Whigs and the Liberal Party, seems to represent this kind of liberalism with a socialist flavour. However, I have the understanding that in Britain liberalism is today usually distinguished from what the Lib Dems stand for. (After all, socialism isn't always what the Labour party stands for.)

"New liberalism" landed in the United States about at the time of the Great Depression and the New Deal. In his introduction to Herbert Spencer's book "The Man Versus The State", in 1939, Albert Jay Nock writes:

The first essay, The New Toryism, is of primary importance just now, because it shows the contrast between the aims and methods of early Liberalism and those of modern Liberalism. In these days we hear a great deal about Liberalism, Liberal principles and policies, in the conduct of our public life. All sorts and conditions of men put themselves forward on the public stage as Liberals; they call those who oppose them Tories, and get credit with the public thereby. In the public mind, Liberalism is a term of honour, while Toryism -- especially "economic Toryism" -- is a term of reproach. Needless to say, these terms are never examined; the self-styled Liberal is taken popularly at the face value his pretensions, and policies which are put forth as Liberal are accepted in the same unreflecting way. This being so, it is useful to see what the historic sense of the term is, and to see how far the aims and methods of latter-day Liberalism can be brought into correspondence with it; and how far, therefore, the latter-day Liberal is entitled to bear that name.

Later, during the cold war, the policy advocated by Joseph McCarthy forced the American socialists to hide themselves, and it was perhaps natural for them to adopt the term "liberal", already misused by the supporters of the welfare policy. By that time the American classical liberals needed a new term to be discerned from the socialists calling themselves "liberal" on the other hand, and from conservatives on the other hand. The term "libertarian" was apparently used for the first time to mean an advocate of free market economy and human rights in 1955 in the article "Who Is A Libertarian" by Dean Russell, published in the Freeman, the magazine of the Foundation for Economic Education. The late Bob Bickford treated the use of the term "libertarian" more thoroughly in his essay A History of "Libertarian".

In his essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative" Friedrich von Hayek complains:

In the United States, where it has become almost impossible to use "liberal" in the sense in which I have used it, the term "libertarian" has been used instead. It may be the answer; but for my part I find it singularly unattractive. For my taste it carries too much the flavor of a manufactured term and of a substitute. What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.

But despite the common misuse of the word "liberal", even in the United States there are still some real liberals. In the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Friedrich von Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" his friend Milton Friedman, who wrote the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition, gave an interview where he put it clearly:

I'm not a conservative. I never have been a conservative. Hayek was not a conservative. The book that follows this one in Hayek's list was "The Constitution of Liberty," a great book, and he has an appendix to it entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." We are radicals. We want to get to the root of things. We are liberals in the true meaning of that term -- of and concerned with freedom. We are not liberals in the current distorted sense of the term -- people who are liberal with other people's money.


Blogger Toni said...

Hey, great stuff!

And how about neoliberalism?

16 February, 2005 10:37  
Blogger Patrick said...

That's another story. Maybe I'll write about it another time.

16 February, 2005 11:09  
Blogger Finnpundit said...

A nice summation of the two terms. However, libertarianism in America has another aspect to it which is quite strange for Europeans: support for the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, the right to bear arms. I consider myself a libertarian, but it's taken me awhile to accept the existence of pro-gun advocates in the libertarian camp. Needless to say I do like gun-control policies, which are anathema for many American libertarians.

17 February, 2005 19:43  
Blogger Finnpundit said...

It's good to have found your site!


17 February, 2005 19:46  
Blogger Patrick said...

Thanks, Finnpundit. I have added a link to your weblog into the "Other weblogs" section of my weblog.

You might be interested to join our discussion forum "Liberalismi".

As for the gun rights, I guess it is at least partly a cultural thing. In principle people should be able to defend themselves, but as people in Europe don't carry guns on them as often as in the United States, there might be less interest to liberalise the legislation on this respect.

And I think there might be at least some common sense limits for bearing arms. At least I haven't come out with any acceptable reason to own a nuclear weapon.

18 February, 2005 04:03  

Post a Comment

<< Home