Increasingly, the political left is being accused of being illiberal. Meanwhile, “classical liberal” gains usage (see 1, 2). Some of those who call themselves classical liberal are quick to distinguish that from “libertarian” (for example, Stephen Davies here, Charles Cooke here).

The rise of “classical liberal” might be built on putting down “libertarian.”

What’s the difference? And what about conservatives? Can they be classical liberals?

But let’s first pull back the camera.

For classical liberals (CLs) and libertarians, liberty is central. It may be summarized as person, property, and consent, the individual’s dominion that others are presumptively not to mess with.

Suppose your neighbor asserts that he is to get 25 percent of your income and brandishes a gun to show that he means business. Or, suppose he says you are not to produce and sell a product that he disapproves of. We’d consider such a neighbor to be criminal in initiating such coercions. Libertarians and CLs say it’s coercion when done by government, too. Yes, government is a special sort of player in society; its initiations of coercion differ from those of criminals. Its coercions are overt, institutionalized, openly rationalized, even supported by a large portion of the public. They are called intervention or restriction or regulation or taxation, rather than extortion, assault, theft, or trespass.

But such government interventions are still initiations of coercion. That’s important, because recognizing it helps to sustain a presumption against them, a presumption of liberty. CLs and libertarians think that many extant interventions do not, in fact, meet the burden of proof for overcoming the presumption. Many interventions should be rolled back, repealed, abolished.

Thus CLs and libertarians favor liberalizing social affairs. That goes as general presumption: For business, work, and trade, but also for guns and for “social” issues, such as drugs, sex, speech, and voluntary association.

CLs and libertarians favor smaller government. Government operations, such as schools, rely on taxes or privileges (and sometimes partially user fees). Even apart from the coercive nature of taxation, they don’t like the government’s playing such a large role in social affairs, for its unhealthy moral and cultural effects.

There are some libertarians, however, who have never seen an intervention that meets the burden of proof. They can be categorical in a way that CLs are not, believing in liberty as a sort of moral axiom. Sometimes libertarians ponder a pure-liberty destination. They can seem millenarian, radical, and rationalistic.

Those are some of the features that I have used to sketch out what I call niche libertarianism—here is a video on the matter.

But libertarian has also been used to describe a more pragmatic attitude situated in the status quo yet looking to liberalize, a directional tendency to augment liberty, even if reforms are small or moderate. I’ve called it mere libertarianism (1, 2) and see it basically as the same as CL.


So we have two libertarianisms, niche and mere. I say mere > niche.


However, there seems to be an increasing trend toward using CL. If that continues, “libertarianism” might be left to the nichers. We may see a process by which “libertarian” loses a meaning, the one that corresponds to CL. If that continues, I will no longer be able to call myself “libertarian,” because people would assume I’m a nicher.

If that is happening, so be it. CL is fine. Also, connecting the mere libertarians and the CL conservatives would be to the good. Bringing them together under a CL banner would do just that.

CLs recognize that sometimes liberty must be sacrificed for the sake of liberty. A policy that reduces liberty directly might augment liberty overall (1, 2). Areas of contention among CLs include immigration, foreign policy and military spending, pollution, and financial doings for which the taxpayer is on the hook.

Here, we might have a way to see some of the disagreements between nichers and conservatives who also cherish liberty, such as George Will, Thomas Sowell, and Jonah Goldberg: Nichers think conservatives overstate disagreement between direct and overall liberty, and conservatives think nichers overstate agreement. Conservatives are more favorable to restricting immigration or enhancing military spending.

To the ordinary American, the word conservative means thinking that the Republicans are, by and large, less horrible than the Democrats. That is just one reason why “conservative” is a rather ineffectual term. The term also suggests allegiance to the status quo. But each polity has its own status quo, rendering “conservative” somewhat parochial. And even a single polity’s status quo changes through time.

The word “conservative” of itself doesn’t say what is to be conserved, rather like “sustainability.” Whereas CL and libertarian have a central idea and impulse, conservatism has one only when you enter into the idea of it represented by, say, George Will’s new book. There you find that what is to be conserved is something like CL. That idea of conservatism may be the leading intellectual version in the United States, but it competes with others (social conservatism, etc.), and then Republicans-less-horrible looms as the defining feature.

I think that, by and large, the Republicans are less horrible than the Democrats, and say why here. Am I therefore a conservative? In one sense, but I’ve long called myself either libertarian or CL.

The Republican tent has always been a coalition of different types, though all non-left types. But I think that it increasingly views itself as coalitional, and that it should. Within the coalition is a type that identifies with CL, and even calls itself CL.

Among CLs, it is especially the conservative ones who recognize that, in addition to the presumption of liberty, another important presumption must be recognized: That of the status quo. When it comes to reforms that would reduce liberty, those two presumptions stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder. But they conflict on reforms that would augment liberty. In that case they moderate one another, by adjusting the burden of proof that must be overcome to overturn the presumption. An intervention that is the status quo should be deemed less susceptible to libertarian objection, because it is status-quo policy. Alternatively, a status-quo policy should enjoy less of a presumption of the status quo if it is being compared to a reform that would augment liberty.

The liberty principle has its holes, gray areas, and exceptions. It does not speak to all important issues of government; and it is not self-justifying.

But if political theory is something for you, you’d better get used to holes, gray areas, exceptions, incompleteness, and a lack of foundations. The limitations give rise to a terrain of paradoxes, complications, deep uncertainties, and tough calls. But despite all, the liberty principle remains cogent – just as our understanding of criminality between neighbors is cogent – and gives backbone to CL thought.

Nowadays, perhaps different groups better understand their differences and better cooperate. Many conservatives are reconnecting to the liberal legacy and how liberty constitutes its backbone, seeing that the thing they chiefly wish to conserve is CL, and are becoming more comfortable with evolutionary social theory. Libertarians increasingly are discovering conservative virtues, the merits of practical nationalism, and the merits of religion and quasi-religious modes of thought.

Libertarians have contributed much, but perhaps “libertarian” will fade as “CL” rises.

A non-left coalition should, above all, remain amicable and civil toward their brothers and sisters on the left. Liberals should show firmness but also liberality.




Daniel Klein is economics professor and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, at George Mason University, where he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation (OUP, 2012) and chief editor of Econ Journal Watch.